In the midst of a national reckoning over sexual harassment in the workplace, comparative literature professors Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran GRD ’08 wrote an op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post that underlines the importance of ending sexual harassment in institutions of higher education.
In the op-ed, titled “No more ‘toughing it out’: Let’s end sexual harassment on campus,” Figlerowicz and Ramachandran argue that, although news coverage of sexual harassment scandals in the entertainment industry has inspired “large-scale public conversations,” the discussion has not adequately focused on sexual harassment in what Figlerowicz and Ramachandran call the most important places — educational institutions.
“To become actual sources of change in these social conditions, universities need to begin by acknowledging how out of date is their informal lore about dealing with sexual harassment — and how much this lore contradicts their professed egalitarian and progressive politics,” Figlerowicz and Ramachandran wrote in the op-ed. “As teachers — not only male, but also female-bodied ones — we ourselves are often in need of a profound re-education.”
Figlerowicz and Ramachandran’s op-ed is not just a criticism of the current sexual climate in academia. Rather, Figlerowicz and Ramachandran told the News in a joint interview, it is intended to be a call for action to create a better climate for both faculty and students at universities.
In response to the rise in sexual harassment allegations, Figlerowicz and Ramachandran said they are leading a series of conversations, panels and informal lunches in conjunction with the Women’s Faculty Forum and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences so that students and faculty can share their own experiences and brainstorm how to respond to situations that feel “out of [their] control.” These informal meetings, which started in September, are open to faculty and students of all genders.
Figlerowicz said this grassroots approach is the only way to combat what she called “the gray zone of offenses” — those which are not technically punishable but create a persistently hostile environment.
“It’s helpful to have the difficulty of dealing with this issue on an everyday basis articulated, but also to try to think about ideas that will change the culture more broadly,” Ramachandran said. “We both feel that a broader, wider and deeper recognition of the extent of the problem and the kind of small, persistent ways in which it manifests and enables bigger problems need to happen.”
The op-ed comes just a week after News staff columnist Sherry Lee ’18’s op-ed in the News, “Abuse in academia,” in which Lee, a classics major, discusses the numerous allegations against prominent academics both in- and outside the classics discipline. Such abuses in academia are far more frequent than those on the outside realize, she argued. According to Lee, although instances of abuse are often well known within professional communities, academia enforces a culture of silence, and sexual harassment is rarely acknowledged on an institutional level.
“The formal recourse offered to victims tends to privilege reconciliation over retribution and the risk of accusing an individual with the immunity of tenure far outweighs the likelihood of justice,” Lee wrote.
Emily Greenwood, classics professor and chair of the classics department, sent an email to members of the Classics Department community praising Figlerowicz and Ramachandran’s op-ed. Also referencing Lee’s op-ed, Greenwood highlighted the “shameful culture of sexual harassment which has thrived in the discipline [of classics] for too long.” Greenwood added that the topic was discussed in October at the inaugural meeting of the Women in Ancient Studies Forum — a group for scholars in premodern studies intended to bring attention to discipline-specific challenges and unite female scholars from different departments and institutions.
Greenwood told the News that “breaches of equality,” such as sexual harassment, happen far too often in academia.
“This sounds extremely regressive and antithetical to the ideal image that we have of our universities, but believe me it’s happening on this campus every day in multiple venues,” Greenwood said. “All of this is extremely detrimental to the flourishing of equality, and, increasingly, it smacks of rank hypocrisy, as some faculty who indulge in this kind of behavior have also learned to parade as champions of equality, conveniently overlooking the harm caused by their own actions.”
Greenwood, who is also a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate, said that the senate plans to partner with both the Women’s Faculty Forum and with Deputy Dean for Faculty Diversity and chair of the Religious Studies Department Kathryn Lofton to develop policy to change the current climate. The FAS Senate also has two committees — the Committee on Faculty Diversity and Inclusivity in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Committee on Faculty Advancement — that are working to tackle the effects of discrimination on faculty careers. And the senate’s Peer Advisory Committee has addressed individual cases of gender discrimination since the establishment of the senate over two years ago.
American studies professor Matthew Jacobson, chair of the senate, said it is too early to comment on specific policy proposals. Still, he said that one of the primary lessons following the “tsunami” of sexual harassment and assault allegations is that the tolerance and nurturing of “bad actors” through a culture of “silent bystanding” must be eradicated.
“We must work to bring an end to the era of the ‘open secret’; we need accountability and consequence; and we need every single ally to come out of the woodwork,” Jacobson said in an email to the News.
Greenwood said that, though the University leadership is proactive in responding to official reports of sexual harassment with Title IX reporting provisions, everyone in a position of leadership — the president, vice presidents, the provost, the deans, faculty members and program chairs — needs to be more proactive in articulating intolerance of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.
In an email to the News, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler said the administration unequivocally condemns gender discrimination and sexual harassment and regularly articulates its commitment to these values.
And last week, Lofton and Dean of Academic Affairs Jack Dovidio sent an email to department and program chairs reminding them that they are obligated to report incidents of sexual misconduct and potential misconduct to the University Title IX coordinator, Stephanie Spangler. The email included a handout offering further guidelines on reporting responsibilities, and the deans offered their guidance in working through “difficult issues.”
Overall, Ramachandran said, the responses to the op-ed have been heartening.
“I think that there’s a real sense [of] ‘Let’s do something about this and respond in a positive way that will help break a vicious cycle,’” she said.
Adelaide Feibel | firstname.lastname@example.org