Tackling Sexual Harassment in Higher Education

Meeting Title IX requirements should be the minimum, not the maximum, of what higher ed institutions do to support their staff and students.

Posted by Katie Yahnke in Education on April 8th, 2019

The sexual misconduct secret is out. The #metoo movement revealed the dirty underbelly of higher education: workplace sexual harassment in the STEM fields, rampant sexual assault in sororities and fraternities, professors offering recommendation letters in exchange for dates.

Universities and colleges have been exposed. Higher ed can no longer do the bare minimum to address sexual harassment and assault on campus.

This guide will break down the stereotype that sexual harassment only happens between professor and student. You will learn why higher education institutions are hot spots for sexual misconduct and six ways to bring about effective change in your school.

 

In the Media

To show the real gravity of the issue, the Chronicle of Higher Education created a running list of cases that emerged at higher ed schools between October 2017 and January 2018.

Schools mentioned once include:

  • University of North Alabama
  • University of Hawaii
  • University of Arizona
  • University of California
  • University of Texas
  • Central Washington University
  • Oregon State University
  • Indiana University
  • Northeastern University
  • University of Kentucky
  • Michigan State University
  • University of Wisconsin
  • University of Rochester
  • San Jose State University
  • Oxford University
  • Princeton University
  • Morehouse College
  • Spelman College
  • Liberty University

The schools mentioned more than once include:

  • Columbia University
  • Stanford University
  • University of Virginia
  • Dartmouth College
  • Boston University
  • Berklee College of Music

Remember: all of these cases emerged in the four months after the Weinstein scandal broke.

The University of Wisconsin case is a startling example of how higher ed institutions have failed to properly record cases. Over the past four years, the University received 40 reports of sexual assault or harassment. Of those, 11 were confirmed violations and yet the University has only recorded one complaint in the last 20 years.


Students are the Victims

The spike in reported complaints was largely the result of students alleging sexual harassment by their superiors. Victims reported being called derogatory terms like “slut” by their professors, being groped and being pressured into sexual acts.

A New York Times article from December 2017 noted that, while the accusations are startling, many academics argue that the more pressing issue is the institution’s response (or lack thereof).

 

Examples
  • A classmate making unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances
  • A professor continuously making sexual jokes in the classroom
  • A coach offering a player more field time in exchange for a date
  • A financial adviser offering a student a better scholarship in exchange for a date

 

Statistics

Female students enrolled in traditionally male-dominated fields are more likely to experience sexual harassment and assault. A recent study of the University of Texas system found that 1 in 5 female science students, 1 in 4 female engineering students and nearly 1 in 2 female medical students reported experiencing sexual harassment at “high rates”.

Graduate students are not exempt from experiencing sexual harassment and assault. Higher Ed Jobs reported that more than 1 in 3 female graduate students and nearly 1 in 4 male graduate students reported experiencing sexual harassment. Unsurprisingly, more than half of the cases involved professors engaged in serial sexual harassment.


Faculty are the Victims

Most cases blown up by the media involve a professor, coach or adviser as the perpetrator of sexual misconduct, but the reality is that they can be the victims, too.

Faculty and non-faculty staff members aren’t immune to sexual harassment, abuse of power and sexual coercion. One study examining the effects of sexual harassment found that 58 per cent of female faculty and non-faculty staff had experienced sexual harassment.

Like any other workplace, universities and colleges may have power differentials and hierarchies that leave employees vulnerable. Victims of workplace harassment experience increased stress, decreased productivity and lower job satisfaction.

 

Examples
  • A professor makes several unwanted advances toward the school librarian
  • A departmental chair offers a professor tenure in exchange for sexual relations
  • A dean sends continuous offensive and inappropriate sexual emails to a professor

The High Costs of Sexual Misconduct

The negative effects of sexual harassment extend beyond the victim’s experiences. The school itself will often pay a huge financial and reputational price, particularly if they fail to respond properly to the complaint.

United Educators (UE) is a company that provides liability coverage for schools. UE analyzed 100+ claims relating to workplace sexual harassment or assault that it received between 2013 and 2018. It found that:

  • 87 per cent alleged sexual harassment
  • 13 per cent alleged sexual assault
  • almost half included allegations of retaliation
  • more than 20 per cent involved serial perpetrators
  • 59 per cent of claims incurred losses
  • losses totaled more than $10.3 million

The Wall Street Journal found that “in 2016 and 2017 alone, 22 public universities and systems paid more than $10.5 million across 59 settlements involving sexual harassment claims made by students, faculty and staff”. The majority of settlements focused on the schools’ mishandling of claims.

The largest settlement, for nearly $2.5 million, involved a 2016 lawsuit against the University of Tennessee. The lawsuit involved numerous incidents of sexual assault perpetrated by (former) student athletes. The victims accused the school of fostering a negative campus culture that not only allowed the assault to happen but also failed to support the victims.


Why Is It a Widespread Problem in Higher Ed?

One possibility is that sexual harassment and assault has always been a problem in higher ed institutions, it’s just never been acknowledged.

There have been minor instances in the past in which a college or university has been caught up in a sexual misconduct scandal, but never to the scale that we’re experiencing today.

The rise of #metoo has forced many industries, from hospitality to Hollywood to academia, to admit that sexual misconduct has been swept under the rug for a long time.

 

Its Structure is Partly to Blame

Universities and colleges still use a very traditional and hierarchical structure. There are non-faculty members, junior professors, tenured professors, department chairs, deans and presidents in addition to differences in age, race, ethnicity, gender and ability.

The way roles are arranged and classified makes it tempting for those who have the power to hold it over the heads of those who don’t.

Some experts argue that harassment and secrecy may be even more prevalent in higher ed institutions than other workplaces due to the “entrenched stratification and gendered hierarchies among faculty”.

Not only that, but the faculty structure also enables the existence of a “secret code” that works to keep stories from spreading and keeps problematic people in power.

 

Its Culture is Also to Blame

Since universities and colleges have mostly ignored sexual harassment and assault issues in the past, they’ve fostered the impression that this form of misconduct is allowed. Through previous actions, higher ed institutions have shown that victims who come forward may not be believed, they may not be helped and they may be retaliated against.

Colleges and universities have shown that perpetrators will face few, if any, consequences. In fact, if the harasser is a professor, they may even be promoted.


How to Make Effective Change

Sexual misconduct drives talented faculty, staff and students away, but a school that ignores or mishandles complaints keeps them away. An institution isn’t going to be able to prevent every instance of harassment, but there are steps to take to deter it.

 

Understand the Problem Fully

The biggest hurdle in driving change is identifying the problems (followed quickly by committing to the solutions).

If the tools for change include anti-harassment training, make sure it accurately reflects sexual harassment and assault in a campus setting.

What does it really look like? The majority of training modules show quid pro quo examples or sexual coercion, the stereotypical “professor offers grades for dates”. But look at the statistics and you’ll quickly learn that gender-based harassment is the more common issue. Examples include making offensive jokes toward the only female professor in the science department or making unnecessary physical touching.

To identify the problems, faculty, non-faculty and students need to share their uncomfortable truths about sexual harassment and assault. Ask the victims and witnesses to tell their stories or give their opinion to define the true scope of the problem at hand.

 

Empower the Victim with Tools and Services

Standing up to sexual misconduct requires more than just policies and procedures but they’re a great place to begin. A policy is a tool that enables leadership to set a fair, safe playing field.

So, what should you do? Adopt a zero-tolerance approach. Communicate expectations and the school’s standards for appropriate conduct. Empower victims of sexual misconduct by outlining the reporting tools available, the support services offered, and the knowledge required to safely seek justice or support.

 

Change Attitudes, Not Just Behaviors

Too often, a policy is written with liability in mind and training is focused on Title IX compliance. Those who read the policy or partake in the training will see right through the fluff text to the real motive—to please the compliance officer and internal lawyer.

Instead, write your policy and conduct your training with a focus on values and attitudes, not behaviors. Promote a culture of respect to prevent sexual harassment and assault. Promote it in policies, promote it in training, promote it anywhere and everywhere.

A university or college that is serious about changing its culture needs to show staff and students their dedication to tackling the issue.

 

Treat It as Seriously as Fraud and Plagiarism

Higher ed institutions often push sexual harassment and assault aside to tackle “bigger” issues such as admissions fraud, academic dishonesty and substance abuse. School officials overlook sexual misconduct as a true issue because the negative effects aren’t as obvious or visible.

However, sexual misconduct has real, harmful effects similar to other forms of misconduct. A report out of the Pennsylvania State University system argued that “high rates of harassment in academia, especially in STEM fields, damage the integrity of research…harassment is to blame for a loss of talent in these areas of study”.

Meeting Title IX requirements should be the minimum, not the maximum, of what higher ed institutions do to support their staff and students. To make real change, higher ed systems need to identify structural or cultural causes, hold harassers accountable and take an unwavering stance against sexual misconduct

 

Diffuse Power Hierarchies

Saundra Schuster, JD and founding member of the Association of Title IX Administrators, drew a comparison of Hollywood and campuses. Similar to Hollywood, she said “the power dynamic in academia makes female students and junior faculty more vulnerable to experiencing sexual harassment”.

There are two solutions for effective change here.

This first step is to mindfully remove biases about women in leadership roles. Disassemble the “boys club” that universities and colleges have slowly developed. Invite women to leadership roles in all fields or departments. Be careful not to take this too far and wind up with a reverse discrimination lawsuit.

The second step is to remove some of the faculty’s all-encompassing power. Schuster argues that “there is always a power differential and that power differential [puts] someone at high risk to lose a job, to fail a course, to not get a job, or to not get a letter of recommendation…So, in making a report, they always do so…at a personal risk to themselves, professionally or educationally.”

Current campus power hierarchies allow one person to effectively destroy the life of anyone over whom they hold power. A senior professor labeling a student a “bad egg” means no access to resources, no access to experience and no letters of recommendation.

A power differential this great is trouble. It means the victim may tolerate sexual harassment and assault as an exchange.

 

Do It Right

The last tip is to not rush through these changes. Many higher ed institutions feel the pressure weighing on them to take a stance on sexual harassment with a policy, a reporting tool and a support person. In an attempt to check these boxes as quickly as possible, they develop and are left with low-quality solutions.

The Alliance of Women in Academia (AWA) was formed in December 2017 by several women from London-based universities. One of their first tasks was to review, assess and make recommendations for their own school policies.

They judged the universities based on three criteria:

  • Existence and quality of a policy
  • Reporting channels and chain of escalation
  • The effectiveness of policy and consequences

Each university fared well in the beginning. All were easily available online and offered clear definitions and illustrative examples.

Criteria two and three are where things took a turn. Reporting channels were inconsistent and inadequate. Every university made the mistake of suggesting an informal resolution to resolve issues, implying that sexual misconduct isn’t serious enough to warrant a real procedure.

No school had a “dedicated, external, qualified person” to deal with sexual harassment and assault cases and no school offered an established scale of consequences.

This isn’t to say that it’s better to have no policy than a mediocre one. Taking at least one step in the right direction is better than staying exactly where you are now. But, instead of trying to race through fixing such a large issue, acknowledge that like any other project, what you put into it is what you’ll get out of it.


Katie Yahnke
Katie Yahnke

Marketing Writer

Katie is the marketing writer at i-Sight. She writes on topics that range from fraud, corporate security and workplace investigations to corporate culture, ethics and compliance.

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