As a postdoctoral fellow in the 90s, Professor of History Sara Lipton was told by a female superior that she should wear a short skirt to her upcoming meeting with an older male colleague to improve her chances of getting his help.
Years later, after Lipton had received tenure, a former senior administrator casually grabbed her and kissed her on the lips without her permission. Although she was uncomfortable, she figured it would be easier to just keep quiet.
The #MeToo movement has brought to light thousands of stories like these in recent months. And like women across the nation and the world who are now speaking out, female faculty members at Stony Brook University agree that it is time to reject the mindset that sexual harassment is just another thing women in the workplace have to deal with.
SUNY Distinguished Professor of History Nancy Tomes, who has been teaching at Stony Brook since 1978, said that although harassment has become more taboo in recent years, it is still a frequent occurrence.
“The progress has been slower because dealing with these issues often runs counter to other directions in higher education like needing to protect your brand and having star professors,” she said.
Tomes referred to an instance from several years ago in which a famous professor was caught acting inappropriately toward colleagues and students. Not only did the professor not apologize, his only punishment was to be put on paid leave.
“Believe me, that sent a clear message to us as women about what the stakes were here,” she said. “If you were a powerful male academic, you could get away with a lot because [the university] would cover it up.”
Speaking out against sexual harassment always poses a potential risk for the victim, but the hierarchical nature of academia can heighten the stakes, Victoria Hesford, associate professor and director of graduate studies for women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, said.
“When you say there’s a problem, you become the problem,” she said. “So you won’t get the job, you won’t get a passing grade in your seminar, your dissertation will be rejected. All those things can happen.”
Protections for students, staff and faculty who experience sexual harassment on campus are rooted in two federal statutes: Title IX and Title VII. These laws prohibit discrimination in education and in the workplace respectively.
Because pursuing a criminal case requires an extensive amount of evidence, Complainant Navigator for the Center for Prevention and Outreach Samantha Winter said that many people choose not to go to the police.
For those who wish to report harassment through non-legal means, “The main place that you want to go is the Office of Institutional Diversity Equity and,” Winter said. OIDE conducts an investigation and relays the information to whichever department is in charge of taking disciplinary action. The department varies depending on who is accusing who.
Reporting through the university does not always result in consequences for the accused. Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Theresa Tiso said several years ago, she reported a male colleague for repeated verbal abuse to Employee and Labor Relations, but ultimately the case was dropped because she refused to sit down with her harasser for peer mentoring.
“Very few women are going to ever come forward if that means the accused is in the same room,” she said.
Winter said the university is working to stop harassment before it occurs. All incoming students and faculty members must take an online training course called Haven, which provides them with strategies for what to do if they witness someone being harassed. Although club executive board members are required to take the training at the start of every year, Winter said that students and faculty only need to complete the course once.
Some, including Judith Lochhead, professor of music history & theory, feel that the administration needs to do more to prioritize this issue.
“Sexual harassment has not gone away as we clearly know based on what’s going on in this country,” she said. “But the university’s attention to it has waned.”
Both Lochhead and Tiso said they remember having to partake in mandatory departmental sexual harassment training during the 1970s, but then by the 1980s the practice died out.
“Online is not enough,” said Tiso. “We need to make sure that everyone is prepared to handle these situations. This isn’t just for women. It’s society.”
At the end of last semester, Lochhead and several other senior women faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences formed a working group that is advocating for reforms that include reinstating mandatory annual sexual harassment workshops, adding mandatory implicit bias training and taking additional measures to ensure that the accused are held accountable.
In December, they met with President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., who indicated that he was open to hearing their concerns. They are now devising more solutions to present to the administration at future meetings.
“It feels like there’s the possibility for real cultural change, but if we just become complacent again, we’ll just go backwards,” said Lochhead. “We plan to amplify this moment and keep everyone’s feet to the fire.”