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Facing sexual harrassment and assault in academia

As the number of those coming forward with stories of workplace harassment rises, around the country people have begun to question the processes and procedures around sexual assault in their workplaces. With this increased reporting, Hollywood, tech, politics and other industries have been forced to finally confront  sexual harassment in the workforce that has always existed. A critical step in changing the culture around workplace harassment begins with how these industries choose to move forward in supporting those who have publicly spoken of their experiences. But where does academia fall in all of this? Although it has no shortage of reporting sexual harassment, it has largely remained silent on the issue. What consequences come of academics coming forward about the harassment they’ve faced in their discipline? Whose careers does it impact? Who has a voice in academia? These questions are a small facet of a much larger problem of sexual harassment in higher education. 

Recently, students in a class at Beloit came face to face with the issue of sexual harassment in academia. An assigned text in this class is the Routledge Handbook of Latin America in the World which is edited by Jorge Dominguez, a well respected and established, tenured professor at Harvard University.  However, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently came out with a lengthy article detailing Professor Terry Karl’s horrific experiences working with and under Jorge Dominguez during the 1980’s. Both studied Latin America, and Dominguez was soon to be head of the Latin American Studies Association. The numerous attempts made to inform Harvard of Dominguez’s actions over the years resulted in little repercussions. At the time of his first series of incidents, the institution put him on administrative leave for three years and warned of severe consequences should these actions continue upon his return. Administrative leave allows for non-business institutions to further investigate people and determine how best to handle the incident. Those on administrative leave continue to receive full pay and benefits. Dominguez’s behavior towards his colleagues received little coverage beyond small stories in the Harvard Crimson and The Boston Globe.

Terry Karl ended up leaving Harvard to escape Dominguez’s behavior.  This threatened her career as a young, untenured professor. While there are many problems with Harvard’s handling of Terry Karl’s case, a different question arose within our college classroom: How do we move forward with the text with the knowledge that the man who wrote it used his position of power to harass his female colleague? Jorge Dominguez is most well known for editing the book Routledge Handbook of Latin America in the World, known to be vital for understanding Latin America’s complex relationship with the world.  If this book is a part of our course, what action is best in addressing the issue? Should we continue reading the book? To what extent do we consider the impact to other authors who have contributed to this same book? 

Erin Brethauer for The Chronicle

There are a few complications with harassment among well-renowned academics, particularly those who have been published. With Jorge Dominguez, accountability falls into the hands of multiple people who bare responsibility for neglecting the prior accusations against him. This includes the publishers who still allowed for him to edit the Routledge Handbook without vetting him more thoroughly. More often than not, cases of harassment and abuse that are coming to light now began 30 years prior with strong voices. Despite Dominguez’s vast contributions to academia we cannot neglect the lives he affected. Intelligence does not make abuse excusable. Acknowledging this also comes in seeing the consequences of withdrawing the material in its entirety, professors who have co-authored the book will also suffer due to its rescindment. While you consider this question, also remember that women had their careers jeopardized, and lives were uprooted to escape this man. In cases of sexual harassment, nobody wins, and the victim suffers the most. It lies in the hands of professors for how they choose to recognize sexual harassment in academia, but most importantly in being aware of the people you choose to teach, and how that can be reflective on your own values. This opinions piece serves less to press my opinion upon the way professors teach and who they choose to teach with, and more to engage the questions we should all be considering when we examine the effects and implications of sexual harassment in academics.

2 thoughts on “Facing sexual harrassment and assault in academia”

  1. Terry Karl says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. The more than 20 women who were his targets are very appreciative of your thoughtful discussion.

    Please write to me privately if you can.

  2. Matt B says:

    A greatly written article! It is important we ask these questions moving forward, especially as we move in a direction that (hopefully) cracks down on those at universities in positions of power who take advantage women and face fewer repercussions than the victims themselves.

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