Dear Colleague

 

ME

ME

ME

ME

ME

ME

ME

TOO

TOO

TOO

TOO

TOO

TOO

TOO

What is it going to take for a large group of people to believe that women of all races and many individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community have been sexually harassed, discriminated against, and assaulted and then made to believe it was their fault?  We didn’t protest vociferously as we heard cases and allegations against Fox News, our current “president,” and Bill Cosby (2005 and again in 2015).  Do white women actors from Hollywood have a certain clout that is waking people up to the pervasiveness of workplace harassment (hostile work environment and quid pro quo), street harassment, and sexual violence?  We have to hope that the visible and audible outrage about the Harvey Weinstein case expressed in traditional media outlets and copiously on social media raise awareness and allow us to make real incursions into social and legal change.

I wrote last week about how unsurprised we should be about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged 30-year campaign of sexual harassment and assault.  The textbook elements of the case include: predatory and criminal behaviors enacted by those higher in the hierarchy on those lower in the hierarchy (power differential); the person harassed is taken aback by the situation and feels threatened, and therefore often doesn’t respond in a way that she might otherwise have done (she is hit by gender and/or race shrapnel); cronies of the higher-up accommodate the illegal behaviors of their colleague and maintain their own power (male networks of power and boys-will-be-boys attitudes); those who have been harassed and/or assaulted and are brave enough to speak out are silenced in any number of ways (threats; tabloids, black lists; lack of employment; etc.); society reinforces negative responses to the women who speak out (can’t take a joke; nags; drags; exaggerators; liars); the boss preys again.

I dare say that this The New York Times piece, which reports on Woody Allen’s BBC interview about the Weinstein case, reveals again how those accused of these serious crimes rarely understand what they did (or continue to do) wrong.  Allen states that he’s grateful for the work Miramax gave him after his own sexual harassment and violence cases, makes clear that no one should be interested in hearing these types of allegations (“You’re not interested in it.  You are interested in making your movie”), and warns of a “witch hunt atmosphere,” which sounds curiously like the “president’s” words about the Justice Department’s inquiry into Russian involvement in our most recent presidential election. The New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens applauds Betsy DeVos for ending “a campus witch hunt” in her removal of Obama-era Title IX guidance for colleges and universities.  Who are the witches and who are the hunters here?  In this opinion piece in The New York Times, campus sexual violence researchers Miriam Gleckman-Krut and Nicole Bedera insist that “Obama-era policies did not malign men.  What they did was make it easier for victims to come forward.”  The headline asks the poignant question, “Who Gets to Define Campus Rape?”

As I write in Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, many people who are harassed have to change their daily paths to avoid the person in power and often have to turn down job opportunities that would require them to have contact with that person, thus permanently changing the course of the careers of the people who have been harassed.  These acts of avoidance occur in every career and on many college and university campuses.  The power systems set in place are replicated in the social lives of the students, thus demonstrating again the continuum through which sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation are linked to sexual assault and sexual violence.  If we don’t take issues of harassment and discrimination seriously, then we will not get at the enormous problem of sexual assault and sexual violence.

Sexual harassment in the higher education context is important for many reasons.  Turning a blind eye to it reinforces for young men, women, and people of all genders that young men are supposed to have, exercise, and retain power, both during the college years and beyond.  It sets the tone for the workplace, since we presumably are educating students to be the workers of tomorrow.  The blind-eye habit in higher education also sends a message to students in middle and high schools that boys have the power and girls should shut up.  This doesn’t bode well for their futures in higher education and/or the workplace.  The sexual harassment problem in Hollywood, at Fox News, in the White House, and in so many other industries, simply reproduces itself in other power-dependent settings, like schools.

President Obama’s “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011 (now included on the Office of Civil Rights’s website only as “archived information”) sent a direct message to United States colleges and universities that the reduction of sexual assault and sexual violence on higher education campuses was a priority for the Obama administration.  The “significant guidance” included in the letter comes with great detail, and in the second footnote of the document, sexual harassment is directly linked to sexual violence and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is invoked.  In other words, the document recognized the more acute context for people who find themselves at the intersection of gender, race, and/or national origin. These moves, along with the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, reveal the Obama administration’s understanding of the problem and the seriousness with which the administration approached recommendations for adjudication.  I strongly recommend this 19-page document to anyone interested in reducing the incidence of sexual harassment and violence and in understanding links between and among Title IV, VII, and IX law.

Last month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded the Obama-era guidelines.  (*See this previous post on DeVos and public education.)  DeVos has replaced the “Dear Colleague” guidelines with a Q&A document, which arguably creates a “both sides” false equivalency that had been eased by the Obama-era guidelines.  (*See Jeannie Suk Gersen’s and Christina Hoff Sommers’s support of “both sides” approaches. )  One report cites “confusion over specifics” of the interim guidelines provided by DeVos’s office.  The Chronicle of Higher Education’s September 11, 2017, commentary by Scott Schneider analyzes in legal and practical terms “what DeVos got wrong in her speech on the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter.”  Information and clarifications have come out in drips and drabs (e.g. this updated piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education), thus sowing more confusion and making victims wonder whether it is worthwhile to report traumatic incidents of sexual assault and violence.  A reporter from The Chronicle has chronicled his numerous attempts to get straight answers out of the Education Secretary.

DeVos’s replacement of the Obama-era guidelines (both 2011 [“Dear Colleague”] and 2014 [Q&A format for clarification of “Dear Colleague”]) speaks again to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s idea that the current “president’s” “presidency” (quotation marks around these words are mine) “hinges on the fact of a black president” and “has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own” (these brilliant quotes are from Coates).  Recent college graduate Jamil Smith in this piece in The New York Times states that:  “Instead, my experience taught me that we need to be proactive in preventing sexual assault, and much of that involves something that should be a natural fit for college campuses: education. The workshops I taught to captive audiences of fraternity brothers are a start, but even they weren’t enough. Rape prevention education should be more than an hour, and it should be mandatory for everyone, not just those involved in Greek life. And beyond the legal landscape of sexual assault, men should be disabused of the beliefs that lead to it and should be required to understand its effects on victims.”  The United States could clearly use several thousand more Jamil Smiths, young men who understand structural oppression of women and do something to change it.

DeVos has taken her marching orders from this “president.”  It’s time to dance to an entirely different tune.  Let’s get it right here, on campus, the place guided by lofty mission statements that usually assert that we are all people.

P.S. After this blog post was published, I saw Professor Mikki Brock’s excellent piece on witches and witch hunts in The Washington Post.  Check it out!

Witches and Warlocks

This week Fox News removed Bill O’Reilly from its roster (reported on by The New York Times here).  Finally.  After multiple complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.  (*See the Gender Shrapnel Blog post on Roger Ailes and Fox News here.)  The New York Times reported: “Mr. O’Reilly and his employers came under intense pressure after an article by The New York Times on April 1 revealed how Fox News and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, had repeatedly stood by him even as he and the company reached settlements with five women who had complained about sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior by him. The agreements totaled about $13 million.”  The New York Times reports that O’Reilly was still able to hold a meeting with the Pope this week and will not lose his book contract with Henry Holt.  Bill also keeps the $25 million (figure cited in this The Washington Post piece) that Fox News would have paid him in the upcoming year. I think Bill is doing just fine, in case you were worried.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has featured for several weeks now Laura Kipnis’ article titled “Eyewitness to a Title IX Witch Trial.”  The article, published in The Chronicle’s Review section, has given ample publicity to the publication of Kipnis’ new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (HarperCollins).  In this blog post, I am addressing only Kipnis’ piece in The Chronicle.  I haven’t yet read the book.  I disagree with the main points of the article, but maybe the book will offer more nuance.

In the lengthy review article (about her own book), Kipnis recounts at great length the process by which Northwestern University adjudicated a case against philosophy professor Peter Ludlow.  The case has been covered in The Chicago Tribune, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Daily Northwestern.  I’m only familiar with this case through reading these articles and therefore am no expert on it.  I understand that Ludlow was accused by an undergraduate student, who had been Ludlow’s student, of forcing her to drink alcohol and making unwanted sexual advances towards her.  Soon after this became a formal lawsuit, a graduate student (from the same department as Ludlow, but not his student) accused Ludlow of raping her.  These are the two cases at the center of this story.  Northwestern University had no policy prohibiting faculty-student relations (called “dating” by Kipnis in the Chronicle piece).

Kipnis takes issue with Northwestern University’s handling of the case in the lengthy hearings of Ludlow, at which were present the faculty panel and “three outside lawyers, at least two in-house lawyers, another lawyer hired by the university to advise the faculty panel…,” (cited here) along with Ludlow’s lawyer.  Kipnis was there in the role of “faculty support person” to Ludlow.  Her account of the hearings is supplemented by Ludlow’s file of e-mails, text messages, memos, and formal university documents.  I appreciate Kipnis’ detailed account and willingness to question Title IX proceedings that are still woefully inadequate on most college and university campuses.  She believes that the university was trying to respond to unclear Title IX guidelines and that this resulted in the “witch trial” of Peter Ludlow.

Laura Kipnis is implicated in the case as well because her earlier defense of faculty-student “dating” had resulted in a Title IX complaint against her at Northwestern.  Kipnis believes that prohibitions on such behavior are paternalistic and remove sexual agency.  I believe we need to understand this entanglement to analyze well Kipnis’ highly public (and well remunerated) opinion on this case.

I would like to examine the language Kipnis uses in this piece. Kipnis remarks, “So when Ludlow’s lawyer called, of course I said yes—I was being offered a front-row seat at a witch trial.” The “witch trial” analogy seems poorly applied in the case of Ludlow, who has enjoyed great privilege and position for years.  I get that “warlock trial” doesn’t do the trick, but I’d rather go in that direction.  I also don’t completely understand the desire to witness a so-called “witch trial” because I don’t wish the pillory upon people, whether they are innocent or guilty. On the other hand, if Kipnis had made clear that her goal in being present at the hearings was to bear witness in the name of justice surrounding fraught Title IX policies, practices, and procedures, then her participation in, association with, and writings about the case to me would be more convincing.

The conflation of the term “sex” with “sexual harassment and discrimination” and “sexual violence” presents problems that weaken some of Kipnis’ arguments.  “Sex” refers to (1) biological determinations that have been appropriately complicated by gender and sexuality studies and (2) physical contact (often officially referred to as sexual intercourse, with reference to genitalia) between and/or among individuals.  Kipnis states, “I soon learned that rampant accusation is the new norm on American campuses; the place is a secret cornucopia of accusation, especially when it comes to sex” (cited in her 4-2-17 Chronicle piece).  The hyperbolic language (“rampant” and “cornucopia”) belies the realities of sexual assault on college campuses, where 2016 statistics (RAINN statistics here) still tell us that one in five women is sexually assaulted during her time at college or university.  The figures are worse for transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming individuals.  Kipnis uses the bald term ‘sex,’ instead of giving it context in the hierarchical layers of colleges and universities.

Nowhere in this lengthy piece does Kipnis deal with actual statistics that speak to a culture of sexual violence, embedded in power hierarchies, on our college and university campuses.  Kipnis claims that “new codes banning professor-student dating infantilize[d]students—this wasn’t feminism, it was paternalism.”  Kipnis’ foray into questions of feminism and sexual agency is interesting and necessary, but becomes much more complicated when the professor-student relationship is added to the mix.

Professors do wield power.  We design syllabi, determine the flow of class, assign grades, vote for assignment of department awards, and write (or don’t) letters of recommendation. Undergraduate and graduate students can develop a type of hero worship (something I detect in Kipnis’ enraptured tone as she describes Ludlow) that might translate as sexual attraction.  No matter an institution’s lack of policy on “dating” (Kipnis’ oversimplified term), or “fraternization” (a charged term in and of itself often used in the workplace), a professor who gets entangled in a relationship with a student in his class or department is exercising power.  Students in the same department are often nominated for the same awards, scholarships, and grants, and therefore departments breed competition, a competition that takes on a different look and a less fair landscape if a professor is sleeping with one of the students involved.

When things go wrong in the relationship (however we choose to define it), and we know they often do, this power piece is at play.  College students are often trying to figure out sexual desires and identities, and, so, yes, questions of power and sexual agency are more than just a little complicated.  If and when students and professors sleep together, structural systems of power become even more apparent.  Kipnis’ use of the term ‘sexual paranoia,’ in this review piece and in the book title itself, trivializes this important developmental stage for 18-22-year-olds and conflates sexual exploration with sexual discrimination and violence.  Kipnis also reduces real concerns about rampant sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and about rape and sexual violence to one oversimplified, offensive phrase, ‘sexual finger-pointing.’

Kipnis praises Jessica Wilson, a philosophy professor and former student of Ludlow, and Wilson’s character defense of Ludlow at the hearings.  Kipnis writes, “Like a great teacher, Wilson flipped the question [about Wilson’s own account of “unwelcome behavior” from a different former professor] around.  She’d been speaking from her own experience, she pointed out.  Yet didn’t the panelists have to ask whether she was telling the truth?  They hadn’t been there, so how would they know?  And if she were being entirely honest, she herself wasn’t sure if the disturbing thing was a professor trying to kiss her, or simply that she was getting unwanted attention that she ‘wasn’t participating in.’”  Kipnis neglects to make clear that “getting unwanted attention that you’re not participating in” can be or can easily lead to real violation.  In addition, Kipnis replicates sexualization and hero worship in her description of Wilson: “Here was a smart, attractive, successful woman from one of the top philosophy departments in North America who revered Peter Ludlow.”  She later remarks that, after Wilson completed her testimony, “it felt as if there were an erotic current in the room.”

Kipnis also tires of “exhausted clichés about predatory males and eternally innocent females…”  I think it’s fair to say that anyone who follows the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and the major national dailies might find these “clichés” to not be exhausted enough.  Of course it makes sense to get away from the polarized language Kipnis critiques, but college and university campus statistics and the underlying realities of sexual violence on campus are still acutely bad.  The tone Kipnis uses when speaking of the two complainants is condescending at best.  When Kipnis blames herself for not coming to Ludlow’s defense in a particularly tense moment in the hearing, she wonders if she hadn’t done so because she was “so shaken [her]self, so frozen and appalled” that she couldn’t.  This is exactly what happens to many people who have experienced aggression and assault (and to some who have witnessed it), just like the two complainants in this case had claimed themselves.  If the two complainants are deserving of scorn, I would like more information to understand why.

The strength of Kipnis’ article (and, I surmise, her book) lies in the legitimate questioning of the efficacy of legal processes in Title IX hearings on college and university campuses.  She rightly criticizes Northwestern for running hearings soaked with lawyers from all sides, hiring an outside lawyer to advise the university panel, and worrying more about image than justice (Kipnis writes: “Ludlow was bad for the brand.”).  Kipnis also says that she “was being warned off the subject,” and I am certain that was the case.  Universities have many direct and subtle means to silence unpleasant subjects and cases that sully the brand.  My simplified view of the stance that universities adopt is that they support the side that brings the fewest monetary and public relations risks.  Oftentimes this means that complainants are silenced and run off campus, and, on far fewer occasions, it means that alleged perpetrators are.

We should all be wary when a university hires outside counsel to “advise” an internal panel.  The advice provided stems from whatever is in the university’s best interest.  At that point, the university can be considered wholly separate from the complainant and the alleged perpetrator.  Kipnis points to the fraught intervention of universities in their own processes when she writes, “The university was set on getting rid of Ludlow, and the hearing was a formality.  I also knew enough about the procedures to know that the faculty panel’s vote was merely advisory; the provost would make the final call, and it had been the provost’s decision to put the dismissal machinery in motion to begin with.”  Exactly!  This is a profound problem not only because it is evidently unjust, but also because it exploits student, staff, and faculty labor and their potentially sincere belief in the benefits of university adjudicative processes.

No matter where we readers fall on matters of sexual agency and exploitation of professional power, we can certainly question the Big Brand Machine of colleges and universities, whose students and employees have become little more than additional institutional risks.

The Chronicle has featured Laura Kipnis on several occasions and for several weeks running.  It might be a good moment to consider other editorial decisions that take into account real statistics and violations of actual people.

A Twisted Tale of Two Harassers (Welcome to the White House)

Last week I learned that titles like “Sexual Assault Prevention Training in the News” don’t grab readers.  Maybe this week’s title will, and certainly one of the people to whom it alludes has spoken famously about grabbing.

Mainstream and not-so-mainstream media, from People and Cosmopolitan to The Washington Post and The Atlantic, have been crackling this week due to the revelation from a resurfaced 2002 Mike Pence interview that the only woman with whom Pence will dine alone is his wife, Karen Pence.  (*Here are links to more coverage of this issue:  The Guardian, Slate, and Canada Free Press.)  As you know, Mike Pence was governor of Indiana and is now the Vice President of the United States.  His level of world awareness and understanding of gender essentialism boils down to one word: cooties.  Pence seems to believe that all women are temptresses and that he has limited ability to hold himself back from such temptation and infection.  Therefore, he will not have a meal with any women who aren’t Karen (that’s a lot of women) and won’t hire women staffers with whom he would potentially have to meet alone in the evening hours (that’s all staffers).  Jia Tolentino remarks in her The New Yorker article on the piece, “That Pence was able to do so speaks to an incredible level of inequity in the workplace; no successful woman could ever abide by the same rule.  How could you sex-segregate a thrice-daily activity and still engage in civic life?”

(Pence with the only women with whom he trusts himself to interact)       (http://canadafreepress.com/article/pences-dinner-arrangements-with-women)

What Pence is doing technically is not harassment, but discrimination.  He is discriminating against all women and limiting their professional advancement because he is afraid that he will harass them.  Actually, that gives Pence too much credit.  I’m guessing he is just afraid that he is too weak not to have sex with all of these women who so obviously will be throwing themselves at him because he is so desirable.

Tolentino states that Christian evangelicals often invoke the “Billy Graham rule,” which, Tolentino writes, is a refusal to “eat, travel, or meet along with a woman” and which “stems from a story that the famous pastor told about walking into a hotel room and finding a naked woman, bent on destroying his ministry, sprawled across his bed.”  While Tolentino appropriately detects some hyperbole in this account, it might be helpful to imagine the gender roles reversed.  What if a famous woman minister returned to her hotel room after a night of preaching to the masses and found a naked man sprawled on her bed?  I hardly think she would have the luxury of separating herself from all encounters with men in order to avoid scandal.  This version of the story would likely have her limiting encounters with this individual man out of fear of assault, not out of fear of scandal.  Of course, the Billy Graham rule also seems to limit contact with any non-Christians, thus violating Title VII based on not only gender, but also religion.

Pence’s ego drives the decision to discriminate, just as Trump’s drives him to harass and assault.  (*See The New York Timestranscript of Donald Trump’s comments about women.)  As you can see, we have here not the Tale of Two Harassers, but a White House of virulently white, pro-Christian, pro-male men.  Pence castigates women (limits hiring, work access, and promotion of women in high-level government) because he doesn’t trust himself, and Trump speaks of violating women because they are mere objects for his consumption.  Again, Pence alienates women with a weird version of pedestal politics: his wife Karen is somehow pure through her singular connection to him, but all other women are just Biblical temptress bots.  Trump alienates women by verbally and physically harassing them individually and en masse, thus training women to raise red flags around him, while also cementing their place as the non-hireables.  These two powerful men distance those who are unlike them (non-white; non-man; non-Christian) and, in particular, privilege their power in the public sphere over everything else.

As I write in Gender Shrapnel, these behaviors have broad implications for people of color, non-Christians, and women as individuals and as members of specific groups.  Individuals who experience the Pence-type discrimination and/or the Trump-branded harassment are limited in their horizontal movements, that is, their movement through the work day.  These individuals won’t be invited to power lunches or golf games, where networking and decision-making take place, and they might have to actively avoid a harasser whose physical presence threatens, looms, and impedes work production.  Discriminatory and harassing behaviors also suppress vertical movement, or the ability to advance in the workplace through good work, collaboration, and professionalism.  Members of groups offered protections under Title VII law can sense themselves as further limited by a group identification (or, importantly, a perceived group identification) that is undervalued or even actively discriminated against.  The Title VII protections are often difficult to enact, especially in conservative judicial districts in many areas of the United States.  Nothing like having the White House be the beacon of bad (and illegal) behavior.

It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times.

(But at least we have late-night comedy and The Onion:  http://www.theonion.com/article/mike-pence-asks-waiter-remove-mrs-butterworth-tabl-55661)