The Culture Of Exploitation In Graduate School Facilitates Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Tara Dorje (a pseudonym) is a Ph.D. candidate at an urban public university in the Midwest. She could not have completed any of this without her colleagues, to whom she is forever grateful; community is integral to individual success, because we are people through people.

Sexual Harassment In A Culture Of Exploitation

I am writing this essay from a deeply vulnerable vantage point. As a graduate student who is currently working on my dissertation, I am caught in a web of power, hierarchies and the bizarre blurring of personal and professional networks.

This essay serves as a start to a conversation about sexual harassment in higher education, specifically to highlight the power dynamics at play. It is also a call to others to take dialogue about abuse seriously. To move forward in fostering equality, we have to listen to one another in ways that promote a broad recognition of how prevalent sexual harassment is in academe.

Last fall, I attended a panel featuring alums from my program. I spoke with one person after the event, and we discovered that we both struggled with being independent, single, white, privileged, cisgender women who dare to express ourselves. I shared with her, for example, that two of three men professors on my master’s committee sexually propositioned me — one during the program, one right after. It turned out, coincidentally, that while the alum had graduated nearly a decade before me, one of those professors (white, late 60s, tenured) had sexually propositioned her, too, during her early graduate school days. Each of us had him on our graduate committee and each accepted research assistantships with him, while intermittently receiving romantic offers.

Those offers sometimes came cloaked in conference presentations or publications, while other times were disguised as “friendly favors” — like renting a room in his very nice home, carpooling or meals together that far more resembled dates than mentoring. This professor was the most famed in the department and his field, married with grown children and apparently always seeking women graduate students as playmates.

My colleague and I both share a professional loss. When we declined his advances, we lost an important source of collaboration and recommendations for future jobs, grants, publications and other opportunities. After years of research and teamwork, he told her she should ask other faculty members for letters of reference. I was a little bit luckier; I blew up the bridge earlier in my training. I knew back then far too well that asking this professor for anything, let alone for professional favors, was out of the question.

What is the cost to graduate students who are subjected to sexual harassment? How much is lost in opportunity and social capital? How many letters of reference disappear each year? All of the relationships we foster in graduate school are so intertwined with elements of our future success. The power dynamics work in such ways that, as grad students, you will submit to your professors. You will be second, fifth or whatever author spot they assign to you (often regardless of the work distribution), you will go out to dinner with them as requested and you will perform emotional labor by listening to each whim or wonder — all the while frittering away your most valuable resource: time.

Perhaps this just foreshadows the disproportionate demands for service that women later receive as professors, as well — thereby facilitating the reproduction of gender inequality throughout higher education. None of this even touches on the time needed to cope with the emotional strain in lost hours of self-care and the additional emotional labor of processing everything. (“Did this really happen? Am I overreacting? What can I do to defend myself?”)

Stories abound about professors who were known sexual harassers getting fired from one university only to be hired elsewhere, always landing on their feet and likely with their hands down other students’ pants. Higher education institutions tend to recycle more abuse than prevent it, remaining complicit in rape culture even though alternatives to reproducing sexism are available. Look no farther than the continuing headlines or stories we have all heard in academe that blame the graduate students, trivializing or denying unwanted sexual advances or actions and refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by such circumstances.

Consequently, I have never taken action. I am afraid of retaliation, so much so that I write this piece under a pen name. Retaliation is a real thing. Simply because I’ve deflected advances, professors have ceased to see me as a professional or respect me as a human being. Interactions are both caustic and insulting, laced with reminders of only their desire (running eyes up and down my body, comments about being on a diet or otherwise referencing my appearance, and so on).

It all furthers the feeling that speaking up will bring far more trouble than it is worth to ever file a formal complaint in an often-hostile organization. I have real fear and concerns that my efforts will just be dismissed, that I will be pinned with a scarlet letter, that I will lose out in funding decisions — and that, ultimately, life will go on as if nothing happened. Instead, I choose to keep quiet.

In all of my years of graduate school, the most unifying and well-attended graduate student meeting last fall addressed some of the most volatile issues and continuing forms of harassment in our department. The main theme identified and agreed upon by fellow graduate students was an overarching atmosphere of abuse, lying and bullying. It was clearly recognized the core issue: that faculty-student relationships are always adversarial as a result of power differences.

While we did not exactly mount an inquisition that day, we did successfully request a meeting with our academic administrators. In response, students (not faculty members, mind you!) received an educational visit from the university’s designated office for handling sexual harassment. Those baby steps have far from provided the support victims of sexual violence need in order to feel encouraged to come forward. It is clear that we must organize and support one another. It is clear that we are in this together. I am cut, you bleed.

But I am left with more questions than answers. How do we develop a collective callout system that supports survivors and holds perpetrators accountable? How do we help graduate students, junior faculty members and other academics to speak up about incidents of sexual harassment that are “difficult to prove” and not as “simple” as cases of rape? What kind of role could restorative justice play here? How can we flip the script in a society that supports and rewards abuse, deception and bullying? My experience with repeated sexual harassment throughout my seven years of graduate training shows how difficult it is to talk about this exploitation, to come forward, to finally bring an end altogether to the tolerance of sexual harassment in academe.

We need to acknowledge the risks in reporting sexual violence that result from power differentials in higher education — notably, the real potential of retaliation. Furthermore, the institutions and individuals within academe too often harm when attempting to help by misdirected, futile and otherwise ineffectual offices, policies and procedures that fail to address the roots of the abuse.

We need to actively create a culture in which speaking out about instances of sexual harassment is supported, encouraged, taken seriously and appropriately addressed. I therefore welcome and promote dialogue that calls out mistreatment and leads to taking action as an important first step — however big or small.