2018-10-01

FOLLOW-UP: Sexual Harassment, Power Dynamics, and Institutions

Last year, I wrote a post motivated by a case of sexual harassment and assault committed by a professor in my department against a student in his group. The incidents happened in the spring of last year, but the news about the incidents and the nominal punishment only came at the end of the year. Since then, there have been further developments, as described in this article (by Marcia Brown in The Daily Princetonian), so I am writing this post as a follow-up regarding the specific developments of this case and our department's response, even as my post last year was my attempt at exploring the broader issues at stake. Essentially, Princeton University had reason early this year to investigate further claims of past consensual relationships between that same professor and other direct professional dependents (students & postdoctoral associates), and suspended him for the spring semester and summer as they conducted their investigation. The university concluded the investigation with findings of guilt on his part of having engaged in at least one such consensual relationship, and as that is a violation of university rules, he was fired. Follow the jump to read more about my thoughts regarding this; as mentioned above, compared to my previous post on this subject, this post will have more of my raw emotional reaction to this whole process and to the specifics of this case rather than a more measured take on the broader issues at stake.

Before I go into the specifics of the case and verdict itself, I do want to document and point out some interesting notes about the way this verdict was announced to us in the department on Friday, 2018 September 28. Every Friday, our department has a cookie time at 4pm, which is a time for graduate students, research scientists, administrators, professors, and undergraduate students to come together to eat snacks and socialize; the responsibility for buying snacks rotates among different research groups each week, and they are allocated $150 for buying food for this, which they can spend however they so choose (which is nice as different groups have different food preferences, so there is a different variety of snack choices each week — some groups go for donuts, while other groups go for snacks from East Asian supermarkets, et cetera). Usually, in our department of ~200 graduate students, ~35 professors, and a few dozen postdoctoral researchers and administrators, around 30-40 people (my estimate, which may be inaccurate) come to take snacks, so the $150 budget is sufficient to feed everyone, and there are often leftovers. However, yesterday, our administrator of graduate studies, who usually sends a reminder about cookie time at 3pm, sent an unusual cryptic email asking us to be present at cookie time for an important announcement by the head of our department, with no further details; this was followed by a similar email send from the email address of the department head himself, again with no further details.
The amount of food was as usual, but the crowd was double the typical number given the apparent importance of being present then, so the food was consumed much more quickly; thankfully, people recognized the apparent importance of this announcement enough to not be deterred by the lack of sufficient food for the much larger crowd. Additionally, with regard to crowd size, the department has previously made important announcements to graduate students in person before making them official in writing, explaining this by not wanting to cause a panic by making statements where nuances may get lost in writing and where department officials may seem unresponsive by not being present to respond to immediate reactions in person; this has failed before, for example with a cryptic email regarding an announcement about graduate student spaces to be delivered on a Monday afternoon this past summer in which only 5 people (including myself) showed up, but it seems like the department learned from its mistakes and did a good thing in announcing this at cookie time by piggybacking off of an established gathering and incentivizing more people to attend for this reason. I do think it's funny that our department has no other regularly-scheduled frequent assemblies of students and researchers from different fields beyond this social hour that is cookie time, so despite the fact that it is supposed to be an informal setting to unwind, socialize, and enjoy good food at the end of the week, it has become a de facto assembly to make such announcements.
The department head came in around 4:15pm to make the announcement. He spent about 5-10 minutes first describing in his own words the decision and the process leading up to it, and then reading the university's own brief written statement about the decision. He confirmed that the new investigation leading to the suspension earlier this year and the firing now (after finding guilt) was because of allegations of at least one consensual relationship between the professor in question and a direct professional dependent. He further briefly reiterated the department and university's commitments to ensuring the safety of their students and research scientists. As he spoke, all of us gathered there (including myself) were intently listening, standing and craning our necks to get a better view and hear more clearly. Perhaps the crowd was so large because many students and research scientists already heard somehow of this news; I can only say that I didn't know what this announcement would be beforehand, but I attended both because I enjoy attending cookie time for the food and socialization, and because I knew that I should listen to a serious and important announcement from the department if it happens during cookie time on purpose.

Before I get into my immediate emotional reaction, I will say the following. Repeated sexual harassment and assault are not the same as terroristic mass slaughter, and firing is not comparable to killing, though the former two are still both heinous crimes of different natures. I mostly mean to compare my own emotional reactions to the two.
With that in mind, I will say that my gut reaction was similar in many ways to my reaction of hearing of the news of bin Laden's death 7.5 years ago: externally, I simply wanted to calmly discuss this with friends and learn more, while internally, I felt relief that the long shadow of fear would in an immediate sense be removed, a brief impulse toward happiness tempered by the knowledge that this doesn't undo the trauma suffered by the victims and that this sort of thing can and does still happen elsewhere, and an overall sense of hope that as my peers and I advance in our careers and further engage with our communities, we can try to lay the groundwork & create the conditions that inherently wouldn't support such abuses of power (lessening their frequency and dealing with cases that do happen more swiftly and effectively).
In particular, after the revelations of this professor's misconduct late last year, there was a lot of concern among students, research scientists, and professors in our department, about how this news was suppressed by the university for so long, as well as how the university's punishment toward this particular professor seemed so lenient. There was a lot of talk about how the department should move forward, given that this professor was still part of the faculty and had not been relieved of any teaching, mentoring, or scientific community service duties despite his misconduct, which led to strongly-worded letters from students and faculty denouncing the lenient punishment, but not much more beyond that. In fact, after a few months, there was a palpable sense that this issue had lost momentum, especially as the university didn't seem to visibly reverse course and this professor was still present (until the suspension in the spring), which led to further concern about how much longer outrage over the lenient punishment could be sustained given that it didn't seem to have much effect. Thus, to me at least, the university's investigation and conclusion that this professor should be fired came somewhat as a surprise. To that end, I do credit the university for taking seriously the additional allegations, opening investigations into them, and taking stronger action against that professor this time around. Ultimately, though, it is the victims of that professor's abuses of power who should be commended for coming forward, telling their stories, and persistently pushing for the university to do something meaningful, especially when it becomes understandably easy to be cynical and despondent in the face of the lack of meaningful action by the university last year; these other stories had been going around for years, but that would have been meaningless without these victims pushing for justice.

With regard to the latter point, it seems to me like the university only took such strong action this time because it wasn't the first such allegation against that professor; moreover, the university made clear that his firing was because of his consensual relationship with at least one direct professional dependent. It is still infuriating to me that the university didn't feel that the first allegation last year was serious enough to warrant a serious punishment (also for the sake of students' safety), given the preponderance of evidence and the terrible nature of the misconduct that led to the guilty verdict. Moreover, it seems bizarre to me that the university would care more about a consensual relationship between that professor and a direct professional dependent than clearly nonconsensual sexual harassment and groping by this professor toward one of his students. Granted, in such a professional relationship involving a direct dependence of the students/postdoctoral research associates on the professor, leading to a clear power imbalance, consent would be very hard to establish in the first place, given the obvious potential for abuse of power; plus, I may be misreading this, as it may have been the case that if the first allegation was of consensual sexual relations while the second was about nonconsensual sexual harassment & grouping, guilt in the first allegation may still have led to a lenient punishment while guilt in the second allegation may still have led to firing, and it is impossible to know for sure how this counterfactual situation may have played out. Regardless, there is a lot about the actions taken by the university that still don't make sense to me.

As far as the former professor goes, it isn't clear what will happen to him now that he has been fired, which is certainly an unusual outcome (generally, though not in specific cases like this) for a professor with tenure. Based on previous op-eds in The Daily Princetonian from other direct professional dependents of his, and based on other similar stories about outraged reactions from his colleagues who believed even the initial lenient punishment was too harsh, it is possible that he may still retain a lot of support in his field. That said, those reactions came before this investigation was concluded, and given that he was fired (from a brand-name institution as Princeton University, no less) rather than forced into resignation, he may well have a permanent black mark wherever he goes now; if that is the case, so be it, as he has already severely damaged the promising potential careers of too many direct professional dependents.

I'll conclude with some musings about what should happen to such researchers as this former professor after such misconduct forces them out of prestigious & powerful positions; I can only attempt to discuss this issue in the context of academia, because while there have been several high-profile cases of serial sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, politics, and so on, I don't know how what I'm thinking would apply in those cases. It seems to me like sexual harassment, assault, and crimes of that nature have much more to do with a craving for exerting power/influence than about sex per se; this was certainly reflected in this former professor seeming to use his influence within his field to shield himself from meaningful consequences for a long time (as referenced in the university's official statement that he didn't honestly cooperate with their investigations). At the same time, I don't necessarily believe that every single case of this is premeditated or intentionally meant to compromise the career of a direct professional dependent, even if most such cases are; I do believe there may be some, albeit rare, instances where a researcher may behave this way as an instinctive reaction to some perceived slight or failing, and may genuinely feel regret about acting that way afterwards. Such researchers' careers shouldn't necessarily be ruined forever by such actions, just like their dependents' careers shouldn't either. To this end, I wonder if there could be mechanisms to ensure that such researchers take concrete steps to ensures that affected direct professional dependents' careers are not in fact adversely affected in the long-run. Moreover, I wonder if such researchers could still positively contribute to research in the field without being allowed to directly exert power/influence over other people in the field: this would entail being allowed to contribute to published/presented research but not being allowed to do so under one's own name, as well as not being allowed to take on new positions of power in teaching, mentoring, or scientific community service (like organizing conferences), for a certain length of time proportionate to the misconduct; my guess is that a first-time offender who is genuinely repentant would get a shorter time out of the field and would be glad to continue working in the field while simultaneously working to make things right, whereas a repeated premeditated offender would get a long enough time out to become irrelevant in the field unless he or she decided to suffer through so many years of working without gaining credit for the work (which would likely go against that person's instinct to exert power/influence where possible).

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