#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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