Reclaiming our voices: Victims’ statement on Amy Wilkins’ abuse of students

Several victims asked if I could provide a space for them to respond to the article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on Friday, which details allegations of abuse at the University of Colorado. I have verified their identities as victims involved with the investigation of Wilkins that is currently underway at the university. I was a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado from 2008 to 2015. I support survivors and stand with those who bravely decided to collectively issue a statement that best represents their experiences. Their statement is posted below.

This response piece is to give further context and clarification to the article published on Friday, November 2, 2018, in The Chronicle of Higher Education regarding Professor Amy C. Wilkins. We draw strength and example from Dr. Bethany Coston and the other victims of Michael Kimmel. We are concerned that the current public understanding of the issue understates Wilkins’ abuses and manipulation, and as such, leaves future students vulnerable to her behavior.

More than fifteen people have formally spoken out to the University of Colorado Boulder or the Sociology Department with direct knowledge, witness testimony, and/or personal experiences with Wilkins. We represent several of her victims, both graduate and undergraduate. We have collectively chosen to remain anonymous to avoid further psychological harm, as well as the possible career consequences that those who report sexual harassment often encounter. We know there are more people who are unable or unwilling to formally speak to the harm they’ve experienced for many reasons (and, to those who remain silent, we honor your bravery opting for a different version of healing and health).

Our statement is not an exhaustive list (nor the most “salacious”) of Wilkins’ abuse, nor can we speak to anything other than our own collective experiences. The abuse perpetrated by Wilkins onto her students spans at least twelve years, and it is now time to interrupt this cycle of harm and abuse of power.

Below we offer you a slice of our experiences, obscured enough to protect any students who are currently in the CU Boulder Sociology department. We offer more details and necessary context about ongoing behavior patterns, and we offer reflections on the conditions under which those behaviors could occur.

Wilkins’ Behavior

Wilkins is under investigation with the University of Colorado for the following policy violations:

  • Sexual Harassment Policy and Procedures, Hostile environment sexual harassment
  • Sexual Misconduct Policy, Hostile environment sexual harassment
  • Conflict of Interest in Cases of Amorous Relationships

The following issues have also been reported to the University:

  • Drug Solicitation
  • Unprofessionalism in advising
  • Unprofessionalism in teaching
  • Psychological abuse
  • Retaliation

Wilkins has been placed on administrative leave pending the completion of the investigation. Several offices on campus are investigating the allegations against her, including both the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (Title IX) and the Office of Faculty Relations. We have been told that the scale of the investigation is unprecedented at the University, given the number of complainants and corroborating witnesses.

1. Sexual Harassment

The breadth of Wilkins’ behavior goes beyond the inappropriate relationship(s) with her undergraduate student(s) and intrusive discussion of her sexual activities, as discussed in The Chronicle article. Her behavior included these two abusive elements. However, Wilkins did not just end a relationship with an undergraduate student in her class by gaslighting, and she did not just exercise bad boundaries by discussing her sex life with students. Wilkins unrelentingly and aggressively pressured students to engage in her sex life or sexual behaviors. This pressure took many forms. Cumulatively, we view these behaviors as part of Wilkins’ ongoing grooming of her victims, working to acclimate them to the crossing of their sexual boundaries. Some selected examples include:

  • Wilkins boasted to students about having sexual relationships and affairs with students and other faculty members in the department. She pressured both students and faculty to discuss their sexual lives with her. She shared this information with her students.
  • Wilkins publicly discussed students’ attractiveness with other students, and informed students that they were being assessed for how attractive they are.
  • Wilkins would engage in sexual intercourse in close proximity to her students, then return to the student and proceed to graphically describe the sex, without their consent.

2. Sexual Coercion and Sexual Abuse

Wilkins would expose students to graphic sexual images, without their consent. She exposed her naked body to her students, without their consent. Wilkins asked multiple students, both graduate and undergraduate, to touch her body while clothed, partially clothed, under her clothes, and fully naked. She repeatedly demanded sexual contact from students while she was in positions of power over them.

3. Retaliation and Threats

Wilkins would directly threaten to retaliate against students who “stepped out of line,” who did not defer to her, who changed advisors, who did not put her on their committees, who did not defend her to others, or who did not otherwise do what they were told. She regularly used the language of “ruining careers.” Wilkins communicated threats and willingness to retaliate against students’ professional success.

She acted on these threats through intentional reputation smearing to others in the department and discipline.

As you can read from the above repeated acts of sexual misconduct and manipulation, this is not some “mistake” about crossing boundaries or blurring the lines by asking students to a bar. This is not about the difficulty inherent in teaching about sexuality. Instead, what we and others have experienced is Wilkins’ ongoing, patterned harm to punish, assert, and increase power.

Why Speak Up Now

One of the strongest memories that one of Wilkins’ victims holds is the laughter of faculty looking on. Several faculty were aware that Amy was possessive and inappropriate with her students. Wilkins was frequently physically and obtrusively sexually forward with students at departmental events. A few faculty members would laugh along with Wilkins — perhaps out of discomfort. Perhaps not.

Some victims feared that if they spoke up, her retaliation would escalate as she had promised. Others were too isolated. Some of the students told faculty about her behaviors and were dismissed. When one faculty member did take the allegations seriously and passed them up the chain of reporting, the information was kept within the department. The process of attempting to report Wilkins highlights broader problems in the academy: tolerance for abusive behavior, conflict avoidance, and abdication of responsibility that have provided cover for problematic behaviors.

This fear of retaliation for reporting sexual harassment amongst the graduate students was exacerbated by the public misunderstanding of a previous issue of power abuse and harassment that occured within the department. The Adler situation was publicly framed as an issue of “offensive content” and academic freedom. Some graduate students were willing participants, but multiple graduate student teaching assistants were coerced into their sexualized roles during her infamous prostitution lecture. Following the fallout of the Adler case, a departmental graduate student collective worked to empirically document the graduate climate towards reporting sexual harassment, mentioned in the Chronicle article. The resulting 2015 survey concluded that 78 percent of students feared retaliation if they filed a sexual-harassment complaint against a faculty member. The next year, that number rose to 85 percent. These numbers were repeatedly presented to the faculty, and Wilkins as graduate chair pushed to minimize the negative findings. Wilkins then pushed for the survey to be conducted every two years, and administered by faculty. This diminished both the power of the findings and the ability for students to utilize this mechanism of expression intended to be protected from faculty governance.

In these ways, Wilkins was able to neutralize potential threats to her abuse of power and predatory behavior.

Consequences versus Punishment

The many forms of abuse we experienced cannot be reduced to: boundaries, poor communication, close academic relationships, misunderstandings, miscommunication, restorative justice opportunities, Title IX, the challenges of discussing sexuality in a scholarly context, bad breakups, questionable ethics, discomfort with sexuality, or the legality of her behavior (or not). Our experiences are about a few of those concepts, but all in the context of patterned power abuse.

Leaders in transformative justice thought and practice remind us: consequences (as results of bad behavior) that increase others’ safety are not the same as punishment. Consequences, such as sharing our stories publicly and questioning who has access to power, are appropriate results of the abuse that has gone unchecked by others in power. We are directly impacted people and collaboratively offer these details for context and consideration — for victims, survivors, witnesses, and anyone with the power to decide Wilkins’ and others’ access to power over students (including young people and adults, undergraduates and graduates). We also want to contribute to the growing narrative that creates space for other victims of abuse in the academy to see their experiences as valid.

We deserved an academic experience that did not come at a sexual and psychological cost. We insist that current and future students get such an experience. We implore those in powerful positions inside academic institutions: access the wisdoms of survivors, victims, and impacted people to drive meaningful change toward safer institutions. Alongside other survivors of these abuses, we are striving to create that future together.