Sunday, March 31, 2013

Towson University Condones Violence Against Women

I love teaching. It is a kind of ministry to young people. We excite them, we open doors for them, we talk about new ideas with them, get them engaged, give them opportunities to express themselves and have wonderful conversations. I love the possibilities.

After a hard earned masters degree in graphic design and several years of industry experience often working 60 hour weeks, I accepted a position as an assistant professor of graphic design in the art department at Towson University in the fall of 2000. I was excited to enter this new chapter in my life. I was not prepared for what I was about to encounter. 

The art department consisted of 16 full time faculty and many adjunct faculty. The majority of the tenured senior faculty were men. The majority of the nontenured faculty were women. What people don’t talk about is how dependent the junior faculty are on senior faculty. The imbalance of power is far stronger than the power imbalance of faculty to student. A student wants a good grade to move on to the next class. He or she wants to graduate or go to a good graduate program, and eventually move away from the university. The junior faculty must have the approval and support of senior faculty for promotion, for raises, and for a permanent position in the department. The support of senior faculty is critical every year and at every juncture.

No one discusses powerlessness. No junior professor would ever want to admit that she is subservient to a male, but this is exactly where I found myself between the years of 2000 to 2006. In 2001, the most senior faculty in the art department began to body bump me in the hallways. He was 6’1 and I am 4”11”. He eventually got me into his office where he told me repeatedly that he couldn’t take his eyes off of me, and stated that if I didn’t sleep with him, I wouldn’t get tenure. I knew that this was not acceptable behavior and let him know that I wasn’t interested. I also knew that this was a clear case of sexual harassment. So, I reported the incident to my Chairperson and to the Dean of the school. The Dean advised me to let him know that I was not interested and to do this in front of other people so that there would be an audience. She reminded me that harassers are known to bully when no one else is around in order to ensure that there are no witnesses. She also said that she was obliged to report this.

On the following day, in front of two other faculty members, I told him that I wasn’t interested in him and that he was to leave me alone. I asked him if he understood and he replied yes. On the following day, as I was leading my class into a computer lab, one of the faculty who had been present the day before (also a male senior faculty) assaulted me. He threw me up against the door and shoved something hard into my back. I fell. I took a moment to get my breath. Shaking, I walked to the art office and reported this to my Chair. I was being physically attacked, intimidated, bullied, and harassed. I thought that, surely, something would be done to these two people, that some action would be taken. I had been harassed and assaulted. The law had been broken twice. I was in a state of shock.

The institution launched a “so-called” full-scale investigation where all of the faculty in the department were questioned. I was told to keep quiet about it until it had been completed. Several faculty reported to me that this was not the first time these two had been in trouble. My own attorney interviewed every faculty member and found the same information and also found that these two senior faculty were best friends. But the institution's findings reported that nothing had happened. In fact, they began to launch an investigation into my background. I was hounded, harassed, and totally ignored. Everyday, my student display cases had garbage stuffed in them. No one would sit next to me in faculty meetings and I was not invited to departmental gatherings. I became a pariah. Then, the faculty tried to end my contract. However, both professors continued to sit on promotion and tenure committees and to fully participate in the running of the department.

I can’t even begin to describe my humiliation, embarrassment and the depression that followed. The lack of response from the university and the denial of all that took place coupled with their insistence that I keep quiet could not have been clearer. They were not going to take any action against these two professors. At the time, I could not help but think of Penn State and the Catholic Church. Other instances were institutions became bullies and continued to perpetuate and enable illegal and unacceptable behavior. This incident would follow me to my next teaching job where I was blackballed by Towson University.

Non-tenured professional women in academia don’t want to talk about these things. They live in fear that they will be next. Like dutiful daughters, they fall into lockstep with their powerful abusive fathers. They don’t dare question or complain. They are entirely dependent on these men for their future and their economic stability. How can one NOT talk about this power imbalance?

So, now I ask, how do we combat institutionalized brutality against women? We talk about equality in the workplace, but how do we deal with inequality and violence against women when it happens? What advice do we give our younger female professors when such instances arise? Speak up and forfeit your careers or stay silent and compromised? I still have no answers.