I’m scrolling through Twitter when my eye catches an image that is like a punch to the gut. A picture of a man that stalked and harassed me for nearly four years who I haven’t seen since he was banned from our campus. He’s at a conference, happily giving a talk to a room full of people. Some of them I know, some of them I don’t, but certainly, some of them know my story.
Title IX investigations are grueling processes. My life fell apart after my own case. I gained weight, I pulled out much of my hair, I became reclusive, I drank too much, my long-term relationship crumbled. I feared conferences and social engagements: did the people there know? Did they only hear his side of the story? Do they think I was asking for it? Do they see only the accusations when they look at me and not my potential as a researcher?
Reactions to my case have been varied. And my case wasn’t even that bad, relatively speaking. It was straightforward. I had copious evidence, several witnesses, and he resigned from our university quickly after the investigation was announced, even though the case would eventually result in him being banned. I found out after the fact that I wasn’t the only woman that he had harassed, but my case was unique because of the long and obsessive nature and the control he had over me and my research. He was my mentor; we still had papers to publish together—we still do, in fact. And even worse, he went to Europe, unimpeded in finding a new position, despite the fact that he left a trail of destruction in his path. Multiple women, multiple universities, multiple accusations. It didn’t matter.
He went to Europe, unimpeded in finding a new position… Multiple women, multiple universities, multiple accusations. It didn’t matter.
I heard from others that he has played the victim. At one point he blamed my advisors and former bosses. He left out the fact that other members of our university had also complained about his behavior. A former lab mate told me a story in which a PI I had never met described me as a “troublemaker” for what I did to this man. I was filled with shame and doubt over what I had done, but simultaneously felt like I could breathe now that I was out from under his thumb.
When he started contacting my colleagues trying to get them to work with him on projects I was doing for my PhD, I was heartbroken. Maybe my worst fears were true, that blowing the whistle would result in long-ranging and unintended consequences. When we voiced our concerns about his retaliation, our Title IX office did practically nothing. They wouldn’t release a case summary for me to provide evidence to conference organizers and professional societies so I could protect myself. They wouldn’t even allow my advisor to corroborate my story. Because I had no documents that I could legally publish, I couldn’t alert other universities to what had happened (e.g. via the Academic Sexual Misconduct Database). I was completely on my own. Every time I wanted to protect myself, I would have to stand trial again, my word versus his, even though the first time I did it, it almost broke me.
Every time I wanted to protect myself, I would have to stand trial again, my word versus his, even though the first time I did it, it almost broke me.
Title IX needs to do better. That’s obvious to anyone who has been involved in one of these cases. But the fight to fix it is going to take a very long time, and working against the machines that are universities is often fruitless. They are primarily interested in protecting themselves and their image–just look at how long it took Stanford to put up Chanel Miller’s plaque. Universities are especially uninterested in what happens after they have done their “good deed”–a Title IX ruling that seemingly gets the perpetrator away from the victim. But academia is inherently mobile. While I jump around for the next 10 or so years, the Title IX ruling will still be restricted to a single university. It won’t protect me and it won’t protect the students of the university a perpetrator moves to, or even notify that university that those patterns of behavior have been an issue in the past.
I don’t know whether he has continued his tendency to harass women, and I don’t have a solution or answer to what an appropriate route looks like for someone to continue in academia after harassment occurs. I haven’t even been able to decide whether or not I think he should be allowed to continue to do research and have students. Some days I am so angry I wish he wasn’t allowed to, but the other half of me thinks that maybe he can have some redemption arc. Given that he still refuses to acknowledge he did anything wrong makes me doubtful.
You’re told when you file a Title IX that you are a survivor. That by doing this, you are preventing future women from being harassed and making academia safer. That is a lie. Perpetrators change jobs and move on. Victims are left stumbling through a system that fails them from the moment the case ends. Only high profile sexual harassment cases involving professors that have multi-million dollar labs cause individuals to be blacklisted, and even then universities are willing to overlook those accusations for the prestige that individual brings.
You’re told when you file a Title IX that you are a survivor. That by doing this, you are preventing future women from being harassed and making academia safer. That is a lie.
To those of you who run labs, where postdocs serve as frontline mentors for graduate students, I implore you to outline sexual harassment policies for your lab. Make sure the person you are hiring is not a threat to your students. And further, that your graduate students are responsible mentors to undergrads. When we asked around our department, we found that most of the postdocs had never completed sexual harassment training. The grey area between student and staff in which a postdoc exists complicates how harassment is handled, but this is a shocking oversight considering they are arguably doing the most direct mentoring in many lab situations.
I still struggle hearing my colleagues bring up my harasser’s name. I can’t always protect myself from seeing him on Twitter, or reading his name in a paper’s author list. But my experience has led me to truly reflect on the stories I have heard from other victims and how I can make spaces safer and more accessible for those who have experienced similar trauma. Perhaps, with united efforts in who we collaborate with, who we name awards after, and more transparent hiring practices in our labs and between universities, we can make academia safer.
Life after Title IX has been difficult, and my fight isn’t over yet. But I can’t help but feel grateful for what I have learned, the people I have met who have become my friends and allies, and that for better or for worse, I no longer shy away from calling out toxic behavior in academia, no matter how senior that person is to me. I refuse to maintain the whisper network that quietly warns us of who to avoid and who might be a threat to us. I am not whispering anymore. I am yelling.
Illustration by Rebecca Perez.