In my previous post, I recounted how a student interviewed me for the school paper regarding my decision to confront my class about being sexual harassed by one of my students on a mid-semester evaluation. To give a little context for this post, my article was featured on the front page along with an article about a male faculty member (from the same college, and thus, the same dean) who was suing the university over sexual orientation discrimination and wrongful termination. Neither my mentor nor the dean in this anecdote had authority over me; my bosses were in the provost office.
After the article was published, the dean of my college was clearly not happy I chose to share my experience publicly. She immediately emailed my (male) mentor, copying me on the email, and demanded that he set up a meeting for the three of us ASAP; he set up the meeting for the following morning. In the meantime (I learned after the fact), they had met and discussed the article for hours without me, and without attempting to understand the context from which this article stemmed. For example, they assumed I spoke about sexual harassment for the entire class period.
The dean began our morning meeting by asking me to explain what happened. She listened politely and when I finished she claimed that the incident did not constitute sexual harassment, or bullying, because sexual harassment (or bullying) cannot occur if the person perpetrating the act is not in a position of authority. While I understand the legal concerns of the university, I absolutely disagree. By this logic, my students can make sexual comments to each other or to faculty without them being considered harassment. Better yet, I could technically make sexual comments to the dean or to the chancellor without actually sexually harassing them because I have no authority over them. Besides, definition of harassment is not legally true anyway.
Next, the dean segued into describing the difference between fondling and rape, indicating that what happened to me was minor. I am not sure where this came from—I never accused anyone of sexual assault. Sexual harassment is not the same thing as sexual assault. I felt that she was implying that what happened to me was so minor that I really shouldn’t have made that big of deal out of it, i.e., I was being unreasonable and a big baby. The dean followed by saying that it was “just a juvenile comment,” and that all teachers get rude comments in evaluations. I reveled that I, too, receive plenty of rude comments, e.g. “sometimes you sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher,” so it isn’t just a function of having a thicker skin. This comment was different and crossed a line.
Next, the dean mentioned that “educational programs don’t really teach classroom management,” implying that the situation would have been averted had I known how to manage my classroom. I interjected by saying, “You’re right, I received no formal training in either my master’s or my doctoral programs with respect to classroom management, but I have a bachelor’s degree in broadfield science education, which amply covered classroom-management techniques.” That shut down this line of attack pretty quickly.
As annoyed as I was to have my mentor in the room with me, I was thankful that he was there as a witness. He was very supportive of my teaching abilities and knowledge of gender issues during the whole meeting. He pointed out that my knowledge of gender issues is part of the reason they hired me—to increase faculty diversity. (The student gender balance at this school is 30:70 female to male, and the faculty ratio isn’t much better.)
At some point, my mentor interjected that we should talk about one of my quotes in the paper, “This is the most sexist campus I’ve been on.” The dean said that she was unaware that sexism was a problem on campus and in the community because she had never experienced it. She went on to explain: “Well, I don’t look like you do, so I’m sure I don’t get this as frequently. Again, this is a juvenile comment and you should just learn to ignore it.” At this point, I was mad and dismayed. As if my looks justify this sort of behavior. Where, then, is the line that constitutes harassment? My mentor pointed out that her line of reasoning was flawed because she’s the dean and people act differently around her because she holds a position of power, and also that she’s not exposed to the same experiences as teachers. Instead of acknowledging this, she instead offered up the following analogy. “I grew up in Chicago, and I used to get comments like that on the bus all the time. I just learned to ignore it. A few times, I got felt up, but then I yelled at the person.” Again, I feel like her message is basically so as long as you don’t get assaulted, stop being a baby.
She finished by telling me she wanted to make sure I felt supported. I did not feel comfortable responding to her after she spent the last 25 minutes attacking me and attempting every way possible to delegitimize my experience. She has more authority and power on this campus than I do, and although I understand she is not in my chain of command, she likely has influence on those who are. For that reason, I chose to refrain from rebutting her arguments after the first 10 minutes—her mind was made up, and arguing would only prolong the meeting.
I got back to my office to find several emails from both male and female faculty and staff. Several more faculty and staff stopped by my office to briefly chat about the article. The male responses were supportive and apologetic that I had to endure the sexual harassment. Several men even mentioned that they are trying to bring their boys up to be more respectful of women. With the exception of the police chief, the male responses also seemed to imply, or explicitly state, that this was an isolated incidence. The female responses, however, were supportive from a solidarity standpoint. They shared their own similar experiences of being sexually harassed, including via evaluations (for faculty), and congratulated me for having stood up for myself. Many of them wished they had done what I did instead of ignoring it; going forward, they would use it as a teachable moment like I had.
I also later heard from my male mentor that many male faculty members joked to him about the article. They didn’t understand how the incident in question constituted sexual harassment, and they believed that I brought it on myself. These comments from male faculty clearly default to a victim-blaming culture, but they also demonstrate a lack of context for the experience of being a woman within our society, and within academia specifically. (See also Miller and Chamberlin 2000; Lester 2011; and here).
Despite this experience, I don’t regret my decision to use the incident as a teachable moment for the class, and to talk about it publicly through the school paper. The audiences of these forums only heard the message I shared, not the administrative response to it. I know I made a difference in some of my students’ lives. At the end of the semester, I got several responses on my evaluations specifically mentioning how my confronting the class affected them. I did the right thing.
The remaining big question I have is: Was this administrative response an isolated incident? Have I been protected from gender discrimination while a student, but as faculty am I now exposed to the ‘real’ world? If I choose to attempt a career as a faculty member of a smaller-sized school, am I likely to find accusatory and unsupportive administration? It’s not like I plan to make discussing sexual harassment a goal for every earth science class I teach. (Although, based on my students’ responses, it wouldn’t be a bad idea either!) Was I just unlucky in my first experience as a faculty member?
Miller, J., & Chamberlin, M. (2000). Women are teachers, men are professors: A study of student perceptions. Teaching Sociology, 283-298.
Lester, J. (2011). Regulating Gender Performances: Power and Gender Norms in Faculty Work. NASPA Journal About Women in Higher Education, 4(2), 142-169.