#MeToo in Academia: A Panel Discussion Report

Alice Iannantuoni, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reports on a panel discussion held on campus on sexual harassment and violence in academia. 
#MeToo and Academia, and how to make campuses safer?
In October 2018, a groundbreaking New York Times article detailed sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Shortly thereafter, actress Alyssa Milano re-launched what became known as the #MeToo movement, with a phrase originally used by activist Tarana Burke over a decade prior to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual violence in society: me too. What followed has been a year in which many different societies, industries, and sectors around the world have had to wrestle with the widespread mistreatment, abuse, and sex-based discrimination of the least powerful individuals within their ranks––often, although not always, women.
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Yesterday, on October 17, 2018, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign held the first of a series of panel discussions on #MeToo in academia. Colleen Murphy, director of the university’s Women and Gender in Global Perspectives program and professor of law, philosophy, and political science, hosted the panel. The four panelists were professors Lesley Wexler and Suja Thomas from the College of Law; Andrea Miller from the Department of Psychology; and Ran Hao from the Institute of Legal Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Why is it important to think of the impact of the #MeToo movement specifically in the context of academia, both in the United States and abroad? Three relevant themes emerged from the very well-attended panel.
1. Power Dynamics on Campus 
The power dynamics on a university campus make it an environment that is uniquely prone to breeding discrimination and harassment. Professors and high-level university officials are often in the position to greatly affect their students’, junior colleagues’, or assistants’ lives: they are the ones who decide grades, write letters of recommendations, sit on tenure committees, and so on. Brining forth an allegation against somebody who has the power to jeopardize your school experience or your career is a particularly intimidating proposition, made worse by the close-knit nature of many departments and academic circles.
2. Individual Experiences, Systemic Problems 
Even when there is the will to hold an abuser accountable, systemic problems often get in the way. In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 are in place to protect employees against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion; and against sex-based discrimination and harassment at educational institutions, respectively. However, professors Lesley Wexler and Suja Thomas highlighted the limitations of these protections: plaintiffs in these cases have to meet extremely high bars in terms of proving the severity and pervasiveness of the abusive conduct; and, in Title IX cases, universities must be shown to have “actual knowledge” of the incidents and to have been “deliberatively dismissive” of them. In addition, professor Thomas pointed out how universities seem to be more afraid of being sued by alleged abusers (and unfoundedly so) than they are concerned with protecting the abused. Similarly, professor Ran Hao offered an eye-opening overview of how the #MeToo movement has been playing out in China––a country in which the movement started and development first and foremost in academia, rather than the entertainment industry. Systemic, legal barriers have also been a issue in the Chinese context: closer to the civil law tradition, Chinese law requires perhaps even more precise definitions of what constitutes sexual misconduct, harassment, assault, and so on, as these cannot rely on precedent as in common law systems.
3. The Vicarious Experiences of Faculty Members
Lastly, professor Andrea Miller called attention to the vicarious experiences of faculty members who hear of their students’ experiences with harassment and assault. While there haven’t been large-scale studies of this phenomenon yet, anecdotal evidence suggests that women faculty (and specifically, women of color) are often among the first people whom students disclose the incident they have experienced first; they counsel affected students on how to proceed; gather resources for their students; and sometimes follow students throughout the process of reporting and resolving the incident. Data going back decades already supports the notion that women faculty and faculty of color tend to be stuck with more service work than their white male counterparts do; and not getting much recognition for it. In addition to this work being time-consuming, when it comes to dealing with students’ experiences with sexual harassment and assault it also becomes emotionally difficult and draining.
In recognizing these challenges, the panelists suggested some possible ways forward with the goal of making university campuses and the academic community safer for all of their members. First, universities should be mindful of their power structures, and think about how to spread power and responsibilities across individuals and units as opposed to concentrating them in the hands of a few. Second, systemic solutions should include creating a culture that does not tolerate lower-level incidents of harassing; moving beyond the current reliance on reporting and toward more training on how to recognize and react to inappropriate behaviors for faculty, students, and university employees; and moving the focus from protecting the reputation of universities and their most powerful members to protecting the most vulnerable students and employees on campus. Lastly, we cannot forget that incidents of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault do not affect only the direct victims; rather, they take a toll on the victims’ loved ones, classmates, colleagues, and professors too, creating additional emotional labor that most often falls on the laps of fellow women and minorities.
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In Solidarity, October 16, 2018

We, the Prajnya community, express our solidarity with the women who have spoken out across professions to share their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace, acknowledging the courage it takes and the pain that this involves.

We acknowledge too that this is the beginning and that countless others are still silent or unheard; that many workplaces remain unexamined; and moreover, that violence pervades our lives well beyond the workplace. The sexual harassment and sexual violence revelations of the last week have once more illustrated what we have always known—that violence and misogyny are deeply embedded in our society.

There is a role for each of us, wherever we are located, to play in the road ahead.

As human beings, we must bring empathy and compassion to our listening and as citizens, prioritise justice and fairness in our response. One in three women are said to experience violent abuse in their lifetime and only one in four of these women speak about it. To raise questions about the delay in reporting and the timing of these testimonials is to lie to ourselves that the world has always been a sympathetic and supportive place and that our institutions are committed to equality. Let us accept our complicity in silencing survivors, now, as then.

Both the Vishaka Guidelines and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, identify workplace sexual harassment as a violation of the fundamental right to equality. Non-compliance is thus tantamount to a violation of an employee’s fundamental right. We therefore urge organisations that have yet to comply with the 2013 law to put in place zero-tolerance policies, set up Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) and conduct sensitisation programmes for their entire team, including ICC members.

For its part, the government too has been a laggard in setting up the mechanisms required to support compliance with the law. In most districts, the administration has not set up Local Complaints Committees (LCCs) and in their absence, women working in the informal and unorganised sector, women working in shops and small organisations and self-employed women, including professionals, have nowhere to turn for justice. State governments must ensure that district administrations immediately set up LCCs; ensure their competence through training; and make known to the public how they can be reached.

Further, the enforcement infrastructure required by the law must also be a priority for the government. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, requires annual reporting but the government has neither set up nor announced to which office these reports must be sent and who will monitor and penalise non-compliance. We hope this tidal wave of revelations will move all levels of a lackadaisical Indian state to seriously create and provide resources for this infrastructure.

Political parties and their leaders must make a simple commitment that will have a lasting impact on gender inequality in India. They must promise never to nominate or endorse those who make misogynistic statements and those who have been charge-sheeted for sexual and gender-based violence, including street sexual harassment.

The government and political class have so far ignored our collective anguish and anger in the hope that they will pass. They will not. We will stand our ground.    

At Prajnya, we reiterate our commitment to facilitate conversations around gender-based violence including workplace sexual harassment and to encourage and support organisations in their journey, beginning with legal compliance but going beyond it towards equal, inclusive and safe workplaces.

The Prajnya Community
October 16, 2018

Reflections on a walk in the park

In December last year, I took a walk in the park.

Many hundreds of people traverse that path every day, a short stretch running through a quiet corner of the sleepy British city I live in. Yet, at the age of 28, this marked my very first attempt at moving through a public park at night, on foot, and completely alone. It was pitch-black and deserted, and I kept looking over my shoulder, my heart pounding in my ears as I scurried along, hoping to reach the bright lights of the main road at the other end without incident.

In my endless (and not always successful) quest for self-reflexivity, I must confront the unvarnished truth: that I have, no doubt, almost always had the luxury of a more comfortable alternative over the unlit and lonely path, and that the story I have recounted might, perhaps, say more about my own privilege, and far less about the frightening nature of deserted parks. Indeed, I have no intention of making any claim of the universality of my experience.

Yet, as my social media feeds were flooded with stories of gender violence a few weeks ago as part of the #metoo campaign, I was reminded of my brief, solitary expedition through the park last year; it became apparent that the magnitude of those revelations pointed to a deeper, more pervasive culture of violence. Our myriad experiences, in spite of being qualitatively different, collectively highlight the ubiquity of this culture of violence, which appears to transcend regional and socio-cultural boundaries.

In my university town, forceful reports and soft murmurs of sexual harassment and violent assault in college rooms, on the street, in the elevator of a university building, at the local grocery store, through Facebook messages, abound. Each of these instances of violence forces us to reassess what our potential ‘safe’ spaces are, until we are eventually painted into a very lonely corner. The culture of violence thus goes beyond single acts of physical assault, verbal harassment or emotional abuse, and imbues real and imagined threats of danger with a material force that inhabits our daily lived experience.

Every day, on my walk home from my office, I arrive at a tiny lane, sheltered by trees and covered with fallen leaves, sometimes wet and muddy underfoot, and dimly lit even on the brightest of days. During these autumnal evenings, when nightfall creeps up quickly and stealthily, this little track is shrouded in darkness well before my arrival.

The number of calculations that subconsciously filter through my brain as I near this path include: should I take the longer route along the main road instead? Would my handbag and umbrella be sufficient as defensive weapons if I have to protect myself? The lights are on in the houses near the front of the lane, so perhaps someone will hear me if I need to scream? The soles of my boots seem to be wearing down – will I be able to run without falling?

While grappling with this thick, suffocating fog of confusion, I sometimes have a single moment of clarity, when I think to myself, what would it feel like to walk down this path, without thinking about this path? Will I ever experience the freedom of thinking about something, anything, besides the potential for bodily violation? When, if ever, will I cease to be haunted by this spectre of violence, and simply enjoy the singular pleasure of meandering through the city at any and all hours of the day?

That night last December, when I finally arrived at the other end of the park, the sense of relief that followed did not wash over me all at once, but seeped out slowly and deliberately, until I eventually realised I was smiling to myself.

Because, of course, #metoo.