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“I Am Student X”: how graduate students are seizing their #MeToo moment

Some say universities haven’t had the same reckoning around sexual harassment as Hollywood or media. Students and faculty are trying to change that.

Attendees wearing black at the Society for Social Work and Research conference on January 12
Attendees wearing black at the Society for Social Work and Research conference on January 12.
Courtesy of Tess Thompson
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.

It’s not just actresses who are wearing black.

On Friday, graduate students and other attendees at the annual Society for Social Work and Research conference in Washington, DC, wore black to show support for survivors of sexual harassment in their field and beyond. Their campaign, called I Am Student X, was inspired by a lawsuit filed by Karissa Fenwick, a doctoral student in social work at USC, who says her then-advisor made an unwanted advance toward her at the same conference last year, then threatened that if she told anyone, “it would ruin both of our careers.” He denies any misconduct.

In recent months, many graduate students and faculty members have joined the chorus of people speaking up about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault. But some say that because of the culture and structure of academia, those accused are not yet facing the same consequences as powerful people in other industries. Now, students and faculty are demanding their professional communities take the issue of sexual misconduct seriously, much as women in Hollywood have begun to do.

Why “I Am Student X”?

Student X is another graduate student mentioned in Fenwick’s suit. She also alleges misconduct by Fenwick’s former advisor, social work professor Erick Guerrero, but prefers to remain anonymous. By calling their campaign “I Am Student X,” the organizers hoped to send a message of solidarity with the anonymous survivor, and survivors everywhere, said Robin Petering, a researcher and recent graduate of USC’s social work school who helped create the campaign. Student X “could be any of us,” she said. “It could be all of us.”

As part of the campaign, participants sold lapel pins, handed out flyers, and encouraged conference presenters to display a slide before their presentations expressing support for survivors who have come forward. They decided to wear black after seeing actresses and others do so at the Golden Globes.

The conference’s board of directors praised the campaign in an email to attendees, and announced that next year’s theme will be “Ending Gender-Based, Family and Community Violence.” Conference attendees from Washington University St. Louis, Rutgers, and other top universities were supportive, Petering said. The campaign sold 200 lapel pins (they plan to make more, and donate to profits to the Time’s Up legal defense fund), and passed out 1,000 name tags bearing the slogan, “Hello, my name is STUDENT X.” The campaign also got messages of support on social media:

Still, according to Petering, there’s a lot more work to do. While powerful men in Hollywood, Congress, and Silicon Valley have been forced to step down after reports of misconduct, that kind of accountability has been less common in academia, Petering said. “Sometimes it gets a little disheartening,” she added.

After a USC investigation ended in Fenwick’s favor, Guerrero was temporarily suspended from teaching and working with doctoral students. But a coalition of students, of which Petering is a member, has said that students won’t feel safe as long as Guerrero remains on the faculty. “The presumption that a three-year suspension of doctoral teaching, mentoring, and committee responsibilities will prevent him from abusing his power in the future is grossly irresponsible given Dr. Guerrero’s serial perpetration of sexual misconduct over the course of six years,” the coalition said in a statement in November.

Meanwhile, an independent investigation at the University of Rochester found that T. Florian Jaeger, a professor in the brain and cognitive sciences department, “engaged in behavior that was inappropriate, unprofessional and offensive,” according to a report released on Thursday. Jaeger dated graduate students and an undergraduate, flirted with other students, made inappropriate sexual comments, and “blurred appropriate faculty-student boundaries,” the investigators wrote. However, they also concluded that Jaeger’s behavior did not violate university policies at the time, or meet the legal definition of sexual harassment.

It’s still unclear what will happen to Jaeger, Inside Higher Ed reports. However, Rochester’s president resigned on Thursday, a decision he reportedly made before the report came out. “It is clear to me that the best interests of the University are best served with new leadership, and a fresh perspective to focus on healing our campus and moving us forward in a spirit of cooperation and unity,” President Joel Seligman wrote in an email to the university community.

“President Seligman’s resignation is some vindication that what we were doing (raising the complaints) is right,” said Richard Aslin, one of the participants in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against Jaeger and the university, according to USA Today.

Flyers handed out by the “I Am Student X” campaign at the Society for Social Work and Research conference
Flyers handed out by the “I Am Student X” campaign at the Society for Social Work and Research conference.
Courtesy of Robin Petering

Anti-harassment movements are taking hold across academic fields. An anonymous, crowdsourced survey on sexual harassment in academia has received more than 2,200 responses since its creation in early December. It has been compared to the Shitty Media Men list, though unlike the media version, it does not include the names of alleged perpetrators.

The annual conference of the American Historical Association in early January featured a session on sexual harassment in the field of history. The session drew around 75 attendees, most of them women, said Marcy Norton, one of the presenters and a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and included time for audience members to share their experiences with harassment and make suggestions to help the discipline improve.

Norton also helped start a group called the Feminist Historians Collective, which now has over 1,100 members on Facebook. Participants are sharing their experiences and planning next steps. “There’s a lot of momentum,” Norton told Vox, “and we want to use it.”