Confronting Sexual Harassment and Hostile Climates in Higher Education

My friend looked at me over the table. “Can you accept the fact that you are going to lose?”

We didn’t really have a choice.

It was 2005. I was sitting across from a trusted and brilliant co-worker in a coffee shop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During the four years that had led up to this, we had done everything we could to change a climate in our department that was hostile toward women—one that harbored serial sexual harassers and that had a well-documented history of not being able to hire and retain women faculty. We were stressed out and emotionally strung out—and furious that the University of Pittsburgh chose to protect male faculty members in our department, refusing at every turn to address longstanding, well-documented problems in the department. The two of us loved our lives and communities in Pittsburgh, but we didn’t think that we could keep working in a climate that was hostile to women and people of color.

We had just had a meeting of several hours with a feminist lawyer who had agreed to review our case. Like the other lawyers we had consulted, she wasn’t optimistic. Be prepared to devote the rest of your careers to this case, she told us, and expect to be dragged through the mud. They’ll go through every email you ever sent, they’ll dredge up all kinds of evidence to use against you—and Pitt has very deep pockets. Plus, even though you both have tenure, once you get branded as a troublemaker, not only will the retaliation get worse, you’ll find it hard to ever get another job.

We left at the end of that term—the last two tenured women in that department, taking jobs at other universities because we could no longer bear to remain in the jobs we had. But we were the lucky ones: We had tenure and mobility on our sides. Many others did not.

Over a 25 year period, women and people of color—faculty, staff, and graduate students—fled the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Communication. The department only tenured three women in its entire history; it never promoted a woman to the rank of full professor. The official reasons for women’s departures varied: they didn’t get tenure, they got sick, they left for other jobs in new cities, they left to pursue different careers outside higher education. Some of them left and gave no reason at all.

No one found it remarkable when the men stayed.

It’s hard to describe the culture I encountered when I took the job at the University of Pittsburgh. I was a first-generation college and graduate student. It was my first academic job. I was recruited by the department chair, who seemed affable and charming. When my spouse met him later, he hated him at first sight. This senior colleague, my spouse told me, had stared pointedly at my breasts the whole time we were talking. There were other hints of problems within the departmental culture. Warring factions of men wouldn’t speak to each other. The debate coach and his wife had quit right before I got there for reasons no one would talk about. At a social gathering at my department head’s house, his wife engaged my spouse in a conversation about how aesthetically pleasing circumcised penises were and how big feet, she said, staring meaningfully at my spouse’s, were a better indication of penis size than noses. We stopped socializing with them shortly after that.

As the years wore on, indications of what I later learned to identify as a hostile climate began to come into focus. One of my colleague liked to talk about “the erotics of the classroom,” a phrase used in faculty meetings and conversations to justify their sexual interest in students. When pressed on complaints about serial relationships with graduate students, one faculty member said, “we can’t help who we fall in love with,” as if that justified “romances” that happened again and again. A young post-doctoral fellow, recruited by the department chair from a former Soviet country, sobbed in my office because he had promised to bring her eight-year-old son over, but then refused to do so. One of my graduate students told me that he found another post-doctoral fellow sobbing in her office after the department chair—who had assigned himself as her mentor despite his lack of expertise in her field—told her during their first lunchtime meeting that he thought “they should be lovers.” She was promised a tenure track job if she slept with him. Years later, a former administrator from Pitt told me that one faculty member had sex with a graduate student in his basement workshop, while his wife cooked dinner in the kitchen above.

It appeared to me and my peers that, when possible, the department hired men who were, as one of my colleagues put it, socially like them—meaning that they engaged in these behaviors, or could be counted on to be silent in the face of them. This created, as my colleagues in Faculty Against Rape put it, a “nest” of predators. In one case, they extended a job to a faculty member who studied “Asian facial cum shots,” using psychoanalytic theory to argue that the women who had been ejaculated on relished their humiliation. The only reason this faculty member did not join the department was that he beat his wife nearly to death in front of their small daughter and then committed suicide while in jail.

After I began to connect the dots, I began to recognize a pattern that included at least three male faculty members who made a practice of sleeping with graduate students. I complained to two different department chairs, two different deans, an associate dean, affirmative action and the Office of General Counsel. No one paid attention to my complaints—or, as I found out later, the complaints being made by other women in the department at the same time. Instead, the department began retaliating against us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I was removed from hiring committees. Graduate students were told not to work with me. My concerns were repeatedly dismissed and ridiculed.

When I had the opportunity to temporarily get out of the department to head the Women’s Studies Program at Pitt, I grabbed it like a lifeline—but I was still teaching and mentoring faculty and students in the Department of Communication. I found myself unable to leave the unfairness of the departmental culture and its deep misogyny and racism behind. During one of my meetings with the associate dean, I was told that the department was heading toward a major external review, an opportunity for the department to reflect on its accomplishments and challenges, with the assistance of external reviewers from other universities. Talk to the external reviewers, the associate dean urged me and other women faculty members, tell them about your concerns that faculty sleeping with graduate students and harassing women were creating a hostile climate. Tell them about your experiences of retaliation. Then, he said, we might be able to do something about the problem.

We fought the department for the right to speak individually with the external reviewers. (The men didn’t want us to.) The voices of some brave graduate students were so compelling that the external reviewers used the language of litigation to make sure the university would be compelled to act. “Senior faculty,” the report concluded, “routinely and repeatedly have engaged in consensual sexual relationships with graduate students.” The climate, the external reviewers concluded, was “unsafe for female graduate students.”

In the wake of the review, the university swiftly closed ranks around the men. They gaslighted us. Instead of investigating the men, they investigated us—questioning our students, in one case, about whether we had smoked pot with them; trotting out every tired stereotype used to shame and demean women who challenge toxic work cultures. We were difficult, uncollegial, unreasonable, prone to hysterics. They questioned and undermined our sense of reality and tried to turn us against each another. They lied and then called us liars. The men organized themselves into a bloc, meeting privately at someone’s home to strategize. When someone leaked the external review to the press, the dean told the reporter that the university’s investigation had proved that there was “no evidence of any current faculty/student relationships”—a bald-faced lie, since the following year one of the men began living with the graduate student with whom he had been having an affair. Although when we left, every woman in the department cited the departmental culture as the reason for leaving, this same dean repeatedly told the press that we left because of “attractive opportunities elsewhere.”

Legal scholars Nancy Chi Cantalupo and William C. Kidder report that serial sexual harassers “appear to be ‘open secrets’” on college campuses. That was certainly our experience. For decades, men in departments like these, protected by institutions of higher education, have been able to conceal their behaviors from public view. In the case of the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Communication, the men rode out a whole series of storms that threatened to expose their behaviors: In the early 1990s, the fallout from an EEOC case brought by one man against another included an order stipulating that one faculty member could not have contact with graduate students for several years; two years later, the department denied tenure to a woman for reasons that were overlooked and instead hired a man with far fewer credentials (but he, they said, was brilliant); in a one-year period the last three tenured women faculty in the department departed, and an external review explicitly said that “the department was unsafe for female graduate students.”

My experiences at Pitt showed me how easy it is for administrators to remain blind to hostile climates, especially when the men who create those climates are perceived as charming, reasonable, handsome, cultured and easygoing. They aren’t the ones who are kicking up a storm, contacting the press, creating all kinds of headaches for the university, including bad PR and possible lawsuits. The university and the department had a convenient script to explain the situation: the problems stemmed from women who were uncollegial, difficult personalities, tough, unyielding. If it hadn’t been for us, so the story went, there would have been no problems in the department, no dirty secrets, no nasty headaches for the university’s general counsel.

The privileges that let me close the elevator door on that floor of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning were immense. I have a spouse who never questioned what I was telling him or suggested that it was my fault, who was willing to move across the country because he saw how miserable I was. Because of him, I had economic stability, which many of my colleagues and graduate students did not enjoy. My heterosexuality and whiteness provided additional protections; over time, I learned all the ways in which my colleagues who were queer and/or of color had been targeted in more direct and cruel ways. Because of these privileges, I now have a job in a department that could not be more different than the one I left all those years ago.

When I left the Department of Communication, I thought I had closed the door on that part of my life—but the department has haunted my career. At a conference four years after I left, an assistant professor from another university told me that she had recognized the department I was talking about in my presentation—and that as an undergraduate there, she too had been harmed. Two years later, I was contacted by a Title IX investigator about my old department head because there had been a series of complaints against him at his new job at another university. A year after that, I heard about a pattern of bias and harassment in the Department of Communication that was all too familiar. And just two weeks ago, I was sitting at another table in yet another city when a person I had never seen before started telling a story about a hostile climate in a department I immediately recognized as the one I thought I had left behind in 2005.

At a faculty meeting in 2017, one of the candidates running for chair of the department based his campaign on a platform against diversity, delivering a speech made almost inchoate in its rage. “This all comes to start when it comes to the orthodoxy of the church,” he said. “Sure enough, if you look around, the university has hired a vice chancellor in charge of the dogma, who has established the institution for diversity which is very interesting here. It doesn’t sell indulgences, but buys believers through stipends. It even opened a new category in our oratorical competition by buying itself into it. Soon, also, along the same lines, the university will be making a course in diversity a part of students’ general education requirements. There you have it. Top down, strong armed tactics and inquisition in the form of raised eyebrows.”

Is it any surprise that women faculty and graduate students and faculty and students of color feel unwelcome?

I have made my peace with leaving. But I will never make my peace with the fact that the same culture that made so many of us leave has been allowed to reproduce itself, unchecked by the institution. In the years since I left, I have had encounters with many department cultures—as a chair and a dean. I have never encountered a departmental culture as twisted and toxic as the one at University of Pittsburgh. It made people sick. It prevented undergraduates and graduate students from finishing degrees and pursuing desired careers.

When the University of Pittsburgh refused to hold people accountable for abuses of power, when it allowed people with multiple complaints against them to continue to teach, when they exported these behaviors to other institutions by passing the trash (e.g. allowing serial predators to leave institutions rather than be reprimanded) and socializing new generations of male students into racist and misogynistic behaviors and practices, that institution and others guaranteed that new generations of students, faculty and staff will continue to be put in harm’s way.

The stories of the women who have been harmed by that culture are not my stories to tell. Nor are the stories of the people harmed by the men who left that department, or were harmed by the men who were socialized and groomed within that culture.

But really, this is not a story about any individual one of us. This is a story about a longstanding pattern of institutional harm that cost far too many people a great deal.

This story isn’t about #MeToo. It is about #ThisStopsHere.




Ms. believes in serving as a platform for women’s voices. Personal essays are just that—personal testimony. They do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Ms. or its staff.


Carol Stabile is a professor at the University of Oregon who teaches interdisciplinary courses on gender, race and class in media. From 2008 to 2014, she was director of the University’s Center for the Study of Women in Society. She is the author of several books, including The Broadcast 41: Women and the Anti-Communist Blacklist.