clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This grad student says her professor harassed her. Her life changed. Did his?

Karissa Fenwick says her university’s response to her harassment report was insufficient. She’s not alone.

The University of Southern California campus
The University of Southern California
Jeff Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Karissa Fenwick says she was at a conference in New Orleans in January when her academic adviser tried to kiss her.

Fenwick was a doctoral student in social work at the University of Southern California, working on her dissertation on mental health and substance abuse care in community treatment organizations. Erick Guerrero was the associate professor advising her work.

In January 2017, Fenwick and Guerrero attended the annual conference of the Society of Social Work and Research, where they were scheduled to give a presentation together. The conference was also supposed to be an opportunity for Fenwick, who was planning to job hunt in the fall ahead of her 2018 graduation, a chance to meet people in her field who could one day hire her.

On the first day of the conference, Guerrero suggested that the two go to a bar to discuss Fenwick’s networking strategy, Fenwick told Vox. When they got there, she said, “it became pretty clear that that really wasn’t the intention” — Guerrero began to make her uncomfortable, touching her lower back and putting a dollar bill in her jeans so she could request a song from a piano player.

As they were walking back from the bar, Fenwick says Guerrero told her, “we should address the sexual tension between us.” He said “he’d always seen me in a sexual way,” Fenwick recalled, “and he said that other people that worked with me felt the same way about me.”

Fenwick was confused and upset, she said, but agreed to go with him to his hotel room, where he would arrange an Uber pickup. She remembers thinking that if she agreed to his plan, “we could sort of somehow just end this situation.”

Guerrero did call Fenwick an Uber, she said. But when she got up to leave, he tried to kiss her. She leaned away, but his lips touched hers. She protested and ran out of the room.

Two days later, after their presentation at the conference, Fenwick says Guerrero confronted her. He told her she needed to keep what had happened between them a secret, “and that if I didn’t it would ruin both of our careers,” she told Vox. He also threatened to “take down anyone I told,” she said.

Fenwick, who has filed a lawsuit against Guerrero and USC, said that Guerrero’s advances scared her not just in themselves, but because “he was the person who was in charge of basically everything I was doing at that moment professionally.” As her adviser, he would have a huge influence over whether and when she graduated, and his letter of recommendation would carry enormous weight in her job search.

In a response to Fenwick’s lawsuit provided to Vox by his lawyer, Guerrero denied all allegations of inappropriate behavior. But Fenwick says his actions derailed her plans for her dissertation and have made her consider leaving academia entirely. In the wake of her lawsuit, filed after what she felt was an insufficient punishment of Guerrero by USC, Fenwick’s story has inspired a new push by faculty and students at the school of social work to investigate and fight sexual harassment.

But given the power dynamics at play in academia, the issue goes far beyond USC. Students and professors in fields ranging from history to neuroscience are beginning to speak out, arguing that universities eager to keep problems quiet, close-knit communities that discourage reporting, and a system in which faculty members hold enormous power over their students all make academics particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault.

Recent surveys have shown that large percentages of people working in academic fields — especially women and graduate students — have been victims of some form of sexual misconduct. Inspired by reports of harassment at universities around the country, as well as by women’s accounts of their experiences with Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and other powerful men, students and faculty are urging schools like USC and professional groups like the American Historical Association to address a problem many say has been ignored for too long.

For harassers in academia, punishment can be light

A few days after the conference, Fenwick filed a complaint with USC. The university investigated and found, in May, that a preponderance of the evidence supported Fenwick’s statements that Guerrero had made an unwelcome advance and told her not to report it. Guerrero appealed the ruling, saying that Fenwick had flirted with him at the piano bar, and that in response, he suggested she find a new adviser.

The university investigated Guerrero’s account of events, but found insufficient evidence to back it up. In September, USC’s Office of the Provost decided that Guerrero would be suspended without pay for a semester, beginning in fall 2018. (Guerrero is not teaching this semester.) He would also be barred from teaching doctoral students, serving on doctoral committees, and holding leadership positions for three years.

For Fenwick, this punishment was insufficient. She sued USC and Guerrero in October, arguing in her suit that Guerrero “has not accepted any responsibility for his conduct, yet he will remain as an employee at USC. The corrective actions taken by USC were minimal and not reasonable under the circumstances.”

In her suit, Fenwick said that Guerrero, who had been advising her work since 2015 and had been granted tenure in 2016, had made her feel uncomfortable even before the conference in January. He had pressured her to come to a conference in 2016, where he took her to lunch at a steakhouse, ordered wine, and asked her if she was seeing anyone, she said.

Fenwick also said in the suit that she wasn’t the first to accuse Guerrero. Another student, identified in the suit as Student X, said that beginning in 2011, Guerrero had begun a pattern of inappropriate behavior toward her, including asking her out to the opera, putting his arm around her, asking if she was dating a male student, and complimenting her boyfriend on his “good taste.” According to the suit, the student reported Guerrero’s behavior to another professor in 2011, but it was never investigated.

Karissa Fenwick
Karissa Fenwick
Courtesy of Karissa Fenwick

In his response to Fenwick’s suit, Guerrero said he had no idea Student X had ever been uncomfortable with his behavior, that the student was not specific in her comments to the other professor, and that Guerrero “has never been reported for any alleged harassment or any misconduct until Ms. Fenwick made her false report in January 2017.” He also said that USC failed to share with him any evidence from the investigation. Guerrero has filed a grievance with the university.

“USC took the complaint of sexual harassment very seriously,” USC said in a statement released to media outlets. “It thoroughly investigated the claims, and based on the findings it disciplined the faculty member involved.” The university also said it was “reviewing the recent legal filings to determine if additional action is warranted.”

The Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at USC, where Fenwick studies, is ranked 12th in the nation among graduate social work programs by US News & World Report. It is large, with more than 100 full-time faculty members and about 3,200 graduate students, most of them studying for master’s degrees.

As social work scholars, many students in the program study ways to protect people from the kind of treatment Fenwick says she experienced. “A lot of what we teach is specifically around prevention of victimization,” said Ron Avi Astor, chair of the school’s faculty council and a professor who studies bullying. “Many of us, not just me, on our faculty are international experts in this.”

As a profession, social work has strict standards when it comes to protecting clients from harassment. “If a social worker did this with a client or in a hospital,” Astor said, “they would be kicked out right away.”

Many students and faculty have been critical of the university’s handling of the case. In October, more than 60 faculty members at the School of Social Work signed a statement calling the sanctions against Guerrero “grossly inadequate given the conclusions of USC’s own investigation and the nature of the multiple offenses.”

The letter’s authors also criticized the school for keeping the sanctions private after they were imposed, noting that they only learned of the findings regarding their colleague when Fenwick’s lawsuit became public. “Silence allows harassment and assault to go unchecked,” they wrote.

For a tenured faculty member, a ban on teaching for a few years is “basically a sabbatical,” said Robin Petering, a doctoral social work student and the co-founder of a coalition of students called Social Workers for Accountability and Transparency. Launched in response to Fenwick’s suit, the group is advocating for changes, large and small, that it believes would keep students safer.

Petering and other students in the coalition are concerned that Guerrero may engage in inappropriate behavior with students when the three-year period is over, and that there is no mechanism in place to warn future students about the investigation or its findings. “From our standpoint it felt like these sanctions were really almost beneficial to a serial perpetrator,” Petering said.

Light sanctions aren’t unique to USC, according to Petering. “Universities have a history of really kind of brushing this off,” she said.

Sexual harassment in academia is widespread, especially against graduate students

When Celeste Kidd was a graduate student in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, she was strongly encouraged to work with T. Florian Jaeger, who had received his PhD in linguistics with an additional focus on cognitive science from Stanford in 2006. While they worked together, Kidd told Vox, Jaeger “not only made derogatory comments about me, he made near-constant derogatory comments about the appearances and bodies of my classmates, some of whom he had been in or would be in a sexual relationship with.”

He told Kidd that one of her peers took medication that “made her vagina taste bad,” she said. Especially disturbing to Kidd was the fact that he coupled sexual comments about female students “with derogatory, demeaning comments about their scientific capability and professional potential,” she added.

When she was a new student at Rochester, Jaeger urged Kidd to rent a room in his house, according to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint Kidd and others later filed against the university.

Jaeger “told Kidd that his professional opinion of her would inevitably be tied to his personal opinion of her,” the report states. “He said that when people asked about her, he would have to be honest.” Kidd interpreted this as a threat that he would retaliate professionally if she didn’t keep him happy; she rented the room.

Kidd heard Jaeger insult people, especially women, who had expressed discomfort with his behavior, she told Vox. When asked why certain women in the department didn’t like him, she said, “a common thing he would say is that they had made a pass at him, he didn’t go for it, and that’s why they were upset.” Overall, Kidd said, Jaeger “created an atmosphere in which we all were acutely aware of how much power he had and how little power we had.”

Ultimately, Kidd moved out of Jaeger’s house. Jaeger declined to comment on the record for this story.

The first time Kidd reported her experience with Jaeger to anyone at the University of Rochester was in 2013, when another graduate student, Keturah Bixby, went to the department chair, Greg DeAngelis, with concerns about Jaeger and mentioned Kidd as someone who also had bad experiences with him.

Kidd told DeAngelis that she had been forced to switch areas of study because of Jaeger, she told Vox, and gave the names of other women who had been affected by Jaeger’s behavior.

Despite this information, DeAngelis ultimately told Bixby that he had not found anything in Jaeger’s history to warrant an investigation, Kidd said. For her, that was evidence that “this was not the kind of thing that the university took seriously.” Not long after, Jaeger was granted tenure. DeAngelis has not responded to a request for comment from Vox.

Earlier this year, Kidd and other professors, along with Bixby, filed a complaint with the EEOC, alleging that when they complained to the university about Jaeger’s behavior with female students, they were subject to retaliation and disparagement by university officials.

After the EEOC complaint was filed, university officials announced the launch of an independent investigation into harassment policies and claims of retaliation at Rochester. The investigation is expected to produce a report in January.

A spokesperson for the University of Rochester said that “when complaints were brought to the attention of the administration, the university immediately launched an internal investigation, conducting more than 40 interviews and making every reasonable effort to contact anyone directly involved.”

The spokesperson, Sara Miller, continued, “Given new allegations in the complaint to the EEOC, we believe that the recently commissioned independent investigation sponsored by a special committee of the Board of Trustees is the best way to fully understand, address, and learn from this matter.”

Joel Seligman, the president of the University of Rochester, answers questions from students at a town hall meeting to address the EEOC complaint against the university
Joel Seligman, the president of the University of Rochester, answers questions from students at a town hall meeting to address the EEOC complaint against the university.
Yiyun Huang/Campus Times

Perhaps until recently, “it actually did benefit universities to try to sweep problems under the rug,” said Laurel Issen, who received her PhD from the brain and cognitive sciences department at Rochester in 2013. She and other students “actively avoided Florian Jaeger,” she wrote in a recent article in Nature, “because of his frequent sexual innuendos, pressure to have intimate relationships and other unprofessional behaviour.”

In the past, “the more universities discounted victims and backed up their powerful lucrative professors, the more they just shut down the problem and never had to deal with it again,” Issen said. It took years — and the involvement of senior professors — for the University of Rochester to fully investigate harassment complaints, she added.

Efforts to measure the problem of harassment in academia in recent years have yielded some disturbing findings. In a 2014 survey of 666 scientists who did field research away from their universities, 64 percent reported experiencing sexual harassment, and nearly 22 percent reported sexual assault.

Women were more likely to report such experiences than men, and graduate students and postdoctoral researchers were more likely to report them than faculty members. In a 2016 survey of 525 graduate students at the University of Oregon, 38 percent of female students and about 23 percent of male students said they had been sexually harassed by faculty or staff; almost 58 percent of women and 39 percent of men said they had been harassed by fellow students.

An anonymous survey on sexual harassment in academia launched on December 1 by Karen Kelsky, a former anthropology professor who now offers consulting on the academic job search, had collected more than 1,000 responses by December 4.

“A colleague attempted to attack me in his office,” one respondent wrote. “I had to physically push him off of me and run out of the room.” Another wrote, “kissed on the mouth in front of entire board of a prize committee at dinner following conference (I was the one receiving the prize).”

Women of color may experience especially high rates of harassment. In a 2017 survey of astronomers and planetary scientists, 40 percent of women of color felt unsafe in the workplace because of their gender, compared with about 20 percent of white women. Twenty-eight percent of women of color in the survey felt unsafe because of their race.

Recently, universities have started taking harassment complaints more seriously, Issen said. The election of President Donald Trump, who has been accused of harassing, assaulting, or otherwise violating at least 17 women, has inspired a sense of solidarity among everyone who opposes harassment and abuse, she explained. “Sometimes things, I think, have to get really bad before there’s the turning point.”

Issen and other students have been talking about harassment for a long time, she said. It’s just that now, “the public is more willing to listen.”

Advisers and other faculty members have enormous power over graduate students

After Fenwick filed her complaint about Guerrero with USC, the university helped her find a new adviser. However, “the project I end up doing for my dissertation will not be of the same scope” as her original project, she said. The professors on her dissertation committee now are “very talented scholars, but they don’t have the same expertise in this specific niche as Dr. Guerrero did.” Fenwick now hopes to graduate in fall 2018 or spring 2019.

For doctoral students in many fields, the relationship with an adviser is critical. Students often come to a university to study with a particular professor, who works closely with the student to develop a dissertation project. “We have a guild mentality about graduate education, whereby faculty believe that they have the right to design their advisees’ graduate education and to define its terms, for better or worse,” said Karen Graubart, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Students who switch advisers sometimes have to change topics as well, since other faculty members may not have the expertise needed to advise them in their original research. This can mean losing months or even years of work. An alternative — working with professors whose backgrounds aren’t suited to a student’s dissertation subject — can hamper a student’s chances on the academic job market, which has grown intensely competitive in many fields as universities rely increasingly on part-time, low-paid adjuncts.

While the adviser typically has the most influence over a graduate student’s work, other faculty members can have significant power over their careers as well. Jaeger was never Kidd’s primary adviser, but when she moved out of his house, she also changed her research focus so she would no longer be working in his area of study.

“I feared he would retaliate by blocking my papers from being published, by preventing me from being accepted at conferences,” she said. “If you work in the same area as somebody, they have a lot of influence over your career even if they’re not in the same location as you.”

“Academia isn’t really like a bunch of independent institutions,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a postdoctoral researcher in theoretical physics at the University of Washington, Seattle, said. “Departments are all networked like a series of franchises that talk to each other.” That means “a single powerful person can really end your career.”

For these reasons and more, some students who are harassed by faculty members choose to leave academia entirely. “There’s been a lot of talk about how to keep women in the STEM pipeline, but it fails to make a crucial connection: One reason the pipeline leaks is that women are harassed out of science,” wrote Joan C. Williams, the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, and Kate Massinger for the Atlantic last year.

Issen, the former Rochester graduate student, is now a health care management consultant at General Electric, and says what she experienced at Rochester influenced her decision to leave academic work behind. “If this is how people can behave and get tenure,” she said, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want anything to do with this kind of climate.”

Fenwick is also considering a move away from an academic career. Her experience “undermined my trust in systems like academia, that I had thought would be more protective of students,” she said.

“I’m not sure now that any universities, having seen what I was willing to do in this situation, would be interested in hiring me,” she said. “I don’t think they’re looking for people who are quote-unquote troublemakers.”

Students and faculty are demanding that universities take harassment seriously

Professors and students around the country, galvanized by survivors’ public statements and by increased public attention to the issue, are calling on universities and professional associations to investigate and prevent harassment. Many are calling for research to help university officials develop prevention strategies. Some are proposing strategies for fixing the power dynamics that put students at risk. Others are holding universities to account, making clear that it is their responsibility to make sure students and others are safe from workplace predators.

At USC, Fenwick’s case has inspired calls for change both broad and specific. In late November, the student group Social Workers for Accountability and Transparency sent a statement to the university administration recommending that Guerrero be fired. “As long as Erick Guerrero remains on faculty, students will not feel safe,” the letter said. The coalition is also discussing possible policy recommendations, including increased transparency when someone is found to have committed harassment, Petering said.

USC students and administrators at a November town hall meeting to discuss sexual harassment
USC students and administrators at a November town hall meeting to discuss sexual harassment.
Courtesy of Robin Petering

The School of Social Work is establishing a task force to address sexual harassment, which will include faculty, student, staff, and alumni representatives. One goal is to develop an anonymous survey to determine the scope of the problem and identify patterns, said Astor, the faculty council chair. The task force will also work on the section of the school’s handbook regarding sexual harassment, aiming to “raise the standards so they will at least match what our professional standards are in social work,” Astor said.

Across universities and across fields, other faculty and students are working on — or calling for — similar reforms. More than 400 faculty members at colleges and universities around the country have signed an open letter saying they will not advise their students to study or work at the University of Rochester.

“A number of disturbing incidents in academia have recently become public or semi-public knowledge, and the Harvey Weinstein scandal has opened up an international discussion about unaddressed sexual harassment and violence,” wrote 12 history professors and students, including Graubart, the Notre Dame professor, in a letter to the American Historical Association in November, which now has more than 800 signatures.

The authors called on the AHA to study the possibility of creating a centralized system for reporting harassment and to collect data on harassment and violence in their field of study.

More data about the problem should help historians propose remedies. “Some of those remedies are just going to be about bringing things into the light,” Graubart said. “Academia is really, really good at silence.”

Another crucial step for academic departments is to hire more female and nonbinary faculty of color, said Prescod-Weinstein, the physicist. “Many of us who are on the market are interested in working with vulnerable populations, but we also often change the culture simply by being present,” she explained. A 2017 study of 40 public universities found that black, Hispanic, and female faculty were underrepresented in biology, chemistry, and economics; the study also found a significant gender gap in pay, even when adjusted by field.

“Academia is not doing well as an industry,” and one reason is a lack of diversity, said Issen, the former Rochester graduate student. Universities “need to protect people who are in the minority and who are in more vulnerable positions so that then they can become more powerful,” she said.

One possible solution to the power imbalances that can leave students vulnerable would be “encouraging students to have more than one professor named as their adviser,” Issen added. That way, students would be less dependent on a single person for their academic and professional success.

Issen also suggests “having people who are employed to actually protect graduate students and staff.” She noted that GE, where she works now, holds culture calls where employees can bring up harassment or other concerns and discuss how best to address them.

“Universities need to realize the brain drain that they are creating by not prioritizing this issue,” Issen said.

Harassment, and retaliation against people who report harassment, are major reasons why women are underrepresented in science and engineering, Kidd said.

“It looks like I’m not getting kicked out of science yet,” she added. “But I’m a rare case. So many other women were stopped from realizing their potential before their careers took off, and that’s a loss that we all need to mourn.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.