Whisper Network: a dozen University cases logged in sexual misconduct database

Thursday, January 4, 2018 - 11:51pm

Thus far, the University of Michigan has appeared in 12 alleged incidents of sexual harassment and assault taken from a crowdsourced database circulating in academic communities.

Since December, over 2,000 individuals from academic institutions in the United States and abroad have responded to the sexual harassment survey created by Karen Kelsky, founder of the academic career-advisory business The Professor is In. The anonymous contributors who shared their stories range from students to professors. Perpetrators, all anonymous and in academia, have also contributed to the survey.

The 12 alleged incidents centered at the University vary in demographics and situation –– and some of the incidents date back to the 1980s. The unidentified sources wrote about inappropriate sexual advances, sexist comments and rapes.

Entries ranged from “raped during my PhD program” to tenured professors “serially groping” students. According to the log, of the four cases that were allegedly reported at the University, investigations were launched for two of them, and only one incident ended in disciplinary action. Many entries do not mention specific dates, but some refer to incidents that allegedly occurred in the last decade.

“He berated me for being a ‘tease,’” one University-affiliated contributor wrote of her experience working in a University counseling center in the 1980s. “He said that I shouldn't have agreed to come to his place if I didn't want to have sex. And then he pointed to his crotch and said, "What am I supposed to do about that?" And he unzipped his pants and masturbated in front of me while I sat, frozen, on the couch.”

One anonymous graduate student described the ramifications on their mental health after an incident with their former professor.

“It has taken years to heal from the trauma of being taken advantage of by a professor who claimed he had my best interests in mind. I still have to see him in the hallways and it is very triggering. It was like a slow, drawn out assault over many months of the school year,” they wrote.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email interview the University knows of the existence of the database and is monitoring it regularly.

“We are aware of this blog and staff in the university’s Office for Institutional Equity check it regularly for allegations that reference U-M,” Fitzgerald wrote. “They look carefully at the information that is provided to determine if there is any action that can or should be taken by the university.”

The status of the University-affiliated contributors range from an undergraduate sophomore to
visiting lecturers. One common factor was the gender of their harasser: All of the incidents cited were perpetrated by male faculty. The gender of all reported perpetrators are overwhelmingly male, with only roughly 5 percent of reported harassers women.

High-profile figures, many men, in politics, entertainment and media have faced serious
sexual-misconduct allegations in the final months of 2017 — ousting many from
their positions. The #MeToo movement, originating from actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet encouraging survivors to speak out, is at the forefront of national conversations around sexism.

Sexual harassment cases at the University more than doubled in 2017 from 25 to 60 incidents reported to the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, according to the University’s annual public safety report. Sexual assault incidents increased from 124 to 125 cases in the same year.  

When asked about how the University is combating sexual harassment in the wake of #MeToo — including a flood of charges at universities around the country from Michigan State’s gymnastics program to the University of Arizona’s firing of former Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez — Fitzgerald did not mention any new scrutiny on harassment. He referred The Daily to its own stories on the University’s history of misconduct policies.

“The Daily has numerous stories in its archives on the longstanding policies against sexual misconduct and the extensive educational efforts that are in place on our campus to help students, faculty and staff understand and combat sexual misconduct.” he wrote.

Sociology graduate student Nicole Bedera studies college sexual violence and masculinity. Bedera said she was neither surprised when she saw the database, nor when she heard the percentage of women harassers.

“We know that the vast majority of harassers and sexual assailants are men,” Bedera said. “Which doesn’t mean that women don’t engage in these practices, they absolutely do, but one of the central reasons people engage in sexual harassment or assault behavior is masculinity. It’s a gendered crime.”

Bedera referred to the database as a “whisper network,” a hushed chain of conversations between women about men regarding rumors, allegations or known incidents of sexual misconduct, harassment or assault.

“The only thing that makes this list different from it is that it’s written down somewhere so that everybody can see who is on the whisper network, including those who are being whispered about,” Bedera said.

Incidents reported in the log occuring at the University described the disruption of everyday life for survivors. Three contributors noted they were less trusting of men in general following incidents, and would avoid social situations with their male colleagues. As a whole, survivors cited irreversible impacts on their careers.  

I don't sit next to male faculty/colleagues if I can help it and I avoid any events where drinking is involved,” a contributor  wrote.  

“I’m not sure whether this would be considered harassment,” one contributor wrote of a professor asking her for a kiss. “It did make me feel uncomfortable and ended any future potential research collaborations.

Fitzgerald wrote students should not hesitate to report incidents of this nature.

“It also is important to know that we always encourage anyone who has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault or is aware of someone who has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault to contact the Office for Institutional Equity so those experiences can be investigated and appropriate action taken,” he wrote.

Kelsky’s list shares some similarities with the “Sh*tty Men in Media” list, which is an anonymous database centered in the New York City media and publishing community. At its conception, Sh*tty Men in Media was to be used as a tool for women in the industry to protect themselves. But now it has been “weaponized” after the originally private database became public.  

The majority of the alleged incidents at the University were not reported, implying there were little to no consequences for perpetrators.

I know others went to the administration to report it many, many times, but nothing was done,” one University-affiliated contributor wrote. “I don't know details. When I went to talk about it with the program director, she said ‘he's not nearly as bad as he used to be’ and explained that firing him would sever ties to the program's wealthy funder, making it an impossibility.”

The web of barriers to reporting in academia means perpetrators can often move onto other schools. Bedera mentioned that while looking through incidents on the list in just her department, she found she was able to speculate with relative ease who the perpetrators were, and found there were multiple incidents.

“Someone who is a sexual harasser at one school is probably not just harassing at their own school,” she said.

This lines up with a recent paper published by the Utah Law Review which found 53 percent of sexual harassment cases involving faculty members involve serial harassers. A majority of these incidents were underreported.

The University’s 2015 Campus Climate Survey found similar results. The study found that of the students who said they experienced at least one unwanted sexual encounter, 46 percent told someone else — roommates and friends were commonly cited. In addition, 3.6 percent of

students reported the incident to an official University resource or law enforcement, which includes the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, Counseling and Psychological Services, the Ann Arbor or U-M police department.

Bedera argued the scale of underreported incidents in academia can be attributed to power dynamics.

“One thing to consider when looking at these cases is in any academic relationship there is a power dynamic,” Bedera said. “That’s exactly why the people who have sexually harassed the same people for years have been able to get away with it. The person who has the most at stake in a lot of these investigations isn’t the person you would think. Often it’s not the person who is accused, who is protected by something like tenure... But the graduate student. Their reputation matters, and they get sucked into a very public investigation where everyone in the department knows about the situation, and that reputation can be hard for a graduate student to overcome down the road.”

On campus, this theme of change was also echoed by both Bedera and LSA senior Emily Dyke.

“I think that one of the most powerful things we can do, especially as students and even those in the media, is to keep speaking out about it.” Dyke said. “That’s why the #MeToo movement is so powerful. It’s starting the conversation.”

Bedera also emphasized the importance of starting the conversation. While the nature of the current dialogue on sexual misconduct might seem daunting, she said, it is still central in moving toward a solution.

“It feels like a witch hunt to some people because it is a change the first time we are pulling back the curtains and saying we aren’t going to ignore this anymore, and we let it become normalized, that doesn’t mean it’s okay. It’s something a majority of women will experience, and some will experience more than once — it’s almost commonplace. But, just because something is happening all the time doesn't mean (it) is acceptable behavior.” she said.

The Daily created a document comprised of the incidents cited at the University (as of 12/25/17), via the original database from The Professor is In. The list has not been deemed exhaustive, and the survey to submit incidents is still live.

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