I’m hoping you (and your readers) can help me with a potentially delicate situation.
I am a graduate student at a major research university. There is a senior professor in my department who has made unwanted sexual advances toward me. I try to limit the amount of time I interact with him and make sure I am very professional when I do see him. I was recently assigned to be his T.A. for the upcoming fall term and need some advice on how to gently and delicately get reassigned. Although many people in the department know of his behavior, my advisor and other professors have been unsupportive. He is well-respected and influential in the field and I need to be careful in how I handle this situation.
Can you offer any advice?
I’ve seen this situation before. Grad Student is justified in not wanting to work with this professor. As I read the letter, Grad Student’s number one goal is to get out of the T.A. assignment, and larger issues like justice and fairness are less of a concern for hir now. Because so much depends on so many different variables, I’m hoping that my readers will add lots of helpful advice and different ways to think about the problem. Unfortunately, I can understand all too well how problems like this professor get ignored/minimized/and/or passed down the line, which is why Grad Student reports that “[a]lthough many people in the department know of his behavior, my advisor and other professors have been unsupportive.” Ugh. (Yet not surprising!)
My first two suggestions have to do with protecting yourself legally and preparing yourself for taking any formal action. You may decide that that’s not the route you want to travel, but you should start here:
- RTFM (Or, Read The Friggin’ Manual): Get your hands on copies of the Faculty and Staff Manuals and on the Student Handbook, or whatever set of rules and responsibilities you’ll need to know in order to pursue an action formally. (Most unis post these on-line now, so it shouldn’t be difficult.) Forearmed is forearmed–they have harbored a sexual harasser for years, so the faculty at your uni are probably masters of denial and ignorance about actual policies and procedures. This will sadly probably include your department Chair, so read up and be ready to brief them if you need to.
- Document, document, document: If you haven’t done this already, create a document in which you record all of the troubling interactions you’ve had with this professor, and be as specific as you possibly can. (Include dates, times, places, exactly what happened, and all witnesses, if there were any.)
My next two suggestions are specifically for getting out of an unwanted T.A. assignment. Depending on the people you work with, they might be of varying usefulness:
- Consult your Graduate Studies Chair: Depending on his or her level of awareness and responsiveness and responsibility for the T.A. schedule, this might work. You’ll have to decide what level of candor you want to reveal to the GSC. Remember, your goal is first to get out of one T.A. assignment. This might work even better if you first
- See if you can get a friendly faculty member on your side: is there someone else who’d like you to be hir T.A.? Again, only you can decide how much you want to reveal, but your request to switch T.A. assignments might be easier to accomplish if you’ve already got a cooperative faculty member lined up.
- Consult your Department Chair: Again, only you can decide how much you want to reveal, and this will depend on your sense of the responsiveness of the Chair. If the Chair decides on the T.A. schedule, you may need to start here first. If you decide that you want to pursue this professor formally according to the policies and procedures you’ve found in the Faculty Manual and Student Handbook, you’ll almost certainly need to consult the department Chair at some point. You’ll need to come to the meeting with your document incidents of harassment, and you should also make it clear to the Chair what you’re looking for from hir and what you’re going to do after your meeting.
Remember: a plan almost always beats no plan. Think about your goals, and be prepared. I will warn you that pursuing complaints formally is very difficult. It’s always easy and relatively painless to drive away a grad student or an untenured faculty member who complains about a tenured faculty member–even if, or especially if ze’s already notorious. As I have learned through painful experience, academics are specialists at denial, evasion, and deflection. It is very difficult to make people do the righteous thing when they have so many incentives just to ignore you and merely hope that the problem (or you) go away.
Readers: what do you think? What have you learned (through observation or experience) in your career?