Scholarly sleaze

Just like Hollywood and Parliament, academia has entrenched power hierarchies. It can’t pretend that sexual harassment doesn’t take place

November 16, 2017
Anti-Weinstein protesters
Source: Getty

Everyone has an opinion on the flood of sexual harassment allegations of recent weeks.

The constant flow of revelations, first in show business then in politics, have played perfectly to the 24-hour news agenda (who’s next?) and commentators have weighed in from every angle.

What is clear, amid the maelstrom, is that the exploitation of professional relationships – particularly in competitive fields where the senior and successful have cachet and powers of patronage – is far more widespread than many will have supposed.

That’s not to say that everyone is a predator or a victim, nor is it to write off concerns about the impact of unproven allegations and due process in all of this.

But the past few weeks leave no doubt that the insidious abuse of power – and specifically the power imbalance that leaves the young vulnerable to abuse by those above them in professional hierarchies – is something that cannot be dismissed as a problem that was left behind in the 1970s.

There is no reason to think that academia is immune. Indeed, it is structured in a way that makes it almost inconceivable that this is not an issue festering in universities.

Talk to academics and many will tell similar tales about what goes on – the patterns that they have seen and the points of particular vulnerability, such as the transition from PhD to postdoc when young researchers are so reliant on more senior colleagues, and vulnerable to unwanted attention.

So is a dam about to break in higher education, as it has so spectacularly in Hollywood?

Perhaps not to the same degree. But in a blog post for Times Higher Education, Graham Towl, who led a sexual violence taskforce at Durham University, and Kelsey Paske, an Athena Swan adviser who has worked on these issues at La Trobe University, argue that the “feudal dynamics” in higher education share many traits with those of Hollywood.

The protection offered to established academic stars on the basis of reputation and the research income they bring in, the temporary contracts and professional insecurity endured by those starting out – the warning signs are all there, the pair suggest, and many academics will have heard rumours.

“We need to take the opportunity offered by the Weinstein scandal to get our own house in order,” they write. “This may well mean some universities dismissing some of their most academically eminent staff – and not through quiet transfer and the hidden protection of non-disclosure agreements, as we’ve seen in the past with sexual harassment allegations.”

In our cover story, we take a closer look at the personal experience and observations of five women working in higher education in different fields and levels of seniority in the UK and North America. 

Some of the individual stories are horrifying, but they also highlight patterns of behaviour. On the fraught topic of academic-student relationships, for example, one of our contributors makes a compelling case against the argument that these fall under the seemingly obvious point that the private lives of consenting adults are no one else’s concern.

Another likens the legal apparatus stemming from well-intentioned efforts to stop sexual harassment to that of the Inquisition. 

Others state that it is the culture of universities, rather than the individual power of the abuser, that is most significant in preventing women from speaking out. 

And a senior academic gives an overview of what it has been like to be a woman in academia since the 1970s – what has changed, and what has not.

Read all five of our testimonies, and it is obvious that not enough has. That is not an opinion so much as an uncomfortable truth.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: End the feudalism

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