Creating an academic environment hostile to sexual misconduct


I’d like to tell you a story about speaking out.

We are hearing more in the media from targets of sexual misconduct.

I hope we’re working towards a new environment, that when sexual misconduct happens, it’s big news because it’s both rare and widely regarded as unacceptable. We’re not there. It’s a long, long way to go.

I suspect that things are ever so slightly better than a decade ago. Extraordinarily unacceptable behavior still might be commonplace, but an extreme situation in academia now might be considered newsworthy.

A miniscule proportion of egregious cases of sexual misconduct have splashed into the media. Since February, a couple newer cases much closer to my academic fields have cropped up. In one, an entomologist who was about to be stripped of tenure and fired for sexual misconduct, but his university let him quit, so that they would not have to endure the publicity associated with legally following the requirements of Title IX.

Last week, a story came out about a mammalogist who assaulted and created a hostile environment for students. This scientist was trained in a laboratory that was – apparently – quite well known for its supremely sexist PI. If you think I might be overstating the situation, please read through this whole story and you’ll see that I’m actually understating the situation. After discussing this story with some colleagues, I was encouraged to write about what I think we can do to handle situations like these. That’s a tall order, but here I am giving it a go. (For people with more experience and wisdom related to sexual misconduct, please do make a point to add new information or correct me as need be in the comments.)

In this recent story, the journalist embedded a 10-minute video from a retirement party that was held last year for the supremely sexist PI (direct link to video). I watched some of it, but frankly, I couldn’t bring myself to watch all of it. Some salient parts are described in the story itself. There humorous stories and jokes, most of which involve jocular memories of sexual misconduct. It’s offensive beyond offensive.

My first thought reaction was, “How could someone just sit there in the audience and listen to this?” Then, my next cogent thought was “Of course, what else can you do in that situation if everybody who has power over the department is lording this history and pride of harassment?”

If I was in that room, I have no idea what I would have done.

Let’s say I was a tenured man in that room, and those were my colleagues, who were openly boasting about harassing and assaulting their students. Would I unplug the projector, sit there silently, sulk out, or tell the Dean, or stand up on a desk and make a scene? Well, I don’t know, because I wasn’t there. But I can tell you a story that this video evoked for me, though I have to go a ways back.

While in college, I worked for one summer as the nature counselor at a Boy Scout camp in the Sierras, on Lake Huntington, a bit south of Yosemite. As I best recall – this was the early ‘90s after all — there were maybe 120 boys at a time, a couple dozen staff who were about my age. A couple much older and more responsible guys were in charge, and they had put together a kitchen crew and whoever else they needed to run the camp activities. My job was to be counselor for a few different nature and science related merit badges. I led stargazing canoe tours on the lake. I set up a trapping pit for tracking mammals. I ran games about food webs, and we learned basic plant identification.

Imagine the stereotype of a scout camp, and you can probably picture Camp Mirimichi, (which is, apparently, no longer). Rowdy and goofy and boastful and bashful teenage boys, archery, canoeing, weaving baskets, swimming, first aid, ropework, sleeping in beat up canvas tents, and songs and skits by the campfire. You know, Boy Scouts.

On the last evening of camp, there’s a traditional campfire program. You have a really big fire. You sing goofy songs, and each group puts on a skit. I remember The King’s Royal Papers, Soap and Water, the Dirty Socks, and, um, I’m sure there are other skits. There weren’t that many, though. You learn to perform the standards and you’re good to go.

There’s one skit that I remember, that I don’t really remember. I don’t know what the skit was about anymore, as I was in a haze. I do recall that, as soon as they came out to the center of the campfire and started out with the skit, it was built on a particular offensive ethnic slur.

When I was a kid in the a teenager in the 1980s, at least among the folks I interacted with, targeting Polish people with The Polish Joke was common. If you had a joke that featured someone who was unintelligent or undesirable or had bad judgment, then folks often turned to the Polish Joke, which by the way is described in great detail in Wikipedia.

It’s not like there was an executive committee at Camp Mirimichi that screens the scripts of campfire sketches. They just kinda walk up and do their skit as is expected of them. As I best recall, I always disliked The Polish Joke. But whenever I was hanging out with other people, or in any other context, I don’t think I ever said anything. But having hung out in college for a while, I imagine I hadn’t heard it in recent times.

So these kids started in on their sketch. I remember I was in a back corner of this rustic amphitheater, and they busted out the P-word once or twice. And I looked over at The Guys In Charge, wondering, is this okay with them? And I saw that they perceived this moment differently than me. For them, it was Standard Operating Procedure: boys doing a sketch. I saw them doing a sketch too  – presumably a variant of one that we heard far too often – but it still was unambiguously racist in my book.

Then, I don’t really remember thinking. I just walked down into the middle of the sketch, several seconds after they had started, to interrupt them. I talked quietly with the leader of the group that it was not acceptable to use the Polish Joke. They couldn’t make fun of Polish people. To which the leader replied, something along the lines of, “But why, I’m of Polish ancestry and I think it’s just fine.” And then I told him that doesn’t matter for everyone else here, so fix your sketch and get on with it. They went in a corner, and whispered a bit, and then started over. The butt of their sketch was now themselves, a “Troop 165er,” or whatever their troop number was. But I was pretty much numb, and not really able to perceive whatever was happening around me. And I was freaked out because my bosses just didn’t do or say anything. I was assuming that I would have gotten I trouble, or at least teased for being a namby-pamby liberal college kid or something. Campfire was over, and I just went away to my tent, not sure of what to make of the next morning.

After breakfast (I think there might have been a scout-related word for the meal but I don’t recall, so I’ll just call it breakfast), the guy most in charge, my boss*, came to talk to me. He let me know that I did the right thing, and that it was something that he should have done, and my memory is foggy, but I think he thanked me.

That day, we were sending one batch of boys across the lake back home, and were preparing for a new bunch. I continued to be pleasantly surprised. My turn as a judgmental joke-monitoring prude didn’t come up in conversation that much, as I imagine folks just wanted to forget about it. But when it came up, I wasn’t the bad guy. I don’t remember much but more than anything else, I remember not getting a single whiff of guff from anybody. And there were at least a few wiseasses on staff from whom I would have expected it. I just got a few nods of respect, and life continued as normal.

I’m not telling you this story to pat myself on the back for being an anti-racist do-gooder. (Or, as some people say, I’m not asking for a cookie. If I was looking for credit for standing up for what is right when nobody else is doing it, then I probably should be able to come up with an example in the present century.) I wasn’t making a point, I was just doing the decent thing, in an amphitheater full of other people who also knew it was wrong but weren’t doing the decent thing. The person in charge either didn’t care, or didn’t think it was proper to intercede.

Why is it that these boys even chose to do a racist sketch? It’s because they were entirely unaware that it would be unacceptable. When I intercepted them and told them to change what they were doing, they weren’t mad, they were boggled. They just didn’t even get that what they were doing would be found to be objectionable. It was just a part of humor.

When I watched the video of Robert Baker’s retirement party, where he was held up as a paragon of sexual misconduct by his peers, I thought back to that time at Camp Mirimichi. The one time where I was in an audience and I literally stood up against something what was overtly wrong. And I thought about how easy it was for me to stand up at this scout camp, where I was a temporary employee before heading off to grad school, and how difficult it is for anybody with a hope of a scientific career to stand up against the misogyny in their department.

Why is it that Robert Baker’s buddies could run a powerpoint to celebrate his infamous history of sexual misconduct? I think the answer is the same as for the boys: these men were not even aware that their peers in the audience would find it to be unacceptable. Or, even if they knew it would be unacceptable, they knew that nobody would complain. Or if someone complained, that they’d get away with it.

I’ve heard from a colleague who was in the room at the time, afraid and livid, but would have been professionally vulnerable if they had spoken up or spoken out.

I suppose if someone went up with a dramatic flourish and unplugged the projector on Dr. Baker’s celebrants, that would have made a point. I imagine such grandstanding would have earned more enemies than friends, given the raucous laughter emanating from the room.

So what do we need to do to prevent the celebration of sexual misconduct, and to inhibit sexual misconduct itself? We need to establish an environment where sexual harassment and sexual assault of any kind are wholly unacceptable. We need the peers of harassers – that means men, particularly tenured men – to vocally communicate a rigid mandate for professional conduct. We need men to speak up and out at the moment they are observing misconduct as it is taking place. We need for perpetrators to know that they are not operating in an environment where they can rely on their peers to remain silent.

You don’t need to stand up in a lecture hall. What you need to do is push back when the smaller, more murkier things happen, like when a joke is made about a student. Or when a colleague shows up to work with a shirt with pinup girls on it. It’s not hard to do, but of course, it is hard to do. It’s amazing how the only decent thing might provide the path of greatest resistance.

The story that prompted this post focuses on a man who is well known to be a serial harasser and has assaulted his colleagues. It’s my understanding that he’s about to actually receive an award from his professional organization for his research. Is this a problem? I think it is. Shouldn’t we keep private behavior separate from research accomplishments? Yes, I think we should. Whatever this gent wishes to do in the privacy of his own home with consenting adults is his own business. But: Sexual misconduct in the academic workplace – even at social events among coworkers – is not private behavior. It’s professional behavior. Sexual misconduct is academic misconduct.

What were we supposed to do when we’re in that lecture hall being subjected to tales of sexual misconduct? I think that’s not the most constructive question to ask, because we don’t face that kind of situation on a regular basis. Instead, the question to ask is: How do we comport ourselves on a day-to-day basis so that all of our colleagues among us will be confident that you will find tales of sexual misconduct unprofessional and wholly unacceptable? Who do we ask this question? We need to ask this question of men with seniority, the ones with the power to speak up.

I’m a guy with tenure, so I can write this post. Everybody who works with me should know that I will not tolerate sexual misconduct. If you’re a tenured guy, are you confident that all of your coworkers might say the same of you? If that’s not true, that means your colleagues might think they can get away with it. Speaking up might be a path of resistance, but it’s precisely men in authority who are positioned to create the cultural change that our profession needs. We don’t need a small number of leaders being loud and vocal.  Change will happen when every one of us speaks up when the moment arises, so that our colleagues will know that their misconduct will not go unpunished.




*I remembered his name, and thanks to LinkedIn just now, I see he was a “Senior District Executive” at the time, and still is an executive with the Scouts but in a different location. Doing the math on the profile, that means he couldn’t have been more than ten years older than me. That puts things in perspective. A thirty year-old dude is relatively ancient to a 20-year old, but to me now, well, it seems not that old.

5 thoughts on “Creating an academic environment hostile to sexual misconduct

  1. Great post Terry. For those academics who may think that these issues apply at campuses other than their own, you are probably wrong. However, you may want to work with your institutional research office to see what sort of data they have collected on campus climate (if I recall correctly, federal regulations require disclosure about the frequency, but not the details of course, of title IX violations). One instrument that I just learned about and am excited that my University is administering this year is the HERI DLE:

  2. Thank you for writing this, Terry. I once stood up as a junior person in a big group of fifty or so professional colleagues. It was terrifying. But, like you, nothing bad happened. About a dozen people later, privately, thanked me for saying something. It can be hard to say something, in the moment, even if it’s just one or two other people. But I believe you’re right. We need to foster an environment where it’s the norm to speak up. For anyone reading comments here, if you ever face that sort of large group situation and are in doubt, remember that there are many people around you feeling the same way who will be thankful you were brave so they didn’t have to be.

  3. Thanks for this post Terry. The point about other people appreciating what you did is important. I’ve found that it’s easier to speak up when I feel like I’m advocating for other people, rather than for myself.

  4. Well said. An environment intolerant of sexual abuse is essential, but may not always be enough. The linked story on sexual harassment in the science workplace was depressingly familiar. Through my circle of colleagues, I watched a case play out that had so many similarities to the handling of the Smithsonian incident that I wonder if it’s the institutional type description: (1) a power differential between the accused abuser (an older, well established male) and the alleged victim (a younger, less established female); (2) a savvy male who knows how to not leave tracks and a naïve female who had the poor judgment and/or bad luck to let herself get into an embarrassing, vulnerable, or compromising situation that was exploited; (3) an investigation that drags on for months before reaching an inconclusive finding that hinged on procedural technicalities, and (4) ineffective interim workplace separation measures, such that (5) the complainant eventually gives up and moves on.

    There can be a curious dynamic where the tables turn on the accuser. If after the complaint is lodged, the accused abuser is on (outwardly) perfect behavior, the victim may become the one perceived as the problem. To the human resources/administrators/review boards, etc., who have to deal with the complaint, the complainant is the one making their life difficult by demanding actions, not the accused abuser. The accused abuser just wants the HR types to do nothing. In contrast, the alleged victim is demanding difficult actions that will likely be contested by the accused. The accused may lawyer up and threaten defamation lawsuits with monetary damages for loss of reputation and loss of earnings potential.  And since these situations usually don’t usually come with unambiguous video/audio evidence, the administrative default action may be to go through the motions and then dismiss the complaint.

    What can be done? Being proactively defensive is one small thing. Get better video/audio evidence, à la Lisbeth Salander when confronted with män som hatar kvinnor. Use the GoPro, smartphone, etc. electronic gadgetry that are already on hand to create a personal bubble security system. I suspect in most situations where allegations of untoward workplace behavior incidents arise, it wasn’t out of the blue. There were hints that something was amiss. For those going to work in such unfortunate settings, part of the going to work routine could include starting the audio recording on the smartphone, slipping it into shirt pocket and leave it running for the day. Audio files are small enough and power demands modest enough to make it practical. Then after the (hopefully) uneventful day, delete and reset. The GoPro type of miniaturized camera gives other discrete options to record oneself. These devices could be put to much better use than their usual narcissistic self-documentation use. I did this myself years ago with a small recorder that would record for hours when I found myself in a horrible workplace environment. Never got anything totally damning, and I managed to find another job before things came to a head. Still, somehow I felt just a little less powerless when the bully boss dropped by knowing that the recorder was running. Knowing that we had at least some hard evidence to back up our stories helped our confidence.

    Ultimately, at Texas Tech, it was a video that took down Ron Chesser for condoning abuse. Had a courageous underling stepped up, said this was unacceptable and unplugged the projector, without hard evidence I somehow don’t think it would have turned out well.

    Unfortunately, even rich and powerful women with private security details at their command are not immune from harassment. Things may not be getting better any time soon, when a large minority of people in the USA decided that celebrating sexual harassment and assault was not grounds to disqualify one from being leader of a nation. (Not the first time that’s happened).

    Back to the academic or workplace environment, if things seem not quite right, they probably aren’t. Have a defensive security mentality that includes collecting self-protecting evidence. Just in case.

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