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SPOTLIGHT ON HARASSMENT: Alumna’s colleague speaks out against misconduct in academia

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In 2002 a student told graduate student Jennifer Groh that professor Todd Heatherton, one of the three Dartmouth neuroscience professors now under criminal investigation for sexual misconduct, had sexually harassed her at a graduate recruiting event for the Department of Psychological and Behavioral Sciences.

The student said that Heatherton placed his hands on her breasts at the event while condemning her performance in the lab.

Groh immediately reported the incident of misconduct to Dartmouth’s associate dean of social sciences. Despite this, Heatherton later received Dartmouth’s Champion International Professorship award in 2002, which he kept until 2010.

Katia Dahmani
In “A Systematic Look at a Serial Problem: Sexual Harassment of Students by University Faculty,” a study conducted by Nancy Chi Cantalupo and William C. Kidder, 72 alleged sexual harassment incidents of university professors against students span over 57 cases, all of which were litigated cases and cases reported to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Forty-eight of these 72 incidents included claims of unwanted sexual or physical touches. 

Groh didn’t publicly come forward about Dartmouth’s mishandling of the case until recently in a Nov. 16 Slate article.

Groh is now a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, where Sarah Gaither, ‘03, is an assistant professor in Duke’s psychology and neuroscience department.

Gaither said that she has learned to be brave and speak up for what she knows is right. But she also said she learned how often allegations of sexual harassment aren’t taken seriously enough and that universities don’t always follow through properly.

And although Groh hasn’t had any effect on the sexual-harassment policies at Duke, Gaither and her department have supported Groh.

However, Dartmouth is not the only college plagued by sexual harassment allegations against faculty members. Over the past couple months, sexual harassment claims have been made at colleges and university campuses across the nation.

Whether it be a professor stepping down amid allegations at Columbia University, another being noted for sexual harassment at the University of Virginia, or other sexual misconduct allegations at Northwestern University, and University of California at Berkeley, sexual harassment is a prevalent problem in academia.

“As a junior, young female faculty member, it’s very distressing that every day my Twitter and Facebook feeds and email fill up with new stories of mostly female faculty and graduate students coming forward with allegations,” Gaither said.

She added that many of these cases may have been mishandled or simply not handled by universities.

Along with the surge of allegations, people in academia are discussing what can be done to improve the handling of these allegations, Gaither said.

“There need to be more channels through which people can report things anonymously or if they want to be identified,” she said. “The more channels and opportunities there are (to report sexual harassment), the easier it will be for people to come forward.”

Gaither also said that she thinks universities nationwide need to come up with stricter policies about what must be done after an allegation is submitted, especially involving faculty members who have tenure.

“My own fear right now is that if something were to happen to me as a non-tenured member, how would that impact me?” she said.  “And what kind of safety precautions would I receive if I were to submit an allegation against a tenured faculty member?”

Katia Dahmani
In the same study, faculty serial harassment was investigated. According to Cantalupo and Kidder, there is a “general alarm” for faculty members who sexually harass many “targets/victims.” And specifically, there is a concern for a phenomenon called “pass the harasser,” when professors avoid responsibility for sexually harassing their students and later work at a different university or college campus where they repeat the harassment. Of 305 litigated and OCR complaints of faculty sexual harassment, 53 percent were against professors accused of serial sexual harassment against multiple victims. These serial-harassment allegations were expressed or implied, the latter being only implied and not a reported serial-harassment case. Forty-seven percent of faculty sexual harassment was claimed to be non-serial harassment.

Tenure, which is when a professor or teacher is given a permanent position at their school, was first established at Duke University in 1976.

And it was established for the purpose of “academic freedom,” according to Gaither.

“But now this tenure system seems to be protecting some professors, which wasn’t its original purpose,” she said.

Gaither also said that the problem of non-drastic consequences for tenured professors needs to be dealt with.

“If a faculty member is found guilty of sexual harassment, rape or sexual misconduct, there need to be repercussions so that they can’t leave one university and go to another,” she said. “(Sexual harassment allegations) need to be permanently marked in a professor’s (personnel) file.”

She also has some tips for seniors going into college, as one in 10 female graduate students reports being sexually harassed by a faculty member, according to “A Systematic Look at a Serial Problem: Sexual Harassment of Students by University Faculty.” (Although Gaither said 80-90 percent of sexual harassment instances on campuses aren’t reported.)

“Have a support network, like friends or family, at whatever college you go to,” she said.

“(The support network) is the key to not only overcoming the negative consequences of (an) experience, but also they can encourage someone to file a report.”

Often times, people may not realize that what happened to them is, in fact, sexual harassment, but an outside perspective can shed light on these types of experiences, Gaither said.

She also said that it’s important for students to know how and where a student can report instances and not to put themselves in inappropriate situations, such as being cornered in a teacher’s office or being invited out to dinner with only a faculty member,  by always being aware of their surroundings.

“Women are unfortunately often viewed simply as sexual objects, and therefore need to be aware of their surroundings,” Gaither said. “This includes looking back over your shoulder while walking home, watching your drinks at bars and parties, and considering the people that are around you.”

Most colleges and universities have offices of institutional equity, specific harassment advisers or hotlines, and women’s and gender centers that will help students file reports when needed, she said. And most of these sources have their information posted throughout campuses on flyers and posters and on university websites, according to Gaither.

But above all Gaither stressed reporting instances when they happen.

Katia Dahmani

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