Thursday, August 14, 2014

Expanding the movement

Two recent pieces about sexual assault and harassment on college campuses will hopefully open up more dialogue and more changes that offer protections to others in addition to undergraduate students.
Actually, one of the pieces--from Inside Higher Ed--reported on the harassment that takes place when doing fieldwork; so in off-campus situations. The article reports on the recent publication of a survey that asked people involved in off-campus fieldwork about their experiences with sexual harassment in these settings.
The harassment happens between colleagues and also between supervisors and trainees (often graduate students or postdocs). In other words, most often it is between people with different levels of power, though it is not unheard of for harassment to occur, for example, among graduate students or other trainees. The harassment women experienced was more likely to occur with people who were more powerful than them, whereas the harassment men reported was more often peer-to-peer harassment.
There were 666 respondents to the survey, 78 % of whom were women. A majority of respondents (about 75%) had heard of or witnessed sexual harassment in the field. A slightly lower number, 64% said they had experienced it themselves. And 20% reported being victims of sexual assault, which the researchers defined as any unwanted sexual contact, including rape.
Several academic professional societies have responded to the study noting their obvious opposition to harassment in the field. But whether these organizations have policies or make statements is of little consequence since they generally have no authority over the people involved. In other words, schools need to address this issue. Fieldwork is a very different situation and it requires very specific attention. How does one report harassment and assault while in the field? How are protections offered to victims? What are the protocols from removing an assailant from the field?
An additional factor that is specific to this situation is that trainees and lower level colleagues have a lot to lose by reporting assault and harassment. Supervisors can be dissertation committee chairs and members, advisers, tenure committee members, recommendation writers and general notable people in their fields.
This is an issue that also faces graduate students. This was well-noted by Brown graduate student, Sara Matthiesen in this article. Matthiesen has been advocating for specific attention to the issues graduate students face being neither students nor employees. Private institutions, such as Brown, do not have to let graduate students unionize, thus providing even fewer avenues for protections. Matthiesen is asking for greater awareness within departments about resources and training for graduate students about sexual harassment.
Peer to peer harassment can be addressed via student judicial boards, but harassment by supervisors, professors, and others who hold more power than graduate students go through different processes which end in a final decision about, for example, the employment of a faculty member, with the word of one individual (usually president, dean, or provost) even if an entire panel has heard the case and made a recommendation. Victims also do not receive the same level of support in going through a grievance process--no advocate, no office providing support.
But even these practical issues do not entirely address the problem of the academic hierarchy. Matthiesen sums it up well:
Graduate students not only risk their educational opportunities when they take steps to hold advisers and colleagues accountable for sexual violence. No longer able to conduct research in the lab, or obtain letters of recommendation from the leaders in their field, or secure access to faculty research money, they risk losing their current and future livelihoods. No amount of Title IX coordinators or university-wide committees on sexual misconduct can correct for the power imbalance that defines this professional relationship, an asymmetry that is only compounded when universities refuse to acknowledge graduate students’ work lives and goals.
This moment of student activism on the issue of campus sexual assault has been impressive and drawn considerable attention and hopefully will result in positive changes. And though the focus has been on the experiences of undergraduates, it is a good time to realize that sexual harassment and assault happen to other members of a university community both on and off campus. As many schools scramble to correct and clarify their policies and procedures for undergraduate sexual assault, they should also take the moment to broaden their scope.