Disturbing Reports and Troubling Questions
Recently returned from the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (this year in San Francisco), I enjoyed renewing contacts with long-time friends in the field, productive meetings of various sorts, and some interesting presentations. I may say more about these in coming postings. But as I flew back I was troubled reflecting on a conversation with a female colleague from another university who related her experience of sexual harassment by a very, very well-known scholar years ago when she was a young graduate student. I’m doubly troubled because this is now the second such conversation in recent years, in which I’ve been told by a fully credible woman colleague in the field of this sort of thing (and in the earlier case the reputation of the other scholar in question as a hound-dog when it came to his female grad students was affirmed by a male graduate of the same university). So I now know of two such prominent men in the field who preyed on their female graduate students. (I won’t use names of anyone, mainly to prevent unsought attention to the women in question. And this posting comes entirely from me, with no impetus or collusion from the women in question.)
I’m 68 in December and I’ve seen a lot of the world, but I admit that in each case I found myself surprised and shocked, and then angry. I just never expected that among senior colleagues, highly respected for their scholarly accomplishments in my field, there are a few (I trust only a few) who could also practice this kind of demeaning and damned wrong behaviour. Yes, students can come on to their teachers, and there are various kinds of sexual shenanigans in academia. But I’m talking about a particular kind of betrayal of trust and an abuse of power.
I also am left with some troubling questions. How did these guys imagine that they had the right to impose themselves on these women (and others) simply because they were young, female, and within their reach? How did they look at themselves in the mirror and not feel ashamed, not recognize that their behaviour was disgusting and harmful to the women? How did they imagine that their power-trip sexual advances were welcome? But I wonder also could the major universities in which these guys worked have been more effective in communicating to academic staff and students that such behaviour was completely unacceptable, that students should report such behaviour, absolutely safe that they wouldn’t be penalized and that action would be taken?
These particular events reported to me took place a number of years ago, but my final question is at least as troubling as the others: Are there scholars out there today in universities and colleges who feel free to inflict themselves upon their students, students whose only mistake was registering for a degree in that institution and under that scholar’s supervision? This isn’t an invitation for accusations here, by any means. I merely indicate the concern that motivates this posting.
I share the offence of women who have been subjected to such unsought and demeaning advances and pressures. The men who engage in this behaviour aren’t macho or admirable in the least. This isn’t innocent sexual behaviour. I repeat that it’s an abuse of power and of trust. Whatever their scholarly contributions, in these attitudes and actions, these particular guys are a disgrace to their position and their universities, and a blight upon the discipline. I’m embarrassed that they’re members of my sex and of my scholarly guild. (For me, it’s even more embarrassing that these are scholars in my field. Obviously, they are immune to the sexual standards advocated in the texts that they studied for many years.)
I’m confident that my feelings are shared rather widely among academic colleagues. So let’s all work to ensure that these experiences become relics of a previous generation, and that women entering our field today don’t continue to face this kind of unwanted sexual advance from those who ought to set an example of responsible mentoring.
At all levels (and especially Department level), colleges and universities should make it clear that this sort of behaviour won’t be tolerated, and those guilty should be disciplined sharply. Maybe academic colleagues (especially senior ones, who aren’t so vulnerable) should confront anyone they know to be engaging in this kind of exploitation. This posting is intended as a small contribution to discouraging these abuses and to fostering an academic culture in which they won’t be tolerated.