Suspension is a feminist issue

An academic who suffered sexual harassment criticises the secrecy surrounding such cases

October 30, 2014

Source: Miles Cole

In recent months, the suspension of several prominent academics from their institutions has prompted a wider debate about the practice of suspension and whether its use is ever justified.

In these broader discussions, suspension has been invariably – and naively – presented as though it involves only two parties: the accused academic, abruptly removed from their post, and the university management.

One article in Times Higher Education asked: “What possible risk is avoided by suspending an academic?” (“‘Disappeared’ and devastated: the injustice of suspension”, 14 August 2014). The implication – that suspension is never appropriate – shows an alarming lack of awareness of the power academic staff hold.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of its use in recent, very different cases, I have a particular perspective on the general issue arising out of my own experience during my PhD, when my doctoral supervisor was suspended for sexually harassing me and several other female doctoral students.

As I learned intimately during my doctoral studies, the university is an intensely hierarchical space, and students are structurally positioned to seek the approval of the academic staff to whom they are entrusted. This makes students vulnerable to abuses of that power.

In my own case, I was keen to impress my mentors. I wanted to produce work that they thought was of high quality, and I wanted them to like me. This meant that when abuse of that power occurred, I was in a position that it was difficult to remove myself from. Judgements of my work that were not about its quality, but were instead meant to manipulate me, were highly effective and ultimately threatened to entirely destroy my own sense of my work. The confusing blurring of the boundary between academic interest and sexual interest eroded my confidence.

The dangers that my supervisor posed to me were not only about confidence, however. Supervisions became about negotiating a power struggle: I had to delicately reject the sexual advances of a man upon whom I was wholly professionally dependent. He controlled access to funding and professional opportunities and he wrote my reference letters. Turning him down again and again, I risked alienating him, and feared that my career would end before it could begin. And sometimes he simply would not hear “no” as an answer.

Deciding to complain about the harassment I was experiencing was one of the scariest decisions I have made. It took me years to work up the courage, not least of all because my supervisor’s sexualisation of PhD students was routine, and an open secret.

As is always the case, his suspension took place in an atmosphere of secrecy. No one in the department was allowed to say what was happening or why the suspension had taken place. This made it possible for conspiracy theories to circulate. A story circulated that his suspension was another instance of management unfairly attacking a vulnerable professor.

I, along with the other women, had to live in the environment produced by this denial of all wrong-doing, enabled by the secrecy around official proceedings. We watched our peers band together to defend a man who had abused us and attempt to interrupt a process that had required us to take huge personal and professional risks. And we had to bite our tongues as we were excluded from our peer group because of our refusal to support our abuser.

Secrecy did not protect me or the other women. It didn’t even protect the university management. The only person it protected was the professor, whose years of abuse were hidden from the public eye.

Suspension is a feminist issue. It is necessary to protect vulnerable students from abuses of power, and the reasons for suspension should be a matter of public record. In my case, not only did the secrecy place a further burden on the women who had already endured harassment, it also potentially placed women at other institutions in danger in the future. Because there is no record of what happened, the professor (who eventually resigned) was free to go on and teach elsewhere.

Requiring the cause of suspension to be a matter of public record would also help to make clear when and if suspension is being used in an intimidatory way by university management. So long as the motivations remain secret, it is only too easy for those who have abused students to claim that they are the victims of the hard-won process that has finally held them to some account.

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