An extended cultural reckoning spurred by public disclosures and investigative reports about sexual harassment and abuse has been ongoing since mid-2017. The #MeToo sharing inspired by many high-profile Silence Breakers joining investigations by journalists or courageously sharing their personal stories has led to an ongoing public discussion about power, consent, disclosure, reporting, and enforcement. Societal expectations and stakes for organizational justice and reform are deservedly higher than ever before.
While time will tell the ultimate shape of concrete, forward-looking change within institutions and communities, the one truth that is already apparent is that no industry will be exempt from having its organizations and their employees at all levels engaged in the change to social and corporate norms that must take place. The current public discourse was kicked off by stories told by people who were abused, preyed upon, and suppressed by individuals and organizations in the Hollywood entertainment industry, but survivors from every sector have joined to share their experiences to expose their harassers and abusers and seek justice.
Higher education – both for students as well as professionals working within academia – is one field in which oppressive authority and administrative bureaucracy are particularly notorious. For years occasional disclosures of sexual harassment and assault have emerged from higher education, and officials and organizations have attempted to contend with need for enforcement and change on campus and at conferences.
In the current movement, public attention overall has begun to move toward determining ways in which organizational power structures and defense strategies can be changed and improved in order to prevent and address harassment and abuse. These questions are especially prescient in academia, where institutions and officials have struggled to enable appropriate, sustainable cultures for speaking up and out.
- #MeToo at universities: While higher education seemed at first perceptibly slower to join the onslaught of confrontations around sexual harassment and abuse, both women and men from academia have come forward to make legal, press, and social media reports about their experiences. The Chronicle of Higher Education has compiled a running guide of cases that have come out of academia, from institutions all over, since late 2017: Sexual Harassment and Assault in Higher Ed: What’s Happened Since Weinstein
- Challenges to reporting: Access to employment, career advancement, and future professional opportunities has long been a source of anxiety for and encouragement of silence among survivors of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. Universities often tout “zero tolerance” policies to boost their public images of safety and tolerance, but in reality, punishment of harassment in academia has been chillingly rare. Severe and serial harassment continues on unreported and as an open secret on campuses because of the fear that individuals have for the futures of their careers and ability to work in their chosen fields, which are often very competitive and driven by reputation. Career consequences for coming forward to accuse and report often very powerful individuals and implicate the institutions involved as well makes survivors vulnerable to retaliation and hesitant to speak up out of fear of jeopardizing their futures: When Will the “Harvey Effect” Reach Academia?
- Tenure and power imbalance: Job stability and access to future working opportunities is an issue not only for survivors, but also in the handling of accused perpetrators. Harassers and abusers in academia are conditioned to expect light punishment due to the protection of tenure and their often very powerful and protective professional networks. The power imbalance between professors and undergraduate or graduate students that they teach, mentor, advise, and supervise is explicit and has a blatant chilling effect on reporting, investigation, and enforcement: This grad student says her professor harassed her. Her life changed. Did his?
- Campus culture of compliance: Universities and other institutions within academia have a new impetus to re-frame the inappropriate and abusive interactions and relationships which may arise between their employees and/or participants. Traditionally, substantive change has often been stifled because authority dynamics and the conditions on campus which permit or enable individuals to misbehave seem so entrenched and impermeable to change. However, as the saying goes, the way to start eating an elephant is to take one bite at a time. Columbia University has undertaken a research study called Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) which seems to indicate that small, incremental changes may add up to big improvements over time in campus culture of compliance: Is there a smarter way to think about sexual assault on campus?
- Path to organizational change: There may be some potential best practices to be found at Goldsmiths, University of London. Following a protest resignation in summer 2016 by an acclaimed academic, Goldsmiths needed to take action to address multiple claims of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and bullying among its ranks and a pervasive organizational culture which enabled it. Following these complaints as well as a media investigation which raised public discussion, Goldsmiths devised a detailed action plan. This includes a new reporting framework, implementation of concrete policies and procedures, and creation of awareness programs for both staff and students: How one UK university confronted its sexual harassment problem
For a further perspective on institutional responsibility and challenges to transparency, and necessity for change, focused on the US Olympic Committee, check out this post. For commentary on justice and organizational change inspired by the #MeToo “Silence Breakers” movement, see this post. Finally, for a round-up on general compliance issues in higher education, check out this post.