Slogging Through 600 Cases of Academic Sexual Misconduct

Slogging Through 600 Cases of Academic Sexual Misconduct

Julie Libarkin (2/18/18)

I wrote the piece thinking that Chronicle of Higher Education or other venue would publish it. I decided to post to my blog instead.

In early 2016, another case of professor sexual misconduct made national headlines. This case was especially egregious as the perpetrator moved from one institution to another, avoiding consequences each time. This plus other highly publicized cases (e.g., at Berkeley, or Northwestern), raised the question of how common sexual misconduct is in academia. Being a researcher, I developed a search rubric and set out to identify verifiable cases. Within one week, I had compiled 143 documented cases dating back to the late 1970s. Almost two years later, the list sits at nearly 600, grows weekly, and includes entire departments, university presidents, deans, Title IX officers, and faculty. Identifying and verifying these cases requires several hours of effort each week.

Title IX became law in 1972. Three years later, “sexual harassment” was coined. In the forty subsequent years, 600 academic sexual misconduct cases hardly seem surprising. Personally, I have experienced sexism and sexual harassment throughout my career, including a physical assault that affected my ability to work and for which I eventually filed a complaint. However, as with sexual assault on campus, most sexual harassment likely goes unreported. Even when complaints are filed, the scale of the problem may be masked behind fears of violating student or employee privacy. Confidentiality agreements and the decade or longer it may take to resolve a legal case can also hide misconduct from public scrutiny. Cantalupo and Kidder recently published a study of faculty sexual harassment towards students and noted that documented cases are but the “tip of the iceberg”. When expanded to consider other forms of sexual misconduct, including harassment of colleagues and by administrators, the problem of sexual misconduct in academia seems insurmountable.

My nearly two-year slog through academic sexual misconduct cases revealed a dark side to academia. Reading the documents associated with these cases has revealed commonalities as well as steps universities can take to ensure justice for people affected by sexual misconduct.

  1. Sexual misconduct in academia mirrors sexual misconduct in society at large. Faculty and administrators have committed verbal sexual harassment, physical non-penetrative assault, rape, and murder. One faculty even hired a hitman to kill the woman who accused him of sexual harassment!
  2. Institutions are loath to release information about sexual harassment. Lawsuits can cost universities millions of dollars. As it stands, many people who have been harassed are denied knowledge of prior instances of sexual harassment (necessary for identifying serial predators) or information about how, or even if, consequences have been meted out to harassers. In some cases, student-run or independent student newspapers are the only conduits for publicizing these cases
  3. Institutional responses to complaints of sexual misconduct vary widely, as do requirements for training. While some institutions investigate swiftly, others brush sexual misconduct findings under the rug and essentially allow sexual misconduct to continue unabated for decades. Similarly, some institutions require that all community members – from students to staff – complete sexual harassment training, while other institutions have no training available at all.
  4. The academy needs to address the negative impacts sexual misconduct can have on its victims. Perhaps the most difficult outcome of this experience has been the dozens of people who have reached out to me to tell me about their own experiences. I have heard from students who dropped out of college because of the trauma of sexual harassment and from junior faculty who lost jobs or quit in the face of misconduct. Sexual misconduct can have lasting negative consequences for education and career, as well as mental and physical health, and universities need to be at the forefront of limiting those negative outcomes.
  5. At the same time, the academy needs to come to a consensus about the consequences of sexual misconduct. The fact that someone is a leading researcher should have nothing to do with how sexual misconduct is handled. Decades of sexually harassing behavior might be avoided if real consequences are faced the first time harassment is reported. Additionally, imagine a professor who is a member of the National Academies or an endowed chair. Should that membership or chair be rescinded because of a finding of sexual misconduct? Sexual misconduct of any nature has a chilling and dehumanizing effect on students and colleagues. What are the trade-offs between allowing for redemption and protecting society?

Finally, my colleagues interested in modifying existing structures often ask two questions:

  1. What should sexual misconduct training look like? Research into the most effective forms of sexual misconduct training is certainly needed. That said – we can not train misconduct out of predators. Remember, academia is simply a microcosm of society, and some academics will simply be predators. What we can do is equip potential victims with information and support so they are wiling and able to report sexual misconduct if it occurs.
  2. How should institutions respond to a claim of sexual misconduct?
    1. While institutional and legal investigations are ongoing, individuals accused of sexual misconduct can be placed on paid leave – this protects the accused, the accuser, and the community. Firing the accused before an investigation is complete may punish the innocent and forcing victims to continue working in spaces with perpetrators may punish those who have already been victimized. That said, investigations should not end simply because an accused harasser retires or resigns.
    2. Institutions need to modify processes for how academic sexual misconduct consequences are determined and meted out. While student sexual misconduct is often adjudicated by independent committees, very few institutions seat independent voices to review sexual misconduct perpetrated by faculty and staff. Rather, consequences are often determined by chairs or deans. Bias is unavoidable when the perpetrator and victim are housed in the same unit. In my case, institutional policies required the head of my unit – who essentially oversaw me and my harasser – to decide on the penalty once a sexual harassment finding had been made. While I was mostly satisfied with the outcome of my case, it is not unreasonable to recognize that an independent third party is needed for justice to occur.
    3. Institutions should encourage, but not force, victims to consult law enforcement. Victims should determine if and how misconduct is reported. At the same time, institutions should not try to shield perpetrators from legal consequences, and should actively work with victims and law enforcement to make sure society at large – as well as members of college communities – are protected.

Given this moment in history, many universities are rethinking how they process, investigate, and address claims of sexual misconduct. This rethinking would be most effective if institutions worked together to identify principles that the academy should follow. Governing bodies, such as the Association of American Universities, would do well to establish normative practices based on existing federal guidance on anti-harassment policies. This would have the added effect of acknowledging other forms of harassment, such as those based on ethnicity or age, while simultaneously addressing deficiencies in how sexual misconduct is dealt with across higher education.

Academia is full of smart, hardworking people. Certainly, we can find a better way to deal with sexual misconduct and to support those people brave enough to tell us their stories.


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