Assaulted by an art professor

As a woman on the faculty of a Northeastern university, I endured sexual harassment and attack by senior faculty

Published March 29, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

After a hard-earned master's degree in graphic design and several years of industry experience often working 60-hour weeks, I accepted a position as an assistant professor of graphic design in the art department at a Northeastern university in the fall of 2000. I was excited to enter this new chapter in my life. I was not prepared for what I was about to encounter.

The art department consisted of 16 full-time faculty and many adjunct faculty. The majority of the seven tenured senior faculty were men. The majority of the nine nontenured faculty were women.

What people don't talk about is how dependent the junior faculty are on senior faculty. The imbalance of power is far stronger than the power imbalance of faculty to student. A student wants a good grade to move on to the next class. He/she wants to graduate, to go to a good graduate program, and eventually move away from the university. The junior faculty must have the approval and support of senior faculty for promotion, for raises, and for a permanent position in the department. The support of senior faculty is critical every year and at every juncture.

No one discusses powerlessness. No junior professor would ever want to admit that she is subservient to a male, but this is exactly where I found myself between the years of 2000 to 2006. In 2001, the most senior faculty in the art department began to body-bump me in the hallways. He was 6-foot-1 and I am 4-foot-11. He eventually got me into his office where he told me repeatedly that he couldn't take his eyes off of me. He kept repeating this and then stated that if I didn't sleep with him, I wouldn't get tenure. I knew that this was not acceptable behavior and let him know that I wasn't interested. I also knew that this was a clear case of sexual harassment. So, I reported the incident to my chairperson and to the dean of the school. The dean advised me to let him know that I was not interested and to do this in front of other people so that there would be an audience. She reminded me that harassers are known to bully when no one else is around in order to ensure that there are no witnesses.

On the following day, in front of two other faculty members, I told him that I wasn't interested in him and that he was to leave me alone. I asked him if he understood and he replied yes. On the following day, as I was leading my class into a computer lab, one of the faculty who had been present the day before (also a male senior faculty) assaulted me. He threw me up against the door and shoved something hard into my back. I fell. I took a moment to get my breath. Shaking, I walked to the art office and reported this to my chairperson. I was being physically attacked, intimidated, bullied and harassed. I thought that, surely, something would to be done to these two people, that some action would be taken. I had been harassed and assaulted. The law had been broken twice. I was in a state of shock.

The institution launched a so-called full-scale investigation where all of the faculty in the department were questioned. I was told to keep quiet about it until it had been completed. Several faculty reported to me that this was not the first time these two had been in trouble. My own attorney interviewed every faculty member and found the same information and also found that these two senior faculty were best friends. But the institution's findings reported that nothing had happened. In fact, they began to launch an investigation into my background. I was hounded, harassed and totally ignored. Every day, my student display cases had garbage stuffed in them. No one would sit next to me in faculty meetings and I was not invited to departmental gatherings. I became a pariah. Then, the faculty committee tried to end my contract. However, both professors continued to sit on tenure and promotion committees and to participate fully in the running of the department.

Humiliation, embarrassment and a severe depression followed. I could not sleep most nights. The nonresponse from the university and the denial of all that took place, coupled with their insistence that I keep quiet, could not have been clearer. They were not going to take any action against these two professors. I couldn't help thinking of Penn State, the Catholic Church, and many other instances where institutions became the bullies and continued to perpetrate and enable illegal and unacceptable behavior. The university was complicit with these bullies. This incident would follow me to my next teaching job where I was blackballed by the same university.

Nontenured professional women in academia don't want to talk about these things. They live in fear that they will be next. Like dutiful daughters, they fall into lockstep with their powerful, abusive "fathers." They don't dare question or complain. They are entirely dependent on these men for their future and their economic stability. But, I say, how can one NOT talk about this power imbalance?

So, now I ask, how do we combat institutionalized brutality against women? We talk about equality in the workplace, but how do we deal with inequality and violence against women when it happens? What advice do we give our younger female professors when such instances arise? Speak up and forfeit your careers or stay silent and compromised? I still have no answers and I am haunted by what happened to me.


Loves to Teach

Dear Loves to Teach,

I, too, am haunted by what happened to you. I am not a lawyer nor an expert on academic institutions, so I will suggest you discuss with your attorneys if it is possible and advisable to bring civil actions in this case.

My own view was shaped by two cultural movements, the antiwar movement and the women's movement. Each touched me directly and forced me to change my thinking and my behavior.

There have been moments in American history when enough people saw the same truth at the same moment that they could alter the way things were.
On Oct. 1, 1964, when recent math graduate Jack Weinberg was arrested at UC Berkeley for distributing literature for the Congress of Racial Equality, and placed in a police car, and hundreds of students immediately sat down all around that police car, and Mario Savio climbed on top of that police car and spoke eloquently of the conflict between institutional behavior and personal morality, the world saw such a moment. On Dec. 2 of that same year when Savio made his famous speech at the Sproul Hall sit-in in where he said, "There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you've got to make it stop," his words crystallized what millions felt: that their institutions had stopped serving them and there was no way to get justice within those institutions and that those institutions therefore had to be openly opposed.

Openly opposing powerful institutions required sacrifice. People were beaten, jailed, shot, tear-gassed, denied employment and murdered. People's lives were ruined. Families were ruined. Justice, personal justice, for blacks in the South, for young people everywhere, meant conflict and sacrifice. It meant heartache and rupture. For women to claim their rights required heartache and sacrifice and rupture.

Of course it shouldn't be this way but it often is this way.

Today, scarcity of jobs creates survival fear. This fear must be overcome if you are to act. In the 1960s, economic survival was not a pervasive concern. But if you can overcome your fear of not having a university job, if you can overcome your fear of being ridiculed, if you can overcome your fear of being attacked, shot, sued, beaten and blackballed, if you can find women who will support you and stand by you and if you can find the rhetorical and philosophical support for your actions so that you do not need to doubt the rightness of them, and if you can find the perseverance to keep on after the excitement wears off and the better-funded opponents keep the pressure on you and if you can learn to ignore the voices in you that say forget it, it's not worth it, life would be much easier if you just walked away, if you can persist and keep healthy and sane in such a battle, then you can win and you can change history.

That has been the lesson of individuals seeking justice time and time again.

Barring that, I suggest you join with other women who have been assaulted and harassed by powerful men in institutions, who also have not had their grievances properly addressed. You will not only find moral support but also may see your way to some collective action.

p.s. Thanks to Seth Rosenfeld's book "Subversives" for the lucid account of Mario Savio's speeches and the Free Speech Movement.

By Cary Tennis

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