Since last October, a series of disturbing and nearly non-stop revelations of sexual harassment have toppled powerful men in Hollywood, Washington and in elite media circles. Even top restaurateurs have not been spared.
As the media spotlight focused on the Tinseltown stars, education has had its own #MeToo moment and it’s likely to gain steam in 2018.
The University of Arizona fired football coach Rich Rodriguez on Tuesday after a former administrative assistant filed a sexual harassment complaint alleging the coach ran a hostile workplace. Rodriguez denies the claims, calling them “baseless and false.”
That complaint is the latest to roil academia over the past six months — well before news broke about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Since August, allegations against a small group of high-profile academics and education officials have forced them to step down, in some cases reversing long-standing customs in which universities downplayed such misbehavior, victims’ advocates say.
“I think what we’re seeing … is that no industry, no occupation, is immune,” said Anne Hedgepeth, interim vice president of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
The recent cases include:
- William V. Harris, a well-known Columbia University history professor who retired last month as part of a settlement in a sexual harassment lawsuit, in which an anonymous graduate student alleged that he kissed and groped her repeatedly, then disparaged her to colleagues when she rebuffed his advances. Harris has referred questions about the case to Columbia, which was also a defendant in the lawsuit. The university has told students it is “deeply committed to supporting all of our students, protecting them from harassment of any kind, and ensuring that our academic community is a safe and respectful place for everyone who studies, teaches, and works here.”
- Geoff Marcy, a well-known astronomy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who resigned in October, after an investigation found he kissed and groped four students — in one case, Marcy allegedly put his hand up the skirt of a graduate student. Marcy wrote a public apology, but has denied some of the allegations.
- Lewis Aptekar, a San Jose State University professor who resigned last October after students and colleagues protested his scheduled return to campus in the face of sexual harassment allegations. Aptekar has said the university violated his due process rights during its investigation, and a settlement in the case calls the allegations “disputed.”
- Michael Katze, a well-known microbiology professor who was fired by the University of Washington in August, after it found he sexually harassed women who worked in his lab. In a lawsuit he filed in the case, Katze said he was “shocked” by the charges, calling them untrue.
In a few cases, criminal cases have taken shape, as in New Hampshire, where Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald last October said he was conducting a criminal investigation of three Dartmouth College professors accused of sexual harassment; the three were on paid leave with restricted access to campus, Inside Higher Ed reported.
In at least two other high-profile cases, sexual harassment allegations have dogged non-professors who oversee public institutions.
Last month, Larry Wittig, chairman of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education, resigned after several women said he pursued sexual relationships with them as teenagers. He was also removed from a leadership position at Drexel University, his alma mater.
Wittig, who had served on the state board for 16 years, has “categorically” denied the allegations, saying he had sex with one of the women but denied that he had an “ongoing” relationship with her. He called the episode “a lapse in judgment at one time.”
Also last month, University of California Regent and media mogul Norm Pattiz, who was recorded last year asking an actress at his podcast company if he could hold her breasts, said he will step down in February. Pattiz, who founded the media company PodcastOne, has denied creating a hostile work environment, but has apologized for the remarks.
In a few cases, universities have been slow to react to student complaints, only to hear from professors themselves: In an open letter published last November, more than 400 academics from around the world urged prospective students not to apply to the University of Rochester to study or work. That came amid allegations that Florian Jaeger, a professor in Rochester’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) department, preyed on female students. Jaeger denies the allegations and a university investigation cleared him.
The letter said Rochester “failed to adequately respond to claims of predatory and manipulative behavior” until September, when eight current and former researchers filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against the university.
Jaeger has been on paid administrative leave for three months as a special committee investigates Rochester’s response. But colleagues say Jaeger remains on campus — in a lawsuit filed Dec. 8, they allege that Jaeger “continues to work at BCS, move around campus and interact with students and faculty as if nothing has happened.”
Look for more complaints from campus victims, said Saundra K. Schuster, a Philadelphia attorney and partner in the NCHERM Group, LLC, a law and consulting firm that specializes in education and civil rights cases.
“I don’t think we’ll see an avalanche, but we’ll see an increasing number of individuals willing to express what they’ve experienced,” she said.
Over the past few months, the #MeToo Movement has “added an additional layer of potential empowerment” to victims, Schuster said. That could encourage more victims to come forward, not just when they’re assaulted or harassed by a classmate or fellow student, but when the alleged perpetrator is an instructor or supervisor whose actions create a “hostile learning environment.”
While #MeToo could embolden victims, she said, “I continue to be concerned about the fact that fear of retaliation is a powerful tool” to keep victims silent.
AAUW’s Hedgepeth agreed. The #MeToo movement may be “creating space for people to come forward,” but as in show business, government and the media, academia operates with imbalanced “power structures” that make students reliant on professors.
“They are the gateway for grades, for professional advancement — and that means there’s a risk for someone to come forward” if they have a complaint, Hedgepeth said.
Over the past several years, colleges and universities have focused more closely on student-to-student conflicts, struggling for ways to adjudicate campus and date rape cases.
In some ways, the Obama administration in 2011 anticipated the #MeToo Movement with a “Dear Colleague” letter that pushed universities to respond more seriously to allegations of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination.
Obama’s Education Department told schools that, under federal Title IX law, the burden of proof for sexual assault cases was lower than that required for typical criminal cases. It discouraged cross-examination of accusers and required schools to allow them to appeal not-guilty findings.
The move had its intended effect: Between 2011 and 2013, the education risk-management firm United Educators said, reports of sexual assault among its clients doubled.
The Trump administration last September reversed much of Obama’s guidance, but Know Your IX, one of several advocacy groups that sprung up in the wake of Obama’s letter, notes that colleges still must promptly investigate complaints and provide counseling if needed, among other steps.
Hedgepeth said it’s too early to tell if the culture of academia is changing because of #MeToo — she’ll be watching how schools react to future cases. “But the opportunity is there,” she said. “It is up to schools, just like it is up to workplaces, to take these claims seriously and do something.”[“Source-usatoday”]