I have followed the issue of sexual harassment and sexual violence for some time, and am particularly struck by Stanford’s insistence that students serve as “upstanders” and act to discourage and report sexual assault. While in principle there is nothing wrong with this notion, it seems to shift the responsibility back onto students. The responsibility for this violence should be shared, and disproportionately by the administration, faculty and staff. Those who have been invited to Stanford to learn and enhance their educational experience have more than enough to do.
As a member of the faculty, I am most disappointed that, outside a handful of faculty like Michele Dauber and Roanne Kantor, hardly any of my colleagues have taken a vocal, public and consistent stance against sexual violence. It is relatively easy to sign petitions, it is much harder to sit in faculty meetings and bring up this subject in a sustained, and often uncomfortable, manner. On the contrary, faculty who wish to address this issue are often ostracized. And this has been happening for decades — Herbert Lindenberger, an extremely senior member of the English faculty, now deceased, told me that he was effectively shut out of the English department because he pressed his colleagues to do something about Jay Fliegelman, who has been accused of raping one of his former Stanford advisees.
The overwhelming tendency has been to close ranks and to grasp onto any excuse not to say anything. Hardly a case of being “upstanders.” Sadly, this is a national phenomenon. A well-publicized and ongoing case is that of Professor John Comaroff at Harvard, who has targeted female graduate students for years. As Inside Higher Education reports, although Harvard found Professor John Comaroff guilty of “verbal conduct” that “violated the institution’s sexual and gender-based harassment policy and professional conduct policy,” Harvard has welcomed Comaroff back to campus after a mandated leave of absence. As noted in the same article, Harvard’s graduate student union is circulating a petition that states, “We reject the widespread norm in which senior academic figures who jeopardize or end the careers of their junior colleagues through misconduct and retaliation are themselves subject to only mild and brief professional consequences, and are indeed supported by their peers.”
Three graduate students are suing — but they are naming Harvard, not Comaroff, in their suit. Stanford might want to pay some attention to this case. The complainants accuse Harvard of badly mishandling nearly every aspect of the case, including obtaining one student’s psychiatric records and sharing them with Comaroff’s lawyers. Harvard has argued that it should not be held responsible for anything, but the US Justice Department has filed an amicus brief arguing the opposite. It reads in part:
Harvard’s claim that it is immunized from liability for the retaliatory acts of its own faculty members lacks support in the applicable law. In fact, the relevant case law instructs that: (1) retaliation is a form of sex discrimination prohibited under Title IX; (2) unlawful retaliation may be carried out by the employees of a federal-funding recipient; and (3) the recipient may be found liable for damages under Title IX for such retaliation where it amounts to an official act or policy of the recipient, or where the recipient is on notice of such retaliation and is deliberately indifferent to it.
What is most shocking to me as a faculty member is the fact that in the midst of the Harvard investigation, 38 very senior members of the Harvard faculty rushed to defend their colleague. They signed a passionate letter questioning the process and personally vouching for Comaroff’s character. In doing so, they endorsed an account rooted almost exclusively in a press release authored by Comaroff’s lawyers.
Let there be no mistake — those who signed include many of the most “progressive” scholars in studies of race and ethnicity, history, literature and environmental justice. They include Homi Bhabha, Paul Farmer, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Stephen Greenblatt, Jennifer Hochschild, Jamaica Kincaid and Marcyliena Morgan. All to say that one cannot expect intellectual commitments to trump social capital. “Upstanders” indeed.
The Harvard Crimson issued this scathing editorial:
The well-documented, informal norms that lead American police officers to shield their colleagues from accountability have been dubbed a “blue wall of silence.” As we look at this ill-informed open letter, signed by 38 tenured faculty members, among them some of Harvard’s brightest stars, it is impossible for us not to worry that this power asymmetry continues because members of our faculty have erected their own wall of silence within our Cambridge campus.
In the long shadow of that wall, it can only grow harder for victims to come forward with their stories. Shielded from transparency or accountability, faculty-student power imbalances will continue to cause concrete harm.
We thus reaffirm our belief (rooted in a different, also disturbingly mishandled, set of accusations) that sexual misconduct should be grounds for revoking tenure.
I myself would support revoking tenure from any faculty member found in violation of University policy or federal law regarding sexual harassment or sexual violence — it would send a strong signal that, in order to remain a part of the Stanford community, faculty can no longer act with impunity. For those who are untenured, it would be grounds for deferring tenure.
It was only after a massive national and international protest that many, but not all, of the Harvard signatories retracted — and their retraction was almost as embarrassing as the initial letter itself. Entitled simply, “We Retract,” the letter states, “We are retracting our open letter published in the Harvard Crimson on February 4th, 2022. Our concerns were transparency, process and university procedures, which go beyond the merits of any individual case. We failed to appreciate the impact that this would have on our students, and we were lacking full information about the case.”
There are many lessons for Stanford’s faculty to learn if they want to seriously address issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence, rather than close ranks around offenders, pretend the problem does not exist, or throw up their hands and say there is nothing they can do.
First, we can work with experts to make a profound change in culture. In 2016, while a fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, I organized an event that brought faculty from across the nation to share experiences, strategies and information. Among the participants was Professor Jennifer Freyd, who has written extensively on institutional betrayal and the common behavior of institutions in addressing issues of sexual harassment and violence. Freyd coined the term “DARVO” (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Oppressor). Another participant was Professor Simone Sharoni, who started the national organization, Faculty Against Rape. Professor Dauber also invited leaders from the organization Know Your IX: Empowering Students to Stop Sexual Violence.
But even outside becoming involved in national campaigns, with just a little imagination and political willpower, faculty can take important steps forward. For example, faculty can ask their departments to put a statement condemning sexual harassment and sexual violence on their website’s landing page, clearly explaining how such acts are destructive to any learning community and that they will not be tolerated in any shape or form; add statements in graduate student handbooks committing the department to watch against any possible act of retaliation for bringing complaints forward; actively provide students every resource necessary to engage outside scholars as mentors should their relationship with their mentor be stained by sexual harassment; listen when students ask for extra time or extra funding if they have had to use both to address instances of sexual harassment; give financial support to students who wish to form reading groups and support networks to learn about their rights. Individual statements of support, saying that you are available to meet, are important, but they cannot take the place of proactive, sustained efforts on a collective level to change the culture of silence and acquiescence.
A previous version of this article misspelled Roanne Kantor’s name. The Daily regrets this error.