The Tenure System Protects Predatory Behaviour Against Students

Posted on March 12, 2012


Kate Clancy has raised the very important issue of sexual harassment of female anthropologists (seems to be archaeology mainly) students in both the field and in class by professors.

These posts have gained traction lately in the blogging world from both Not the Discovery Channel and John Hawks. It has also made it to reddit with some sharing their stories-

When I was an undergrad, my professor of archeology was also my advisor and the head of the department. I’m not pretty. I’m also tall and stocky and dark haired and it was an all-girl’s college. All of the women who got picked to continue on after the field school were petite and blonde. Every one of them.

I was assigned a plot well away from the main dig in an area they knew was a field. While everyone else dug up buttons and foundations and glasses, I dug up furrows. It was frustrating. I was then told that I wasn’t being asked to continue on due to my lack of working on anything interesting. I wasn’t “in touch” with the rest of the site. So basically not ever given a chance.

I have a large chest. Jokes were made about it by all the men on the field crew. At the time, I thought I was still in the running for a possible position, so I just smiled and carried on. The girl who dated one of the guys got the job.

Did I mention we were all underage and he was providing the alcohol? I never heard of him actually doing anything, but the comments he made were derogatory and he had very, very clear favorites. I wasn’t one of them. I got 100s on all of my other papers in college and was a former English major. In his class I never got above a C on a paper. It was never because of incorrect information or conclusions.

It took me a while to realize that wait a minute, why is it just this one class that I have a D in? And all my other friends have their professors working with others to help them in their focused studies. But he told me that it wasn’t his area of expertise and I shouldn’t bother the other professors with what I wanted to do.

So then I go to graduate and all of my “counseling” sessions involve him straight up telling me that I shouldn’t apply to grad school yet and have I considered maybe doing something else? I could. not. believe it. At the time, I just wanted out of there and he was the head of the department. If I was able to do it again, I’d write everything down and report him.

Showed him. I found a job doing exactly what I wanted and I didn’t need his recommendation to get it. Graduated early, too.

Read the comments at the end of Kate’s posts and you will see many people sharing a similar experiences. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be isolated instances but a pattern that is occurring quite frequently in Archaeology. Look at the number of professors who have relationships with students. This is not to blacken the all of these relationships as many are happy and productive. However, there seems to be a disproportionate amount of staff-student relationships. It has also been going on for a long time. Read Sally Binford’s life story and her description of conditions for women in the 1960’s. This problem is not just limited to sexual harassment but is a pattern of abuse of power across the board. I have known many students who have had experiences where their journal articles have been rejected or being forced to hold back on publishing their thesis because their findings contradict those ideas held by more senior members of the field.

Unfortunately, I think the tenure system in place at many universities are not set up to help protect students or even junior members of faculty. I will share my personal story in this regard (the senior member of staff has retired so I feel comfortable that those involved will not have repercussions from me telling this story). This story is about an abuse of power and not sexual harassment. While I do not speak highly of this individual they did not partake in sexual harassment against myself.

For my undergraduate degree at my former university you had the option to obtain “honors” by taking a general class  with other students, who are also hoping to obtain honors, and an independent study with a member of staff that would result in a dissertation. I wanted to do something with public archaeology and so I was advised to consult a new member of staff who might be receptive to the idea. He was and I signed him and an outside expert up to be my advisers. I then undertook the class which covered a variety of topics, one of which was creating a research design for our projects.

Everything was going along fine till I had to submit a rough design that I would also be submitting to an internal university review board. My project involved human subjects as I was doing a survey of archaeologists’ opinions and it needed to be reviewed to make sure I was not doing some horrible experiment. It was mainly a formality as there was no risk that someone was going to be emotionally scared if I asked them if they though that public outreach and education was important. After seeing the plan the professor in charge of the class, a senior tenured member of staff,  wrote an email to my advisor, not me, ripping into my plans.

The senior professor said my research plan was not good and that it would be rejected by the internal review board. Also, several more comments about how this projects was generally not good, wrong questions, etc. The senior professor, an ethnographer who deals with human subjects all the time, did not know that the board was only there to make sure that no human or animal subjects were unduly harmed, not comment on if the research plan was good or not.

There are of course three sides to any story mine, theirs, and the truth. Here is my version of events:

I though my project was decent if not rough around the edges. My goal was in place and the questions were set. Unlike other students who tacked on their dissertations to larger projects run by members of the faculty, which meant their research designs were already created for them, I created my project from scratch. I did not think that the senior member of staff should have gone to my advisor instead of first discussing theses concerns, that affect me, with me first. I explained my side of the story to my advisor and said I did not think my design was bad, which my advisor agreed with. I also explained that the hysteria of the senior member of staff about failing the review of the internal board was misplaced e.g. board is only meant to make sure I was ethical. Again, my advisor agreed with me and said that my survey would pass the review.

Then I was asked by my advisor to write a letter to the senior member of staff apologising to them for my mistakes. Explain that it was my fault for the poor design and that I would address all the issues the senior advisor raised with my advisor and not myself. I was also to tell the senior member of staff I was sorry for the problems this caused them. At this point I was pretty disheartened thought about dropping the independent research project.

The thing was, my advisor was brand new to the department and did not have tenure. A senior member of staff, who would vote on their tenure, had brought up a problem that they needed to take care of. My advisor could have stuck out his/her neck for a undergraduate student who was about to graduate in a few months and piss off a senior member of staff who could ruin their future career or my advisor could have stood up for a undergraduate student. Of course it is easy to see which route they took. A action I do not begrudge them.

That was my side of the story those of the senior staff member is probably different. They most likely look at it as trying to help out and it did not occur to them that talking with a student might be the best course of action. They probably did not realise that there was disagreement about what the best course of action was and that they held a lot of power over the junior members of staff so there was not going to be any disagreement. I am of course giving them the benefit of the doubt, they could also just have been a petty spiteful person.

Either way, most tenure systems are set up in such a way that they allow for someone to easy abuse power, even if they do not realise it (I like to think the best of people). This abuse ranges from sexual to suppression of opinions and covers anyone who does not have tenure faculty, staff, undergraduates, and postgraduates. Anytime you have a system that allows for a environment of fear to develope you are going to run into problems with abuse. I think archaeology departments need to look real hard at how they are run and try to eliminate condition were people can be taken advantage of. My story worked out fine. I told my advisor I apologised. I got a B in the class run by the senior member of staff, only anthropology class I ever got a B in. I graduated with honors and now am very happy with my career in archaeology. However, this was a low stakes event for myself and many of the stories presented by others involve career ending decisions ( at least career ending in academia). A system that allows the systematic abuse of its most fragile and impressionable members is not a system that should be allowed to continue.  Departments really need to look very closely at what I would view as a systematic and troubling problem.

This is not just for academia archaeology either. In the commercial sector many positions are temporary and you are dependent on those above you to keep you employed. I have personally never experienced any sort of abuse of power in the commercial world but I am concerned that the right conditions are there to make it possible. Again, everyone should look real hard at their work environments and make sure such predatory conditions do not exits.


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