Sexual harassment on campus

The report released by the University of California system about 113 reported cases of sexual harassment by professors of their students was eye-opening for me. The blatant nature of the propositioning and assault was quite shocking.

University of California professor Eric Gans told his female graduate student that he loved her – and that “in another universe”, they were meant to share a life together.

“I have never seen you more beautiful than the past two days,” the French and Francophone studies professor wrote to the student in May 2011, when he was 69 years old. “I can’t help feeling that … you are being beautiful for me, that I somehow inspire this beauty.”

The letter came one week before the UC Los Angeles (UCLA) student had to take an exam that Gans would evaluate. It caused her to become anxious and depressed, and according to a university investigation, was one of many sexually harassing messages he sent even though she repeatedly stated she was not interested in a romantic relationship.

The records reveal that investigators substantiated students’ claims against UC professors for a wide range of misconduct, including lewd comments, unwanted propositions, inappropriate touching and sexual assault.

Some were terminated or resigned, but others faced minimal consequences, the records show. One-third of the accused still work for the university.

One unnamed associate professor there allegedly told a female student that she “looked so beautiful” and he was “distracted by her charm”. In an email, he said he was inspired to write her poetry.

Another unnamed male faculty member at UCLA was accused of sending flirtatious and sexual emails to a female student. After she rejected him, he emailed: “Will try and take a cold shower. Don’t know if it’s gonna work though.”

At UC Merced, a male instructing lecturer asked a former female student to meet with him to see if she would be interested in helping him grade papers. Later, according to an investigation report, the lecturer sent her a text message that said, “I wanted you to take your pants off.”

How could any faculty member not realize that such behavior was wildly inappropriate? Did they think they were being charming and that the recipients would be flattered by their advances?

It is quite likely that there are a lot more unreported cases. People who do not work in universities may not realize how hard it is for students to voice complaints about faculty because of the power differential. It is even worse for graduate students who are abused by their research advisors because if you get on their wrong side, advisors can absolutely destroy your chances of an academic career for good.

There are usually strong ethical guidelines that discourage faculty from having an intimate relationship with any student that they are teaching or whose work they are supervising. But what about consensual relationships? Can such relationships even be truly consensual? How would one be able to judge whether they are consensual or not? There is a messy legal question of whether universities have the right to completely ban such relationships because doing so might contradict the right of individuals to associate with whom they please. But any faculty member with good sense should know to steer clear of any romantic entanglement with any students at their university, whether they are teaching them or not.

This of course raises the question in my mind as to how unusual the UC system is. I have worked at a leading research university for nearly thirty years and for about half that time was involved with faculty development in teaching that brought me into contact with a large fraction of the faculty across all schools and departments. I like to think that I had my ear to the ground and would have heard about inappropriate overtures. But while I heard many complaints of faculty being rude and uncaring and even on occasion callous to students, I rarely heard about this kind of predatory behavior, except for one major case involving a dean who ended up leaving. It seems hard to imagine that my university is somehow different. Maybe these kinds of things occurred more often than I thought and investigations were conducted behind the scenes.


  1. says

    investigations were conducted behind the scenes

    That’s usually code for “we handled it quietly because so-and-so was a friend of a friend.” It’s distressing how that happens when an authoritarian gets busted: all the other authoritarians circle the wagons because “there but for the grace of god, go I…”

  2. jaxkayaker says

    If an instructor has no authority over a student, why shouldn’t they be in a relationship, assuming consent on both parties’ parts?

    I know faculty who have had students sexually harass them. Implicit assumptions such as yours, Mano, put the instructor, who putatively has the power in such a relationship, in an awkward position of defending themselves by proving a negative, that they didn’t sexually harass the student. Sometimes it’s possible, if the student sent emails or left voice mail messages, to show that the student was the aggressor. Other times, no such evidence is preserved. That’s why the legal system relies on positive evidence for assertions (ideally).

  3. Mano Singham says


    In principle there should be no problem if they are consenting parties. A problem can arise if the relationship goes sour and one party claims that consent was not freely given. That can trigger a messy investigation into the details of the relationship. That is why most institutions discourage relationships within the institution unless the institution is very large and the two people are working in parts of it that are tenuously connected.

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