We need a penalty-free way to report sexual harassment at universities

Sexual harassment in academia has basically been a problem since women were magnanimously allowed to enter academia in the first place — and women who fought hard for their places in colleges and universities knew full well that reporting harassment and rape came with serious consequences. In prior eras, of course, college and university women were already suspect, but ‘ruined’ if anyone suspected improprieties. In the modern era, slut shaming and rape culture still ensure that if women and girls report harassment and assault, people blame them for it, and equally ruin them, though this time, it’s not their marital prospects, but their careers.

Undergraduate students put in the position of reporting may find themselves in a situation where their cases aren’t taken seriously, aren’t really investigated, and, if investigated and ‘substantiated,’ don’t really result in any penalties. That’s awful enough, but for people planning to go into academia, it comes with an extra sting, because now they are established as troublemakers. This is even worse for graduate students, who are expected to tolerate a culture of abuse because ‘this is the way it’s always been,’ and many schools have completely bizarre and horrific ways of handling sexual harassment cases.

Like rules against revoking tenure for older allegations, despite knowing that some people may take years to report out of shame or fear of reprisals. Or policies putting the burden of proof on people who have already been sexually harassed. Or policies making it impossible to revoke tenure, period, on the grounds of sexual harassment cases. Or policies forcing people to remain with advisors and professors they have accused of harassment. It’s a long and disgusting list, and the University of California has really been under the microscope for it, but it’s not the only college and university system with some serious problems when it comes to handling sexual harassment cases.

This is a huge and multifaceted issue that can’t be solved with a flick of a wrist and a single definitive action. But one thing absolutely needs to change: We must have a penalty-free system for reporting sexual harassment, and those reports must come with actual consequences. Until then, victims are put in the position of danger, while their abusers are in positions of safety. They know that reports are unlikely, and that if they do occur, the outcome will likely have minimal repercussions. Their colleges and universities are deliberately cultivating a culture of sexual violence, and they are refusing to deal with it, and they’re acting surprised when the trend of sexual harassment and assault continues despite ‘blue ribbon commissions’ and the like.

Penalty-free reporting systems include the ability to report anonymously. They include an office at a school dedicated to handling sexual harassment cases, and they include shielding victims’ identities from the people they are accusing as well as the general public — people who report are often harassed even more, including by cohorts, when the people involved are beloved professors. They need to know that when they approach the university, they will be treated with respect, and that their reports will be taken seriously and followed through, which in the short term includes placing them with different advisors, allowing them to drop or change classes or sections, and creating a way for them to avoid being around their abusers.

It involves conducting actual investigations and exploring the possibility that if one student has come forward, others are likely remaining in the shadows. Professors and staff need to be put on notice that they are under investigation, and the college is considering the issue as a serious matter, not something to be handled with a quick, pro-forma panel followed by a slap on the wrist, if anything. When students actually see that reports are followed by investigations and serious results, it makes them feel like the environment for reporting and handling harassment and assault is focused on them and their needs, not protecting professors and the legal interests of the university (or its public face).

This is hard. It requires a fundamental rethinking of how these cases are handled, and it requires confronting the role of rape culture in the development and enforcement of school policies. For some schools, it’s necessary to break these things all the way down to the ground and build them back up again. For all schools, it is worth it. No one should have to weigh reporting and seeking justice for harassment against her career. Ever. Period. No one should think that reporting is pointless because nothing will happen, other than being shamed for speaking out. Ever. Period.

Colleges and universities have really exceptionalised themselves on the subject of sexual harassment and assault, making it difficult to report safely, making it clear that they don’t care about victims, and behaving as though they aren’t subject to the same laws that govern the outside world. Those laws are weak enough, but when they’re watered down even further, it puts victims at an utter disadvantage, and creates an extremely dangerous power structure. No one should think that they have the right to abuse students because nothing will happen, because they will face no consequences, because those students will be too afraid to report.

Colleges talk about wanting to address these problems, but they don’t back these claims with actions. That needs to change, because this is a problem that has been entrenched for centuries, and it’s unconscionable that this is still the case.

Image: Guys, Keep Out, Stefan Lins, Flickr