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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

Trapped in the Ivory Tower

Updated: Sep 3, 2021

For graduate students, #MeToo moment not easy to come by

By Helena Ong

During the 2017 November plenary of the Columbia University Senate, Chair of the Executive Committee Sharyn O’Halloran remarked that academia had its own Harvey Weinsteins. In the context of #MeToo, the phrase seemed a call to action. And where better to sound the call than at Columbia, which Senator Suzanne Goldberg in a different plenary described as “the national leader on these issues.” This is true, from a certain point of view. Already, we have four sexual assault or harassment stories in the press this academic year. We lead in research on sexual assault, as exhibited in the New Yorker’s feature on Columbia’s Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), a research project led by Professor Jennifer Hirsch and Dr. Claude Mellins that focused on undergraduate sexual health and violence.

Graduate students, however, are often left out of these conversations in Columbia’s undergraduate press, and in the scope of projects such as SHIFT. Hirsch and Mellins, the lead researchers of SHIFT, were unavailable for comment, although Maria O’Brien, interim Senior Director of Communications at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, relayed that they viewed the issue of sexual assault among graduate students as an important area of research which they hope to focus on in the future. Cases involving graduate students continue to occur at Columbia. Last semester, Doe v. Columbia University, a case built around the testimonies of several graduate students against Dr. William Harris, a professor of history, and the case was settled with his resignation. Another case of professor sexual misconduct, William-Farley vs. Columbia, which had previously been dismissed by the judge, is currently unresolved. At press time, Columbia University representatives were supposed to attend legal conference in March.

Illustration by Jennifer Bi

“Criminal and civil laws remain an important bulwark against sexual harassment and assault, as well as discrimination more broadly. However, universities, unlike the courts, can ensure that a survivor of sexual misconduct has everything he or she needs to continue with school,” says David Sanford, Chairman of Sanford Heisler Sharp, and lead counsel on the plaintiffs of the Columbia University cases. He also notes, however, that “Universities often fail to comply with both the letter and spirit of Title IX.”

For graduate students in particular, the mentorship of professors to students is absolutely central to graduate education, but if that relationship becomes abusive or harmful—how can students respond? “When an incident happens in an office behind closed doors, a he-said-she-said scenario can result,” Sanford says. “In the case of Professor Harris, several other women—going back to the 1980s—spoke with our firm and then with The New York Times about their abuse by Professor Harris.”

Like Harris’ case, the prevalence of professor-student relationships goes back years. Desiree Abu- Obeh, a History PhD candidate at Columbia, studies the emergence of the problem of sexual violence at universities, and how American college campuses have responded to it from the 1950s to 2000s. According to Abu-Obeh, “It gets stickier when it is an issue of sexual harassment and not necessarily like veering into assault, but there is a clear inappropriate behavior happening between people who are supposed to have a professional relationship, particularly like faculty and a student. I think that is when the resources get to be less ideal.”

“If you go to different departments, and you check very famous and established professors… [some of] their wives were their students,” says Yaqiong Chen, a Biology PhD candidate and co-president of Women in Science at Columbia (WISC). “As far as I know, a lot of female scientists are really considerate because they’ve had similar experiences in grad school. But how do you handle relationships with male mentors, especially in such isolated environments—a super small lab, and your mentor has ultimate authority over you?”

Chen continues, “I feel like this kind of [discussion] is not available to lots of students,” discussing how WISC works to host workshops for female scientists and professors to share their own experiences and how to handle the close environment between mentors and students. According to Chen, many students don’t know how to actively look for help. “I even had a friend who quit her PhD studies because she couldn’t handle bullying from her mentor. It is very sad.”

For undergraduates, especially those living within college dormitories, information and advertisements for college resources such as Sexual Violence Response and Title IX are posted extensively around campus. Graduate students, though, may find themselves in a different position than undergraduates when it comes to clear resources on sexual harassment. According to Title IX Coordinator Marjory Fisher, Title IX outreach materials and online resources that are provided to undergrads are very similar to those available to graduate students. Fisher was not able to provide further comment, and referred Blue and White reporters to Heather Parlier, Associate Provost for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. Parlier then referred us to Vice President for Public Affairs Scott Schell for comment. Schell, along with the Director of Investigations, Deputy Title IX Coordinator, Faculty and Staff Concerns, Jazmin Taylor, did not respond to our request for comment at the time of publication. It is our hope that survivors of harassment and assault do not experience the same difficulties we had in trying to track down someone from the Title IX department.

Sexual Violence Response (SVR)responded to our request for comment saying, “At any time during the Academic Year, students can request a workshop or training on a number of topics … to maintain the safety of the campus community.” And Abu-Obeh felt that services “for yourself to cope or because you need medical attention,” like SVR, are probably better utilized than formal disciplinary proceedings.

Students entering the Graduate School of Art and Science (GSAS), the largest of Columbia’s graduate schools, participate in a mandatory SVR session at orientation that covers the resources, prevalence of sexual violence, and bystander intervention. “The students are given a lot of advice, in written form, from GSAS, but then how to make that work within a department is far more complicated. Because quite often, no matter how well-meaning we as faculty might be, we can be part of the problem,” says Alan Stewart, Department Chair for English & Comparative Literature, and former Director of Graduate Studies from 2012-2015.

In comparison to their undergraduate counterparts, graduate students are more deeply involved in their specific departments. Columbia undergraduates enter undeclared in their major, most live on or near campus all four years, and may feel a significant association toward their extracurricular activities: athletics, Greek life, etc. But while undergraduates apply to one of the four undergraduate colleges, graduate students enter GSAS for a department, and often pursue a specific area of study within the department, seeing “themselves as members of the department that they are in,” according to Stewart. “[Faculty] are not as involved [in GSAS’ orientation] but then the problems are going to emerge, almost always, within the department,” Stewart says. He reports that while the conversations are happening now within departments, “there is a lack of honesty on both sides,” and conversations between faculty and students are avoided. Stewart also notes a potential conflict if a department’s Director of Graduate Studies is part of a problem occurring within the department or is working with faculty members involved. While he notes that his job is, “not to protect [faculty] against graduate students,” the Director of Graduate Studies is still part of the faculty.

Moreover, graduate programs at Columbia can take five to seven years, with students building long-lasting relationship with their department’s faculty, as mentors and superiors. Professors review students’ progress every year and play a role in approving dissertations for granting PhDs. Even in pursuing postdoctoral study, students rely on professors for letters of recommendation to secure tenure, and may continue to interact with them in academic and professional circles afterwards. The influence that individual department professors can wield over graduate students, both within and outside the department, can be long-lasting into students’ careers.

“I think it’s terrifying in a different way than if something like that happened to me as an undergraduate,” Abu-Obeh says. Stewart notes that while sexual harassment is difficult for undergraduates and graduates, at the least “an undergraduate might be able to move on, or move out of a class and not have to deal with the situation as it’s on going.”

Elaborating on the difficult position of graduate students in situations of harassment, Chen says, “If you have a job, and they ask you to work late, you can say, ‘I want to quit my job and get one with a better environment.’ But leaving a PhD program and starting another graduate life, you’ve already been here four years, five years. It’s not easy to do. Some mentors emotionally abuse you, belittle you, and ask you to do extra things … as far as I know, many of these things really happen. And you can’t do anything.”

Changing mentors in the program is difficult, especially when professors are invaluable to a student’s research, as Enrichetta Ravina alleges in her lawsuit against Columbia. Even as an assistant professor, she found herself a victim when a Business School professor cut off access to a “unique dataset.” After she had invested so much work, “she could not reasonably abandon the research without grievously delaying or ruining her career.”

Some students might not want to make an official report with the university, but would rather remove themselves from a potentially difficult situation. Coming forward to report abuse or harassment could impact a graduate students’ research, degree progress, and even their future career. “All too often,” Sanford notes from a legal perspective, “proving harassment is difficult due to the lack of witnesses and evidence,” sometimes even when the standard of evidence is reduced to preponderance. And that process is even harder if, instead of believing a student, faculty members “repeatedly dismiss” and “mock” their complaints, as Ravina alleges happened to her when she came forward to the faculty. The challenge of proving an incident occurred, however, could inhibit students from coming forward with potential issues or complaints, making them feel trapped.

Although options do exist on which graduate students can rely, preventative action may require structural and institutional changes that go beyond the resources that the university currently provides. Students involved in the Graduate Student Union emphasize unionization and the protections therein as the strongest solution to the problems of harassment and assault, since academia, to them, behaves like a workplace. Many graduate students would not offer comment without the context of the need for unionization.

Stewart noted that unionization also gives students, “another way of dealing with these kinds of situations that does not involve the people immediately involved with their graduate education” and suggested making changes where student grievances do notfall back to the departments, where there are limitations and potential conflicts. “I don’t want to make it seem like someone who goes to graduate school is going to be subjected a terrible situation,” Stewart says. “But obviously the dynamics of the way the graduate experience is structured makes it difficult.”w

Olivia Miller, Michelle Tang, Gaby Edwards, Zoe Dansdill and Ufon Umanah contributed reporting.


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