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Sexual Harassment: One (Male) Scientist's Journey

June 1999

This insider's view of sexual harassment in a college environment comes from a full professor of astronomy at a prestigious U.S. university. The author preferred to publish under his own name but agreed to conceal his identity to protect the other participants, who were not consulted about this article, and his university, which is likely no better and no worse than any other high-profile institution.


Most scientists I know are attracted to the profession by its endless opportunities for figuring things out — teasing simple relationships out of complex data, exploring the wondrous connection between human mathematics and the natural world, contributing to a rational model of the Universe. Most scientists I know also happen to be better at these pursuits than they are at interpersonal relationships. We call this a selection effect.

As with selection effects in any observational sample, problems can ensue. We can derive simple relationships that are false, construct models that do not comport with the reality, and develop artificially rational rules that have little relationship to how the real Universe works. Having spent much of my time as a faculty member involved, both officially and unofficially, with sexual harassment laws, procedures, and situations, I am sobered by the stunning inapplicability of my natural mode of thought in addressing issues involving sex, power, and people. Especially people.

Chapter 1: A professor exploits his position

Typical of the Ivy League. Hire some guy (usually) who has never stood in front of a class in his life and tell him to go and teach a “Physics for Poets” course to 60 people, each of whom will pay $2100 for the privilege of listening to him for two hours a week. Provide no syllabus, book suggestion, tips on teaching (let alone mentoring) or, in the end, collegial feedback. Only the advice that he shouldn't spend too much time on it at the expense of his research.

Come mid-semester, the young turk needs to give an exam. Again, no advice, except sarcastic warnings about the lame excuses to expect from students wanting to duck it. Indeed, he gets a call from one student who claims his dentist only has office hours on Monday evenings (the exam date). Grandmothers drop like flies. Then he gets a call from one of the more attractive students in the class (yes, he has noticed): “My husband has just been murdered in California and I'll have to miss the exam.” Pause. Does he adopt the (recommended) jaundiced view and counter with a sarcastic quip, or hope that it is true (hope that it is true?) and be the sympathetic teacher. He opts for the latter — not battlehardened just yet.

It is true.

After a couple of weeks the student is back in class and asks for help in catching up, but she can't come to office hours because she works all day. So he volunteers to meet her at her job (near his apartment) to give her extra help. Fade-out, fade-in. By second semester, he's sleeping with her, and, yes, she is still in the class.

Could there be a clearer case for prosecution?

This incident occurred more than twenty years ago before sexual harassment statutes existed (and when elite institutions had far less interest in teaching undergraduates). Is it less common today? Should there be absolute rules against student/ teacher relationships?

Chapter 2: A victim unwilling to seek redress

A Chairperson, several years into his term, receives one of the graduate students in his department who asks for a closed-door discussion. In some of the office shuffling that occurs about once per semester, she has just been assigned an office mate with whom she has a problem.

“Oh, what's the difficulty?”

He, another graduate student, appears to have an unwonted (and unwanted) level of interest in socializing.

“Such as?”

Well, constant phone calls at home and persistent opportuning in the office.

“This is quite serious.”

With further probing, it turns out to be more serious, indeed. He recently offered her a ride home, locked the doors, drove to an undesirable neighborhood and verbally threatened her unless she succumbed to his advances. She escaped unharmed, but just doesn't want to share the office with him.

This behavior cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. It is not technically what the law describes as sexual harassment, but it is both a federal and a state crime. It is clear that such a person cannot be allowed to remain in the program.

“Oh, no, I just want to change offices.”

Two hours of pleading, lectures on social responsibility and consideration of the common good, discussion of possible extralegal approaches to the matter — none of it has any effect. A change of office must be the end of it.

Of course this request is granted. But what is next? The discussion is cloaked in a blanket of confidentiality. Approaching the attacker, his advisor, or anyone else would breach that confidentiality and, quite likely, further involve the student in an issue she wishes to put behind her. Failure to act could lead to much more serious consequences, although the complainant is confident it will not.

What is the responsible course of action for the Chair?

Chapter 3: It's not only men

A faculty member receives a phone call from a woman student in a different division of the university who has been referred to him by a friend. She wishes to have a meeting to discuss a pattern of verbal harassment in her program, orchestrated by a woman professor, but involving others as well.

The meeting is arranged. It consists of a detailed recital of the alleged harassment including, after class and in front of other students, discussion of pubic hair and coke cans. Yes, this was at the time of the Clarence Thomas Senate hearings. Copycat crime or serious self-delusion?

The student is clearly distraught and something must be done. The faculty member meets with the school's Associate Dean, then with the Dean, and goes over their (thorough and repeated) investigations of the complaints. He meets again with the student, meets the University EEO Officer (a lawyer who also runs the Sexual Harassment Panel), meets with the student again… and again, and again. New incidents are related. The complaints multiply, the meetings multiply, the flat denials by the female faculty member multiply. Months, then years, go by.

The mediating faculty member becomes largely convinced the charges are false, but fails in all attempts to ameliorate the student's suffering. Suggestions for counseling go unheeded. Her demands escalate. She begins attempts to sue the university. More meetings, this time with university Legal Counsel. The (female) lawyer basically isn't interested — the university will win and has a lot more money than she does. But they don't want false accusations in the papers, so yes, keep mediating. Where are the good guys and the bad guys in this story?

Chapter 4: The professor as victim

A student shows up at a young professor's office hours.

“This just has to stop.”

“What has to stop?”

Delivered flatly: “Everyone in the class knows we are having an affair.”

“Everyone except me.” A poorly timed attempt at humor.

“What are you going to do about it?”

“What would you like me to do?”

There follows a painful half-hour in which the student details the particulars of the alleged affair's advertisement. The faculty member patiently attempts to understand what he can do to alleviate the student's discomfort over what, as far as he is concerned, is a figment of the student's imagination. He had never seen the student outside of class, and this is her first visit to his office hours. Not one of his better days.

But it's not the only bad day, because three days later she is back with more complaints. And later with more … and more. Then, sometime later: “I saw you on the street downtown at 7 p.m. on Friday.” Ah, this is what stalking is about.

And this is harassment. The professor does not lodge a complaint, concerned with the possible consequences for the student.

Or is he concerned that the sexual harassment hierarchy will not believe his denials? He has recently seen “Oleana,” and regards the charges in that play as ambiguous. Is he actually completely blameless?

Policies and laws

All true stories, and but a small fraction of the true stories in the life of any university. The stories are not, of course, a statistically representative sample; a large majority of such cases involve a senior male and a lower-ranking female. Some of this majority, although by no means all, are easier to resolve, in the sense that the formal definitions of the law are straightforward to apply, and sanctions follow as warranted. But whether the cases are classic or confused, the behavior they represent creates threats to physical, psychological, and collegial well-being that are wholly inimical to a productive working environment. How do we create perfectly safe and civil workplaces for all employees?

We don't. So, then, how do we ameliorate the lack of safety and arrest the incivility? Memos from the Provost, convocation speeches by the chaplain, sensitivity training sessions for Department Chairs, and mentoring for graduate student TAs all have their place and may help. To date, however, we have not created successful utopias using edicts or religion or psychology or education. The best attempts at social harmonization we have created are based on a society of laws.

The brief vignettes above were each rich in complexities space does not allow me to describe (e.g., one of the accusations in Chapter 4 concerned the fact that the professor, having finished writing a line at the top of the blackboard, would tuck in his shirt — an act interpreted by the student as a overtly suggestive thrust for his genitals). The law is a relatively blunt instrument with which to untangle these complexities and, indeed, in each of these cases, its full force in court was never brought to bear. But the acknowledgement by our society that sexual harassment exists by enshrining the concept in civil law represents enormous progress.

For example, most universities used to have specific anti-fraternization policies, and many still do. Some prohibit sexual relations between any faculty member and any student, some just between a faculty member and his or her own students. In my view, such rules are naive and unenforceable, although I recognize they may provide useful guidance for unsophisticated (and/or unthoughtful) new faculty and students. For students under the age of consent, anti-fraternization rules are merely redundant with state laws, which would take precedence in the case of a complaint. In the absence of sexual harassment law, they would, perhaps, offer some needed protection to students. They would not, however, eliminate such relationships, and they would not offer true, state-sanctioned legal protection. Current statutes make things much clearer.

First, sexual harassment protection is enshrined in civil law, outside of the university's control. Second, it makes clear where the onus lies: with the person in authority (in this case, the faculty member or TA), if he or she engages in either quid pro quo harassment (“sex for grades”) or creates by his or her actions a “hostile environment” (which is by now rather carefully defined in case law). The student has automatic standing to bring a charge if he or she feels harmed. The university's complaints process must acknowledge this law, and the institution is liable for state and federal sanction if they ignore it (as with other equal opportunity law). Thus, the legal situation for a faculty member who initiates (or simply participates) in a sexual relationship with a student is transparent. If the student is aggrieved, either during or after the relationship, the faculty member is presumed responsible.

What of the situation when a student is justly aggrieved but chooses not to take action? I have encountered this many times, and early in my involvement with these issues, I was passionate in my attempts to push for a complaint. I still believe it usually is the socially responsible thing to do. But I have come to understand that each individual has his or her own balance between social responsibility and self-preservation, and that this balance must be respected in all but the most extreme circumstances.

And what of the other two incidents, in which the charges might well have been fabricated? In each case, the student is genuinely distraught and therefore, by definition, needs help. It might well be, however, that a faculty member, or even a trained sexual harassment counselor, are ill equipped to ameliorate the student's difficulties. The acknowledgement of a real phenomenon we label sexual harassment does not mean that this label is appropriate for all interpersonal disputes or internal discomfiture.

Gray areas and remedies

My defense of the current legal reality may well have lost a portion of the readership. After all, as I have admitted, universities do generally have large and well-paid legal staffs, which can be used to further institutional interests rather than to support the victims of sexual harassment; doesn't this eviscerate the protection the law provides? At one time, perhaps, but not, in my experience, today.

In the past decade, I have seen no case in which the law was clearly violated and the perpetrator escaped sanction. The key adverb in the preceding sentence, however, is “clearly.” The cases are often, very often, not clear. I have encountered instances in which charges were completely fabricated, although these are rare. I have also encountered cases in which guilt was clear, and swift and appropriate action was taken. However, the majority of the cases I have seen and heard of are messy. While it should not, I suppose, be surprising that scientific standards of proof don't work very well in human relations, it can be frustrating, depressing, even infuriating.

The best defense against messes, in my view, includes the following:

All involved should have a clear understanding of the relevant law and institutional policies (something I frequently find woefully lacking amongst all parties). Formal orientation sessions for new students and for new faculty exist at my university and can be helpful.

The institution should have an effective, legally well informed, and strictly confidential set of procedures to handle complaints.

Complainants should recognize the implications for the common good of their decisions to act (or, more often, not to act).

Those seeking a painful, frustrating, but occasionally rewarding avocation should become involved in the process of building healthy, civil work environments through involvement as sexual harassment advisors. I began my tenure on my university's Sexual Harassment Panel with a missionary zeal. I had seen sexual harassment in action, I knew what it did to people, and I would help root it out. Ten years later, while equally committed to this ideal, I have a much greater recognition of the complexity of the individual situations and the difficulty of achieving the goal.

I will never forget an apparently classic case in another department of “grades for sex” involving a prominent professor and an undergraduate student. I took time to listen to both sides, although the legal process was already in full swing. I was summoned to the University President's office. The President was a lawyer, and the facts were clear to him: academic dishonesty on the part of the student and gross ethical lapses on the part of the faculty member. Both must be immediately dismissed, privately if possible, but publicly if necessary — that would show the University's resolve in dealing with such matters.

It was a defining moment for me. I had talked to both parties. I could see the ambiguities, ambiguities amplified by guilt, lust, concern for the other, defense of the self — humanity.

In the end, I “won” the day (although I realize not all my readers will agree with this assessment). No one was dismissed. The final result was a student who graduated and a faculty member who was severely punished, but not academically destroyed. I have, of necessity, left out many details which unfairly deprives the reader of the full set of information I had in reaching a decision on how to argue this case. But I am reasonably confident that justice was served. It was messy. My initial instinct was, like the President's, to act — but to what end? Untempered justice and a rigorous application of the University's honor code would have left two lives in ruins. The law is a critical tool in ending harassment, but wisdom is essential in its application.


One might well argue that this (male) call for“wisdom” is code for diffusing responsibility for illegal and unethical actions, a way to shift blame, redefine the problem, preserve the current power relationships between men and women. I might even have argued this twenty years ago. But now, as a consequence of my direct, long-standing involvement with this issue, I am a far sadder and, just possibly, a slightly wiser participant. Sadder, because, despite clear progress in re-making laws and institutions so that they treat women more equitably, inequities persist and many resist real change. Slightly wiser? Well, sobered by experience, at least.

It is perhaps appropriate that I end by revealing the outcomes of the opening vignettes:

Chapter 1. The woman student was eight years older than the faculty member. She received a lower grade in the second semester of the course than in the first (owing mostly to a heavier daytime workload), and ultimately received her bachelor's degree.

Chapter 2. Both students, much later, left the field in which they were pursuing advanced degrees, for reasons unrelated to the incident recorded here.

Chapter 3. It is probable, though not established, that the charges were fabricated. The student involved ultimately got the advanced degree for which she was registered; the professor remains on the faculty.

Chapter 4. The professor was the victim, the notion of an affair wholly fabricated. Stalking incidents continued for over a year, and then faded away. The student graduated some time later.

In the interest of full disclosure, the male protagonist in each chapter (the young turk, the Chairperson, the consulting faculty member, and the harassed) is the author, who served on his university's Sexual Harassment Panel for ten years and who has just celebrated his twentieth anniversary with the woman in Chapter 1.

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