As women in academia we talk a lot about helping and supporting other women. We want to make academia a safer place for us, and to not have incidents of sexual assault, harassment, or discrimination swept under the rug. But what happens when we’re friends or colleagues or mentors of the accused perpetrator in one of those situations? How do we react? How do we feel? Does the same logic that we apply to other peoples’ situations still make sense when we’re emotionally invested?
I had a friend who was involved in an indiscretion with a student. Details of the incident were hazy to everyone, even to the participants (because of inebriation). Colleagues and students were kept in the dark because of privacy issues, and the incident never made it into the media. I felt pulled in so many directions as the situation played out. As a friend I wanted the accused to get a fair hearing, and to support him in his time of need. As a colleague I wanted to salvage research projects and the goodwill of collaborators. As a teacher I wanted make sure that the department’s classes weren’t interrupted. As a woman I wanted the female student to feel safe, heard, and taken seriously.
It felt a little bit like the five stages of grief.
First, denial. Telling myself and everyone that the rumors must be exaggerated, because he would never cross a line like that. She must be lying. Or, maybe it was really no big deal, just a random misinterpreted comment. The university could be looking to make an example of any even minor incident that comes its way given everything in the news these days.
Then there was the anger. First, and unreasonably, at the unnamed student. How could you let this happen? How could you encourage him? I cringe even admitting that I had a moment where I victim-blamed. I’m a feminist, damn it! More reasonably, anger at him. How could you do this to her? How could you do this to me and our program? You have let me down, as both a friend and a colleague.
What could I have done differently? This is the bargaining stage. If only I had talked more frequently with him about appropriate behaviors. If only I had reached out more often to ensure he had a strong friendship base here.
Then the sadness. I cried and was somewhat confused at the strength of my reaction to the incident. It was really hard to act like nothing had happened and do my job. Things like class preparation and manuscript writing seemed so minor and pointless. Of course my depression was certainly nothing compared to what the participants were undoubtedly going through, but it felt almost as if someone had died.
Lastly, acceptance. I will never know the details or what really happened. It is clear that something inappropriate did happen, and that changed my opinion of my colleague.
Ultimately, perhaps the largest impact the incident had on me was in making me realize how vulnerable pre-tenure faculty are. An unsubstantiated accusation against a person without any prior complaints is enough to guarantee a pre-tenure contract isn’t going to be renewed. In many other jobs the perpetrator might receive a slap on the wrist, probation, and a second chance. Pre-tenure faculty don’t get second chances, which scares me. In contrast, tenured professors involved in similar situations are tolerated even if they are known to serially act inappropriately with students.
This newly accentuated fear has made me really careful not to develop work-independent friendships with my postdocs or students. For so many of us our research group contains the people we spend the most time with at a new job. If we are working hard and trying to succeed in a new position (grad, postdoc, or faculty) we may not have time to develop friendships outside of academia, and many programs are quite small. It can be tempting to become friends with people up or down the ‘chain of command’ and socialize with them outside of work (often including alcohol). However, this experience and other incidents I’ve heard about make me believe the safest strategy is to never let your guard down around people beholden to you. Keep those that you’ll be writing a letter of recommendation for someday at arm’s length – for both of your sakes.
Today’s guest post was contributed by a university Assistant Professor