When A Professor Is Sexually Harassed By A Student

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). To avoid retaliation or further violence, the author has chosen to remain anonymous. She is an adjunct professor at a public university

In recent years, we have seen college administrators attempt to raise students’ awareness about sexual assault on their campuses, including what to do if it happens to them. The push we are seeing is often the result of universities trying to comply with Title IX — a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault at any federally funded education program or activity. In other words, this raised awareness is not necessarily the result of administrators’ genuine concern about the well-being of their students but often because institutions are scared of losing their federal funding.

Moreover, as colleges and universities step up to the plate, rushing to create pretty landing pages, handouts and online trainings, some miscommunication and misunderstanding about whom those laws protect remains. For example, efforts to increase awareness are focused on students, while faculty members are often overlooked. When the tables are turned and it is a faculty member who is assaulted or harassed, standing face-to-face with an attacker, what should be done?

Further, the public often hears about superiors showing dominance over a worker and using their authority to keep the victim in a state of oppression. But this model does not reflect incidents when it works the other way: when students sexually harass their professors. What does a faculty member do when they find themselves at the mercy of a student who has no regard for boundaries or authority, and who doesn’t understand that no means no?

Early in my career, at a campus where I no longer work, I was stalked and sexually harassed by a male student. At one point, he locked me in my own office and tried to proposition me. In the aftermath, I experienced firsthand how little the administration at my institution seemed to know about sexual assault and harassment, as well as how few concrete procedures were in place to help me and others in my position to deal with being assaulted or harassed.

The institution’s webpage was not very helpful at all when it came to providing information and whom to contact for help. And when I reached out to my colleagues in the administration and on the faculty, for the most part, they also turned a blind eye to my situation. Meanwhile, the harassment did not stop. I felt alone, scared and unprotected.

In the face of all that, I could have easily given up. When standing in the face of adversity, sometimes we tend to shrink. But I refused to give up; instead, I chose to rise. I spoke out to my institution about my experience and its lack of support. And I’ve continued to work to bring awareness about the issue, to fight for what I believe is right and to try to help others in my situation.

What to Do if It Happens to You

So, fellow professors and instructors, what should you do if this happens to you? What steps should you take if you find yourself standing in the middle of a sexual assault or harassment case as a victim on a college campus? Here are a few tips that I found helpful as a faculty member.

  • Make sure that all of your communication is in writing via email. This serves as both a date and time stamp that can never be erased.
  • Follow the policies and procedures that are outlined by your university. If the institution doesn’t provide a landing page on its website about preventing and dealing with sexual violence, go to the search area and type in “Title IX.” Unfortunately, this information can sometimes be hidden beneath a layer of nobody cares.
  • Remember that you do not have to allow yourself to be revictimized. You do not have to continue to sit in meetings telling your story over and over again.
  • You do have the right to legal counsel.
  • File a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in your state if you feel your case has not been handled appropriately by your employer.
  • Seek out mental-health treatment because — believe it or not — no matter how strong you may think you are, you are never mentally prepared to deal with a situation like this. I myself was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and depression, and have worked with a therapist.
  • Most important, take some time to heal.

There is a bright side to this story. Because of my refusal to remain silent, the institution where I used to work has adopted much clearer policies on sexual assault. It has also significantly improved the information it provides people on the campus about the issue — including anyone on the faculty who might be a victim — and how to deal with it. As for me, it is my hope that by sharing a bit of advice, I can also help other faculty members who find themselves having to cope with similar experiences.