Going public with sexual harassment

Posted: January 23, 2017 by jennysaul in sexual harassment, Uncategorized

Message: Below, please find a copy of a letter sent today to Chancellor X of Y University, the members of the Philosophy Department, as well as to several other departments, student organizations, the college newspaper, several of the deans, relevant philosophy blogs, and to a newspaper, regarding the sexual misconduct and abuses of power of Professor Z. My intention is that this matter be given full attention and that it will be discussed freely and publicly. As I mention in the letter, I know for a fact that other women have had similar and worse experiences with Professor Z. Given the ways in which sexual harassment suits have played out in the national media in recent years, I suspect these women might also come forward, in time. I am confident that you will give this matter due consideration.

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Dear colleagues,

Now that I am well enough established in my career to speak out (though not well enough that I can speak without anonymity), I am compelled to express concerns that I have had for years about the conduct and character of Professor Z of Y University’s Philosophy Department. With the recent inauguration in mind, it is especially important to say something to prevent other women from being exposed to abuses of power by de facto invulnerable faculty members. As we in philosophy know all too well, sexual harassment causes many women to doubt their intellectual and personal potential and to fade from the field or drop out of it altogether.

During my time as a graduate student at Y, Professor Z would make sexually charged remarks about and to women students. Professor Z referred to his alleged sexual exploits (often with Y colleagues or invited speakers) with suggestive imagery, making degrading remarks about ‘fat’ and ‘old’ women, nonchalantly evaluating the looks of the ‘beautiful’ undergraduate women on campus, commenting on their ‘tight pants’ and ‘fresh’ looks. He claimed that black women are not as attractive as white women, though he did name certain ‘exceptions’ to his rule.

He would approach groups of young women in conversation with one another, and find pretext to touch them. For example, he inserted himself into a conversation between women students on hairstyles, proceeding without invitation to stroke two of the women’s hair. Another time, a friend of mine was trying to see whether her leaked pen had stained her shoulders (she was wearing a backpack), and as I was checking this for her, Professor Z quickly took my position and began touching my friend’s skin. On both occasions, the women appeared distressed and exchanged looks with me, but said nothing.

In private, my academic dealings with Professor Z were infused with an undertone of sexual interest from the outset. He commented on my ‘delightful’ figure, on my breasts, on my ‘alluring’ style. He inquired into my sex life frequently but with plausible deniability. He would pursue and approach me relentlessly so that I became too stressed to regularly and comfortably attend department events. When I did attend, if he happened to be there Professor Z would stare at my legs and comment on any change in my hair or makeup (assessing it as sometimes more sometimes less ‘flattering’). He would flirt with me still more overtly at holiday parties, where he’d encourage me to drink more alcohol. During a departmental gathering, Professor Z told me that, as an “older” woman, a colleague of his he was seeing at the time would be jealous of a “pretty young woman” such as myself. A few weeks earlier, he had referred me to this same colleague for professional assistance. She was considerably younger than Professor Z. When in routine academic conversation with him I would attempt to redirect focus on my papers, or address him as ‘Dr.,’ he would look irritated and express frustration, twice closing his office door during two different meetings, ostensibly to discuss philosophy and my career path.

Professor Z habitually made use of his ability to extend and withhold professional opportunities, as a means to pressure me into becoming more intimate with him. Indeed, what initially appeared to me to be professional overtures quickly became personal, sexual ones. Hesitance and resistance were met with a temper he seemed to conceal in more public settings, or else with degrading and sexist dismissals. At a large conference reception in the evening, as I declined the last of several of Professor Z’s private invitations to meet him at his hotel room later that night to retrieve a book he said he wanted to give me, Professor Z took his leave by saying he needed to go ‘troll this place for interesting women.’

Professor Z seemed to derive satisfaction from the idea that I as a young woman was interested in him considering that he was, at the time, twice my age or even more. At its extreme, I think his intention was to sleep with me, or at least to flatter himself with that possibility. In any case, with indescribable, ongoing distress to my work in the department and after years of intellectual as well as personal self-doubt incurred from this experience, I still managed to stay on the right side of the line that was being crossed. Eventually I was both relieved and alarmed to find his attentions turning to a new, even younger cohort of incoming graduate students in the philosophy and other departments.

While I was a graduate student I coped by flirting back, smiling and nodding, trying to brush it all off as the byproduct of the typical male academic’s social awkwardness, despite my unease. After time and experience in the field, as well as hearing my colleagues and now also my students talk about their memories and current situations involving abuse of this nature, I have concluded that I was naive simply to go along with what was happening. Let me be clear: at the time, I felt that the power dynamics left me with no other recourse, while the demonstrably friendly and prestigious professional relationships Professor Z collected and flaunted, intimidated me further into silence and self-doubt. But Professor Z is disarming. He effectively plays the role of the absent-minded professor to the great detriment of the young women he approaches. And while by now I have heard many other accounts of Professor Z’s actions, some similar to mine but others far more disturbing, I can only come forward with my own.

The impact of this experience on me emotionally and intellectually has been profound. I know other women do experience far worse, but the consequences have even in my case been dire. For years I was absolutely depleted, unmotivated to write, travel, or study in ways I had once known myself to be capable of. I felt myself alienated from potential colleagues and friends, especially from other women. I have been reluctant and embarrassed to pursue lines of work that too closely coincide with his because I cannot stomach the idea of having to cite him and afford him some kind of public credit or acknowledgment. I almost left academia altogether. This was, above all, the experience of intellectual potential belittled, the stunting of philosophical independence and growth, the attendant shame of feeling myself diminished.

So I implore Y University’s faculty and administration to put aside what it might take to be in the interests of its stability, reputation, and atmosphere of ‘collegiality,’ to see the bigger picture. That it is in no one’s interest and it is downright wrong to continue to tolerate such damaging actions on the part of anyone, let alone an esteemed professor.

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