“It doesn’t matter what line of argument you take as a woman. If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it – it’s the fact that you are saying it.”
~ Mary Beard, The New Yorker, September 1st, 2014
Why I Left Academia
As a mother of a beautiful 15-year-old daughter who will go off to college in two years time, I have been horrified by the stories of the brave young women who have come forward to demand justice in the many title IX (sexual violence) offenses that have wreaked havoc on our college campuses. At the same time, when I read the stories about how the different universities have consistently ignored and pushed complaints and cries for help under the rug (of complacency), I was struck by eerie echoes of my own experiences at one of America’s college campuses.
Sexism, sexual discrimination, harassment and violence are not something that we should compartmentalize as a unique or isolated problem of a certain section of the undergraduate population, who, hopped up on hormones, drugs and booze, force themselves on non-compliant women in the murky backrooms of out-of-control frat houses. The behavior is enabled by the Academy’s patriarchal power structure which may give the occasional tenure-track faculty or senate faculty member the sense that he is “above the law”.
We used to have words like misogyny and discrimination but in a world where the word “slut shaming” has become part of the vernacular and the birth control pill has been nicknamed the “slut pill’, the gloves seem to have come off. The more women speak out, the more we are shamed and silenced. Here is my story:
When a male candidate and ABD (All But Dissertation) applied for a tenure track position in our department, he, the male, who had fewer qualifications and publications than two females who also applied, was picked with the understanding that he finish his dissertation. However, he failed his dissertation defense and had to cross borders to get his PhD from a different university in a different country. The department gave him a year to do this. When this was leaked and I voiced that this sounded fishy and then asked whether the university should investigate this, the (male) Chair told the female staff person (who had shared this development with me) to shut up about it. No questions were asked and no offer was withdrawn even though prospective undergraduates could never gain admittance to our university if they had had a similarly questionable academic record.
When said candidate and professor arrived a year later, he became the talk of our floor since he asked all the available women out on dates, including students and staff. He held pity talks to female students saying how lonely he was in a new town and how eager he was to find Mrs. Right. There was a picture on Facebook in which he embraced a student so tightly that her eyes seemed to scream for help. There were incidents of inappropriate touching and sexually explicit comments, strange favors he asked for and a bizarre e-mail late at night to one of the attractive Graduate Student Instructors, asking her if she could please come to his apartment because he was so lonely. She ignored the request.
Male students complained to me about reverse sexism in the classroom as said professor only focused on the women in the room. There was grade fudging, male students saying that female students got higher grades, a student who complained she was hugged by him when she didn’t want to be hugged and there was much hilarity about the story of said professor explaining how males masturbate when a student merely asked what the significance was of a masturbation scene in a novel they were reading.
When said professor and I were still on speaking terms, he asked me one day where he could meet nice women. Because he had asked the staff women and others the same question repeatedly, I found the question grating and inappropriate (what would my males colleagues have said if there were a woman on our floor who asked the same question repeatedly? Surely, she would quickly build up a reputation as the department slut, right? And if she had been a lecturer or a graduate student instructor, she would have quickly found her pink slip in her mailbox before the semester was even over). So I remember looking at him, thinking he might be joking but he was dead serious, so I gave him a dead serious answer and suggested he try join a church. He tried craigslist instead with disastrous consequences; when he broke up with the craigslist woman, she began stalking him and one day when I walked by his office, I saw this women ready to throw his entire library at him, so I told our HR manager to call campus police, who removed the individual off campus.
To add insult to injury, one student fessed up that he was plagiarized by the professor at a speech at a formal function (the student was in the audience and recognized his writing), and another student came to me complaining that she had to do so much proofreading for the professor; she didn’t get paid for this but felt she had to comply because she was in his class and feared a lower grade if she told him she couldn’t do it.
The stories and incidents were too numerous to mention, so I requested to see my Chair and filed a complaint after said professor tried to intimidate a graduate student instructor to not fail a student of his, even though this student had scored so poorly that she could never pass the class. I disclosed to my Chair what I had heard and seen. Every woman on our floor had one experience or another, so the Chair didn’t have to go far or dig deep.
As far as I know, little was done with the complaint, nor did the Chair have the courtesy to brief me on what had happened or whether the professor had been disciplined. Complete silence. I talked to the Title IX Compliance Officer who told me said professor was on their radar but more students needed to come forward; she seemed to be totally discounting the fact that reporting such a thing is scary for an undergraduate and well near impossible as long as this student is in his class and might be forced to take more classes with him because of her major or minor requirements. I am beginning to wonder what kind of sensitivity training these officers receive. I was shocked to read that one compliance officer had told a rape victim that she should have worn better shoes to run from her aggressor.
But here is the happy ending and the way our patriarchy works (drum roll): tenure for said professor and maybe this is not so surprising if one knows that the department that awarded him with tenure has a good many professors who married former students.
In hindsight, I am beginning to think that my speaking up helped him in the saddle. As a woman I had gone against the patriarchy in my department and to shut me up they could well have decided to promote the perpetrator. That should shut the bitch up, right? And it did.
My last attempt to raise awareness in the department was when the story of the Title IX offenses broke in the media. I asked my Chair to bring this story up in the faculty meeting and urged that faculty and graduate student instructors should be briefed on the resources for rape on and off our campus, as it is not uncommon (as happened with me) that a student may break down during office hours and confess she was raped. My Chair listened but I wondered whether there would be any follow up. I had to request a senior faculty member (and one of the few women in the department) to bring this up as an agenda item in the faculty meeting (lecturers in my department are barred from such meetings). When this was done, a colleague of mine saw the abovementioned professor blush vehemently, a picture that spoke louder than words? Anyway, while the English department used the news from the media to come together as women in their community, my department went about “raising awareness” by sending a couple of links to our listserv. Discussion closed.
I am moving on with the knowledge that the university has failed me and has failed to protect the women who may be his next target. I am reluctant to go on the record here as I have been burned once. Above all, I don’t do this because of vindication or hurt feelings but I am doing it to stand with the women who questioned their treatment by the system. They are breaking the cycle of abuse and silencing, and thus set an incredible example for the next generation of college women. Because of them, my daughter may be in safe hands two years from now, and for that I am eternally grateful.