Doctor Cleveland's picture

    Harassing the Professor

    The University of Venus blog at Inside Higher Ed recently posted a personal reflection by a non-white female professor who has felt sexually harassed by one of her male undergraduates. This is at once shocking and entirely unsurprising. Even a white straight guy like me can't work in higher education and not notice the inappropriate behaviors that many female colleagues have to put up with from male students: students sexually propositioning them, giving them flowers, attempting to contact them off-campus, writing graphic sexual comments in teaching evaluations. It may not have happened to every single woman who professes, but it happens to plenty, and to far, far more than it should. In this case, the student turned a writing assignment into something graphically sexual that had nothing to do with course content. (And yes, of course sex is not off limits for academic discussion. But it has to be academic discussion. "That Georgia O'Keefe painting looks pretty symbolic to me," is a normal part of art history class. "Let me tell you more about my penis," is not.)

    The original post had led to a intense online discussions both at the University of Venus and at Historiann. Some insights have been great, and others derailed by the question of parity: does this happen to male faculty too? Shouldn't we treat men and women faculty equally? I find this line of argument unsettling for three reasons: 1) this is very obviously not a case of parity, 2) that the situations are radically unequal does not mean that men are never, ever, ever harassed, or that we need not consider how such a situation should be treated, and 3) the focus on student harassment as an exchange between only two people leaves out all the other people in the classroom, and those people's education is very definitely affected by such misbehavior.

    Here's a key quote from the original poster:

    Right after my confrontation with this student about his first paper, I shot my usual line to my husband, who is also an academic: “this would never happen to you!” And then I realized there were other things that were happening that I doubt happen to him or other male faculty. Based on the content of the student’s paper, and his behavior towards me, it was very clear that he saw me not as a professor but as a sexualized, “exotic” woman. I became acutely aware of my body language and my clothes. I found myself often quickly checking the buttons on my shirt during class to make sure they were all buttoned. I felt awkward turning around to write something at length on the board. I found myself limiting my physicality in other ways, like not sitting on top of the desk as I often do during discussion sessions. I started scheduling students back to back during office hours, if he wanted to meet with me, just so there would be a crowd of students outside my door when he was inside my office. And I made sure that I wasn’t the last person to leave the classroom. I understand that male professors are sometimes viewed sexually by their students. But I think the consequences of that are very different. I wonder if male professors have to worry about being the last person to leave the classroom, if they wonder what kind of predicament the next bad grade they give out is going to land them in.

    The focus, again, has been on "This would never happen to you!" Of course it does happen to men, occasionally. But the real point isn't whether anything like this happens to male teachers or not. The point is that this situation is much easier for men to defend themselves against than it is for women.

    If you're a straight male teacher, a straight female student is much less likely to cross the boundaries that you set in your teacher-student interactions, and in the rare cases when one does, a male teacher is going to protect himself, and count on his institution to protect him, pretty easily.

    The male teacher's advantage begins with our culture's standard heteronormative scripts for courtship and dating. Should a female student express interest in a male professor, that expression will in almost every case involve the student signaling availability, rather than making any overt gesture. The script is that the woman signals interest and the man pursues. That's by no means a feminist script but face it: a female undergraduate interested in having an actual romantic relationship (as opposed to a crush or occasional daydream) involving a major power differential with an older man is typically also invested in old-fashioned gender roles and in the man as pursuer.

    Basically, all a male college professor has to do to repel such invitations is ignore them. A student has a fantasy, no matter how durable or ephemeral, of being pursued by an older man; if the older man doesn't pursue, that's pretty much the ballgame. If a male professor doesn't know how to ignore or deflect comments professionally, he can just fall back on playing dumb. Actually being dumb also works quite nicely. Does the student just have a garden-variety crush, or is she actually hoping to act out her fantasies? Doesn't matter; there's not much she can do without the male faculty member's cooperation. Male privilege is not only powerful, but it's convenient.

    A woman professor, unfortunately, doesn't have to distinguish the male students with harmless crushes from the ones who are prone to act out, either, because the young men who want to act out do. If the script is "man pursues," a young man with a sexual interest in his professor is apt to make unequivocal gestures. A dozen roses; an e-mail describing erotic dreams; a surprise phone call at home. Bad times. And then the onus is put on the faculty member to actively refuse the student, and of course to manage his hurt feelings. (She not only gets to be inappropriately sexualized; she gets to be inappropriately sexualized and then become a focus of anger.) And while a female student hitting on a male professor often experiences his authority as "sexy," many male students who proposition female professors experience a woman's authority as an anomaly that needs to be reversed or resolved. There are plenty of horror stories, although none are mine to tell. This situation is much, much harder than it is for the male teacher, right from the start. And when a male student refuses to hear the refusal, and responds with larger and less appropriate gestures in order to make sure that he has communicated his desires to their object, it gets ugly.

    Are there occasionally students who refuse to accept that a male professor has refused them? Sure. It's much rarer than it is for female professors, but it happens. Harassers, of whatever gender, can be defined by their inability to hear the word no or to recognize boundaries, and when one inappropriate gesture doesn't get what they want they follow with an even less appropriate one. When inappropriate e-mail doesn't work, make an inappropriate phone call. If that doesn't work, just show up. To take one of the original poster's implicit questions, "I wonder if male professors have to worry about being the last person to leave the classroom," literally, the answer is "Once in a great while, yes." It's happened to me only once in nineteen combined years as a high school teacher, grad school teaching fellow, and professor, and it lasted rather less than a semester, and it was a hell of a lot easier on me than it is on almost any woman in the same position. That experience in no way makes me less privileged, or "equally a victim." In fact, my experience illustrates how much easier men have it.

    One semester, I got some alarming e-mail sent to my personal account; it was anonymous, but various details indicated a student in a night course I was teaching. (Even though the student didn't respect my boundaries or my privacy, I was still supposed to come looking for her; she had apparently created an e-mail profile just for the purpose of sending me her amorous spam, and her profile picture was a jpeg of Lady Godiva. Even the unsettling inappropriate behavior was a variant on come-and-get-me.) I reported it to my department chair immediately, gave the students no indication that anything had happened, and spent a few weeks working out which of my students had done it. Did I give thought to how and when I left that classroom at nine PM? You bet. I took great care not to make any move that might encourage the initially-unidentified culprit, who might construe almost anything as encouragement. For several weeks I made sure not to leave the building with any female students.

    But was I afraid of physical danger, as the original poster was? Decidedly not; my experience was much, much less alarming than hers. When the (eventually identified) culprit chose to glower at me in the classroom, I felt the opposite of fear. Her displeasure was an admission of her powerlessness, and I was confident that she would not resort to any physical intimidation. Neither did I worry about my appearance, or become uncomfortable about my body; I did not believe that the incident had much to do with my body or my looks. Neither did I worry about my work clothing, since I had already availed myself of perfectly "safe" and "professional" male clothing which could not be second-guessed. It wasn't just that what I was wearing could not be construed as sexy by the student; I was also safe from any charge from administrators that I had "brought it on myself" with what I wore. Professional women, alas, don't get such easy and uncontroversial dress standards.

    But the most important difference was that I knew the school authorities would back me. And that would have been true for me virtually anywhere. I trust that my particular chair and my particular dean would do the same for any of my female colleagues in the same situation, but that is not true of every chair or every dean. Again, there are horror stories which aren't mine to tell, but I can think of instances where a male student made wildly inappropriate overtures toward female faculty, where there was no dispute either of the inappropriateness of the student behavior or the identity of the student, and the student was allowed to remain in the professor's classroom. That is the difference between being a man and a woman in this profession. If a man asks to be protected in his workplace, he always gets protected. Some women do, and some women don't. That's an abuse of the faculty member who's forced to be in a classroom where she doesn't feel safe, and it's an abuse of every one of her students, whose education is compromised by keeping the harassing student in the classroom.

    A teacher who's having students trespass her (or his) boundaries will almost certainly begin to second-guess those boundaries and feel tempted to make them much more rigid. There's an instinctive response to make oneself as distant and unapproachable as possible. That doesn't help anybody's learning. Nor does feeling wary and defensive help you run a classroom better. A teacher's professionalism may compensate for her or his discomfort in that situation, and the students may never see it overtly expressed, but it will still be a compensation and it will take that teacher's energy and attention away from other things.

    Read that original post again. The professor in question was feeling so cautious about her boundaries that she gave up her habit of sitting on the desk. Now, sitting on the desk is not itself the key to teaching effectiveness, but it was clearly something she used to signal a relaxed and open atmosphere for discussion. It seems overwhelmingly likely that discussion in that classroom stopped feeling quite so relaxed and welcoming, because the teacher couldn't afford it to be. That's hard on the teacher and bad for the students. She also writes about scheduling student conferences very tightly in order to avoid being alone with the culprit, which means that everybody's individual conference got kept short and hurried. The faculty member was put in a situation where the goal of her safety and comfort was put in conflict with the goals of effective teaching, all for the dubious benefit of keeping the problem student in the classroom.

    And before anyone takes up a Gender Wars 1.0 position, siding with the male student against the prudish female authority figure, remember this: when a professor is feeling the instinct to pull back from students because she's been (or is being) harassed by a male student, she is going to pull back furthest from the rest of her male students. Allowing one boy the inalienable male privilege of handing in porn for course credit has a cost. It gets paid by other young meb who get a teacher who is less available, less generous, less likely to become a mentor. How could it not? (It also, of course, exacts a toll on the professor's well-being and her soul.)

    When put in a less-intense parallel situation, even knowing that I would be supported by my superiors, I went through a few months when I was instinctively much more distant from female students and had to work, consciously and hard, to remain equally accessible to all my students. During the night course with the problem student, I was very careful to leave the building every night with at least one male student. That felt like a very reasonable step. But it did mean that the male student, often the same one, got an extra five or six minutes of conversation about the writers and books we were studying, a little extra attention from the professor. Is that gender inequality? You bet. And there was an enormous temptation to shut myself off from female students for the next few months, becoming less likely to stop for a brief chat if I passed them on campus, more reluctant to take on independent study projects, quicker to end conversations in my office. That would obviously be unjust, and that is not the teacher I have ever wanted to be. But absolutely no one would have called me on it. I could also have been "fair" by pulling back from all my students, but that is not teaching either. And it took a deliberate, diffcult effort not to become that person. That's doing it the easy way, cushioned by institutional support and male privilege and a sense of physical safety. It's a lot harder for women. That penalizes women and their students as well.

    Female faculty need to be allowed to solve classroom problems as they see fit, but they also need to know that they have all the tools that their solutions require, including backing from administrators. A faculty member who's feeling harassed by a student might decide that the student does not need to be removed from her classroom, but she does need the confidence of knowing that she could have the student removed if that were necessary. The real scandal isn't that students treat male and female faculty differently; that is just an ugly reflection of our wider society's values. But when the people overseeing a university and upholding its values allow female faculty to be treated in a way that male faculty would never be asked to tolerate, it's a scandal and a shame.


    As I began to read this post, I first had the "parity" thought that you decry. Among my fellow grad students, I knew more men than women who had been approached my amorous undergrads. But your explanation of the phenomenon, it's causes and it's imbalances, was utterly compelling.

    Thanks, G. Good to get nice words from a hot new author.

    Times change. But thus far, certain inequities have not.

    In the mid to late 60's:

    1) My smart, even then elegant roommate in boarding school -- at a then virginal 16, became the target of a predatory faculty member .... which exploitative experience marred my roommate for all of her formative adult life;

    2) We were in a honors English/Philosophy program at said boarding school, taught by the aforementioned faculty member, which I at least completed, unharmed. BUT. When I took an advanced placement course in college, based on that work, I was propositioned by the professor, who advised to me to "put out" to get my "A" because, he advised, otherwise he might accuse me of  "cheating" ... as "obviously, no female student could possibly write these papers..." 

    Fast forward, twenty years, to Anita Hill:

    We all know the story, as well as the shabby result: Clarence Thomas confirmed; Anita Hill -- who did not want to testify -- disparaged and derided.

    Fast forward, almost another twenty years, to 2009: I'm teaching at a boarding school. And I witness the Dean of Students -- he who is supposed to have the welfare of the students as his prime reason for being -- crooking his finger at a sophomore female student, thereby demanding that she leave class to go, where? Twenty minutes later, looking really distraught, red, blotchy and shaking, she returned to class, tears in her eyes....yet defiant, challenging me to what? 

    To do something, I think.

    I am not saying that male students are not sometimes exploited. I know they sometimes are. 

    But it is not the same equation. Ever. IMO.



    Good comments. I agree that it's not the same. Women are from Venus and I don't know from Mars, but IMO men are never far away from their reptillian brain stems. I think there is more awareness of male predatory behavior now than before and better rules in the workplace. But the brain chemistry hasn't changed, especially with males.   

    A friend of mine, when she was in high school, was considered by her parents to be "precocious" and they tried to keep her away from "boys". They sent her to a Minister for counseling. On the third session he invited her for a weekend out of town.

    And worse, I have met a number of women who were the victims of predatory sexual behavior by their fathers. I was shocked. Most of the fathers were professional men in successful careers. One woman simply blanked out her entire junior high school experience, couldn't remember anyone in her class, or how she got back and forth to school. 

    In another case, in a group exercise, women were asked to re-enact a scene, and then confront their invisible fathers by name. In one case the man's name was someone most of us would recognize. (Well, that was a period in California when everyone went to "group"--and this midwestern bred guy was introduced to a whole new world)

    Yes, wws, it is not the same equation. Ever. At least, during my lifetime of casual observation.

    Those are horrible stories, wws. But actually, I wasn't really discussing that.

    I wasn't discussing teachers sexually pursuing students because I don't see much to discuss about it. It's wrong, and I'm in no mood to explain why to those who don't grasp it. The only way I think my post touches on the topic at all is to point out that sexual relationships between male professors and female students are virtually always initiated by professors, even if that lopsided relationship is initially consensual, because even a young woman who was interested would expect the professor to take initiative. A male faculty member sleeping with a student really can't use the excuse that he gave in to the student's advances; he can always resist and ignore those advances.

    What I was discussing is the less common but still real phenomenon of teachers, expeically female teachers. We live in a world whose gender politics are so askew that male undergraudates sometimes harass older women with PhDs, all of the official power in the situation notwithstanding.



    You're quite right; Doc. I did not read your post carefully, for which I apologize. Apparently, when I see certain words in print, old hot buttons are touched. I should learn to recognize that response, learn to read the post more carefully and only then respond if I think I have something relevant to say about the actual topic on offer.

    So. In answer to the topic you raised:

    First -- thank you for being a man not only willing to discuss issues like this one, but also one who can acknowledge that the average administration response to a woman who mentions such harassment is less supportive than it would be had a man made a similar complaint to his administrators. Which seems sort of ironic, for the very reasons you cite.

    Second --  imo, male resentment of independent, accomplished women -- particularly women who find themselves in positions of authority or "power" over men, of any age -- seems to me to be increasing, rather than diminishing. And, whether that resentment is overtly expressed as sexual harassment, or as problematic opposition/sabotage, or as knee-capping condescension, it is all about hostility; it stems from a sense of culturally-inculcated entitlement that, under perceived threat -- say, tough economic times -- gives men tacit permission to "put women in their place" .... which, for many men -- even the young among them -- is still a sexualized category.  

    Although demonstrations of this phenomenon can be seen in every workplace -- and indeed, in every aspect of our current lives, it is the reluctance of both male and female administrators/authority figures to do something about it that is most worrisome. Because just as the number of men anxious to put a woman "in her place"has increased, so, too, has the number of women who predictably act as "enforcers" of restrictive or derisive male attitudes -- women who automatically align with the prevailing male view, whatever it may be, even though it may be obviously detrimental to members of their own gender. (There was a great post at FDL on this "enforcer" roles-- if I can find it, I'll provide a link.

    The lesson then learned by the boundary-breaking man in question? Not, as it should be, that he needs to address his own attitudes and behavior and learn to curb his inappropriate enthusiasm for intimidation. Rather, he learns that it's OK; he can get away with it, and do it again, to another woman, in another venue. As he can support any of his fellow men who do the same thing, counting on enforcer women to join the club.

    How can this pattern be stopped?



    Dr. G, this is an eye opener, not having been in academia recently. It's deplorable that a female teacher would be put in the position of having to keep a known male harasser in her class room. And the concern about possible retaliation should the student be disciplined and/or removed would seem much greater for a woman than a man.  

    Apparently university level female teacher harassment is a much newer phenomenon than the male teacher dynamic. I'm curious if any of this is addressed in student orientation. It seems imperative to make the rules very clear at the outset. Perhaps there is political correctness which prevents spelling all of this out, but prevention would be the key.

    I have been astounded at what might be the flip side of the phenomenon, female teachers initiating relationships with teen aged boys. It's gender reversal and does not present personal endangerment in the same sense, but the lack of boundaries, the age differences and the brazen behavior all appear similar.

    It's true, Richard, that Plato promoted the idea that pederasty (paederstice) was the ideal theacher-student relationship. And of course, Plato is right about everything.

    That is why poetry is morally depraved (I'm looking at you, Homer), democracy is bad, and mytiscal abstractions are real while the physical world is not.

    "Oh Teacher, I need you,

    Like a little child,

    You've got something in you,

    That drives a schoolboy wild."


    Oh I must stop you and tell you that this is delightful!!!! hahahahaha

    Life is so humdrumm, but this, this is delightful. ahhahaahah

    Shorter version of your diary is contained in this quote of yours:

    "And while a female student hitting on a male professor often experiences his authority as "sexy," many male students who proposition female professors experience a woman's authority as an anomaly that needs to be reversed or resolved."

    Maybe in some cases not just 'an anomaly', but an outrage to be conquered, maybe a bit akin to the underlying motivation for rape in some cases, as in: it's a crime of violence, not sex.  That, I assume, would have been the nightmare version of the student's escalation for the professor, and I say that because of her description of the student's ongoing crossed-arm, malevolent stares and staying in the classroom too long.

    My hat's off to you, Dr. Cleveland, for bringing up the topic for discussion.  I'm wondering what your female colleagues have experienced, and if you know if management or male colleagues at your college have their backs.  The comments to 'anonymous's post were pretty instructive, weren't they? 

    Wow; some thread-killer I appear to be.  I hoped we could have a conversation on this great topic of Doctor C's.

    You have done a great job of outlining the dynamics at play in this situation. In the wider picture as you point out, what is happening in the classrooms of our universities is merely a reflection of the gender roles in the society as a whole.  The issue here, however, seems really about how the administration of those universities respond to the situation.  The student / teacher dynamic has changed over time, especially since many institutions have put student evaluations into the mix of professor evaluations.  I saw in my time the slow erosion of respect for the professor back in the eighties and nineties.  Towards the end it seemed the inmates had taken control of the situation.  But in the end, it is how the administration on an institution by institution basis decides to deal with issues as they arise, just like a corporation when issues of sexul harrassment arise.

    Of course, that we are still dealing with the same gender dynamics as we have always dealt with says we have a long way to go.


    Didn't mean to let the thread die, Stardust.

    Again, I have heard some ugly stories, but those stories are not for me to publish. I can think of at least one example where a student who quite possibly had mental health problems and who persisted in inappropriate communications to his professor got left in her classroom. That faculty member doesn't work for that university any more.

    What to do? I think that the key is giving female faculty members the support they need to win these fights themselves. The only way to teach a young man to respect a woman's authority is to have a woman make him accept her authority. And if a student absolutely won't do that, he's

    I wouldn't be a fan of trying to prevent the behavior with warnings in student orientation. Student orientation also tells students not to abuse alcohol. I'd be more afraid, in fact, of suggesting this particular kind of misbehavior in the act of forbidding it, since as it is only a tiny minority of male students cause these problems. And in general, I don't think this is behavior to be prevented. The point isn't making sure that students never behave inappropriately; it is in the nature of undergraduates that they don't all know what is appropriate or not yet. The point is that the inappropriate behavior gets an appropriate response form the university: that it gets treated as a problem, and that it gets fixed. Students are going to cross lines of various kinds. The goal is to show them where the line is and make them step back across it. When women have the same power to make that happen that their male colleagues have, I'll be happy.

    I hate it when one person offends and they lecture everyone instead of talking to the offender directly. It diffuses the message.

    A great analysis of the dynamics and one that is appreciated.  Your comment about the woman who was forced to keep a recognized harrasser in class reminded me of a story that is (likewise) not mine to tell but I know of one case where the instructor was not only compelled to do the same but her grading was "reviewed" on the grounds that if there was a complaint later that she was "sub-consciously biased" by the events that the department would be covered. She was also assured that it was for "her protection too!"  


    Thanks very much. They likely imagined that she needed "protection" against complaints by the student and his (potentially litigious parents). Of course, the department doesn't understand that they might be making themselves liable by creating an egregiously hostile work environment.

    To be cynical, I think this will really change when a female instructor, maybe a grad instructor, sues a school that's enabled a favored student or students over a long period of time, and an attorney points pout that the elements of workplace harassment are there. Institutions tend to be cautious and self-protective, and that sometimes constrains people inisde those institutions from acting sensibly. Of course, after such a lawsuit schools will react clumsily and ham-handedly; that's the ugly part of the process.

    I have been teaching college for 20 years.  In general the attitude students often have toward BOTH male and female faculty has become increasingly too personal, too easily manipulated via social networks, and expresses an underlying hostility and willingness to vent it.  I think that some of the ways it comes out is different for male and female faculty and it depends on whether the student who is being inappropriate is male or female.  Some of this shows up as it did for the unfortunate woman in the scenario. All kinds of harassment are coming to the surface depending on administration's willingness to protect faculty from that version of bullying that no one wants to talk about. And honestly, "talking to your administrator" often just gets the faculty member branded as a problem. Perhaps that too varies depending on the faculty member's gender.

    This is a very insightful and helpful post. I had not realized that I had done many of the things you describe throughout my career.

    One thing I had noticed is that my male colleagues do not hesitate to slap students (male and female) on the back, joke with them, etc. When I have witnessed this, the students smile broadly and seem to view it as warm and friendly. I would never dare to touch students for fear of "sending the wrong signal" or appearing "creepy". I think this is exacerbated by a strong pro-marriage bias in that I am divorced while the colleagues in my male dominated dept almost exclusively are in traditional marriages. Thus they are "normal" and this is a "great guy" gesture from them, but would raise all kinds of questions about a single woman's motives.

    Gives me a lot more to think about.


    I have taught in several countries. Now I am teaching in an Arab country, UAE, at Bachelor level. I have been harassed by female students in the classroom.  In this cultural context, this situation is extremely difficult to handle. A female professor that is harassed by a male student will be protected and the student dishonored and expelled by the university, facing extreme consequences. A male professor harassed by a female student here, will have no support. Yes, male professors are also harassed, yes, in the western world and in the Arab world. It is frustrating listening about how easy is for a male to ignore these behaviors.  Please, don’t speak with so much self-sufficiency about what happens to both genders on the same situation. Talk about what you know and listen about what you don’t know.


    "The real scandal isn't that students treat male and female faculty differently; that is just an ugly reflection of our wider society's values. But when the people overseeing a university and upholding its values allow female faculty to be treated in a way that male faculty would never be asked to tolerate, it's a scandal and a shame."

    A shame is to talk about what you can not relate to. Stick to what you know, not what you believe it happens to other genders in the same situation. 


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