The Weinsteins of academia can no longer be tolerated

Getting universities’ houses in order may well mean publicly dismissing some very eminent academics, say Graham Towl and Kelsey Paske

November 7, 2017
Woman holding a "me too" sticker

The story of endemic institutional abuse – and pervasive cover-ups masked as “ignorance” – is not new. It is embedded in institutions that have been established by the privileged elite. Underpinning the success of these institutions is power and control: the desire either to acquire or maintain it.

The feudal dynamics are the same in the academy as they are in Hollywood: the steep power differentials between junior and senior academics are similar to those between “up-and-coming” actors and established movie leads, directors and producers. In both contexts, the power to advance a career is too frequently abused.

Successive generations have not seen fit to make fundamental changes to such inequalities. Yet, increasingly, we are seeing the human costs of such structures. Our response can no longer be to expect victims and survivors to address this abuse. Rather, we need to dramatically re-evaluate these structures and dismantle the power, privilege and entitlement that contribute to such violence.

Academic staff who have harassed or assaulted other staff or their students have been protected because of the huge incentive for universities to retain people who can bring in significant research income and, in the UK, a successful result in the research excellence framework. But what decision-makers within higher education must consider in assessing institutional risk, reputational damage and duty of care is not so much financial as human capital.

One particular feature of the academic world involves new researchers moving from one temporary contract to the next, heavily dependent upon strong references from respected figures. Most fields have their leading lights, but there are those among them who quietly and abusively dim the career prospects of those seeking their help to progress.

The media – including social media users – are often in awe of such figures’ “brands”, sometimes referring to them as academic “rock stars”. Such talk contributes to what is increasingly referred to as “toxic masculinity”. And the more we protect such people or claim ignorance of their abuses, the more we institutionalise such abuses, increasing the probability of their recurrence.

Today, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey are in the news. So, in the UK, are many members of Parliament, some of them very senior. Tomorrow, it could be that eminent professor we have all heard about and knowingly referred to as a “character”.

And while the issue is not new, the response can be. In Hollywood, the abusers are being stripped of their positions and their accolades. If the criminal proceedings launched against some of them are successful, they might ultimately be deprived of their liberty too. And this has given rise to an environment in which other “characters” are finally at serious risk of exposure.

The higher education sector can and should provide a lead in educating and developing society through research and good practice. But before we can do that, we need to take the opportunity offered by the Weinstein scandal to get our own house in order. 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. We need to embrace accountability and transparency – before it is imposed on us by media revelations. Who is up to the challenge? 

Graham Towl is professor of forensic psychology and was the pro vice-chancellor chair of the Sexual Violence Task Force at Durham University during 2015/2016. He was formerly chief psychologist at the Ministry of Justice. Kelsey Paske is an Athena SWAN Charter advisor and a specialist in the prevention of violence against women. She was previously senior manager for violence prevention and support at La Trobe University, Australia. They each speak in a personal capacity.

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Reader's comments (4)

Wait, people actually care about us indentured servants who are disposable and dime a dozen? Oh my word, the world's ending.
I am a man so perhaps that is why this has taken me by surprise having never experienced it. I find this rather shocking as I have clearly lived in a parallel universe where this was all hidden from me. It is quite frankly appalling and incomprehensible. At work, one treats others in a professional manner - for example, it has never crossed my mind to put my hand on the knee of a female student or junior staff member. It was unacceptable in any age and I am glad that it is coming out into the open. One of the great things about academic jobs is that they are interesting enough to be all-consuming so I am unpleasantly surprised and disappointed to hear about these behaviours.
As a woman in academia, I must say that I am becoming tired of this gendered debate and blaming of abuse of power in academia on the silly notion of 'toxic of masculinity', casting men solely as perpetrators and women as essentially good and innocent and thus incapable of abuse. This is not to say that sexism does not exist there - as it does in society at large and at other worksplaces as well, but it is also not uncommon that senior women abuse their power vis-a-vis both lower positioned women and men, and in the case of young men using the same strategies as Weinstein, only we do not talk about that - after all, when it comes to men, many think - 'why did he not just enjoy that'. At least in my own experience, it has been precisely higher positioned women that have made life hell for my lower ranking female colleagues as well as for me at a certain point in my life. In my whole career, I have experienced only supportive and very decent men, judging by quality of work rather than personal issues. Women, on the other hand, have been often jealous, insecure and threatened as women they perceived as 'competition' moved up the ranks. Experiencing female solidarity has to me been a rare exception, rather than a rule. It was women, who, when I was supported by a man, were the first to insinuate that I must have 'done something with him', where this was never the case. Let's talk about abuse of power irrespective of gender, instead of looking for 'male perverts'. If we look at the statistics on female sex offending, many will be surprised that the numbers are fairly high and abuse of male students by female professors and teachers is not uncommon. Let's stop painting one gender as inherently innocent and the other as inherently abusive, and instead focus on abuse in all its forms. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/female-sex-offenders-more-common-gender-bias-statistics-rape-abuse-a7839361.html
Like Tessa above, I am also getting tired of this obsession women's genitalia. In this age of sexual liberation, this kind of obsession with genitalia and touching and kissing sounds like a power play for women to label men as all evil to get ahead and gain an economic advantage. If we are going to talk about genitalia, let me point out the most pervasive problem. That is young women trying to get ahead by flirting, leading on, and even marrying older men, by using their sexual power. If using sex for power is evil, then women are as guilty as men, if not more.

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