Imagine your lab throws you a party for your upcoming wedding. Fun, right? Now imagine your boss handing you a large, vivid and anatomically distinctive sex toy. At the University of Arizona, this is what Dr. Timothy Slater did. He also asked his female grad students to teach without underwear, have a threesome with him and stand and twirl so undergraduates they taught for could more effectively masturbate to the image later.

If you were a student or a witness what would you do? 

Historically, people have had to either leave or grin and bear it. Theoretically, Title IX now affords protections from such humiliating experiences. Now, if you were in this situation, you can either file a federal or a local Title IX complaint.  Handled locally, Title IX complaints are overseen by someone paid by the University to investigate your experience. They would ask you if you had proof. Concrete proof you got a sex toy. Hopefully, you didn’t hand it back to your boss. You will be asked if anyone saw your boss hand you the sex toy or was there when he asked you to twirl for sex fantasies.

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Maybe you don’t have evidence, but you have witnesses. You should hope the people who saw this heard his words clearly. You should also have the hope that the witnesses will be willing to testify against a faculty member who, in all likelihood, is their mentor as well. If the past is a predictor, their testimony will result in retaliation against them and being forced to leave academia. In one recent case at Cal Tech, a STEM professor in his 30s fell in love with his graduate student and, unable to cope with his feelings, fired her. The administration’s lead her to believe she had failed out of school.  Tim Slater moved on to receive an endowed chair at the University of Wyoming and oversee their training program, and University of Arizona was in no way obligated to share their findings.

These are not hypothetical circumstances. The details of accusations, faculty revenge, and ultimately shuffling off offenders to an unsuspecting group of students and colleagues have once again garnered national attention this week.  Dr. Tim Slater was recently taken to task by Representative Jackie Speir on the House floor for a decade-long shell game of moving academics to new homes following their sexual harassment cases. Geoff Marcy, also ‘left’ his history behind before continuing to harass and assault women at Berkeley for the better part of two decades.

The Title IX processes to investigate, report and ultimately discipline individuals who harass students and colleagues are utterly broken. The themes of these cases are all too familiar. Title IX takes too long, it is freakishly secretive, relies on people who are in conflict to make unbiased decisions and is destroying another generation of women in academia.  Here is my personal, and by no means comprehensive, list of changes that need to occur to move forward:

  1. Take decisions about harassment out of the hands of the University. Slater famously blogged that since his university found him guilty of harassment and he participated in sexual harassment training, his debt was paid. Given his ongoing retaliation of women and denial of the depth of his misdeeds, he was nowhere near rehabilitated in spite of his assertions otherwise.
  2. Inform the community about harassment investigations. Slater was right about one thing in his blog….academia can foster horrific gossip which makes people suffer emotionally and professionally. In the current Title IX process, there is no effort to share concerns that victims have raised with the community. Asking the community if they have information or experiences and giving them a safe way to report. It is far easier to move cases forward towards a fair end if all parties have been included.  The assumption that harassment should be treated like fraud or misconduct is false. Harassment is a special kind of insidious illegal. It deserves to be treated as such. A key missing feature of these investigations is transparency.The Freedom of Information Act allows anyone to acquire redacted files of investigations, but this requires you know what and who you are looking for. Members of the academic community should be given quarterly updates about ongoing cases and given information about how to share pertinent information or experience.
  3. Protect the victims. Arguably there is not a single case where the victims of harassment, intimidation and retaliation have come forward to talk about what a fair and just process this was. Their lives are destroyed, and they are demonized for their part of what have been called ‘witch hunts’ ‘hysteria’ and ‘retaliation.’
  4. Break down Title IX. Title IX covers too much ground to be enforced. Ongoing investigations by the Department of Education of more than a 100 intuitions are focusing on university mismanagement and misreporting violence against women and underrepresented minorities. On campus assaults of students can’t be done effectively with the same resources set aside to investigate professional harassment. There needs to be a special charge within Department of Education and Department of Justice to handle harassment in academia.
  5. Value victims and witnesses. The young, women, minorities and those with few institutional peers are the most vulnerable to harassment. The academic environment following accusations needs to do a full 180-degree turn on how these individuals are treated. Cases can take years, and even a decade in the case of Slater, to resolve. All of these individuals must pay for private legal representation sometimes costing tens of thousands of dollars. Participating in these investigations is personally and professionally overwhelming. Take the financial pressure off students and witnesses. Have a committee independent of the University that oversees repaying these expenses. Finding a professional compensation package for victims is for healing. Sharing what resources that victims and witnesses have been given (i.e., how much money, tenure extensions, etc) shows that Universities seek to learn from these people experience by investing in them and studying how to do better. Invariably, the victims of harassment end up leaving the institutions where they were harassed. This should be rare. If faculty and administration valued these people and their bravery, they would never allow them to leave without a competitive offer where victims and witnesses stay and continue to help the processes in a manner they choose.
  6. Inform the people who are paying the bills. If you act in bad faith while employed using federal money, you are subject to reporting and discipline from your funding agency. Each agency should have a mechanism to do this and the findings of your actions should be reported to any other granting agency you seek to have fund your work.
  7. Make it impossibly expensive to harass people. While bad PR seems to garner everyone’s attention, bad policy can go on for decades. Georgia Tech recently enacted a policy that anyone found guilty of criminal activity, such as diverting grant dollars to personal expenses would go to jail. And their supervisors would go to jail as well. There has been zero reporting on even the most egregious cases about the deans, vice chancellors and directors who signed off on allowing sexual harassers to continue in their jobs. The question should be ‘will you sign off on this person returning to work and stake your career on their rehabilitation’ because some young woman is staking hers. Take away training grants that allow harassers to train students. Give predators no safe harbor. Impose fines for collaborating with someone who is harassing trainees. Big, federally mandated fines on universities. Fines that directly impact the department that harbors harassers and individuals who foster sexually hostile work environments. This will help ensure that everyone has a stake in protecting women and other Title IX groups. Added mileage: Give whistleblowers piles of cash.
  8. Scientists, own your mistakes.  Recognizing the scope of the terrible wrongs perpetuated against black South Africans, Nelson Mandela drove for honesty and transparency as a core of moving forward. People who did terrible things came forth free of consequence and shared their misdeeds. It wasn’t justice, but it was honest.
  9. Maybe you have done a private inventory of individuals you have seen harass students or denigrate colleagues? Own your mistakes. Everyone has made them. Stop collaborating with these people. Report what you saw to their supervisors. Apologize to the people you hurt. Make amends when possible. We are educators. Learning and teaching is our charge. You help no one hiding and waiting for a ‘good’ time to talk about this.
  10. Legislate. People may want the right thing, but until you put laws and money behind it, it just won’t happen.

As always…comments are welcome. Feel free to log in with a psued or in real life account to add your voice. Pseuds privacy will be ensured.

Representative Jackie Speier is soliciting information about academic workplace harassment

As always, the views in this blog are my own. — BethAnn McLaughlin, PhD

This blog was edited at 9:08 am for formatting and to include a section inadvertently omitted on imposing fines.

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