December 13, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Being a Graduate Student in a Harvey Weinstein World at Cornell University

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Editors note: This column is being published anonymously for the safety of the author. 

One of the greatest days in my life was when I was accepted into a Cornell University graduate program.

And one of the worst days was when, during spring semester open house weekend, a Cornell professor pressured me into sleeping with him.

Being a graduate student at Cornell is a mixed bag. Some grads come in knowing which labs and advisors they’ll be working with, but others, like me, are lost at sea. The whole first year is a process of searching for a home and for someone who wants to work with you. You have to possess all the qualities of a golden retriever: smart, charming, enthusiastic, easy to be around, trainable and honest. A good egg.

And it’s not just your personality, either.  During first semester prelims, I chirped that I’d put on makeup and looked like a decent human that day — a small, feel-good triumph. A male associate professor immediately cut me down. “Don’t look too nice,” he said, “or we won’t think you’re doing enough work.”

But being the perfect, “not looking too nice” golden retriever doesn’t shield you from being harassed at Cornell. Unfortunately, there’s no way to protect graduate students.

Like being an young actress in Hollywood, being an aspiring academic has a lot to do with “who you know” and your reputation. Yes, if you are brilliant you should recognized for your achievements, but let’s be honest — there’s a lot more that goes into reputation than just your achievements.

One of the biggest loopholes at Cornell is that despite a policy that protects students from being entangled with those who directly supervise them, there’s little to no protection against the abuse of other power dynamics.

Harvey Weinstein was a big name producer, but he wasn’t directing all the women who accuse him of sexual harassment or assault. Likewise, the professor who pressured me to sleep with him didn’t supervise me, but he was in my department, and could have influenced my career.

The night of the incident I am sure of a few things.

What I did know was that this was supposed to be a professional event to meet prospective students and welcome them to Cornell, and to our department.

The professor didn’t introduce himself to me. I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know if he knew the advisor with whom I wanted to work (though I found out later that they were best friends). He didn’t ask me if it was okay before he started touching me under the table at the bar.

We had only met two hours prior. After he heard about a past failed project of mine, he suggested I take another look into the project using data he might be able to get me through his familial connections. I didn’t know if he was the dean.

He insisted that I stay after all the older graduate students left the bar. I didn’t know what he would tell the other professors if I didn’t stay. I didn’t know what the other graduate students would whisper about me afterwards. I didn’t know he was married.

If I didn’t sleep with him, would he lie and tell the professors I had said something inappropriate or that I was a “bad egg”? If he did lie to other professors, how would I know?

Short answer: I wouldn’t.

My event with the professor was not a rape. He didn’t push me down or physically force me to do anything, so it wasn’t Title IX-worthy. It wasn’t coercion under Title IX because there was no explicit threat and the implicit threat — my reputation and academic career being potentially ruined —  is not under the jurisdiction of 6.4. That being said, I filed a complaint anyways.

Paradoxically, I was comforted by the Title IX office that if I had rejected him and then he told other professors something to ruin me (and I had somehow found out about it), then I could file a Title IX case. But, let’s be honest — how would I have been able to find proof? After six months, the Title IX office found the professor “not guilty” in my case, even though the dean writing the decision ruled that the professor had used “questionable judgement…with students,” that his conduct “clearly fell short of what is expected of faculty members,” and that he “risked compromising Cornell’s reputation.”

The professor actually recited Policy 6.4 before I left his house in shambles, claiming “we” did no wrong. I felt sick. He told me afterwards that he didn’t want to share anything that happened because he didn’t want me to be a black sheep in the department. It was a Catch 22: sleep with him and feel terrible or don’t sleep with him and risk him wielding his burnt ego against my aspiring academic career. I didn’t know what his temperament was like. He did not feel the need to introduce who he was.

As a woman in STEM, these questions and self-contemplations are not far-fetched paranoias, especially in light of the stream of #MeToo posts over the past month, the headlines coming out of Berklee and the University of California of professors preying on young female academics, the downfall of members in Hollywood who were preying on aspiring actresses, and the disturbing sex abuse of gold medalists by Olympics doctors. Kesha stayed in an abusive work contract out of fear that Dr. Luke would sabotage her career otherwise. The CEO of Uber had to step down after a federal sexual harassment investigation into his company. Even on Capitol Hill, Congress is moving to disclose just how much money they’ve paid out it settlements over the past decade.

Cornell is not immune to this predatory behavior of men in power. Case in point: me.

I volunteered to help welcome prospective students to my department. I did not volunteer to be picked out of a crowd to be touched. I did not volunteer to have older students give me weird “that’s a bit scandalous,” “are you trying to get brownie points,” and “that’s a bit trashy” looks. I did not volunteer  to teach my department and professors “what to do” when someone reports one of their own for stepping out of line.

I would discuss how much of a clusterfuck my Title IX case was (they lost the tape of my interview and made me redo it, for one), but it is currently under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights.

Faculty members, graduate students and undergrads should push for more protections for students. If a professor who does not teach you or supervise you in a lab starts to touch you, unless he pins you down, he is not guilty of any crime in the eyes of Cornell’s Policy 6.4. If your advisor’s colleague starts taking off your clothes and you freeze — it’s still not a violation of Policy 6.4. And if you freak out and reject them before anything happens?  Well, you better hope there’s a paper trail, otherwise Policy 6.4 just isn’t for you.

I am not accusing all faculty members of being predators: I will say that the faculty heads of my department were very supportive of me during the process and I am thankful for them.

However, there are predators and they need to be put into line.

If anyone says the Title IX system works, I would tell them to talk to anyone who has ever tried to file a complaint against a professor.

The potential fallout from professor lying to other faculty, an undergrad having a messy breakup with the postdoc running their lab, or a potential employer questioning the integrity of a student’s academic success (did they only win grants because they slept with x or y?) is not protected by Cornell. Policy 6.4 is limited and lets the Harvey Weinsteins get away with abusing power. This is a problem.

Luckily there is solution on the horizon: the upcoming work of a Faculty Senate and GPSA joint endeavor called the Consensual Relationships Policy Committee. One of the proposals under discussion is the mandatory disclosure of faculty-student relationships to a confidential point of contact. I believe such a policy would have deterred the professor from ever approaching me.
A student should never have to feel their academic success will be compromised if they do not sleep with a faculty member. And it would be ignorant to believe students never feel this way or that faculty members do not recognize the power they have. I know I’m not the first Cornell graduate student who’s been failed by Policy 6.4, and until it’s changed, I know I won’t be the last.