Professors should speak out to help combat sexual harassment in academia

Although the recent allegations against famous figures like film producer Harvey Weinstein and former senator Al Franken make the issue of sexual harassment seem most prominent in Hollywood or politics, it’s strongly affected the world of higher education too. A large number of universities including University of California, Davis, University of Virginia, Columbia University and others have come under fire for their handling of certain sexual assault cases involving professors, as well as maintaining a workplace culture that is conducive to sexual harassment and power dynamics.

But at some of these schools, professors have admirably responded by using their influence to create a path for change. For example, dozens of professors and colleagues of Seo-Young Chu – an associate professor at Queens College who wrote an article about being raped and abused by one of her professors when she was an undergraduate at Stanford University – signed an open letter in December encouraging the school to lead a conversation about sexual harassment in the world of academia. And the list of instances goes on and on. About 400 professors from all over the world condemned the University of Rochester in late November for its lack of action against the alleged predatory behavior of professor T. Florian Jaeger, who was accused of preying on female students.

It’s vital that professors publicly speak out against sexual harassment using open letters and social media because their voices are impactful in the world of academia and within their fields of study. In many cases, professors are some of the most knowledgeable people in their fields, which gives them a real opportunity to make a difference in the academic world and outside of it. Professors should not only use the influence they wield to make a difference in sexual harassment culture within their own universities, but also to speak up about potential solutions for the bigger problem of workplace sexual harassment in general.

In addition to condemning sexual harassers in the world of academia, it’s essential that professors speak out about what specific industries or our society as a whole needs to do to reduce the persistent culture of sexual harassment. While holding the accused accountable is certainly important, there also needs to be an equally strong focus on prevention. The question that now needs to be answered is how can we work to decrease the culture of sexual harassment between those in positions of authority at universities and students.

That answer can be found when people speak out. Some GW professors have publicly spoken out about sexual harassment, but more should be lending their voices to the conversation. For instance, Jenna Ben-Yehuda, an adjunct professor of international affairs, co-authored an open letter calling for a more equal proportion of women to men in leadership positions and mandatory sexual harassment training in her historically male-dominated national security industry. These kinds of concrete ideas can make a difference in decreasing cases of sexual harassment. More professors should follow in Ben-Yehuda’s footsteps by vocalizing their support for potential solutions and proposing their own.

There are many ideas professors could promote to lessen sexual harassment, including advocating changes in training policy or campus awareness campaigns, but it’s particularly vital that professors push for an equal proportion of gender diversity in leadership to ensure that positions of power aren’t all filled by men. This is particularly needed at GW. An analysis by The Hatchet revealed that only four of the 22 highest paid employees at GW in 2016 were women. The problems don’t end there either, making calls for change even more necessary on campus. In August, it was announced that GW is one of 250 universities under federal investigation for possible Title IX violations, and that announcement came after a spring semester where students protested a sexual violence case decision on campus. This issue only continues to hit close to home. Recently, a lawsuit was filed against GW where a professor alleged that they were wrongfully accused of an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student.

Professors should continue to band together in combating the problem of sexual harassment, but they should take action in other ways in addition to open letters. Professors should communicate with the school’s administrators directly to ensure that action is taken, and use social media to raise awareness about what they believe are the most effective solutions. If professors do this consistently in conjunction with writing open letters, their efforts will gain more momentum in creating actual change.

The willingness of some professors to speak up is commendable, but more need to join them in pressuring their universities and industries to change the status quo. It’s important that those accused of sexual assault are publicly held accountable for their actions, like they have been in the entertainment industry, but changing the culture of sexual harassment requires more than ousting perpetrators. Professors should use the footholds they have in academia and their own industries to publicly converse about how our society can change the conversation around sexual harassment, and what needs to be done to lessen its prevalence.

Natalie Prieb, a sophomore majoring in English and creative writing, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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