TW: Sexual harassment and indecent assault
When you hear about allegations of abuse and mistreatment in higher education, so many of the stories are from people who feel that the systems failed them, their experiences were “swept under the carpet”, and administrators failed to investigate and/or act on the allegations. My story, thankfully, is different. While I will explain in detail the adverse impact that the harassment and indeed the investigation itself had on my mental health, I believe that my story is also one of hope: it shows that in some cases universities do act appropriately following student complaints, and people are brought to justice. While I appreciate that not everyone will feel safe speaking up about their experiences, I want to highlight that sometimes institutions do the right thing and survivors can ultimately prevail.
The Beginning: “What’s a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this?”
My story commences when I started my Master’s degree. I was young, driven, and determined to succeed in my academic career. My dream was to pursue a PhD at one of the world’s top universities outside of my home country, and I knew that doing well in my Master’s degree would help me achieve that goal.
After carefully reviewing the different supervisors available, I settled on three professors and e-mailed each one seeking a meeting. I was thrilled when my top choice – let’s call him “Professor X” – contacted me immediately and agreed to meet with me. He opened his office door smiling, and greeted me saying, “What’s a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this?” In retrospect, this strange greeting was the first red flag. Yet he was one of the top scholars in my field and had a long list of publications, grants, and graduate students to his name, so I desperately wanted to work with him. At our meeting, he was warm and friendly and seemed to share my enthusiasm and love for academia. After meeting with him again, we agreed that he would supervise me for my Master’s thesis. I was so excited and felt that this was a key step in my journey toward a PhD. This man was highly regarded and had connections with other professors all over the world. I was sure that we would work well together and if not, well, a Master’s degree was only two years of my life. No matter what happened I felt that I could handle it.
The Grooming Phase
I settled into my Master’s degree coursework and soon chose an ambitious research topic, one that I knew would be challenging but could lead to some impactful publications. Initially, Professor X and I had regular meetings in his office, but he soon suggested that we begin meeting at restaurants and cafes as they had “a more relaxed atmosphere.” I found this a little bizarre, but I knew that he had done this with other students too, so I didn’t question it. He would regularly drink alcohol during these meetings while I stuck to orange juice. As the weeks progressed, he began to confide in me about his unhappy marriage, the challenges of parenting a toddler with special needs, his dissatisfaction with university administrators, and his general disillusionment with his academic career. While he was very successful, he didn’t seem to be enjoying his job at all. I tried to provide a listening ear yet at the same time keep the conversation focused on my research, which was progressing well. I had completed my first series of studies and the results were promising, and we were both pleased with how the research was going.
In retrospect (again), this was a process known as grooming. Along with the personal disclosures about his family life came frequently attempts to touch me when he said hello and goodbye, and even while we were speaking. This began with gently running his hands along my shoulders when greeting me, to kissing me on the cheek, and progressed to reaching across the table and touching my hair as we engaged in conversation. While these behaviours made me feel uncomfortable, I rationalized that he was simply doing this to be friendly. Over time, his emails became more and more personal and intimate, and he mentioned constantly that he was desperately unhappy in his marriage. I felt very uncomfortable hearing about these issues and made multiple attempts to steer the conversation back to appropriate work-related topics. This tactic tended to work for a week or two, and then I would receive another inappropriate email. He also enjoyed sending all his students sexually explicit jokes via email and text message, something that we dismissed as harmless. Looking back, he wasn’t harmless at all; he was a predator, and he had me firmly in his sights.
“You Know You Want Me. Just Kiss Me.”
Although I was feeling very uncomfortable about the situation with Professor X, I found many ways to rationalize the behaviour and resist speaking to anyone about how I felt. After all, what was he really doing wrong? Why was I being so sensitive? Surely he was just being friendly and building a good relationship with his student? After all, this was a senior professor in the field, and I wanted to continue working with him. And even if I went and complained to our Dean, what would I say? “My supervisor keeps talking to me about his family and how much he hates his marriage and I want him to stop?” “He compliments me too much about how I look and it makes me feel awkward?” “I don’t find sexually explicit jokes amusing?” I felt that I would be perceived as complaining about nothing, and so I remained silent.
On one occasion, I was working in the lab late at night when he wandered inside, explaining that he had returned to campus to continue working on a paper. It was obvious, however, that he had been drinking and he smelled strongly of whiskey. He tried to engage me in conversation and I tried to ignore him, intent on analyzing the results from the most recent experiments. Suddenly he came up behind me and wrapped his arms around me, pressing his face against my neck, and he began to kiss me. I froze, not knowing what to do, and his hands crept around my body and squeezed my breasts tightly. We were completely alone in the lab, it was close to midnight, the lab was almost completely dark except for my work area, and he was at least twice my size. I tried to twist away from him and managed to back myself against the wall, at which point he began to kiss my face and neck, telling me to do the same. I remained largely frozen, not reciprocating, and not knowing what to do. He began to unbutton my blouse and eventually tore it open, the buttons falling to the floor. I tried to push his hands away but he leaned into me, the full weight of his body pressed against mine, and I could smell alcohol on his breath. I wanted to vomit with revolution and fear.
Suddenly my phone rang, and he was distracted for a second as he looked around for the source of the noise. His grip loosened and I managed to twist away from him, grabbing my phone and bag, and I bolted to the door. He tried to follow me but I ran down the hallway to the graduate student rooms, which were only accessible via an electronic swipe card. I managed to get inside and hid inside one of the cubicles, trembling. I could hear him outside calling my name but I ignored him, determined to ignore the sound of his voice. I called my partner and my roommate at the time and requested that they come and pick me up immediately. While I didn’t go into detail about what happened, they could tell that I was very upset and came straight to the campus. They waited outside the graduate student rooms for me and made sure that Professor X had gone before I opened the door. That night I went home feeling terrified and confused.
Deciding What To Do
A few days later, at the strong urging of my partner, I went to my primary care doctor. She knew something was wrong as soon as I walked inside her office. Through tears, I explained what had happened to me the previous week. She was horrified, emphasized to me that I had been a victim of sexual harassment and indecent assault, and told me in no uncertain terms that I needed counselling sooner rather than later. I must admit that I was very resistant to this idea: I had never had any type of counselling before, but I knew I was at a point where I couldn’t cope with this alone.
After several sessions with my psychologist, I decided to take an extended leave of absence from my studies. I was terrified of being in the same room as Professor X and just kept ignoring emails and text messages from him asking where I was. My doctor wrote me a medical certificate and I was able to spend three months in counselling while I decided how to respond to what happened. I didn’t know whether I should notify the university and felt terribly conflicted when I thought about what could happen to me. What if no one believed me? I would be left without a supervisor for my thesis and my chances of pursuing further graduate studies could be affected
The next three months were torture. Friends and colleagues kept asking where I was, but I ignored their emails and decided to stick to the narrative that I was suffering from a physical illness. After enduring many sleepless nights, and after discussions with a handful of trusted friends and family, I decided to go ahead and file a sexual harassment complaint against Professor X. This was not a decision that I made lightly. My psychologist was wonderful; she did not encourage me to pursue any particular course of action, but she helped me look at my options and evaluate which one would be best for me. While I was petrified of going through the complaint process, as well as the possible consequences for my academic career, I was also furious about the way that I had been treated. I had endured months of harassment and inappropriate behaviour, and the anger I felt helped me make the decision to speak up. I have always felt very strongly about injustice and unfair treatment, and I think that this part of my personality was part of my decision-making. I also felt more confident filing the complaint knowing that I had several hundred emails that demonstrated his appalling behavior, as well as witness statements from my partner and roommate who had met me on campus the night that he assaulted me. Although they didn’t see what happened, they had found me in an incredibly distressed state, and I had disclosed the circumstances to them straightaway. No matter the consequences for my career, I felt that this was something that I had to do.
Speaking Up and Finding Strength
The complaint process is still difficult for me to write about, so I will be brief. In short, I was extremely lucky that university administrators listened to my concerns and were willing to investigate the allegations. I also made sure I was familiar with the procedure to manage complaints before filing any paperwork, and I had some idea of what to expect. The university appointed a team of investigators to interview all relevant parties and the investigators provided a report and recommendations at the end of the process.
My psychologist also submitted a report to the university detailing the effect that the experience had on me. I developed severe Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of the harassment, but the process of filing a complaint and the subsequent investigation were also very traumatic. The investigation took several months and during this time I suffered panic attacks, insomnia, mood swings, and constant nausea almost every day. I lost a lot of weight and looked gaunt and unwell. I also became ill with sinus infections frequently and felt physically exhausted. It took me a long time to recover from the ordeal, and my mental health is still affected today.
To my enormous relief, the investigators found that my allegations were substantiated. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Professor X denied every single one of the allegations and claimed that I was trying to destroy his career as a result of “an unfounded and malicious smear campaign against [me] in the department”. He alleged further that there was a “major conspiracy” within the university to get rid of him because he had spoken up against controversial administrative decisions in the past. All of the inappropriate comments written via email were intended as “light-hearted banter.” To this day I believe that he still has no insight into his behavior.
Two months after the investigation ended, Professor X was fired. I am aware that so many people who file similar complaints against senior members of the academy are not lucky enough to get such a good outcome. Why was my complaint listened to and taken seriously?
- I had a great deal of evidence to support my allegations. If you are considering filing a complaint, this is enormously important. In my case, I know that it made a big difference. A very small number of people do make vexatious complaints, and organizations – including those in academia – generally cannot investigate complaints unless there are clear, documented grounds for doing so.
- I found out later that three former graduate students had raised concerns (although not in writing) about his inappropriate behavior around female students. He had been warned by his department chair to behave and stop sending lewd messages, and he ignored this directive.
- Professor X was not well-liked by any of his colleagues. While I don’t think that this was necessarily a decisive factor, as far as I am aware none of his colleagues came forward to support him or offer positive character references.
Many years later, I do not regret my decision to file a complaint, but the scars remain. I continued to suffer from PTSD for years and still experience difficulty in triggering situations. Although I was terrified of the implications for my career, I was luckier than many. Through friends, I found a wonderful mentor who helped me transfer to another university, find an excellent female supervisor and complete my Master’s thesis. Although I have not gone on to complete a PhD (maybe one day!), I now work overseas in a highly-regarded lab doing exciting research. I feel that the experience has helped me develop enormous empathy for survivors of bullying and harassment, and I have completed training to help counsel employees who have experienced victimization at work.
What would I say to someone who is considering filing a complaint? This is such a personal decision, and I would encourage you to think carefully about their options. Find out as much information as you can about the complaint process, what is involved, and any risks, before you decide what to do. Seek support from others, especially mental health professionals if you feel that you need help. There are also many resources online that are available to victims of sexual violence, and I found these very useful. While I would love to tell everyone to speak up, I know that reporting harmful behaviour is not an option for many people. At the end of the day, you need to do what is right for you.
Although my experience with making a complaint was generally positive, in that the perpetrator of the sexual harassment was fired, I recognize that this is a relatively rare outcome. There are simply too many powerful people in academia who engage in harmful, inappropriate behaviour without facing any consequences. The forces that perpetuate this are largely cultural. The recent events at Harvard that have gained so much attention on social media are very discouraging and demonstrate just how far we have to go. However, looking back on my experience, I feel that the environment is changing slowly and the #MeToo movement in academia is growing. Social media has played a huge role in this, and there are far more resources available now than when I went through this traumatic experience. Gradually, I believe that the environment is shifting as more and more institutions recognize that they must hold perpetrators accountable. Through listening to survivors and taking decisive action in response to their voices, we can create lasting change.