Sexual harassment remains major concern in professor-student relationships


For many undergraduate students, working alongside an esteemed professor is a major achievement. Professors hold a vast catalog of knowledge to share with undergraduate students. Building a professional relationship with an experienced faculty member should be an exciting opportunity, which allows both the professor and their student to learn from one another.

However, professors hold an enormous amount of power over their students. They control our grades, help us network with other professors, and influence our future academic careers. In the hands of an abusive professor, this power can be damaging.

Three years ago, a close friend of mine was sexually harassed by an affiliate research professor and part of her university’s materials science department. This professor abused his position of power over an undergraduate student, used his private company in order to enable his behavior, and utilized his influence in his scientific field in order to prevent her from outing her harasser.

For the sake of this article, I’ll call my friend “Marie.”

Marie is a bright and passionate scientist, always eager to help others. During her undergraduate years at a major university, she did extremely well. So when an extremely successful and well-connected adjunct professor agreed to work as her advisor for her bachelor's thesis project, his offer seemed like a dream come true.

This professor – I’ll call him “Professor Henry” – was a renowned scientist within his field. There were over 30 patents to his name, a successful company co-founded under his control, and dozens of students under his wing. Professor Henry presented a major opportunity for Marie – and Marie made sure her bachelor’s thesis was perfect.

After receiving an A on her thesis, Marie began working for Professor Henry’s company. Marie was a truly gifted scientist, who would troubleshoot PhD students' schematics for a local university. Henry would drive Marie to work in his own car, and worked closely in overseeing her research. And thanks to Professor Henry’s industry connections, she had the opportunity to attend a major international conference, and present her research to a room full of potential future colleagues.

Marie not just had Professor Henry to thank for the opportunities – she relied on his powerful connections.

Sometime afterwards, Professor Henry started working on a quantum physics textbook in the style of an erotic comic. Marie was sent a PDF copy via e-mail, and read over the text.

Marie immediately noticed that the sexually explicit comic featured an unnamed adviser, and his undergraduate student, “Marie.” “Marie” wore the same uniform as her real-life counterpart, lived in the same city, and shared car rides with her adviser.

In one scene, the unnamed adviser molests “Marie” in his car. He later has graphic sex with her in the comic.

When Marie saw the PDF, she began visibly shaking. She e-mailed the company’s co-founder about Professor Henry’s disgusting behavior – yet, Henry’s colleague complained that Marie was “attempting to violate [her] boss's first-amendment rights,” and that she should not question Professor Henry’s “creative expression.”

At her university, Marie reached out to her student support services, ombudsperson, and academic adviser about the situation. Her academic adviser offered to follow up with the materials science department's HR team, but no follow-up ever happened. Nor did the university investigate Professor Henry's history of sexual harassment.

Marie’s university did nothing to help protect her from her harasser. So when Marie cut ties with Professor Henry, she also sacrificed her chances of entering graduate school within her university’s materials science department. While Henry still holds massive power within his academic position, Marie’s educational opportunities have been effectively smothered.

Granted, Marie’s story did not take place at Rutgers University. Marie isn’t even a New Jersey resident. However, Marie’s story comes from an elite university, considered one of the best in the nation.

Indeed, sexual harassment in academia has been an ongoing crisis for decades, even within elite universities. Last year, MIT professor Walter H.G. Lewin was stripped of his professor emeritus status, after investigations revealed his history of sexually harassing female students. And according to Louise Fitzgerald’s 1991 publication The Incidence and Dimensions of Sexual Harassment in Academia and the Workplace, more than 31 percent of female undergrads surveyed have reported some form of harassment by a collegiate instructor.

Marie’s sexual harassment also runs alongside an alarming sexual assault crisis found across university campuses. In a survey published by MIT last October, approximately 17 percent of female undergraduates reported being sexually assaulted. Last year, Rutgers-Newark professor Anna Stubblefield was charged with sexually assaulting a mentally disabled student. And formerly incoming Northwestern philosophy professor Peter Ludlow was accused of sexual assault in a federal lawsuit.

Sexual harassment and assault within academia remains a serious issue throughout our nation’s universities. Marie’s story is not an outlier, and her experiences are not confined to one specific institution. Academia must take students’ complaints seriously, and must listen to the voices of sexual harassment and assault survivors. Otherwise, abusive professors will continue to use their power in order to target vulnerable undergraduate students.

Marie's full account can be found here.

Philip Wythe is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in English with a minor in political science. Their column, “Nothing, if Not Critical,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.


Philip Wythe

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