2017-11-29

Sexual Harassment, Power Dynamics, and Institutions

I've been thinking (read: armchair philosophizing without necessarily going into much depth) lately a bit about the notion of individuals shaping the interactions they have with other people versus the other way around, and the related notion of how individuals shape institutions versus the other way around. This idea has stuck in my mind especially in the context of sexual harassment committed by a professor against a student in my department (for a broad overview, see this article by Alanna Vagianos in HuffPost, and for a more detailed account, see this article by Allie Spensley in The Daily Princetonian; disclaimer: I know the student but not the professor), because of the complicated way that power imbalances between faculty and students intertwine with institutional tensions at large research universities like Princeton University. Follow the jump to see more blather from me about this.

The articles make clear how the power imbalances inherent in an advisor-student relationship, arising from the university seeing the advisor as more valuable than the student, work against the student in cases like this involving sexual harassment. The student in this case felt compelled to watch sexually explicit movies with her advisor, hoping each time would be a misunderstanding that could be cleared up, and finding each time instead that her advisor would use each opportunity to further physically touch her in inappropriate ways and make inappropriate comments to her too. This feeling of being compelled came from the fear of academic reprisal by her advisor, being dropped from the group or worse; such fears are not unreasonable considering that advisors' letters of recommendation are required for job applications and (in the case of academic career paths) are required even for assistant professors seeking tenure or associate professors seeking promotions at large universities, so an advisor's opinion can make or break a student's career.

The power imbalance is visible even in the aftermath of the Title IX investigation of this matter. The professor was found guilty of sexual harassment, yet his "punishment" was merely 8 hours of "training", and while there are supposedly other punishments for him, these somehow did not include being suspended from teaching or advising students at all (nor conducting other research activities) where such sexual harassment could continue; meanwhile, this event was traumatic enough for the student that she had to seek therapy and medication, yet there seems to be no mention of the university's support for her even in this regard. Worse, the Title IX panel seemed to take her seriously because she didn't explicitly want to report this initially but only wanted to change advisors, suggesting an extreme aversion to actual action by students against professors in well-documented cases of misconduct (though she provided extensive documentation of her communications with her friends and her advisor in this matter); plus, when she suggested that her advisor at least be moved elsewhere so that she would no longer be in danger, the panel said that would not happen and instead suggested that she move her office, as if she was somehow responsible for being sexually harassed (i.e. this seems like a classic case of victim-blaming). This makes clear that the university views its professors as more valuable than its students even in matters like these, and that is ultimately a large part of the reason for the power imbalance in the first place, because the professor knows that he or she has power provided by the university in a way that the student will not.

What does this have to do with individuals, relationships, and institutions? One of the arguments in favor of promoting more women to positions of power is that such promotion can reduce the incidence of sexual harassment and make the system fairer to women and men who are victims of sexual harassment, among other things. However, this incident makes clear that simply having women in positions of power is not enough. The Princeton University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences now has a respected female dean, yet her response to this incident has been frankly lackluster, filled with platitudes about fostering a supportive environment for students without honestly confronting the failures of the university system in actually making that happen in a meaningful way.
From the perspective of individuals shaping relationships and institutions, this could be viewed as a failure of that individual to effect meaningful change in a university procedure for dealing with sexual harassment, and if this sort of thing continues to happen repeatedly and in different places, then that could be viewed as evidence that the people being promoted to positions of power are exactly those who would be less likely to take such meaningful action due to their fear of losing power. That seems to suggest that every single such person is essentially a sociopath for whom there is no hope for change, which seems rather unlikely. I find it more plausible instead that institutions, born of a history of prescribed relationships and power dynamics among various individuals, shape the individuals that accede to positions of power in those institutions, such that individuals who may have been idealistic about reshaping those institutions find it difficult to convince others who have calcified in similar positions of power within those institutions to make needed changes without compromising their own ability to remain in a position of power to effect change. Alternatively, such individuals who accede to power in such institutions may be shaped by those institutions to want to remain in power for its own sake and may no longer be concerned with the well-being of students. I don't know which of these explanations fits the inaction of the aforementioned dean, but I hope it is something similar to the second one, as the first and third impute more malevolence than I feel comfortable ascribing to such a person.

In this context, students in my department have argued for the unionization of students. From the perspective of relationships and institutions shaping individuals, the idea is that the relationships that govern interactions between faculty and students in the context of an established university have calcified too much in favor of faculty, and that despite the best efforts of individuals, only the introduction of a new institutional framework of relationships, as a shock to the system, can meaningfully effect change, and this may be achieved by countering the influence of professors on university activities with external actors in the form of an affiliated union. In particular, if interactions between faculty and students now need to be mediated by union representatives, then the chance for sexual harassment could be lessened as those representatives function as ombudspeople on behalf of the students in a way that may be in the student's but not the university's best interests; moreover, a union may offer a way to examine evidence and settle disputes in a way that is less biased against students compared to adjudication within a university panel.
However, at least in the case of sexual harassment, it isn't clear that in the long-term, a union would necessarily be beneficial if there is no clear means of accountability toward the students that the union claims to represent. For one, if union representatives are in positions of power, they could potentially commit similar acts against students with minimal repercussions. This is in turn because when an affiliated union sticks around long enough, it too will not be immune to institutional calcification and people in positions of power becoming enamored with remaining in power. As a result, it may generally be less responsive to students' concerns and issues, and may particularly be less responsive to instances of sexual harassment; this could happen if the calcification occurs by way of regulatory capture, where union officials in positions of power become co-opted by the university to remain in such positions of power, or by way of becoming a force for local retribution against the university, such that meaningful justice for a student who is a victim of sexual harassment becomes secondary to blindly punishing professors and the university. Thus, for a union to be effective in this regard, there needs to be real accountability toward the students it represents, and there needs to be a balance of power; otherwise, students might only be empowered as individuals by somehow exploiting the perpetual tension and fights between the university and the union, and that doesn't seem like a surefire or productive way to solve the problem of lack of accountability or transparency when it comes to sexual harassment at universities.

That point about blindly punishing professors also neatly transitions into something else that I would like to point out, after having discussed this with friends. None of what I am about to say should diminish what this particular student has gone through, nor does it at all excuse what that professor did. With that being said, it seems like there could be a potential for students of that professor to see their own careers affected for no wrongdoing on their parts. It is clear that student needs justice and healing, and that professor needs to be punished more meaningfully given that guilt has been proved in this case, but the other students should somehow be spared from these consequences.

To conclude, I am heartened that there are several professors in my department who have vociferously condemned the inaction of the department and university as well as the misconduct of that professor. There are other professors who have chosen to act more behind the scenes and called for continuation of dialogue and action within the system; while it might be emotionally satisfying to see more vocal condemnation, this is a problem that will require sustained clear, level-headed thinking to solve, so I do value those calls for moderation especially as they don't try to defend the professor's misconduct or anything like that. With all of that said, it will be hard to figure out a system that consistently provides justice for victims of sexual harassment and punishment for those who commit such misconduct while minimizing the damage to innocent students of the accused professor as well as the potential for students to abuse this power, but I am hopeful that such a system can be devised, especially as so many people in my department and in the university are aware of this issue and thinking & talking about it. Perhaps one way to take advantage of this new awareness might be to push for students to have multiple advisors. From the perspective of changing the power imbalance, it removes the monopoly that a single advisor has over the career of a student, and may allow for students to more easily change one of the advisors in cases like this, while also minimizing the damage to other students if one professor is found guilty of sexual harassment or other misconduct; moreover, if multiple professors are funding a student, each of those professors will now have a stake in that student's success and well-being and may be more inclined to support the student versus the professor (whereas when students have single advisors, professors may be more inclined to support other professors as colleagues above students of their colleagues in whom they have no stake). Even from a scientific perspective, this could be valuable at least in STEM, given that most STEM research is collaborative nowadays, so it could foster further exchange of ideas and the pursuit of research paths that have broader interdisciplinary appeal. This is just me spitballing, and there may be other problems with this idea with respect to dealing with sexual harassment in academic power structures, but I look forward to seeing other, better ideas in the future.

My discussion of individuals versus relationships/institutions was also spitballing, as I have no formal training at all in the analysis of such ideas. I imagine that many other people have thought about those ideas more formally and rigorously, but I have no idea where or how to start looking for more information, so if any readers have pointers to useful resources for learning more about those ideas, I would be grateful.

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