Leading the Charge: Higher Education Takes a Proactive Approach in Addressing the Rise of Sexual Harassment Claims

When revelations of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct surfaced in October to much public outcry, the moment was a sobering one for many in academia who for some time have waged a similar — albeit less public — battle against such egregious acts and abuses of power.

For years, college students as well as faculty have actively advocated for change in regard to campus sexual assault and harassment, according to Allison Tombros Korman, senior director of Culture of Respect, a national organization focused on campus sexual assault prevention.

[Above: Title IX professionals attend the 2017 ATIXA/SCOPE Joint National Conference in October.]

Allison Tombros Korma
Allison Tombros Korman

“There [has been] a real push from student activists to bring this issue to the forefront,” she says. “There’s been a pretty good groundswell of activity on college campuses for the last couple of years, and it feels like the rest of American culture is catching up to [the fact] that this is incredibly pervasive, that this is happening everywhere.”

Furthermore, college students in recent years also had an ally in the Obama administration, further encouraging them in their push for rectitude, Korman says.

Saundra Schuster, JD, a founding member of the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA), agrees, adding that much of this movement by students was a result of “strong empowerment” provided by the U.S. Department of Education’s 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter.

Saundra Schuster
Saundra Schuster

“That drew a line in the sand to talk about believing individuals who have been subjected to unwelcome or unwanted sexual behavior, empowering those individuals. We really saw the beginnings of a movement from within,” explains Schuster, adding that recent events in Hollywood, the news media, and Congress have further paved the way for change in higher education. “What we’ve seen since the Harvey Weinstein [scandal] and others over the last [several] months is an increase in that empowerment, where individuals who hold a position of power and then abuse that power are being held increasingly to a higher standard.”

But to assume that such transformation can occur without any acknowledgement of wrongdoing would be to put the cart before the horse. As has been the case in other industries and sectors, higher education is experiencing an increase in sexual misconduct allegations, particularly those involving faculty-on-student and faculty-on-faculty incidents — all of which is taking place under a U.S. administration that seems unconcerned about the pervasive problem of campus sexual assault; many viewed Education Secretary Besty DeVos’ rollback in September of Obama-era guidance on the issue as favoring the rights of the accused over alleged victims.

The 2017 ATIXA/SCOPE Joint National Conference in Philadelphia
The 2017 ATIXA/SCOPE Joint National Conference in Philadelphia

In a Dec. 29 New York Times article, ATIXA’s Brett Sokolow said the number of reported complaints at colleges and universities had risen by an estimated 10 percent since the Weinstein scandal broke in October. In large part, he said, this spike is a result of women alleging harassment by their superiors.

Indeed, since October, allegations against male faculty members at institutions ranging from Berklee College of Music, Boston University, Dartmouth, and the University of Rochester have come to light. And while many of the actions that these professors have been accused of are heinous — calling female students derogatory terms like “slut” and “whore,” groping them, discussing sexual acts, and attempting to pressure them into having sex — a multitude in academia argue that the more pressing issue is the response by institutions.

“You can’t blame an institution for having problematic people working for [it] until that gets discovered,” explains Jenny Saffran, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But I think you can be very concerned about an institutional structure that woefully fails to detect problems with those individuals even when they are brought forward by multiple people and then retaliates against those who bring those problems forward.”

For Saffran, that institution is the University of Rochester (UR) in New York.

In September, eight current and former UR scholars filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against the university for not adequately protecting students by clearing professor Florian Jaeger, who was accused of multiple acts of sexual assault and harassment, of all wrongdoing. In the document, complainants describe Jaeger as a “narcissistic and manipulative sexual predator” who “engaged in numerous sexual relationships with [UR] and visiting students.”

Alleged inaction by the university also led to a lawsuit by some of the EEOC complainants and the resignation of another, a professor. In response, UR placed Jaeger — who was promoted during all of this — on administrative leave in September. Yet many, like Saffran, believe the university did not go far enough.

Thus, in an open letter sent in November to the UR Board of Trustees, Saffran and 400-plus professors from around the world claimed that the university mishandled the sexual harassment complaints filed by both current and former students of Jaeger and fellow faculty members, as well as retaliated against them for doing so.

“We hereby express our profound disappointment with the administration of [UR] in their response to the allegations of misconduct by … Florian Jaeger,” the letter reads. “… Instead of protecting individuals who came forward and enforcing the university’s values, the administration sought to diminish the reported events and created a hostile environment for the victims, their advocates, and many other members of the campus community. [UR] has abrogated its ultimate responsibility to protect and advance the interests of its most important constituency — its students — by supporting the predator and intimidating the victims and advocates in this case.”

Authors of the letter went on to say that, under the current circumstances, they “cannot in good conscience encourage [their] students to pursue educational or employment opportunities at [UR].” Since receiving the letter, the board launched an independent investigation into the allegations of harassment by Jaeger and those of cover-up and retaliation by the administration. While its findings — released in mid-January — largely cleared the university of wrongdoing, UR President Joel Seligman resigned in response to the ongoing controversy.

Jenny Saffran
Jenny Saffran

“The letter was a reaction to the lack of action on the part of [the university]. The goal was to make public the private conversations that were going on,” explains Saffran, who attended UR as a graduate student in the ’90s. “We wanted to highlight the importance of creating a safe system so that people who feel like they have been mistreated can come forward without fear of retribution.”

“Part of why women and others who are harassed don’t want to come forward is they fear they won’t be believed, and they fear they will be retaliated against,” she adds, “and both of those things happened in this case. So because these women were not believed and were treated dismissively, and because they and their advocates were actively retaliated against, it sends all the worst possible messages.”

As in Hollywood, Schuster says the power dynamic in academia makes female students and junior faculty more vulnerable to experiencing sexual harassment. “There is always a power differential, and that power differential [puts] someone at high risk to lose a job, to fail a course, to not get a job, or to not get a letter of recommendation,” she says. “So in making a report, they always do so … at a personal risk to themselves, professionally or educationally.”

Saffran agrees, pointing out that in these situations, the faculty “hold all the cards” and have the ability to greatly affect their students’ future professional lives — for better or worse.

“The system needs to be set up in such a way so that the people in power can’t destroy the people over whom they hold power,” she says. “All it would take in the case of academia — this is probably true in other professions as well — is a professor deciding that [someone] is a ‘bad egg’ … and no longer providing [him or her] with resources, with letters of recommendation, with access to whatever their field’s currency is. That would be it; they would be done. And that’s really problematic.”

Some argue that female graduate students are most at risk for experiencing instances of sexual assault and harassment by academic advisers, whom they rely on to gain research experience and get recommendations for jobs. In an ongoing study of approximately 300 such cases by the Utah Law Review, one in 10 female graduate students at major research universities reported being sexually harassed by a faculty member. Beyond the ability to damage individual careers, such incidents collectively have the potential to discourage women from entering and cause others to leave academia.

Zero Tolerance
While accusers who come forward years later are often criticized for their delay in doing so, Karin Ranta-Curran, JD, executive director of institutional compliance and equity and Title IX coordinator at Colorado School of Mines, says that this lag in reporting is often due to their struggle to process what they’ve been through. “They may not have the words to describe what they experienced, and certainly after they have time to process what happened and apply labels or names to what they experienced, they often will come in and make their concerns known,” she explains.

With no statute of limitations regarding sexual harassment, speaking up — even years after the fact — is often part of the healing process for victims, who believe that “by telling their story 15 years later, they may make a difference,” says Schuster.

At Colorado School of Mines, Ranta-Curran says the current national conversation on sexual harassment has led to an increased number of students seeking out services and support — which she believes is also due to more comprehensive and effective outreach on the part of her office. Furthermore, Schuster believes that with more women speaking up across industries and sectors and with their allegations being taken seriously, the outpouring of students and faculty coming forward will continue.

“I think they’re coming forward more often because they believe that their institution will do something to address [their complaints]. I’ve heard [too many] stories over the last decade of individuals who’ve said, ‘I made a report, and nothing happened. I no longer believe in the system,’” she says. “We’ve seen far more situations lately of deans, directors, coaches, and tenured faculty members being terminated from their jobs as opposed to institutions trying to cover up the situation.”

While Ranta-Curran emphasizes that institutions can’t prevent every instance of sexual harassment, what they can do is communicate clearly the university’s expectations and a zero-tolerance approach to this kind of behavior. “I feel strongly that especially for people coming into the organization, whether it’s a new employee or student, making sure that they get that message and those expectations in a variety of different ways, via a variety of different communication methods, is really key,” says Ranta-Curran. “Not everyone is going to respond to an hour-long sexual harassment training in the same way, … so reinforcing those expectations in as many ways as you can is really important.”

While Korman believes there are institutions that are doing a great job to prevent and “adjudicate these cases in a way that’s fair, prompt, and equitable to both parties,” she says that more could be done. Of the most impact is having campus leaders who speak openly about this topic and make clear that such conduct is not acceptable.

Although sexual harassment is an issue that pervades all of society, she says that higher education has the opportunity and ability to drive much-needed change in this area.

“No one institution or one field is immune to this, and so it really is incumbent on all of us to take responsibility for protecting survivors,” says Korman. “Institutions can be part of this moment in time where we start to change the culture, and because of the way they are positioned — they’re working with young people, they have thought leaders, [they are] creating new ideas and new strategies and new leadership — they can be at the forefront of this if they choose to be.”

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our March 2018 issue.