Vanderbilt Faces $20 Million Lawsuit for Mishandling Sexual Harassment

Illustration for article titled Vanderbilt Faces $20 Million Lawsuit for Mishandling Sexual Harassment

Because it is another day in America, an esteemed institution of higher learning faces a federal lawsuit for handling sexual harassment abysmally. In this particular case, a former Vanderbilt graduate student alleges that she was sexually harassed by a supervisor and roundly ignored and discriminated against by Vanderbilt administrators. She is now suing the school for $20 million. Hooray for higher education.


According to WSMV Nashville, the plaintiff is a former student at Vanderbilt's medical school. She claims that she was sexually harassed as a student and sexually and racially discriminated against; her suit names a dean, a chancellor and a department director. So far, there aren't many specific details — just a few particularly gross nuggets of deplorable, unprofessional, sexist and predatory behavior.

As News Channel 5 reports, the plaintiff alleges a pattern of abuse from a supervising professor. Some gross specifics: at a conference, the professor reportedly "required the female graduate students to attend a boat party where the male professors became intoxicated and were allowed to make romantic and sexual advances on the students." Excuse me, what? This professor literally trapped his students on a vessel with a pack of leering, drunk men in the middle of the ocean? That seriously sounds like something that would occur in one of the outer rings of hell in a modern Dante's Inferno.

But it gets even worse! The plaintiff also claims that the professor would "routinely call her ugly, fat and... stupid in front of other students" and that, although he knew that she was a recovering alcoholic, he would tell her that he wished she would start drinking again "because she would be more fun." He also told her that "she would be less stressed out if she had more sex." Uh. Or maybe she would be less stressed if she didn't have to put up with institutionally-sanctioned harassment while trying to pursue an incredibly challenging graduate degree! Just a thought.

She further alleges that, when she reported the abuse to the professor's supervisor, the supervisor informed her that "in his opinion, it was nothing but a personality conflict." You know. A little clash of dispositions. Just a student whose personality type is "I would like to finish med school without getting sexually harassed and verbally abused by my professor" and a teacher whose personality type is "I would like to wantonly treat my female students like (sexualized) garbage," butting heads.

Because of the abuse, she eventually left the program before earning her Ph.D. — as is far, far too often the case with students who are poorly served by incompetent or otherwise negligent sexual assault and harassment policies.

Of course, this is far from an isolated incident. At many colleges and universities, professors behaving inappropriately toward students is so normalized that faculty who speak out against known predators face professional retaliation. Furthermore, a new study shows that sexual harassment and abuse are depressingly commonplace for women working in STEM fields, which is sadly unsurprising: 71 percent of women in STEM report experiencing some form of sexual harassment at work, and 26 percent say they were victim of sexual assault and/or nonconsensual sexual contact.


It's refreshing to see a powerful institution like Vanderbilt held accountable for permitting — if not outright encouraging — a troubling pattern of abuse and discrimination. Unfortunately, though, shit like this continues to happen every day.


Image via Jimmy Emerson/Flickr



Annnnd Vandy's medical school provides one of the only continuing medical education courses on physician-patient boundaries in the country. I have represented doctors accused of sexual boundary violations who have taken that CME to fulfill disciplinary orders.