September 13, 2018
By Mandi Gray
Despite women entering graduate programs more than ever before there are still significant gender inequities that need to be addressed.
In the last five years I have spent as a graduate student, I have heard too many stories from fellow students who feel trapped in abusive situations with university faculty. The relationship between faculty and graduate students (especially PhD students) is incredibly unique. As a result, I have heard from students disclosing that professors have offered research jobs in exchange for dates; and professors refusing to supervise students who turn down their advances. In one of the most extreme cases, a fellow graduate student contacted me after the university refused to get involved after her supervisor slapped her in front of other students.
This is not to suggest that only women graduate students experience sexual harassment as demonstrated by the recent case of sexual harassment by Avital Ronnell at NYU. An investigation into her conduct concluded that she had sexually harassed a former male doctoral student.
Women professors are not incapable of sexually harassing male graduate students. However, women are far more likely to experience sexual harassment or assault on campus than they are to sexually harass or make false accusations.
A 2016 survey of 525 graduate students found that 38% of women graduate students reported sexual harassment from university staff or faculty.
The study highlights that the sexual harassment of graduate students is unique because:
· Graduate programs are significantly longer (on average a PhD takes 4-8 years.)
· They often work in close proximity with the faculty.
· They are also often highly dependent on a small number of faculty in a way that undergraduates rarely are.
Without a doubt, the academy has lost some of its best scholars, because graduate students experiencing sexual violence by faculty face a stark choice: either they leave voluntarily or they report and risk being pushed out of the university and other professional spaces.
I have seen women attempt to report abusive faculty, only to be discouraged by university officials who dissuade them from pursuing the complaint, citing the power of the faculty association and the lack of supports available to the complainant.
Those who have proceeded with an official reports, often watch their support network on campus dwindle as their community begins to worry about the impact on their own careers of any association with the complainant.
For most graduate students, the cost of reporting is simply too high. This is amplified for students who face other forms of on-campus discrimination. Students who are queer, have a disability, or are Indigenous are significantly more likely to experience sexual violence. It is no coincidence that a majority of those who report and who have their stories covered in the media are typically white women.
The recent investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations made against former creative writing professor, Steven Galloway at the University of British Columbia (UBC) sends a very clear message to graduate students experiencing sexual violence.
The students who have come forward and shared their experiences have been vilified in the media. Some of these students were told by the university that their reports would be kept confidential and have since been leaked to media outlets by Galloway.
The main complainant (MC) in the case reported that she was sexually assault and sexual harassed by Galloway during her studies at UBC. The university hired BC Supreme Court Judge, Justice Mary Boyd to conduct an independent investigation. The media has extensively reported that the allegations of sexual assault were not substantiated, however, to date, the public and MC have not been made aware about the findings relating to sexual harassment by Justice Boyd.
In response, Joanna Birenbaum*, the lawyer representing the Main Complainant (MC) in the investigation recently released an open letter addressed to UBC President, Santa J. Ono.
Birenbaum’s letter argues that university needs to release the investigator’s report to MC as soon as possible.
The media coverage of the case has not fairly reported the findings in the investigators report prepared by Justice Boyd. Most importantly, there has been a failure to report that the investigator, Justice Boyd, accepted much of MC’s evidence that Galloway sexually harassed her.
The investigation by Justice Boyd highlights the power dynamic between Galloway and MC:
“MC found herself in a situation where the “stakes were high" since she believed that unless she tolerated this conduct, her MFA program and the other special treatment she had been promised ... might all be in jeopardy”.
Justice Boyd accepted MC’s evidence as a result of the clear power differential between the parties:
“her failure to expressly object to his behaviour was the by-product of the power differential between the parties”.
The media attacks on MC are further evidence of the imbalance of power and consequences of reporting a professor, especially if the professor is regarded as a public figure and has connections in publishing.
For example, despite numerous journalists connected to Mr. Galloway having reviewed the Boyd Report, it hasn’t been publicly reported that Boyd accepted evidence that Galloway sexually harassed MC as an undergraduate student.
Despite evidence of sexual harassment being accepted by Justice Boyd, MC has been routinely labelled a “liar” and “false accuser”. There is nothing to suggest that Justice Boyd made a ruling that the allegations were false.
It is simply wrong to assume that unless there is a criminal conviction or a civil finding, the allegations must be false.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police have stated that the determination that an allegation was “false”, is one that can only be made after a thorough investigation of the allegation of falsehood. This is not to be confused with an investigation about whether a sexual assault occurred.
It’s time to dispel the myth that false allegations of sexual assault are commonplace because they are not.
I am not suggesting that all relationships between faculty and graduate students are inherently abusive, but rather, the power dynamics can result in abusive situations.
This is especially true for graduate students who heavily depend on faculty for research jobs, publishing opportunities and paid work within the university, all of which are crucial in a highly competitive job market and where much of the work is precarious.
UBC needs to do the right thing by releasing the full report to MC and by protecting graduate students from unwelcomed sexual harassment by taking a public stance on the matter.
*Joanna Birenbaum is a Toronto-based lawyer and is featured in Slut or Nut: The Diary of a Rape Trial.
Mandi Gray is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at York University. Her dissertation research examines the use of civil litigation by men accused of sexual violence to silence their accusers. Mandi is also the primary subject in Slut or Nut: The Diary of a Rape Trial. Follow her on Twitter @Gotmysassypants