Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, “An Assembly of Learned Men.” Los Angeles County Museum of Art
On the day that news about the Harvard sexual harassment lawsuit broke, I was chipping away at the third chapter of my dissertation, trying to fight off the February doldrums and get into a good rhythm with my writing. As soon as I started reading about the case, my productive writing day went out the window. As I read through page after page detailing the charges against John Comaroff—including that he “kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to sabotage students’ careers if they complained”—I was struck less by the details of the case than by how very unsurprising it was to me, by how very mundane the culture of abuse has become in academia, by how very familiar the whole story seemed.
I don’t usually follow Twitter, but I scrolled for hours, reading threads by scholars expressing their rage at what appears to be the gross negligence of Harvard’s faculty and administration in the face of pervasive predatory behavior by Comaroff and his colleagues in anthropology. If the complaint is accurate, the university system allowed Comaroff’s abuse to continue years longer than it should have, in not one, but two, prominent institutions of higher learning.
In the days since the news broke, plenty of tenured faculty have bravely spoken out publicly about their own experiences of sexual harassment in graduate school, but you’ll notice that very few graduate students have. Why? Because we are completely and utterly unprotected.
The lawsuit against Harvard filed by the District of Massachusetts District Court is a troubling narrative—and a triggering one for those who, like me, have experienced sexual harassment in graduate school—precisely because it illustrates the efficiency with which the university system aids and abets sexual harassers and silences victims.
Part of what makes the charges leveled by the plaintiffs in the Harvard case believable is that a graduate student has every reason not to come forward when they experience harassment or abuse. The reasons are endless: to protect their mental and physical health, to finish their dissertation, to secure letters of recommendation, to maintain a “good” reputation among colleagues, to secure funding, to secure a job, to maintain health insurance (that pays for the therapy and doctor’s visits that are necessary to recover from being sexually harassed), to avoid being slandered and maligned by colleagues, superiors, and the press.
And they have only one good reason to come forward: to prevent what happened to them from happening to someone else.
Those of us who have stared down this choice know that the chances of stopping a harasser are slim to none, but that the chances of our dissertations, our careers, and our mental and physical health being compromised are very, very high.
At the same time as I was staring down this perilous choice in my own life, the press had just caught wind of the Avital Ronnell harassment case at NYU (which is still being litigated), in which a senior comparative literature professor was charged with harassing a gay, male graduate student. The Ronnell case, like the Comaroff case, revealed the cracks in a system that allows “star” academics almost limitless power over graduate students, power that these stars can quickly wield to call other influential faculty to their side. The letter in support of Ronnell, like the infamous letter in support of Comaroff signed by 38 colleagues (35 of whom later withdrew their signatures), highlighted Ronnell’s excellent record in the field, her “brilliant scholarship and spirit of intellectual generosity”—as if these qualities precluded sexual harassment. Similarly, the Comaroff letter describes him as an “excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen.”
Neither letter mentions the academic accolades, intellectual contributions, or credentials of the harassers’ victims. In both cases, they are reduced to mere “students”—or in the case of Ronnell’s victim, “the individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her.”
Indeed, this is how power works in the university system. A graduate student—however brilliant or promising they may be—is nothing but a “student” when it really comes down to it. Without the support of their advisors, PhD candidates are little more than cogs in the wheel of academia, names that could just as easily be forgotten, potential that could just as easily go unrealized.
But this is not surprising. The university is a system built on reputation—a concept that has very little to do with intellectual output and everything to do with privilege, social capital, and academic kinship networks. Without a reputation (e.g., letters of recommendation), good luck securing grants to fund dissertation research. Good luck catching wind of career opportunities. Good luck finding a job (which, even with good advisors, is a Sisyphean task).
My own experience of sexual harassment never materialized into a full-blown investigation, although I was offered that choice. But that is part of the problem: it was made clear to me that the decision to follow through was entirely up to me—the ultimate neoliberal gesture of resignation by an elite university with nothing but resources at their disposal.
And what was I to do? Unlike the accuser in the Ronnell case, I don’t have a lawyer, or the money to hire one. And on top of that, I don’t have any source of income beyond my doctoral stipend. I don’t own my home. I don’t have family wealth. I don’t have endless time to finish my degree.
It was very clear to me that I could either choose to follow through with the investigation, or I could choose to finish my dissertation. The two happening simultaneously was not an option.
The same semester that I was grappling with this choice, Ronnell taught her first graduate seminar at NYU after her yearlong suspension. The course she taught was titled—I kid you not—“Unsettled Scores.” The experience of watching an accused harasser return to the classroom in the very university where I was considering filing a sexual harassment complaint was, in a word, harrowing. The university’s reinstatement of Ronnell sent a shiver through the graduate student population.
The message was clear: power will protect power, you will not win.
I heard the message loud and clear, and so, in varying ways, did the three women behind the Comaroff lawsuit. According to the complaint filed against Harvard, they were all told on separate occasions by Harvard faculty and administrators that going to the press would be more effective than going through Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution, a resource in which these advisors expressed little confidence. The delays in, and hurdles to, reporting that are detailed in the complaint against Harvard are a perfect example of how many people must get hurt—and the great lengths to which victims must go—before sexual harassers in the academy come even close to censure.
This is because the system is built to protect, enable, and encourage harassers. Graduate students, whose cheap labor is used by the university to buttress the outrageous salaries of star faculty and senior administrators, are often broke, disempowered, terrified, and exhausted, even prior to being sexually harassed. Their mental health is already fragile because of academia’s pervasive hazing culture and the financial insecurity to which they are subjected for anywhere from five to ten years of their lives.
The university’s chronic inability to prevent or even penalize sexual harassment is only one form of neglect that puts graduate students in harm’s way. To name just one other example: food insecurity is so serious at my university that the graduate student lounge in my department has a basket full of free, non-perishable food items for graduate students who cannot afford to feed themselves. How, at the same university where a dubious former President landed an $800,000-a-year severance deal, and star faculty earn salaries in the high six figures, could graduate students be so financially insecure that they have to rely on free microwavable macaroni and cheese to feed themselves?
Despite these obvious signs of gross inequality, only a handful of universities (including my own) have graduate student unions, and even then, these unions are regularly stonewalled by the university administration, leading to prolonged contract negotiations or, in some cases, the wholesale rejection of graduate students’ right to form a union.
It is not uncommon for graduate students to be told that they are “lucky” to be accepted into their programs, that they should be grateful to have the chance to “read and write” all day and “get paid for it.”
The truth, unfortunately, is much darker. Without the cheap labor and intellectual output of graduate students, the university would cease to function. Imagine if every graduate student who had experienced harassment at the hands of faculty spoke up and was believed—imagine how many departments would crumble, how many kinship networks would dissolve, how many tenure-track jobs would open up for the very graduate students whose ideas and labor have been fueling university life all this time.
There is so much more to be said, but because of the very circumstances I have described above, I will not be the one to say them. For every tenured faculty member who recounts their story of harassment these next days and weeks, there are dozens of graduate students, like me, who will not tell their stories.
Who cannot tell their stories.
If you are reading this, and you are in a position of power in your college or university, I ask that you keep us in mind. I ask that you look for the untold stories in your department. I ask that you interrupt harassment and abuse when you see it. I ask that you tell students they will be believed. I ask that you warn students in clear, detailed terms about known predators in your department and your university. I ask that you offer yourself as a resource and a guide to those who are dealing with the fallout from harassment.
Use your power on behalf of those of us with none. It’s the least you can do.
Hannah Leffingwell is a PhD candidate at New York University in the departments of History and French Studies. Her work centers on the intersections of queer identity, feminism, and social justice. Her first chapbook, A Thirst For Salt, was published by Gazing Grain Press in 2018. @hanleffingwell