The #METOO movement in making waves throughout our social landscape. In the media, #METOO seems, by and large, focused on business industries, particularly the movie and broadcasting industries, which have quite publically taken action against high power men who abused their position. The ME TOO website shows that the movement encompasses far more than that, and I want to remind you that #METOO is relevant to colleges, universities, and secondary schools across the country.
The media hasn’t spent much time discussing how #METOO appears in higher education, at colleges and universities where powerful people have near 24/7 contact with young men and women who are often away from home for the first time. The Atlantic magazine published an article called “How Colleges Foretold the #METOO Movement” that discusses the relationship between college culture and #METOO.
High-profile college rape cases have made the news over the decades, mostly involving school athletes (sometimes teams) and fraternities accused of assault. In many of these situations, the alleged assaulters receive leniency, while the alleged victims are subject to character assassinations. These are the cases we know about. There are many that we don’t. The culture of rape and how administrations go to great lengths to hide them from public view was highlighted poignantly in the 2015 CNN documentary The Hunting Ground.
Sexual harassment at the hands of peers, professors, and administrators seems to have become par for the college student course, almost like a rite of passage. Perhaps it is, as it initiates students into a world that sees them as prey. The stereotype of the Dirty Old Professor lingers; the old, male professor who takes young ladies under his wing and promises guidance and safety. These days the professor is not always so old and can be male or female, while the victim pool includes young men and women.
I dealt with harassment as a grad student at all the schools I attended, and as a professor. Male students (colleagues really) questioned the legitimacy of my seeking advanced degrees, claiming I was just there to find a husband. My clothing was commented on, my intellect was put down, my ambitions were laughed at, and I was groped by classmates who were supposed to be my equals.
I remember one particularly aggressive male student during my Ph.D. study who took every opportunity to attack me: among other things, he critiqued my clothing in provocative ways, questioned my purpose in school, put me down publically, accused me of sleeping with professors, and once, in a meeting, he announced that he wanted to hear from everyone else in the room except me, as my opinion was not welcome. I told a group of female friends and classmates about the five-year-long harassment and how I dreaded being in the same room as him. They didn’t believe me because he had been nice to them. “He doesn’t do that to me,” one woman told me and suggested that I was making it up or had misread the situation. That’s like saying a man accused of murder can’t be guilty because he didn’t murder everyone he met.
I reported him to a female dean, who promptly ignored me and never responded to my statement. She literally looked away from we, took a breath, and changed the subject. I ended up having to forcefully tell the guy off: first to his face, and then in an email in which I detailed every instance of harassment over the five-year period. I had written everything down as it happened.
Another professor at our school regularly hit on the female grad students and we complained about him several times. Eventually, they did not renew his contract (he didn’t have tenure) because they found examples of financial fraud he had committed over the two years he was there. Either our harassment complaints were noted but not deemed sufficient evidence for firing, or the powers that be didn’t care and found his financial misconduct more egregious.
In this era of #METOO, I can only hope that colleges and universities take the complaints of their students seriously and that they begin to use these examples of misconducts as the reason to terminate professors. I hope, too, that tenure will be granted with the understanding that the commission of sexual violence and harassment by the tenured professor is grounds for immediate termination. Tenure helps keep predators in a habitat that constantly refreshes itself with a new, vulnerable stock on a yearly basis.
If you find yourself as part of the #METOO experience, you are not alone. Study.com has an informative article (Sexual Harassment on Campus) that offers advice on how to handle harassment. Their steps are:
- Tell the person to stop.
- Document the encounters. (I suggest using a voice recorder on your phone or send yourself an email right away.)
- Confront the harasser in a letter (something to keep a paper trail if you end up reporting).
- Report the events.
- Tell others.
- Don’t blame yourself. (This is incredibly important. You didn’t ask for such treatment.)
You can report the incidents to your school’s Title IX office and file a formal complaint against the individual(s) involved. Title IX (a 1972 Education Amendment) prohibits sex discrimination at any college or university that receives federal funding (which includes the majority of institutions).
If your institution is not taking your complaints seriously and all attempts to report the incident(s) go nowhere, and you feel that you have reached the top of the hierarchical pyramid, you can file a complaint directly with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
If you haven’t been subject to assault or harassment, but you know someone who has (and you all do, whether you realize it or not): support that person and be there for them. Don’t dismiss their story because it didn’t happen to you or you didn’t see it happen. Predators count on disbelief to help them hide in plain sight.
If you have been subjected to assault or maltreatment, tell someone and try to remain confident in knowing that you did the right thing.