Guest Post: Accusations and second chances

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


10 thoughts on “Guest Post: Accusations and second chances

  1. I empathize with your position in this saga. The hierarchical structure of academia seems to make these incidents far worse than they need be. And you are correct- tenure means everything in how outcomes are adjudicated. When I was a PhD student, my mentor became extremely abusive, but not in a sexual way. She blatantly plagiarized entire paragraphs of my published work, providing me no authorship or not bothering to cite my work. She then ordered me, in writing, that I was not allowed to be absent from any assigned duties on the basis of emergency or illness. When the deplorable work standards she imposed upon me and other students caused me to be injured by wildfire and food poisoned, she refused to allow me to seek medical care and said I must continue working in the field. When I finally reported the incidents to the university administration and asked for help, she immediately resigned as my mentor, which had the effect of forcing me out of the PhD program. She also immediately and unlawfully terminated me from my research assistant program. The university followed suit and within a few months withdrew my academic scholarship and teaching assistant position. Even though the university interviewed me repeatedly and I cooperated and turned over all evidence, they circled the wagons. To make matters even worse, this professor repeatedly published fabricated data. To date, the university stands behind this tenured professor and continues to protect her and the violations of policy, ethics and law at all costs.

    If your experience has not taught you academia is broken in a manner entirely consistent with the Catholic priest abuse scandal, then you have yet to complete what you describe as the grief process. The system is so pathetically broken that after years of studying and working in academia, I have chosen to never, ever return.

  2. This incident sounds like it was a horrible experience for all involved, but I wonder at the wisdom of advising professors to never treat their students as friends based on isolated cases. Safer, sure. But what about the downsides (for graduate students, at least; there’s a bigger gap for undergraduates)?
    My current advisor is both a great advisor/mentor and a good friend. I honestly prefer it that way. Lengthy social situations often turn into more fruitful research discussion and career advice than the shorter office talks. Having the more open nature of a friendship makes it feel safer to discuss delicate issues, like how anxiety and depression affect work. So long as both parties are mature, it’s pretty easy to switch between the advisor/advisee and friend hats in conversation.

    • I agree that it really sucks to always have to keep those you supervise — especially grad students and postdocs — at arm’s length. But the more years that I spend supervising/working with people, the more I’ve come to appreciate just how difficult it can be, even for mature, well-meaning adults, to seamlessly switch between the professional and personal relationship. Sure, when all’s well it’s no sweat. But when real difficulties arise…. We are usually never as reasonable or generous as we’d like to be — we are flawed human beings. And it can be incredibly difficult to give your underling the tough love he/she needs while at the same time being their shoulder to cry on. Honestly, I don’t know anyone IRL that has managed to pull that off.

      • Good point- and in the most dysfunctional of settings, personal feelings as well as personal info can be deployed as weapons. I once had a mentor, among other things, plagiarize entire paragraphs of a published work of mine. As things spun out of control, she filed a court action against me in an attempt to silence me on this and other matters of research misconduct. Sadly & pathetically, she referenced the very difficult time I experienced when my brother was killed in those public court filings. She alleged my perceptions of reality were “delusional” because of the extreme grief I experienced 10 years prior. Obviously her case went nowhere, but I mention this because of the risk of personal info being used against you in a work or educational setting. I am not saying people are evil, only that they are capable of being evil.

    • Jess,

      Until recently I would have been inclined to agree with you. I had a mentor like the one you describe and had some of those valuable long talks about delicate issues. Then it came to light that this person was romantically involved with another former student (one of my classmates) and, in the context of that relationship, information I considered to be confidential had been shared. So tread with care. As the author points out, even friends can surprise you.

  3. I think that concluding you must keep everyone at arm’s length because of another’s sexual misconduct is completely flawed. I have had many male advisors who were friends and mentors and **somehow** managed to never get so wasted they crossed the line into indiscretions with female students. I had a friend as an undergraduate who had an affair with a male professor, and several friends during graduate school who were sexually assaulted or sexually harassed by male postdocs and faculty. Their lives were shattered.

    This is not just something that inevitably happens between friends. These are predators taking advantage of their position to victimize and exploit students who are often but not always female. I understand that it is difficult to admit you did not know that a colleague was a predator but I can guarantee you that the female student did not bring a formal complaint to the university and the university did not terminate his contract for some whimsical hint of indiscretion. I can also guarantee you that was not his first time in a compromising position with a student and if he remains in a university setting it will not be his last.

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  5. This post feels disturbingly apologetic with regards to predatory behaviour. This series of events is not evidence of pre-tenure faculty being ‘vulnerable’ – not unless you insist on seeing a predator as a victim and then blaming the real victim. It seems like you’re still trying to avoid the uncomfortable feeling that your trust and friendship may have been misplaced. Deal with it. That discomfort is nothing compared to what this unnamed student must have felt in speaking up. In my academic career, I’ve been able to grab a beer with multiple male mentors, some of whom were genuinely very good people and some of whom were sort of a**holes, and all of whom were perfectly capable of avoiding inappropriate behaviour. A bit of alcohol does not excuse violating the social rule about not taking advantage of students. Keeping one’s hands to oneself is not complicated. The kind of behaviour this guy engaged in shatters people, and I’d say you have a duty to warn any future potential female trainees to steer clear of him.

    Some recommended reading:

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