Why I’m Firing Michigan State: Sexual Harassment, Online Harassment, and Utter Institutional Failure
I have drafted this in my head a hundred times. I think that finding just the right turn of phrase may convince everyone of what I am about to say. But I know, sadly, that will not be true. I am afraid. I am afraid of not being believed. Oh wait, that’s already happened. I am afraid of being called a bad historian. Well, that’s happened, too. I am afraid of 5 — or 50 — scalding Amazon reviews. I am afraid of being ostracized from the academic world in which I previously found refuge. Mostly, I am afraid that nothing will change.
I have analyzed the angles. Is this about #MeToo? Is this about Michigan State’s culture of sexual trauma? About the toxicity of today’s Internet, especially for women? About undermining the expertise of women? Online harassment? Risky research? Retaliation? It’s about all those things.
There are so many angles because of the intersections and interconnections of harm that built up over time. Many angles, too, because many people in positions of power failed to do the right thing. There is the professor who sexually harassed me, and the entrepreneur who attacked me online. There is the entrepreneur’s friend who amplified the bullying, and the dean who transformed the online attack into a research misconduct allegation against me.
This essay is about me standing up for myself and facing down the bullies. It’s about speaking up for myself, and reaching out to the many others who have faced similar ordeals. But the smallest window onto all of this is subtle. It’s a silence, and an absence. It’s a story about who is not acknowledged in my book.
Yes, I wrote a book, something expected among academics in the humanities. When I read any book, I linger over the Acknowledgments. I like imagining the personal connections built and sustained around analyzing, imagining, researching, and writing. Now I know, too, that absences speak volumes. What connections have been undermined? Severed? What’s missing?
Let me tell you about my first year as an assistant professor at Michigan State University (MSU). I am a historian, and my expertise includes gender, science, and technology. I am jointly appointed in two of MSU’s undergraduate residential colleges, James Madison College and Lyman Briggs College. I started teaching at the end of August 2016.
The sexual harassment began in September.
It started at the weekly faculty meetings at Lyman Briggs, when an associate dean of the college ogled me. In faculty meetings and in the hallways around the College, he stared at me, and my breasts, looking me up and down.
His office was close to mine, making it difficult to avoid him (something I should never have had to do in the first place). And still, he sought me out. He isolated me, asking me to drive him or walk with him back to the College after monthly Faculty Senate and monthly University Council meetings.
The harasser was a tenured professor and an associate dean, in a role that contributed to faculty evaluation, reappointment, and tenure. In the MSU ecosystem, the harasser had a lot of power. I did not. On one occasion, he spoke to me about dildos. During a walk across campus in November, he asked me increasingly personal questions, then threatened me along these lines: “You better stay close to me…I’d hate to have to do another search to replace you.” In December, the harasser asked me into his office, where he exposed his chest to me, then made a comment about a dick.
I filed a complaint of sexual harassment against this Lyman Briggs associate dean with MSU’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) in December 2016. OIE effectively did nothing. On February 9, 2017, I received an official OIE email that “that the investigation into the aforementioned complaint will not be completed within sixty (60) calendar days.” Later, OIE claimed that I had requested no investigation at all. (Remember, this is the same university that gaslit Larry Nassar’s sexual assault survivors for years — led by ex-president Lou Anna Simon, recently charged with lying to police during the investigation.)
The harassment continued and escalated throughout the spring 2017 semester. He rubbed up against me in a faculty meeting, touched me in the mailroom. I locked myself in my office at every opportunity. I devised roundabout ways of navigating college hallways to avoid crossing paths with him, to avoid his office. I was under extreme stress, constantly enduring a hostile work environment and trying to protect myself — because others had failed to do so. I retained an attorney, and filed a second complaint of sexual harassment with OIE in May 2017.
Now let me tell you what happened in the meantime.
In March 2017, I participated in an academic conference at the Computer History Museum in California. I gave a short talk (~19 minutes) about gender and PLATO, a computing network centered at the University of Illinois that existed in various forms from the 1960s through the 1990s. The talk was based on the extensive research I had undertaken for my book A People’s History of Computing in the United States(Harvard University Press, 2018). At this conference, I was presenting for the first time a focused analysis on gender and PLATO, seeking feedback from the audience of fellow academics at the conference. I pointed out some ways in which circa 1960–75 PLATO reinforced American Cold War gender roles. I briefly discussed and analyzed evidence of women complaining about harassment on the PLATO network in the 1970s, pointing out that social media misogyny has a long history.
The other conference attendees were enthusiastic about my work. I mention this to underscore that fellow experts accepted and endorsed the analysis I suggested during this talk. I should also underscore that in the humanities, conference talks are often tentative works. This differs substantially from the sciences, where many “conference papers” already are or soon will be publications.
In May, a man named Brian Dear posted a very long blog post about my short conference talk. He publicized his blog post on his personal website under the title “When Historians Attack,” which should give you an idea of Dear’s take on my analysis. Dear is a self-described technology entrepreneur who personally worked with PLATO from 1979–84.
Dear circulated his blog to hundreds of people via the SIGCIS listserv, part of a leading professional organization, the Society for the History of Technology. The response of other academics on the SIGCIS listserv was swift and clear. Within hours, the media scholar Dr. Chris Leslie characterized Dear’s blog as a “lengthy attack” and a “screed.” In their response, the historian Dr. Mar Hicks addressed Dear directly, decrying Dear’s post as a “personal attack.”
Other scholars responded with expressions of support for my scholarship, and to censure Brian Dear. Perhaps the most eloquent was Dr. David Golumbia’s, which began, “and, as in every time a fundamental theory in the humanities outside of pure date/narrative history is raised, this [SIGCIS] list becomes so full of hate and ignorance that I am sure I am not alone in considering leaving it.” Golumbia was “shocked by the amount of vitriol” Dear’s post contained. He declared, “some measure needs to be taken to reign in the infrequent but repetitive attacks on entire fields of study from people who do not practice them and who find them abhorrent. That isn’t scholarly disagreement, it’s harassment.”
Dear’s post was so toxic that it ultimately precipitated a three-month closure of the SIGCIS list. (It was in “emergency moderation” mode with only a handful of announcements and calls for papers circulated on a case-by-case basis.) I received off-list messages of support and solidarity. One colleague affirmed that although the Dear attack was unpleasant to endure, it certainly would not affect my career. If only that had been true.
You see, my employer and ostensible academic home — Michigan State — did the opposite of support me.
Sometime between March and June, a woman named Ms. C.K. Gunsalus verbally complained about my talk to someone at MSU. Gunsalus, like Dear, had also worked on the PLATO system, in her case as an undergraduate in the 1970s. In a June email to MSU she described herself and Dear as “part of a loose network of [PLATO] people who communicate.” In fact, she had spoken with Dear by telephone that same June day.
After her verbal complaint, Gunsalus repeatedly emailed MSU, using her official @illinois.edu email account. She signed those messages as the Director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics, a Research Professor at the Coordinated Science Laboratory, and a Professor Emerita at College of Business, all at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Yet, Gunsalus was not acting in a professional — or ethical — capacity when she complained about my conference talk. She was acting as a member of the PLATO faction that included Dear. She cited Dear’s blog as evidence.
What Dear and Gunsalus did — individually and together — had previously been identified as common tactics to harass scholars. In a 2016 paper on “Best Practices for Conducting Risky Research and Protecting Yourself from Online Harassment,” the authors explain, “False, misrepresented, or private information propagated by harassers may negatively impact the researcher’s reputation and/or career…In the worst case scenario, a scholar may become the target of repeated harassing behavior. This is particularly true for members of marginalized groups, including women, people of color, and LGBT people.”
The widely available and widely circulated guide “Online Harassment Information for Universities” explains: “One way that individuals may harass a researcher is by bombarding their institution with messages, complaints, and threats — even if empty and without merit — in a coordinated attempt to discredit them or get them fired [emphasis added]… Beyond direct harassment of the researcher, examples of online harassment relevant to institutions or universities include: …emails or phone calls to institutional review boards, department chairs, or deans…”
The guide urges university officials to “Investigate the merit of claims or threats and discuss them with the researcher for further context and clarification before acting.”
I want to remind you of dates again. In May 2017, Brian Dear circulated his blog, which fellow experts immediately characterized as a personal attack and harassment against me. In May 2017, I filed my second complaint of sexual harassment with MSU OIE against an associate dean in Lyman Briggs College.
The next month, June 2017, Elizabeth Simmons, then dean of Lyman Briggs College, filed a Research Misconduct Allegation against me based on Brian Dear and C.K. Gunsalus’s harassment tactics.
Let us pause for a moment. In the exquisitely competitive academic job market, Elizabeth Simmons and Michigan State recruited me for a much-desired tenure track position because of my expertise as a historian of gender, science, and technology. My degrees, the prestigious fellowships I had won, articles and essays I had published, my book contract with Harvard University Press — all of those were indicators that I was a vibrant and valued thinker in my field. But then I became a vibrant and valued thinker who filed two complaints of sexual harassment against Simmons’s associate dean.
Simmons did not communicate with me in any way about my conference talk or Brian Dear’s blog, or C.K. Gunsalus’s complaint, before she made this allegation. She did not “discuss them with the researcher [me] for further context and clarification before acting,” which was the recommended best practice for university administrators. This was not coincidental ignorance, but complicit ignorance. This was a bad-faith research misconduct allegation, just as Dear’s blog post and Gunsalus’s complaints were bad-faith harassment tactics.
I can contrast Simmons’s actions with those of Sherman Garnett, the dean of MSU’s James Madison College, where I am jointly appointed. Despite my joint appointment, and my teaching and research responsibilities to Madison College, Simmons did not consult Garnett about Dear’s blog, Gunsalus’s verbal complaints, or making the allegation. Rather, Garnett learned of the misconduct allegation — from me — after Simmons had filed it. In response, Garnett wrote a letter to MSU’s Provost, General Counsel, and the Research Integrity Officer protesting the allegation and emphasizing how problematic MSU’s pursuit of such an allegation was for any scholar working in the humanities or social sciences. (I have not seen this letter, but Garnett read it to me during a long telephone call on August 3, 2017.)
Rather than protecting me, my scholarship, and academic freedom, Elizabeth Simmons and MSU legitimized Dear’s attack against me by using his unvetted personal blog as grounds for a research misconduct allegation — after that same blog had been repeatedly and publicly censured by fellow academics. Simmons capitalized on the opportunity in what seems like a textbook case of retaliation for my sexual harassment complaints.
The misconduct allegation hung over my head for four long months. What could be worse for an assistant professor in her first tenure-track appointment than to be accused of and investigated for a lack of integrity in her scholarship — all based on the blog of a man who didn’t like her expert interpretation? The harms begun by Dear, perpetuated by Gunsalus, and sustained by Simmons operated on multiple levels. The allegation itself, regardless of outcome, carried high potential energy to damage my academic reputation. The allegation robbed me of time in its requirements for responses, documents, evidence — months that should have been used for generative research and writing. The allegation laid the groundwork for the university to censure me, perhaps even terminate my employment.
The Inquiry Process itself was a Kafkaesque nightmare. As one example (among many), the Research Integrity Officer, Jim Pivarnik, refused to share with the Inquiry Panel the letters that four tenured historians wrote on my behalf, yet he quickly passed along to the Inquiry Panel an email from Gunsalus complaining about me — an email itself full of errors and misrepresentations about my work.
In late September 2017, the Inquiry Panel unanimously and strongly cleared my name: “There is no evidence whatsoever that Dr. Rankin’s work in any way commits Misconduct…Rankin drew conclusions from her research with which Dear takes strong issue. That does not make them the product of Misconduct.”
Even now, I’m aware that coming out publicly about this will lead some people to question my scholarship. After her many years as a physicist and administrator, Simmons surely knew that a research misconduct allegation was so serious and toxic that any junior scholar would be stunned or shamed into self-protective silence. Which would make it all the more effective as retaliation.
The summer of 2017, while I suffered under the weight of the research misconduct allegation and its demands, the Office of Institutional Equity completed its “investigation” of my second complaint of sexual harassment against the Briggs associate dean. Although two other Lyman Briggs faculty members provided evidence that corroborated mine, OIE determined that the harasser had done nothing wrong; no sexual harassment. OIE also refused to investigate Simmons’s research misconduct allegation against me as retaliation.
Since then, the harasser has assumed even greater responsibilities and prominence at the university. Simmons accepted new responsibilities (effectively a promotion) as the Executive Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at UCSD.
In contrast, SIGCIS banned Brian Dear for his “destructive and misguided actions,” including the deployment of his blog post in a research misconduct allegation. The SIGCIS leadership recognized that MSU should never have pursued the allegation against me. My SIGCIS colleagues tried to support me, defend me, shield me. They understood the many forms harassment can take, and they spoke up against them — repeatedly and publicly. In March 2018, I sent a letter to MSU Provost June Youatt, outlining the above and seeking some redress. I still have not received a response from her.
That summer I also finished my book manuscript. I sent it off for peer review just after Labor Day. Working on my book had provided an escape from the sexual harassment, the online harassment, the misconduct allegation, the retaliation. As summer shaded into fall, I savored the pleasure of drafting Acknowledgements. I happily typed to tip my hat to the family, friends, and colleagues who had nurtured me and my book. And I quickly realized there was a glaring absence.
I do not acknowledge anyone at MSU. I can count on one hand the number of colleagues who supported me when I told them about the harassment and later, the retaliation. Many, many more excused my harasser, or told me maybe it was my misunderstanding, or that he was always joking around “like that.” Others told me that surely Simmons was a big supporter of women, surely she was a feminist, she wouldn’t let this happen on her watch. I was met, time and again, with disbelief, with denial, with no support. And then there were the colleagues who told me stories of their own — their harassment, their assault, the trauma of their students. Who told me that misogyny in all its ugly forms was a “known issue” on campus.
My book does not acknowledge this place that treats women as second class citizens. I do not acknowledge the people of MSU who perpetuate these profound imbalances of power, this culture of sexual trauma. I do not and will not tolerate the harassment, the abuse, the attacks. I will not have my name and my work associated with an institution of infamy.
To my readers who understand, who identify, who have experienced any of this, who stand in solidarity — let us fire these failing institutions. (We all know MSU is not the only one.) They have failed to meet our basic expectations. They have failed to treat us as human beings. They have failed to provide safe work (and learning, sporting, public, social media, government, the list goes on…) environments. They have failed to espouse — and incarnate — the social, political, and economic equality of all people. They have attempted to silence us, gaslight us, punish us, smear us, discredit us. Well, they failed at that, too.
I was afraid that nothing would change. But I have changed. And MSU, I am firing you.