Why It's Harder For Grad Students To Report Sexual Harassment

They have even more to lose than undergrads who go public.
Astronomy professor Geoff Marcy sexually harassed female grad students, but was given a slap on the wrist as punishment.
Astronomy professor Geoff Marcy sexually harassed female grad students, but was given a slap on the wrist as punishment.
Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Nearly three years ago, two female graduate students filed federal complaints against the University of Notre Dame, accusing it of mishandling reports of sexual harassment.

The good news: The complaints sparked two ongoing investigations by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which may well force Notre Dame to change its policies and practices on harassment.

The bad news: Even as she submitted her complaint, one of those women said she knew she'd have to restart her Ph.D. program at a different school. She was burning bridges by not keeping quiet.

As a wave of undergraduate activism is pushing colleges to reform the way they handle reports of sexual assault committed by those still seeking their bachelor's degree, grad students say the calculus on whether to report is different for them. Their victimizers are often faculty members.

"For a Ph.D. student, I don't know that there's anything OCR could ever do to make it so you could stay," the former Notre Dame student said. Even now, after transferring to another university in another state, she fears that disclosing her name could damage her career trajectory.

Still, grad students are coming forward in lawsuits, news reports and federal complaints. OCR doesn't break down how many of its sexual misconduct investigations under Title IX are specific to graduate students or include accusations of harassment by faculty. But overall the number of inquiries focusing just on sexual harassment increased from 31 in May 2015 to 61 last month.

Careers At Risk

Unlike undergrads, who may take classes with multiple professors as they try out different areas of study, grad students have narrowed their hopes and dreams and career plans to one field. Faculty are not just their teachers but the gatekeepers to their future career success -- even their future colleagues.

“These are the people you rely on for getting a job, giving you career advice, mentoring you,” said the former Notre Dame student.

And criticizing a prominent scholar in their field, long before they've built their own reputation, can have long-term consequences.

Graduate students are "utterly dependent on advisers and usually a small circuit of experts in their area," said Wendy Brown, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. So "there's a whole cascade of dangers that I think graduate students in particular consider when trying to take action here," she added.

Brown was one of more than 1,000 academics who recently signed an open letter condemning Yale University ethicist Thomas Pogge, who was accused of sexual harassment. She said part of her motivation for signing it was frustration that too many harassers in academia are never punished while their victims may be forced to alter their whole careers.

Thomas Pogge is a well-known ethicist who was accused of sexual harassment when he was at Columbia in the '90s and at Yale in 2010.
Thomas Pogge is a well-known ethicist who was accused of sexual harassment when he was at Columbia in the '90s and at Yale in 2010.
Wikimedia Commons

Even if their allegations are proven true, Brown said, these harassment victims fear being labeled a “troublemaker.”

Monica Morrison, who accused well-known philosopher Colin McGinn of harassment, said in a lawsuit last year that one of his colleagues chastised her for supposedly ruining McGinn’s career. Her suit also alleged that McGinn circulated Morrison’s name in private to other professors in the field and that one of his supporters warned Morrison that “potentially terrible consequences” may follow her for years.

Many at the University of Washington refrained from coming forward about alleged harassment and professional misconduct by researcher Michael Katze because previous complaints had gone nowhere and because they feared retaliation, according to a recent BuzzFeed story. Similar concerns have been raised in other cases of professors accused of harassing grad students and colleagues.

“Within STEM fields, we often tell women in particular how important their professional networks are to their professional trajectories,” said Heather Metcalf, director of research at the Association for Women in Science. “Being aware of how important those networks are, there is a lot of fear around reporting harassment and what it might do to their careers.”

The consequences can come immediately as well.

Money Worries

Many graduate students have monetary ties to their professors. Sometimes they work as research assistants who are paid through a faculty member’s grant. Or grants for their own research may be dependent on their having a specific adviser.

In other words, they “literally depend on their advisers for their paycheck,” said Marina Rosenthal, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Oregon. “It makes it incredibly hard for them to come forward.”

That would help explain why 69 percent of female graduate and professional students said in a 2015 survey by the Association of American Universities that they’d experienced sexual harassment on campus, but fewer than 1 in 10 of them reported it to anyone at the university. While undergrads were slightly more likely to experience harassment, according to that survey, female grad students were four times as likely to identify the offender as a faculty member.

In another study published last month, from a team led by Rosenthal, 38 percent of female graduate students at one university said they’d experienced sexual harassment by faculty or other staff members, but just 6.4 percent reported the incident to school officials.

These findings are virtually identical to previous studies from the 1980s and ‘90s, Rosenthal’s paper noted ― long before people paid much attention to sexual assault on campus.

Insidious Whispers

Whether or not they personally bring the complaint, female grad students fear they’ll suffer if their professors are accused of sexual misconduct, according to lawyers, advocates and faculty working with victims. If a female grad student has a letter of reference from a respected researcher who is later outed for quid pro quo arrangements with some young women, as one common hypothetical goes, will future employers and others imagine that’s how she obtained her reference, too?

Some academics say that was happening two years before any news outlet reported on Pogge’s alleged inappropriate behavior. In 2014, a European grad student wrote an anonymous blog accusing the professor of abusing his position to romance young women. Although she didn’t use his name, people figured it out.

What happened next? There was “public bashing of women” who had worked with Pogge, according to professor Jennifer Saul of the University of Sheffield who runs the blog “What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?

People claimed that these women “only secured good references through sexual favors,” Saul said. “There was some really vile stuff put up on blogs about women who were in any way connected with him. It was disgusting.”


Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter focusing on higher education and sexual violence. You can contact him at tyler.kingkade@huffingtonpost.com, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.

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