The institutional response to harassment

Tenured Radical has a great post about sexual harassment on campus.  Her post was motivated by an allegation of harassment by a student against a professor on her former campus, but I believe her advice is spot on for anyone harassed or bullied by someone in a greater position of power and authority on a college or university campus, not just students.  You should read and think about her whole post, but I think the upshot of it is here:

I have argued for some time that most people are not adequately prepared for the possibility that they will be harmed in some way on a college or university campus. Who includes in a college or grad school to-do list: “Think seriously about how to respond if a professor/senior colleague makes unwelcome advances”? The vast majority of students who make it to a four-year college or university have succeeded at school and tend to assume that administrators have their best interests in mind because they have rarely or never experienced anything else.

Wrong -o. Administrators are not in charge of justice or empathy, as anyone in the vocational track at your high school might have told you. They protect the best interests of the institution, as they understand them, and will do a great deal to silence people who threaten a school’s reputation. This includes throwing individual students and faculty who have turned into walking lawsuits under the bus and covering up faculty misbehavior many times over. And it does not include the highly public process of breaking faculty tenure to get a creepy jerk, chronic groper or bigot off campus.

Memorize this:  Institutions are in the business of protecting themselves.  They will not protect victims of people who have succeeded within the institution on the institution’s own terms.  This is why serial harassers protected by tenure, other faculty bullies, and department chairs and deans who menace their faculties and/or students (or who are just incompetent) will in 99 cases out of 100 never suffer any serious institutional sanctions for their behavior.   Now, most faculty and most administrators are decent people trying to do good by doing their jobs well.  But the fact of the matter is that anyone who has won tenure  and promotion–that is, who has succeeded within the institution on the institution’s own terms–is going to enjoy the reflexive protection of said institution. 

Institutions have already invested a great deal in a tenured faculty member, especially one who has an administrative role too, whereas students (who are by definition transient members of the institution), staff members, and untenured faculty are viewed as expendable.  In other words:  they’re stuck with the guy (or gal) who may be a “creepy jerk, chronic groper or bigot,”  but ze’s their creepy jerk, chronic groper, or bigot, whereas victims are free to leave the campus and find another school or job.

I experienced this myself at a previous institution, where everyone I talked to admitted that the department chair who pushed me around was charmless, ineffective, and incompetent, but she was their charmless, ineffective, and incompetent department chair. My complaints about her were effectively a challenge to the dean’s and the provost’s judgment in permitting her to chair a department, and maybe even an implicit challenge to the decision to tenure her as well. I wasn’t tenured–the institution hadn’t invested nearly as much in me as they had in her, so it was just fine with everyone that I chose to resign and move on.

Victims of abusive treatment  of any and all varieties need to understand that asking for redress or sanction of the abuser is tantamount to a challenge to the legitimacy of the institution’s policies and procedures.  This is something that an institution will never entertain, as the institution is justified and legitimized (if only in its own mind) by the application of these policies and procedures.  The institution cannot and will not suffer any challenges to its own legitimacy, so we’re back to where we started:  Institutions are in the business of protecting themselves.

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