Abuse of Power

August 03, 2010
Photo used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Photo courtesy of a Creative Commons license

I recently overheard a conversation that, for a split second, made me wonder what decade this was. A few students (one a recent college grad) were talking about a particular professor’s constant desire, to the point of annoyance, to “go out” with one of them. I leaned over and asked what they were going to do about it, and they looked at me like I was nuts.

“Do? Nothing — he’s got a great reputation, the best in that department, and I want to make sure I stay in his class and don’t have to switch to one of the crappy ones.” They started laughing as one of the women went on to tell of seeing the professor and his family at an event that month, describing “smiles all around” as she passed them.

The discussion continued as the young women started sharing similar stories of being approached by professors (or of knowing others who had). Most heard innuendos, but some heard not-so-hidden implications of ending up in bed. The attitude of the women was one of mild amusement, a “hey, these things happen” mindset, and they cared mostly about getting the best professor among many who apparently weren’t considered up to par.

I remember thinking that when this happened 10, 20, or more years ago, the students tended to be embarrassed; they often felt shame and didn’t discuss what happened or even felt pressure to “hop in the sack” to get better grades.

But, while it sounds like the practice of hitting on students hasn’t changed, the young women’s attitudes have. No longer feeling shame or pressure, this group of students shrugged it off, seemingly more concerned with keeping the better professor than with being hit on. None of them were approached to trade sex for grades, and all emphatically stated that if they ever felt “truly harassed” or were pressured, they would immediately report it.

Fortunately, it appears that such professors are in the minority today, and colleges and universities have many more resources in place to address these types of individuals. Times are also different for students; they have more resources to turn to when harassed, whether by professors or others. AAUW’s report Drawing the Line: Sexual Harassment on Campus helps define what is considered harassment, and we provide some other resources on sexual harassment on campus, sexual assault on campus, as well as information on navigating the legal system and a list of links to more legal information.

As I was writing this, I happened to catch “Lurking in the Schools,” an article in the Washington Post,  about a “gregarious, well-traveled English teacher, a Walt Whitman devotee who was so popular that a photo of him in class was chosen to fill the opening page of the yearbook,” who had been abusing students for decades. Even among whispers and voiced concerns, he was able to switch schools all across the country, targeting new students until he was recently apprehended.

If you suspect something as a teacher, a parent, or a student, please, report it to the appropriate authorities. It may start as a casual “joke,” but it could turn into serious abuse.

Christy Jones, CAE By:   |   August 03, 2010

Join the Conversation

You must be logged in to post a comment.