Can science stop sexual harassment in higher education? A review of the latest contribution from Kate Clancy and her colleagues

Kate Clancy, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
For a number of years now, anthropologist Kathryn Clancy of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and her colleagues have made major contributions to our understanding of sexual misconduct in academia, particularly in the sciences. The most important contribution, in my view, is the rigorous research they have done into the prevalence and context for harassment and other forms of misconduct, beginning especially with the Survey of Academic Field Experiences ("SAFE study") published in PLOSOne in 2014. This study, based on 666 anonymous responses to a survey, found that nearly two-thirds of  respondents had personally experienced sexual harassment of one kind or another.

These results were a shock to many researchers, especially in archaeology and anthropology, fields which utilize field work as a major tool for their research. Since then, Clancy and her colleagues have published a number of other studies, and Clancy has become well known for her #MeToo advocacy, including Congressional testimony and many media interviews. (Full disclosure: Although Clancy and I have some serious and ongoing personal and professional disagreements, I have always acknowledged the key role she has played in an area in which we are both very active.)

I am not exactly an academic, but rather a science journalist. Nevertheless I have spent many decades in academia as a student,  researcher, and journalism teacher. And this month, August  2020, marks five years as a #MeToo reporter, in which I have investigated and reported many cases in anthropology, archaeology, and other fields. During that time I have watched the evolution of the #MeToo and #MeTooSTEM movements, and tried to monitor their progress. My conclusion is that so far there has been very little, despite some good intentions and a proliferation of formal guidelines designed to show potential abusers where to draw the line.

I'd like to discuss some of my conclusions in the context of the latest contribution to the #MeToo literature, an opinion piece published this past week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Clancy, along with  Lilia Cortina and Anne Kirkland of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The article is entitled "Use science to stop sexual harassment in higher education." In my discussion of it, I will draw from a number of case studies based on my own reporting, which includes nearly two dozen full fledged investigations of alleged sexual harassment, assault, bullying, and retaliation in the sciences. (In addition to those, I have engaged in another 20 or so "mini-investigations," in which the victims and survivors of abuse talked to me credibly enough that I was able to report these cases on social media.)

"Sexual harasssment abounds in academia." -- "Not just about sex."

 The first phrase quoted above is the first sentence of the Clancy et al. paper, and the second phrase is the title of the opinion piece's first section. As they have before, Clancy and her colleagues provide the evidence for the ubiquity of sexual harassment, and the wide variety of forms it takes, which are usually less about sexual gratification than about power relationships in academia. Most abusers are men, a fact well established by the research of Clancy and others, and most targets are women; but the harassment often seems more about senior researchers keeping women in their place than about actually engaging in sexual relationships with female students, although that does happen--and more often than many might realize.

Clancy et al. go on to discuss how institutions can "disincentivize" the contemptuous and disrespectful conduct towards women that is really at the heart of sexual harassment. In one key passage, they suggest ways this could be done:

"To determine  whether their department is part of the problem, leaders can ask: 

Do job candidates have to run a gauntlet of abuse to show their worth? 
Are speakers constantly interrupted and 'piled on' during their seminars? 
Do faculty members malign students or mistreat staff? 
Are wrongdoers widely known but never confronted by leadership? 
Is there a star culture, where some people are allowed to behave badly because theyre so brilliant,       so famous, or bring in so many grant dollars?"

Interestingly, the first three of these questions deal with various common kinds of harassment, while the last  two shift to more fundamental questions of whether the institutions involved are motivated to ignore or tolerate misconduct they are actually aware of (or are made aware of by persistent complaints from the students who are most often the victims of the harassment.)

The case studies below suggest not only that institutions are NOT really motivated to stop harassment, but that only a minority of brave senior, tenured faculty members are really motivated to either. And unfortunately, despite real progress in theory and understanding of sexual and gender harassment, there has been little progress so far in actual practice, that is, in putting a stop to it.

(Please click the links to go to the actual stories.) Most importantly--and I know some will disagree--very, very few #MeToo cases have been addressed and resolved without the intervention of journalists as the agents publicly exposing the misconduct. In other words, in very, very few cases has the initiative to seek justice for victims and survivors come from the institutional leadership itself; and those brave colleagues who have managed to make things public have had to approach reporters to do that, as a last resort, but often a very effective one.

Brian Richmond, former curator for human origins at the American Museum of Natural History.

This was the first case I worked on, on assignment from Science magazine beginning in the summer of 2015. Richmond had sexually assaulted a research assistant whom he supervised, and the evidence was solid and clear. Nevertheless the museum went through two superficial and not-very-serious investigations behind the scenes, slapped Richmond on the wrist, and forced the victim to continue to pass her abuser in the halls every day. After the survivor began publicly telling her colleagues what had happened to her, Science found out about it and assigned me to investigate. Only after it became clear to museum officials that we were doing a story did they begin a third, rigorous investigation, which led to Richmond's forced resignation in December 2016. There were some heroes in this story: Two anthropologists who spoke out publicly against Richmond and helped with the investigation, along with dozens of other researchers who helped my reporting behind the scenes. In a lot of ways, this was the ideal situation, but it was far from typical, as illustrated below.

Mammalogist Robert Baker and the Texas Tech biological sciences department

This investigation, which I carried out for The Verge (Vox media), began with sexual assault allegations against a graduate student who had received his MA at Texas Tech, and led to exposure of an entrenched culture of sexism and misogyny in the university's biology department. Although the worst offender was the late Robert Baker, a famous mammalogist, my reporting showed that other senior faculty in the department had their own long history of bad behavior; moreover, Baker was enabled, right up to the day he retired, in his horrible attitudes towards female students. As a result of  my reporting, the university carried out an "investgation" which "cleared" pretty much everyone involved, despite the masses of evidence. To their credit, some of the more junior faculty in the department did issue a letter of concern about their own culture, although it was not a very strong statement. Sadly, only one women in the department signed it. Indeed, one of the most frequent complaints I hear from female grad students I talk to about harassment is that all too often the women in their departments--including senior, tenured women--do not have their backs. I  will  get to that shortly.

David Lordkipanidze, director, Georgia National Museum

This was one of the most complex and difficult cases I worked on, involving a well known paleoanthropologist who threatened to sue me if I published my findings. The researcher, David Lordkipanidze, also directed one of the most important excavations into human evolution ever launched, the research project at Dmanisi. Although many colleagues, especially in North America, helped with the reporting behind the scenes and provided confidential information and details of sexual assault and harassment, no one in Georgia--where Lordkipanidze has great power--had any interest in taking him on. In fact, colleagues there lied repeatedly about what they had seen, as did researchers from Spain who have been working at Dmanisi for many years. Sadly, those Spanish colleagues put their own careers and research interests above the welfare of female students and junior colleagues who have been pursued, and reportedly continue to be pursued, by this sexual predator. More happily, Lordkipanidze is now widely shunned by the anthropology community, has been disinvited from a number of meetings he was initially invited to, although his power in Georgia appears to be undiminished.

Deanna Grimstead of Ohio State University

This is a case of complete failure by a department and a university to protect female students from sexual harassment, this time by a woman. Deanna Grimstead was subject to a Title IX and found to have engaged in the harassment alleged; but she kept her job. She may have kept it even after a second Title IX investigation, were it not that by that time the student victims had had enough and came to me for help. As in the cases above, approaching a reporter as the last resort, but it worked. Grimstead was finally--finally--forced to resign in December 2019.

Alan Cooper, director, University of Adelaide ancient DNA lab.

Last year I was approached by a leading Australian archaeologist who told me about ancient DNA pioneer Alan Cooper's merciless bullying of grad students and postdocs during the nearly 15 years he had led the Adelaide lab. A number of survivors of this abuse began to approach me  to tell their stories. It turned out the University of Adelaide had been receiving complaints about the abuses for nearly 15 years but done absolutely nothing. Only when I reported the findings of my investigation did the university begin its own inquiry, which led to Cooper's firing, also in December 2019.  Faculty and administrators did nothing all those years to put a stop to it; brave junior researchers, with the help of a reporter, were responsible for this happy ending.

Texas A and M biology department: Years of harassment and bullying.

This investigation found wrongdoing by so many members of the faculty that it was hard to find any heroes, but there were some among the faculty and students,  who again--fed up--approached a reporter to get the story out. Ironically, the department chair himself, now charged with making reforms and changing the "culture," was found to have engaged in inappropriate behavior (read: sexual harassment)  in a Title IX.

Danielle Kurin, University of California, Santa Barbara. Retaliation, enabling of sexual abuse.

Full disclosure: Kurin has sued me for $10 million for my reporting on her years of misconduct (in addition to the two links above, please look at updates Balter's Blog for the full picture of abuses, which have continued until at least very recently.)

I end with this case, which is a snapshot in real time of the kinds of choices that faculty and administrators have to make when faced with an abuser whose conduct is not only no secret, but has been investigated multiple times with clear findings. Thus Danielle Kurin, an archaeologist at UCSB, was found in a 2016 Title IX to have retaliated against students who reported sexual harassment by her partner, Peruvian archaeologist Enmanuel Gomez Choque; Gomez sexually assaulted two students at a field school in Peru Kurin directed in 2018, and after an investigation Kurin lost the sponsorship of the umbrella organization under those auspices the field school took place; Kurin was reported by at least two students, in 2014 and 2015, for severe bullying and abuse; and there is evidence that Kurin has very recently continued her abusive behavior AND is actively trying to retaliate against members of her department who have tried to protect students from falling victim to her abuses.

And where are things now? Kurin is now up for tenure, beginning next month, due to the failure of both the university and the department to put a stop to her continuing abuses over all these years. The good news is that there are fledgling efforts under way among some of her colleagues to try to do something about the situation, which means doing something to protect students, the number one priority. And yet there is widespread fear--if not abject terror--that Kurin will sue them too if they do anything to impede her tenure bid.

Here is a case where the institution has failed, and is continuing to fail, to deal with a blatant situation that should have been solved years ago.

Is there a class war between the university and senior faculty on one side and graduate students on the other?

I want to go back now to the Clancy et al. paper. The authors discuss a 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine which makes a number of recommendations for addressing sexual harassment. As Clancy et al. summarize it: "To change course, the National Academies report recommends that institutions take active steps to cultivate cultures of respect." Some of these measures could include issuing explicit statements about harassment, hiring leadership coaches, follow the advice of experts to avoid hiring "toxic" people in the first place, and withhold perks from those who are abusive.

But in their next section, "No Quick Fixes," I think the authors get a fundamental point wrong. They write: "Everyone and their Associate Dean wants to find a fast fix for sexual harassment." But Clancy et al. then go on to point out that sexual harassment, along with "its related forms of racial and  gendered disrespect, are entrenched in long histories of exclusive and exploitative practices in the American higher education system."

The second point is absolutely correct, and obvious to all honest academics. But that makes the first statement highly suspect. Deans and administrators, in so many, and perhaps most, cases, DO NOT want to fix sexual harassment, not quickly or any other way. Why? Precisely because to really do so would require the kinds of dramatic changes in the institutions they run that they do not want to make and have resisted making for decades if not longer. 

What institutional leaders want, in this so-called "#MeToo Era," is the appearance of fixing the problem, without actually doing it. And I do not offer that as hyperbole. I offer it as fully demonstrated by the evidence, not only in academia but in all walks of life from Hollywood to politics to the media to journalism itself.

And, in all too many cases, senior faculty (or even middle range faculty still climbing the academic ladder) do not want to rock the boat on which they have sailed the often rough seas of academic advancement. (With apologies for the mixed metaphors, but there are so many possible ones.)

The reality, as I suggest in the title to this last section, is that when graduate students and other junior researchers try to do something about abuses that they or their colleagues have suffered, they inevitably run up against not only the administrations of their institutions, but, so unfortunately, the senior faculty whose job it should be to protect them and fight for them, side by side.

In the case studies I cite above, I give examples--exceptions, it should be made clear--of faculty who have sided with the survivors and victims of abuse. In the case of Danielle Kurin, in which I now have a personal stake, there are such brave faculty in the UCSB anthropology department, thinking hard about what they can do and how they should do it. But they are thinking about this in an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and retaliation that the university administration has allowed to continue, even as I write.

Thus have so many senior, tenured, privileged faculty made themselves the objective enemy of the most vulnerable colleagues they should be duty bound to protect.

It takes courage to change sides and do the right thing, and it can be scary, and maybe some of your colleagues won't like you and maybe they will give a negative review to your grant proposal or your journal submission or not invite you to their faculty parties or not vote for you to be promoted. But when you make an enemy of the younger generation, you lose all rights to sympathy for your personal career goals and risks. Even worse, you lose the right to be called a truth-seeking academic, because the truth remains buried even though you know it full well.

I applaud Kate Clancy and her colleagues for continuing to provide the research and the ammunition that can allow researchers and other academics to do the right thing. The time is long past to reach out, grasp that ammunition, and load the weapons. 

Post a Comment


Anonymous said…
Thanks, Michael. When I was in an undergraduate program in engineering, in 1987, the Dean of the department hosted a session on women in engineering with a number of prominent members of the public attending. He seemed very nervous when I spoke up about some of the things that had been going on in the department that made it unwelcoming for women. He never hosted another session like this.

Over the years, I've seen various women in STEM promotion efforts play out like this with a very similar pattern. Lots of pomp and ceremony, lots of changing the deck chairs around on the Titanic, but little done substantively to change the power structure of academia that props up gender and race discrimination and harassment.

About a year ago, I attended a conference in my field. The anti harassment policy was prominently communicated for the conference. I did not get harassed in the conference, but even though I've been in my field as long or longer than most of the senior people at the conference, am a very experienced engineer, and had been a consultant behind structuring programs and funding some of the research at the conference, I still got spoken down to by most people at the conference (95 % men) as if I was a junior engineer and or outsider to their field. Certainly, no one wanted to hear about my own experiences of harassment in their field. When I spoke with one of the professor organizers of the conference (a UC professor) about the need to address some of the systemic issues that kept women out of the conference and out of this area of engineering, his attitude was basically that I needed to toughen up (and also shut up).

Your observations that academia is intentionally maintaining an "appearance of fixing the problem, without actually doing it" is true in my experience. This is long standing and very much still in place.
Anonymous said…
One of the problems with Kate Clancy's efforts, and with the NASEM report follow up, or lack thereof, is that it gives women in STEM the impression that something is being done. In the past, women would have kept their heads down, and defended themselves as they could. With the NASEM report, women were given the impression that something was going to be done about discrimination and harassment, and they started to try to organize and speak up. In some cases, this has created easy targets and caused women who speak up to be further victimized without any means to defend themselves.

Reports and committees, without real change within the academic and corporate power structures that perpetuate sexism and racism, in some ways do more harm than good.

I've long thought that in academia, and in the STEM workforce in general, most of the diversity efforts so far are window dressing.

I'm frankly annoyed with Kate Clancy. Her contribution to the NASEM report was informative, but without substantive follow up, I really think she should just go back to her corner of anthropology and stop pretending to speak up for women in STEM.
Anonymous said…
The problem they never want to admit is the lack of structural accountability. You can’t rely on the institution and department do police themselves no matter how many pretty words they murmur or articles they publish against the problems. Bullies don’t respond to anything except fear and publicity. They need to be nipped at the bud before they get too powerful and institutions are too afraid of being sued by them to ever do that. And good luck weeding out toxic people at the hiring stage. Bullies are extremely charming. What ends up happening instead is that they weed out the outspoken BIPOC who rock the boat but are actually great colleagues, scholars, and mentors to students. They are the ones who actually keep people accountable, but that's exactly what hiring committees do not want, calling them too "political." Instead hiring committees resort to tokenism. And a culture of complacency, hierarchy, and complicity reproduces itself.
Michael Balter said…
I’ve been thinking about this last comment for a while. I wouldn’t blame Kate Clancy specifically, as I think there is a broader problem: The #MeTooSTEM movement has to a certain extent run out of ideas, because by and large it does not focus on outing individual abusers and making them pay the price for their misconduct. Indeed, such efforts have often been criticized on the grounds that it’s the culture that needs to be changed and that outing individuals is too narrow a focus. I might agree with that if I thought that adopting new guidelines and policies changed the culture, but it really doesn’t. It’s the hard fact that changing the culture requires making the price so high for misconduct that those who would engage in abuse no longer want to pay the price, or, alternatively, that they do pay the price and other predators look on with fear and dread.

This is why journalists—not just me, of course, but pioneers in #MeToo journalism like Azeen Ghorayshi and her colleagues at BuzzFeed including Peter Aldhous, Meredith Wadman and Lizzie Wade at Science, Ronan Farrow at The New Yorker, Megan Twohey and Jody Kantor at the NY Times, etc—have played such an important role, because their reporting has actually led to the removal of abusers from power. This has to be the first line of battle, making abuse so costly to the abusers that they slowly stop doing it.
Anonymous said…
The evidence is overwhelming, so why do you think Governments, Unions, Professional Bodies all turn a blind eye to the issue and the systemic/structural changes desperately needed? These Institutions just look archaic and irrelevant now.
Anonymous said…
I had a look at Kate Clancy's just published paper:

The paper points out that most harassment is not specifically sexual, but instead is gendered, and is about power rather than sex.

During the Anita Hill days in 1991, people misread Hill's descriptions of harassment as about sex rather than power. It was obvious to me then that harassment was mostly about power (and only secondarily about sex). I'm sure Hill knew it was about power. It only took until the NASEM Report in 2018, 27 years after the Anita Hill hearings, for the broader STEM community to start a dialogue about the fact that harassment was mostly about power (and not so much about sex).

In Kate's paper that came out the other day, it is pointed out that most victims of harassment are women, but that men are also sometimes harassed by other men for various reasons. She doesn't discuss harassment of men by more powerful women, but I have seen that occasionally occur.

Just so we don't have to wait another 27 years for another anthropologist to discover another facet of who is harassed, I am going to talk about a not often discussed aspect of harassment here.

In general, men have more power and more allies in their STEM organizations and STEM careers than women. This is because there are usually more men in these fields, and more men at higher levels. Adding to this power deficit for women is that fact that women are blocked from having power in various ways, compared to men, due to the STEM culture and to the broader culture.

The few women that do survive in a male dominated field in STEM often adopt the social norms and expectations of the overall male culture in order to survive. In some ways, Dr. Kurin seems to have done that.

At the same time, many of the unconscious bias studies show that women tend to be slightly less biased than men, not only about gender, but about other forms of discrimination as well. I suspect this is because women's own experiences of bias and discrimination have the effect of making some women more perceptive of the overall occurrence of bias and of destructive power dynamics.

So women tend to pick up on bias better than men do, but at the same time, have less power to act than men. I have observed that women who try to address wrongdoing in organizations are more likely to experience something I will call bystander harassment and retaliation.

Related to this is the observation that women are often faulted for not acting more strongly than men in my observation.

Men also experience bystander harassment and retaliation, but they are more likely to have power to defend themselves against it.

I rarely see this dynamic addressed in these studies of harassment. Yet for anyone who is astute about organizational dynamics, it is obvious that this goes on.

Reports and papers on harassment are simplistic and do not reflect the complexity and secondary effects of power dynamics in organizations.

In the case of Dr. Kurin, you can see that there are a small number of women at UCSB who have attempted to stand up to her, but their ability to do so seems to have been limited.

Studies on harassment are helpful, but it is disappointing that we continue to rely almost entirely on harassment studies, which are often simplistic in what they describe, to validate and take action against behaviors that most of us can easily recognize as profoundly destructive.
Anonymous said…
I am pretty tired of these studies that just always end with recommendations that won’t be followed because no one has the incentive to do so. No way will most, if any, department chairs rock the boat by chastising and withholding perks from the abusers unless there is publicity. People take the path of least resistance and got to tenure and power by being complacent about their peers’ bad behavior. They are also afraid of the litigiousness of these abusers, as Klancy et al point out in their article. That is not going to change. We don’t need more expertise; we need more action and accountability. Many of the recommendations that Klancy et al. suggest can also easily be abused to mob scapegoats and people who rock the boat. I would never trust a department to not use these recommendations to actually retaliate against people who speak up. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. This is why there is always a need for reporters like Balter to do investigations or outside investigative bodies like the EEOC. Unfortunately there is not enough capacity (or resources) for outside investigations. If more money can go toward those instead of yet another study, we might finally see some accountability and change.