Thursday, November 15, 2007

Anger and disappointment

Reading about Profgrrrrl's recent brush with boorish colleagues reminded me of a story I just heard that made me very sad and angry. A colleague told me about a doctoral student I know who was manipulated, sexually harassed, and physically threatened by a professor I have known for many years. What is worse, I am not that surprised by the information. I have thought for many years that this professor had bad judgement and inappropriate interactions with junior faculty and doc students. In fact, hir casual interactions with me have creeped me out a little. Yet, I really did not imagine that this particular professor would have behaved in such a terrible and reprehensible fashion.

As is common, the student has said nothing of the abuse publicly. Instead, she is protecting her reputation and keeping it quiet as she enters the job market.

I am so angry at the abusive professor that I don't know what to do. I want to do something (towanda!), but I also know it isn't mine to address. This person is not at my school, nor is s/he a personal friend. I cannot even reach out to the student, because the colleague who confided in me did so with an understanding that I would not approach the student.

All of this viscerally reminds me of my own brushes with sexual harassment, poor behaviors, and instances of manipulation by those with power over me. I have had to confront and/or report these actions numerous times. Each of these reports has been professionally and emotionally costly. None of the individuals involved in the incidents really offered much of an apology or recognition that their behavior was wrong. While some of the reports have resulted in negative outcomes for the parties involved, none of the personal or administrative responses to these actions was ever really satisfying to me.

I contrast this with another instance, when I was a doctoral student, where a faculty member angrily attacked me and my work in a very unfair and public way. That faculty member later contacted me, acknowledged her anger, and apologized for her behavior. I was quite moved by her apology, and actually remember thanking her and noting that I had never received an apology from a professor. We eventually grew to become quite close, and I now consider her a friend. Unfortunately, that experience has been the exception, rather than the rule.

I do not want to intimate that I have not made mistakes. I have, and some of them were quite inexcusable. Once, as a doctoral student, I complained about a professor who considered me a friend to another faculty member in public, without ever discussing my concerns privately with the professor. More embarrassingly, I was overheard by the professor. Later, as a professor, I assumed the worst about another senior colleague early in our relationship and wrote her a nasty email, accusing her of manipulation. Both events were likely informed by some of my own race privilege. For each, I have had to have difficult conversations with each person, apologizing and working to rebuild the relationship. But I haven't ever behaved particularly badly regarding someone with less institutional power than me--at least, not that I know of. Perhaps that is a dividing line for me in regulating my own behavior...or perhaps I have not been in positions with enough power yet.

That said, the one time I did not report a particularly bad behavior of a supervisor has haunted me ever since, because I think reporting her might have resulted in the offender rightfully losing her leadership position, thus saving my (now former) colleagues a great deal of drama and angst. At the time, I felt vulnerable, much like the doctoral student in question probably does now, and I was unwilling to take the risk. I worried that I would make a name for myself as someone who always complained/reported others, and that this would become my reputation everywhere I went. Yet, I have to say that each time I spoke out, I felt stronger in the long run. And perhaps more important, I reminded myself of the power and ability I have to speak out in the face of injustice, even in the face of risk.

This discussion feeds back into my enduring belief about women in academic life: If we don't speak out when we have less power (ie., as a doctoral student or a junior professor), we will lose the ability and interest in speaking out as a more senior faculty member. I have extensive experience with senior women who still act like they have little power to exercise, even when they hold named professorships, endowed chairs, administrative positions, personal access to administrators in positions of power, and access to financial resources. As a person who has not had any of these resources until very recently, I have grown weary of and frustrated with these women.

That said, all I can do in the case of this particular doc student is sit on the sidelines, keep an eye on the prof in question when we are together, and try to support those students and junior faculty around me in my own department. That position feels very weak, but it is the best I have.


GayProf said...

In many ways, I think the academic world is far-behind the business world on some of these issues. Universities continue to be places where those who are harassed are encouraged to just keep it quiet for fear of ruining their own career.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

In my experience, it hasn't just been senior women who are reluctant to speak out in many cases. I've had male colleagues who will bottle things up rather than speak on for what they really feel/believe in the interest of keeping the peace.

This is such a tough issue. I'm realizing, through my incident and other things that happened this week, that I'm very comfortable advocating for others (especially students) and standing up for what I believe with regards to department policies, distribution of labor, etc. I couldn't address those men in the moment, but I've kicked up a storm about some policy related issues and I'm sure some of the seniors are not thrilled (because, sigh, it means more work and there is an unavoidable implication that someone hasn't been doing their job). I'm probably too outspoken for a junior person, or at least those who suggest the juniors stay under the radar would say so. At the same time, I find this one issue largely paralyzing. It might be the difference between what I consider professionally relevant (work-related ideas) versus what should not be brought up at work at all.

I'm sure the students and junior faculty around you appreciate your efforts.

Relating to what you're saying said...

Wow, does this ever resonate! I am a junior, untenured faculty member. I have worked in business environments before grad school, and even in grad school never felt intimidated from pointing out overt injustice. In fact, until now, I never understood what it meant to work with people who make truly sexist and racist remarks to myself, other junior faculty women, and prospective students and their families. I am just completely shocked and for all the reasons in this post, feel like I have no power whatsoever to complain through the appropriate channels. To do so would basically, I think, mean I have to start looking for a job elsewhere. I feel like I am fairly confident and competent at what I do, but on some level, this atmosphere erodes my confidence. It's really hard to make tangible to others. It's just words...right? But they are words that establish the values of my department, especially when they come from the mouth of the department chair.
To be honest, I don't know if the scared, incompetent ramblings about women in higher ed from my dept chair or the ignorant ramblings about race from tenured senior colleague are more offensive. I do think upper administration would be horrified that either were taking place, but then what would they do? These are people the institution has deemed should be invested in through the process of tenure. And I am not.