Skip to main content

Academia?s feet of clay: sexual misconduct and gender discrimination in schools

Sexual harassment often comes as gestures of care and friendliness Photograph: (Others)

WION Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Aug 22, 2016, 07.13 AM (IST) Madhumita Saha

Sexual advances from the powerful are not easy to resist. The recent Tyann Sorrel’s case from the University of California at Berkeley revealed, one more time, how tremendously difficult it is for a low-rung worker to make the authority acknowledge that a sexual misdeed has been committed, and the assailant needs to be brought to book. 

Tyann Sorrel has been an administrative assistant to Sujit Choudhury, the dean of the prestigious law school at the University of California at Berkeley. According to current reports, Sorrel reported the university administration of inappropriate touching from her boss. The Washington Post reports, the university failed to put Choudhry on leave and forced Sorrell to use her personal sick days to avoid contact with him.

Denied of any help from the university, Sorrel filed a lawsuit against her employer which sparked a nationwide debate about faculty misconduct and gender discrimination on US college campuses. The action forced university authorities to place Choudhury on an indefinite leave of absence on March 9, 2016.He resigned as the dean the following morning, but Sujit Choudhury has not resigned his position as tenured professor of law yet.

Sorrel’s long struggle to get justice underlines the findings of many a study done on sexual harassment that women of ethnic minority communities are more vulnerable in the US college campuses. Whether we care to admit or not, black women like Tyann Sorrel personify the vulnerability of their people’s slave past and are perceived as an easy target by sexual predators, such as Sujit Choudhury.

Aggression and Power

Choudhry had a stellar career before the recent harassment allegations botched it. A former Rhodes scholar and alumni of Harvard Law School, Sujit Choudhry was the first person of Indian origin  to be named dean of a top US law school.The authorities at Berkeley, contrary to their protestations, kept no stone unturned to protect his reputation.

It is now common knowledge that the official sanction letter to Choudhry reprimanded him for his “significant failure of judgment”, but did not fail to exult on his  “very promising career”. The letter actually betrayed deep-seated biases that come associated with such cases; society, in general,  finds it difficult to believe that someone with “?nnovative ideas”, “high energy”, and promises of leadership, such as Sujit, is actually culpable. 

It is far easier to find faults in the action and words of a low-level employee of colour, such as Tyann Sorrel who is the mother of five kids and struggling to establish her life. 

Historically speaking, however, sexual harassment has always found out unequal economic spaces to play out. Dr. Michele Paludi, the former chair of the U.S. Department of Education's Subpanel on the Prevention of Violence, Sexual Harassment, and Alcohol and Other Drug Problems wrote that in a culture stratified by sex, sexual harassment involves the “confluence of authority (power) relations and sexuality (or sexism).” The nature of this power is, however, not constant; it could be either formal or informal and can be achieved or ascribed. 

In this particular Berkeley case, Sujit’s aggression towards Sorrel was a mix of a formal as well as an informal display of authority. Not only did the dean of law at Berkeley enjoyed an official position far above the pay grade of his administrative assistant, giving him a feeling of control; further, his actions towards Sorrel reveal he, possibly, considered that as a man, it is his prerogative to initiate sexual interactions. 

Building the courage to protest

The courage and determination that Tyann Sorrel displayed in taking the miscreant and his protectors to the court have been undoubtedly commendable. Behind this individual act of leadership, however, lies a long history of women’s movement against sexual harassment. 

The term “sexual harassment” was coined in March 1975 by a group of feminist activists at Ithaca in New York to refer to unwanted sexual demands, comments, looks, or sexual touching in the workplace. Through this term, the women activists wanted to codify the involuntary sexual experiences of women workers across the chasm of time and space.

Ever since women have gone out to work, they have experienced unsolicited sexual advances from those wielding economic power over their lives. This experience had been as relevant to indentured colored workers working on European plantations in the seventeenth century as it has been for Tyann Sorrel, a Berkeley graduate, working at her alma mater in the twenty-first century. 

In the present context, Tyann Sorrel’s recourse to legal action seems an obvious choice. But the legal history of sexual harassment shows that the road to public protest had been tough and long. Professor Carrie N. Baker shows in her book, The Women’s Movement against Sexual Harassment, how characterizations of sexual behaviour in workplaces have evolved from being considered a moral problem of a working woman, to a social problem of male lust and seduction, and eventually in the 1970s, such acts came to be interpreted as acts of violence against women and a violation of women’s civil rights. 

In response to public awakening to the issue, the judges ruled in the William v. Saxbe federal court case of 1976 that sexual harassment is a form of illegal sex discrimination under Title VII. Before this verdict, the US courts were of the opinion that sexual harassment was merely disharmony in a personal relationship, the result of personal urges of individuals, and not part of company policy.

We trust in numbers: quantifying sexual harassment in the campus

American universities with the most reports of rape, 2014

University campuses are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassments of various types. Different sorts of authorities - formal, informal, achieved as well as ascribed- are exercised over students, assistant professors, and administrative assistants. According to the federal campus safety data, nearly 100 US colleges and universities had at least 10 reports of rape on their main campuses in 2014, with Brown University and the University of Connecticut tied for the highest annual total of 43 each.

Recently, Association of American Universities (AAU) conducted a Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct among 150,000 students at 27 schools, including most of the Ivy League. Of the female undergraduate student respondents, 23.1 per cent informed the surveyors that they have experienced sexual misconduct due to physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation. 

Per cent of college students reporting sexual assault, 2015

One of the most disturbing revelations of the survey indicates that overall rates of reporting to campus officials and law enforcement were rather low. 

Depending on the specific type of sexual harassment, only five per cent to 28 per cent of respondents claim to have reported their experience of sexual harassment to the appropriate authorities. According to the AAU Climate Survey, the most common reason for not reporting incidents of sexual assault and sexual misconduct was that it was not considered serious enough. Among other reasons, students cited they were “embarrassed, ashamed or that it would be too emotionally difficult,” and because they “did not think anything would be done about it.”

Taking it from here to a safer future

There is nothing peculiar about sexual harassment and misconduct in the US educational institutions. Embedded in the similar kind of power structure, I am sure, such acts of sexual transgression is common enough occurrence in any university under the sun. So, let’s not point a finger and try to make a case of western sexual promiscuity out of it; we are all living in fragile glass houses.

On 14 December 2015, Smriti Irani, the former human resource and development minister of India reported, that as per University Grants Commission (UGC), there have been 295 cases of sexual harassment  against women during 2014-15 in various institutes of higher learning in India. 

As various scholars and activists working on sexual misconduct have already pointed out, we have to be aware that even when a sexual assault has not taken place, a person can experience sexual harassment; a hostile, offensive and intimidating atmosphere - created in academic spaces - does count as sex harassment too.

Women belonging to minority groups of different race, caste, and religion are more vulnerable.  As are people belonging to the third gender.

While acknowledging that women are more vulnerable to sexual conduct, we also need to come up with regulations that look into the harassments suffered by other genders too. Recently, the UGC has taken the right step towards this direction when it introduced the first gender neutral regulation on sexual harassment in India. Under this regulation, both male students and students of the third gender in universities can lodge complaints against sexual harassment faced by them.

Tyann Sorrel's case, and similar other cases reported from academic institutions, should be used to create greater awareness. Sexual harassment is indeed ubiquitous; such heinous crime is not solely committed by blacks, poor and the uneducated, as is widely perceived. Power is deeply entrenched in such actions and, thus, the perpetrators often come from the most privileged section of our societies.

Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.

Show Comments
  • delete