Dick jokes, transparency, and how institutions fail us

Written by Emily Myers

Last Wednesday, I attempted to take a break from the national outcry over Brett Kavanaugh, a man both accused of sexual assault and nominated to the Supreme Court. I was determined to focus on an ongoing experiment, a bit of chemistry I’ve been working hard to figure out for my research on the mechanisms of neurological disease. But in the background, my mind is still rolling around pieces of the University’s report from my sexual harassment case; words bubble into my thoughts until the chemistry is gone and all I have left is anger.

Several months ago a junior graduate student came to me in tears. She came to me because she knew her fight is my fight too, just as it was for the women before us. A professor who is notorious on our student whisper network, who had made sexual jokes to me, who repeatedly reduced his women colleagues to sexual playthings, whose lectures and slides have Viagra jokes and references to his own nude body, had verbally attacked and denigrated her when she “dared” to correct a single point in his lecture. This student’s very brave response to take action against the verbal abuse finally set in motion something that had been decades in the making. We started, as a cohort of graduate students, by writing a letter to our department asking that we no longer be subject to Dr. Z’s* harassment. We took the letter to leaders of the department; they said, “Our hands are tied.” We went to the University for help; they said, “We’ll look into it.” We went to our union; they said, “That’s unacceptable, how soon can we talk?”

Taking this letter to the department triggered an investigation by the University’s compliance office (UCIRO) as to whether Dr. Z “violated the University’s non-discrimination and/or non-retaliation policies.” Students, witnesses, and faculty were interviewed over the course of a few weeks. And for weeks we heard nothing. When the investigation was complete, we, the harassed, heard nothing. From start to “finish”, we were kept in the dark: the investigation, report, and resolution, all non-transparent. Only when our union requested information in the report, information subject to both the Freedom of Information Act and Washington State Public Records Act, did I understand that we had waited for nothing:

“Dr. [Z]’s behavior in some respects was unacceptable and inappropriate” and “ill-advised.” However: “In sum, Dr. [Z]’s actions or comments did not rise to the level that are sufficient to create a hostile environment.”

I ask you, what is a hostile environment then? An environment where women should expect to be cornered and screamed at? Where graduate students are expected to suffer anxiety attacks at the thought of attending class? Where I have to laugh politely as a professor waxes on about young women, while my nails dig into the palms of my hands? Does hostility directed at students not matter to this University? Is there a point at which the safety of students outweighs the University’s desire to protect one poorly behaved professor?

Through our union grievance process, a mechanism separate from University’s official investigation, we asked for Dr. Z to be removed from teaching our mandatory classes. Instead, the University recommended he’s given extra “sensitivity training” to combat the 25 years of degrading women. We asked that the faculty be trained in bystander intervention. Instead, they were given an afternoon of standard HR training, the contents of which the administration refuses to disclose but from what I’ve heard re-enforces the “legal” limit of harassment. We asked that our department survey all individuals on equity and climate. Instead, Labor Relations told us they thought our concerns about Dr. Z were “pretty much solved.”

The anger eats at me when I should be getting science done. The line “UCIRO finds that the allegations of harassment and/or discrimination are not supported against Dr. [Z]” runs through my thoughts while I try to write my thesis. Our current grad students are quickly learning that this system isn’t made to protect the vulnerable, but we have found strength in our union as we appeal our grievance and prepare to take further action. However, as the next incoming class arrives, I will pull them aside, in empty labs and hallways, and warn them about men like Dr. Z. I will try to protect them. I will try because I can’t do much about Brett Kavanaugh, but this…this I can do. The chemistry will have to wait.

*Names have been changed