This week in the beautiful town of Cambridge, Massachusetts, an ugly yet familiar tale of abuse in universities emerged.
Three Harvard graduates are suing the university for allegedly ignoring the sexual harassment of students by a professor who they said threatened their academic careers if they reported him. The professor, John Comaroff, was sanctioned by the university after being found to have broken the school’s sexual harassment guidelines.
38 members of his faculty signed this letter, saying, he was an “excellent colleague” and that they were “concerned about its [sanctions] effects on our ability to advise our own students.”
If stricter guidelines on staff-student relationships would impact how you interact with your students, I think it is time to change your teaching methods.
Sexual misconduct in university isn’t new, nor is it an American problem. Some may find it difficult to believe that amongst intellectuals and teachers it happens.
A Guardian investigation, in which freedom of information requests was issued to 122 universities, found only seven members of staff had been disciplined by universities for staff-student relationships in the last five years.
Some universities may argue that because we’re all adults, it isn’t their business to police relationships. But professors and tutors hold power over students, especially when there is a large age gap and particularly if they are in the same field of work.
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And universities are often aware of such relationships, and as demonstrated by the Harvard case, colleagues are willing to overlook it because they are good at their jobs.
Perhaps that is because out of all the universities in the UK, only three are believed to have banned intimate relationships between staff and students.
Students are scared to report inappropriate behaviour because, as seen at Harvard, and many, many other universities because these people have the ability to make and break careers. It can be worse for students from vulnerable backgrounds. You report anything and that’s your thesis and your career destroyed.
So, as students, we police our behaviour as if it is our fault. I have been called vivacious by an older adult, and have had to police my own behaviour, scared an educator with predatory tendencies may misinterpret my enthusiasm for my subject as wanting something more.
As long as universities continue turning a blind eye, or protecting staff members, we are going to get more and more stories about sexual harassment. Why?
Because when you have a system that lets you get away with it, what is the point in stopping?