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Silenced at Harvard: The Faculty’s Response to Sexual Assault on Campus



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Last week I attended a lecture at Duke’s Women’s Center on Sexual Assault on College Campuses. It featured Dr. Kimberly Theidon, a former Harvard professor who was recently denied tenure and is suing the institution under the premise that her department did a complete u-turn on her viability for tenure after she began to speak out on behalf of students claiming they were sexually assaulted on campus.

Theidon’s story brought to light the absence of faculty support in the current campaigns against universities and their poor administrative responses to complaints of sexual violence. This is an issue I have yet to consider in this larger debate: why have the faculty been effectively silent on this issue, and what possible ramifications exist for faculty members who speak out? While I have often considered this issue from the bottom up, “how can we change the culture of sexual violence through bystander intervention and education,” I realize now, it is imperative to think of it from the top down as well, “how can we make these changes if we have a faculty that feels silenced by the administration?”

To the larger question, “why do we have institutions that are resistant to making the changes necessary to reduce the levels of sexual assault occurring on campuses,” Theidon posed the concern that it is not solely students who are the perpetrators of sexual violence. Part of the controversy of her vocalizations at Harvard was the revelation from her students, that her colleagues as well were complicit in these behaviors. If predatory sexual behavior is condoned (or simply not condemned) by the faculty and the administration, how can we imagine that the issue will be altered within the student body? While I don’t have much in the way of direct quotes to offer, the most interesting idea that emerged from this talk, for me, was that these institutions (particularly the older and more established Harvards and Princetons) have an interest in preserving their status quo. Perhaps silencing faculty and the opacity of the tenure process are methods of this preservation. Theidon made a grand and generalized statement that I found interesting:

One of the ways power works is by making social phenomenon appear to be disconnected, discontinuous.

While Theidon related this statement to the university administrations that consistently deny tenure to “troublemakers,” it is within reason to also say there is a more abstract “power” that keeps us from relating incidents of sexual assault on campus. It is impossible to create a movement or rally people to a cause if they don’t see the relationship between each act of sexual violence. This is not about a string of bad people doing bad things…it is about a culture of acceptable behavior that needs to be altered.

— Caterina Gironda, Southern Editor

 

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