In institutions of higher learning nationwide, college administrations are silencing faculty for speaking out about the campus rape crisis. Faculty members from four colleges and universities spoke exclusively to Jezebel about the professional retaliation they've faced due to their support of survivors of sexual assault; according to their accounts, they and their colleagues have been systematically stonewalled, rebuffed, intimidated, slandered and denied tenure for their advocacy.
Oftentimes, the so-called "political" or "trouble-making" behavior they engage in is simply doing what Title IX laws require them to in order to keep their students safe. Every professor I spoke to described a remarkably similar pattern of behavior on the administration's part: when faculty object to the desultory, ineffective sexual assault and rape policies offered up by universities, they're ignored; when they persist in their criticism, they're labeled "hysterical" or "troublemakers" who are acting out of a "personal agenda," and they're put under increasing pressure to keep quiet. In some cases that pressure is insidious. In others, it's bafflingly blatant: for instance, I spoke to two women who were denied tenure after helping students report sexual harassment (which, again, is their legal responsibility under Title IX).
The crux of the issue here is that colleges see the campus rape crisis primarily as an image problem. They put their illustrious reputations before their students' safety, and, in doing so, they actively harm survivors. Because 1 in 5 women will be raped in college, a spotless sexual assault record simply isn't possible. When college administrations strive to make it seem as though sexual assault and harassment are wildly uncommon, what they're really doing is demanding that sexual assault survivors stay quiet about their experiences. Plainly put, low reporting numbers don't reflect a dearth of sexual violence. They're indicative of the fact that survivors are afraid of coming forward. But many college administrations seem not to care about this distinction.
When schools value their good names over the safety of their students, anyone who opens her mouth to argue on survivors' behalf automatically stands in opposition to the administration's best interests. Under this logic, anyone who advocates for sexual assault policy reform — anyone who points out out that the extant policies are deeply inadequate — is automatically part of the problem. And faculty activists, who can remain at an institution for decades once they're tenured, are particularly troubling to administrators.
"Faculty have more power in the institution, and we're here for 30 years, so it's not surprising to me that [administrations have] really hit faculty hard in ways that aren't being talked about yet," says Caroline Heldman, an Occidental professor who has been advocating for sexual assault reform for years. "Institutions have been retaliating against faculty in career-ending ways."
She adds, "There are many, many faculty across the nation. We've been starting to talk: we've been denied promotions, denied tenure; there are adjuncts who've been fired because of their work — even minor work — advocating for students."
The message that colleges and universities are sending is clear: if you're not with us, then you're against us. Even if you're standing with our students.
"This is a delicate time for you"
Kimberly Theidon, a soon-to-be-former professor at Harvard, claims that she was abruptly denied tenure because of she advocated for sexual assault and harassment survivors, some of whom were openly critical of the administration.
According to a complaint she filed against the school in March 2014, she was given no indication that she'd be denied tenure until it occurred. In fact, there were several signs of good faith from the university — in 2008, she was promoted to associate professor and then "assigned an endowed designation of John J. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, which a confidential document shared with HuffPost stated was a position for the 'most distinguished tenure-track [Harvard] faculty.'" Most tellingly, Theidon states that she was invited in the spring of 2013 to "sit and lay out [her] new tenured faculty offices."
Two months later, she was denied tenure.
In a phone interview, Theidon mentions two specific incidents she believes Harvard retaliated against her for. Both are astoundingly minor. The first involves a March 2013 Harvard Crimson article written by sexual assault survivors who felt they had been failed by the institution. After the piece went up, the comments section was swamped by men's rights activist trolls attacking the authors and spewing out all sorts of rape apologia. Using her own name, Theidon responded to the trolls. "One of my students said, 'Kimberly, I feel triply violated,'" Theidon says. "First they get raped, then they have to deal with Harvard which grinds them down with callous indifference, and now they're being vilified in the press. And so I don't even think twice and say, 'Oh I'll go start commenting.' ... It never occurred to me that there would be a problem with this."
In the second incident, one of Theidon's students came to her in tears, asking for advice about a professor's ongoing sexual harassment of her. "She had reached out to other people asking for help, and everyone had told her 'Oh just be quiet; oh, he's just like that; oh, he'll write you nice letters,'" Theidon says. So she advised the the student report the harassment to administrators. A few weeks later, in an email, the student warned her that both the director of her program and her department chair told her not to talk discuss the issue Theidon further because doing so could "derail her tenure." A few days later, the chairman of Theidon's tenure committee called her into her office and confirmed this. According to Theidon, "She said, 'You can tell no one about this. You must not say one word about this. This is a delicate time for you. You can't be talking.'"
On May 28, 2013, Theidon learned that Harvard had denied her tenure and would terminate her employment on June 30, 2014. Senior Vice Provost for Diversity Judith Singer allegedly informed her that the committee reviewing her tenure discussed her "political activity" and concluded it was "the sort of [activity] scholars postpone until they have tenure." Theidon believes that this line of thinking, the idea that political activity should be postponed until tenure, encourages faculty complicity in tolerating and perpetuating a hostile sexual environment. "People are told over and over, 'Oh, wait 'til you have tenure. Head down, back bowed, and you just be quiet for six years, seven years, eight years,'" she says. "Well, then people get tenure, and I think people are so complicit for so long that they're quiet then too."
Moreover, Theidon doesn't see what she did as particularly political. "I was not manning the barricades," she tells me. "I was just doing what seemed the right thing."
Of course, this sort of behavior on administrations' part is far from new, nor is it contained to specific campuses. Over email, Simona Sharoni, a professor who used to work at American University, told me that she was denied tenure under nearly identical circumstances 20 years ago. Some of her students came to her and told her that they'd been harassed by a popular faculty member. "The students were scared to report the abuse but felt they could no longer keep the secret. I felt a responsibility to report," she wrote. "I was appalled when I realized that many administrators and fellow colleagues in the program knew about the abuse and chose to look the other way."
The next day, her program director called her and said that he was "happy that [she] was around to work with the faculty member." When she told him that they were breaking the law by not taking the report seriously, he grew angry with her. Eventually, although she was told not to, she filed an informal complaint. When she was first hired as a visiting assistant professor, she was told that there would be a tenure track position opening. It did within days of her filing the complaint. She applied, and — though she was the "insider candidate" and had both "stellar students' evaluations and a published book (not common for a junior faculty member)" — the position eventually went unfilled. The next year, the same position opened; again, it went unfilled. "I know from former colleagues that I was the front-runner for that position as well," wrote Sharoni. "On the third year when they announced the search I chose not to apply. It was too agonizing and I was frustrated."
"Regardless of the lip service universities pay to academic freedom, there is a bias on college campuses against faculty who take a stance on any issue, let alone if the issue involves direct criticism on the administration," she added.
"They're actively dedicating time and resources to shooting messengers"
In the past few years, Occidental College has come under a lot of fire for its sexual assault policy — in April of 2013, a group of students, faculty and alumni filed a federal lawsuit against the college for permitting "a hostile environment for sexual assault victims and their advocates" to persist on campus. In May, after hiring attorneys Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez from law firm Pepper Hamilton to conduct an independent review of the school's sexual assault policies, the administration made a big show of taking action to address the issue. However, student and faculty activists took umbrage with the proposed changes, criticizing them as wholly ineffective and merely cosmetic — more focused with repairing the school's damaged reputation than with actually helping students and keeping them safe.
In March of 2014, reports surfaced showing that the faculty members who were openly critical of the administration were subject to blatant retaliation, including office break-ins, laptop seizures, phone taps and the monitoring of work emails. It also seems that administration are trying to minimize the extent of the sexual assault problem: in a recording of a recent faculty meeting obtained by Jezebel, Occidental President Jonathan Veitch publicly denied the university had an abysmal record at handling sexual violence cases — which, considering the fact that the administration paid an undisclosed settlement sum to 10 current and former students in 2013, is a pretty laughable claim.