The University of Pittsburgh’s School of Arts and Sciences Dean Kathleen Blee last week released a statement acknowledging the toxic state of the school’s Department of Communication after an investigation revealed serious violations of Title IX and university policies. The investigation, which lasted several months and scoured through both recent and older reports, uncovered numerous incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination, as well as an alarming amount of sexual relationships between faculty and students. In total, Blee admitted that the Department of Communication had “a consistent pattern in which women were not as valued and respected as their male colleagues,” which “resulted in an environment in which the inappropriate acts of the few were tolerated by the silence of others.”
The #MeToo movement has reverberated through Hollywood, legislative halls and dozens of other industries—and now, it has taken hold in academia.
According to Pitt Media Relations Director Joe Miksch, the investigation only came after Carol Stabile, a former professor from Pitt’s Department of Communication, penned an essay in December 2017 for Ms. detailing the beyond inappropriate misconduct she endured, saw and heard over more than a decade working at the university. Stabile’s story revealed a department—and ultimately a school—rampant with toxic behavior, misogyny, racism and abuse of power. Following an investigation into the Communication department in 2004 that failed to bring about any change to the power structure, the last two tenured women in the department left its ranks. One of them was Stabile. As she explained, “we could no longer bear to remain in the jobs we had.”
The problems with the Department of Communication ran the gamut. It had tenured only three women in its entire history and had never given a woman the title of full professor. Male professors repeatedly had sexual relationships with their students. And like-minded new hires within the department only added to the hostile climate.
“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,” Stabile explained in Ms., “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.”
The 2004 report only concluded what many women within the department already knew: that “senior faculty routinely and repeatedly have engaged in consensual sexual relationships with graduate students,” creating an environment “unsafe for female graduate students.” And yet, even after that investigation, department members continued to silence women and others from speaking out. The former dean for the School of Arts and Sciences, N. John Cooper, even stated that there was “no evidence of any current faculty/student relationships,” despite the report’s rather clear findings.
But 12 years after Stabile left her job at Pitt, her #MeToo story prompted yet another investigation—and this time, its findings were met with promises of concrete action to rectify the abuse.
“After reviewing reports of the investigation,” Blee wrote, “I am disappointed but determined. Aspiration without action is not acceptable at this crucial juncture. We should do better, and we will do better, beginning immediately.” Pitt’s Title IX Office will be implementing new mandatory training for all faculty, staff and graduate students, as well as rebuilding the Department of Communication’s decision-making committee. The department will also be reworking their mentorship program, with women and members of underrepresented minority groups in mind.
“As a sociologist, I know that changing organizational culture is difficult,” Blee said. “I also know that it is possible.”
Stabile’s essay courageously extended the #MeToo movement into academia—and the response it sparked was evidence alone that a pervasive culture of harassment and abuse hadn’t skipped over the ivory tower. In the comments on her piece, over 40 stories were shared detailing similar harassment and discrimination from staff and faculty at Pitt and other universities. Around the same time of its publication, former professor Karen Kelsky opened an anonymous, crowdsourced survey on her site, The Professor Is In, for sexual assault and harassment victims to come forward with their stories from working in the academic field; by the end of the month, the survey had over 2,200 responses.
The #MeToo movement has demonstrated how women’s stories can force reckonings. Stabile’s story didn’t just help others to come forward and share their experiences—it held Pitt accountable and made a culture change within their community imperative. While the university’s response was long overdue, Blee’s statement is a good indication that change may finally be coming to the University of Pittsburgh. And when one institution begins to take steps towards rectifying the pervasive toxicity on its own, other institutions may be more inclined to do so as well.