1/17/18, 11:50 a.m.:
i would love to chat so long that my name isn’t used
i worry since i’m applying for phds soon
I’m messaging a female graduate student at Harvard. I told her I’m writing about #MeToo in higher education. She is interested in commenting on my article.
I tell her I can’t grant anonymity.
It’s not an article detailing stories of harassment per se, I type nervously. Would she be able to just talk generally? About power and gender and cultural norms in academia? Surely, if she’s not naming names, not pointing fingers, she’d feel comfortable venting.
1/17/18, 7:10 p.m.:
unfortunately i won’t be able to, just out of fear of it impacting my applications. i truly am sorry.
We seem to be living in a historical moment. Hashtags and testimonials and spreadsheets have shattered the traditional silence around sexual assault. We have stories; we are talking. The fear of condemning harassment has been replaced with a fierce, fervent rage. We are mad as hell, and we’re not gonna take it anymore! We are allowed to shout and stamp our feet! No one can stop us!
If you’ve turned on a television or opened up Twitter in the past few months, you know that something colossal is stirring in Hollywood and elsewhere. Women are reclaiming the conversation. They are uniting, banding together to demand change, felling a mostly male cohort of harassers. They bring activists to awards shows. They link arms and hug each other on national television. They cheer fanatically for their female peers (all this as the camera zooms in).
The #MeToo movement fits naturally into the narrative we’ve constructed about the dramatic lives of our favorite stars. We are captivated by these women: their monochromatic dresses, majestic pins, sad eyes; their sober interviews and rousing speeches. It is a movement that feels cinematic in the scope of the depravity it unearths and the progress it promises. It is grittily dynamic, vehemently forward-moving.
But Harvard is not Hollywood. Proclaiming “Me, too” means something different on a campus than it does on a screen.
I’ve received perhaps a dozen apologetic responses now like the one above, although most are not so frank about their reticence.
They say things like I am swamped with work, I am busy, I am unable to do an interview at this time, I just don’t think I’d have much to say, I don’t think I’d be the most helpful person to interview on this subject, I can’t help with this, sorry. But maybe talk to so-and-so, and here’s an article you should read.
Most simply never responded. Of the 71 female professors, grad students, and lecturers from the Harvard community that I reached out to, nine agreed to be quoted.
When we talked, our conversations felt charged with the same emotional urgency I am confronted with every time I scroll through my newsfeed. But I also perceived an underlying sense of resignation. It became clear that the discussion of sexual assault at Harvard and in higher education lacks the same forward motion that the #MeToo movement has heralded elsewhere.
Certainly, revelations of harassment at Harvard and in the academy are emerging. Higher education has its own spreadsheet of sexual harassment testimonies, created by Karen L. Kelsky, a cultural anthropology scholar who has taught at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The spreadsheet has gathered more than 2,300 entries in about two months. Though most respondents don’t name their harassers or universities, the word “Harvard” appears 24 times.
“I know there have been a few examples of how the #MeToo movement has begun to impact academia,” says Sophia Roosth, an associate professor in History of Science. “But it seems to be happening much more slowly [here] than, for example, Hollywood, or even Washington, right? So it seems that the entertainment industry and the government are ahead of us in this respect.”
Sejal Singh, a Harvard Law student and Policy Coordinator at Know Your IX, a national campaign against sexual harassment and violence in schools, says she thinks “we have yet to even scratch the surface” on the problem of sexual misconduct in academia.
“It’s sort of odd to me that we were supposedly having this national moment where we start to reckon with not just these individual harassers, but I think much more importantly, the way that these intuitions have enabled them,” Singh says. “There doesn’t seem to be any interest in really taking it on.”
Long before the recent discourse in other industries, academia began internal reviews of its own potential culture of harassment. The early start date makes higher education's reckoning with sexual misconduct unique, some Harvard professors say.
“I think that, in a lot of ways, the college movement presaged a lot of #MeToo and presaged a lot of the backlash to #MeToo as well,” Singh says, referencing a wave of undergraduate activism that erupted five years ago.
Harvard faculty started talking about harassment in their ranks as early as 1978. In 2001, the conversation heightened as Title IX expanded to cover gender-based harassment and discrimination.
Jeannie Suk Gersen, a professor at the Law School who has campaigned against Obama-era Title IX changes, says she thinks this protracted focus on the issue means that higher education is in a position to “appreciate the complexity of the problem.”
“All of those issues that we dealt with and are continuing to deal with on campuses are now on a broader scale at workplaces and other kinds of institutions,” Suk Gersen says. “So I think it's kind of like a campus situation that we confronted starting from several years ago and now is going to be kind of repeated on a larger scale.”
But others worry that academia’s focus on Title IX shifts the focus to semantics, stymying the potential for more nuanced discussions about broader cultures of harassment.
“We’re still fighting about the legal definition,” says Paavani Garg, a Harvard Law student and president of the Women’s Law Association. “We’ve been talking about Title IX for so long... It seems to be something that isn’t always the most effective way of dealing with victims of sexual assault and their needs.”
Just as academia’s history with sexual misconduct puts the conversation in an unusual place, so, too, does its structural makeup, according to Garg and several other female professors.
“The way that power and the hierarchies that are so deeply embedded in university structures play out makes the case of academia different than other settings,” says Leena M. Akhtar, a lecturer in History of Science and Women, Gender, and Sexuality, who has studied rape trauma and Second Wave feminist activism. “I think in a way, harassers can hide better here, because the power structures are so deeply embedded.”
For graduate students, she says, the concept of workplace sexual harassment is further complicated by the fact that “the student is both at work and at school. [A victim can’t] pick up and get another job."
Akhtar notes that fields—and departments—are small. Spots in top programs are limited, and fields are extraordinarily competitive.
“A graduate student who feels coerced or pressured into having sex or who says no doesn't know for sure how, if, she/he is being punished,” says Deidre S. Lynch, an English professor.
And often, harassment is a product of relational dynamics more complex than abuse of power, Lynch says. Because of the way universities are predicated on a culture of mentorship, sexual harassment can manifest as an exploitation of respect, she adds.
“There’s something about the structure of intellectual mentoring,” Lynch says. “It can easily be compromised and distorted in ways that are very hard on students.”
Tenured professors–especially at Harvard–accrue extraordinary acclaim. There is an inclination, Kelsky says, to think of academia as “higher than the normal.” It’s higher education, after all; a space for elevated ideas from lofty thinkers.
We laud these people because they push the boundaries of possibility for thought in their fields. This celebration comes in the form of tenure, of awards and prizes, of prestige, of esteem that borders on reverence: renown that translates into a power that is difficult to check.
Roosth describes this phenomenon as a “cult of genius.” And she says it can easily sour.
“Geniuses are imagined to be able to operate outside of social norms. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a genius, and I don’t think there’s any room on campus for people to operate outside of social norms, especially when it comes to protecting the bodies and the rights of their fellow colleagues,” she says. “The idea that just because people are supposed to be thoughtful and creative, they should be allowed to behave however they choose and to make the workplace a hostile environment for their colleagues or their students is absurd.”
Even beyond the insular mentor-mentee relationship, prominent professors can sometimes attract a cohort of acolytes. Roosth says this means that, when those at the top disappoint, there are material victims—those who are physically violated—but also secondary casualties: everyone else who adored, respected, emulated these people.
Lynch says she is dealing with this kind of disillusionment herself. In 2017, Jay Fliegelman, a mentor of hers when she was a grad student at Stanford, was accused of harassment and rape. It is difficult, she says, to reconcile his actions with her image of him as a role model.
“He was a totally inspiring teacher, and I have all his books and learned so much from him and can recognize moments in my own writing over the years where–‘Oh, that's a thought I was able to think because Jay encouraged me,’” Lynch says. “So I hate that this is all tangled up with this sense that he was violent and actively harmed people.”
She says she has had to “re-categorize” Fliegelman in her mind. “He violated his students' trust. And that’s just, there’s no way around that.”
In correspondence with old friends from graduate school about “things we had forgotten that now seem newly menacing,” Lynch wrote that “We were swimming with sharks, and we didn’t realize it."
Kelsky, the professor who created the “Sexual Harassment in the Academy” spreadsheet, says she is skeptical of broad administrative attempts at change, especially in the current political climate.
“Do I trust institutions to do the right thing regardless of what DeVos and her ilk advocate? No, I do not," she says. "They will always take the low road. They will always take the low road.”
Within Harvard, the female professors I interviewed seem tentatively more optimistic.
“I think that it's going to make a big difference that there are more women professors than there used to be,” says Lynch. “I think it's already starting to.”
Roosth, too, says she is optimistic that simply changing the demographics of the university can go a long way.
“There are twenty-seven tenured minority underrepresented women at Harvard. If that number goes up, I would be thrilled,” she says.
But numbers are only part of the solution, Singh says. She calls for a fundamental shift in the approach toward harassment for students and professors alike. “Why aren’t we being taught how to build an environment that didn’t look like this?”
Helen Haste, a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Education, articulates a similar philosophy. She advocates a reeducation, “to think differently about the relationships that we have.”
Academia must “give our young people the skills to do this, to give people who are the adults the skills. And I think we haven't been very good at providing those skills.”
Akhtar charges everyone not actively making change to take action. We need to think about “how silence and lack of action can basically very easily turn into complicity,” she says.
“Abusive behavior can thrive in an atmosphere where the default is to do nothing,” she says. Change has to come “from the top down, but also laterally, and honestly, from the bottom as well, meaning that graduate students need more of a voice than they have.”
Ruth Goldstein, a lecturer in the Folklore and Mythology department, thinks the movement has the potential to grow within academia. But she says she has reservations about #MeToo as a whole.
“I think there are times when social movements start with different people–often with people of color–and then unfortunately get whitewashed. If the idea is to have solidarity and inclusivity, then marginalizing people's voices once again who have often been marginalized is an incredibly good way to kill social change,” she says.
“In many ways the movement became ‘Hollywoodized,’ if you will.”
But academia’s #MeToo movement doesn’t entirely look like Hollywood’s–at least, not yet.
Despite revelations of abuse and a history of efforts toward change, there lingers a certain underlying stagnancy, according to the female professors I interviewed. There is an entrenched power structure that, Kelsky says, she doesn’t think “any survey of this moment will be able to correct immediately.”
When I asked Kelsky why her spreadsheet is mostly anonymous, she talked about allowing for a “mid-level point,” where “being able to tell your story publicly, even without naming names, would be cathartic.”
“I really want to see predators exposed by name and punished,” she said. “I do. I want to see them lose their jobs. But I also know that it’s a gradual process for victims. The most debilitating issue for victims of this situation, of these situations, is shame. It’s believing that you failed, that it was your fault, that you are at fault.”
Perhaps a more aggressive academic #MeToo movement is brewing.
But for now, Kelsky says, progress may be stalled.
“Until you can overcome that shame, you cannot act; you cannot act effectively,” she says.
–Magazine writer Eliya O. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @eliyasmith.