He was once one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Then allegations of decades of sexual assault and harassment dethroned film producer Harvey Weinstein last fall, rocking not just the film industry but news outlets and politics as well.
As the list of high-profile men dismissed from their jobs after being accused of sexual misconduct grew longer every day, news reports showed academia was not immune to the so-called “Weinstein effect.”
Colleges large and small launched probes after a wave of complaints about bad behavior by faculty targeting students surfaced at schools including Berklee College of Music, Boston University, Northeastern University, Dartmouth College, Columbia University and the University of Rochester among others.
The Boston Globe published a Nov. 13, 2017, report about incidents since 2008 in which Berklee students reported being assaulted, groped or pressured into sex by at least three professors who were allowed to leave the school quietly.
That prompted a Change.org petition that gathered more than 4,000 signatures calling for the school’s administration to address the allegations. Students organized a forum with the school’s president, Roger H. Brown, recorded on Facebook Live. Brown apologized to any students who experienced sexual harassment or abuse while at Berklee and acknowledged that the college terminated 11 faculty members for sexual misconduct during his 13 years as president.
In late October, Dartmouth College placed three psychology professors on paid leave and restricted their access to its campus in Hanover, N.H., pending an investigation launched in response to an inquiry from The Dartmouth newspaper.
The college identified the three tenured professors as Professors Todd Heatherton, Bill Kelley, and Paul Whalen.
The student newspaper had reported that 15 graduate students, undergraduate students and postdoctoral scholars at the college signed a statement alleging the three professors created a “hostile academic environment in which sexual harassment is normalized.”
The college pledged to work with a joint criminal investigation with the New Hampshire State Police and other agencies. The investigation remained open as of mid-December, according to New Hampshire Associate Attorney General Jane Young.
Heatherton’s attorneys released a statement to the media that he was confident he had not violated any Dartmouth policies relating to sexual misconduct and sexual harassment and that he rarely socialized with students and other professors under investigation other than at work-related events.
“He has engaged in no sexual relations with any student,” the statement read.
Heatherton is reported to be on a year-long sabbatical away from Dartmouth unrelated to the investigation.
So, is the “Weinstein effect” on college campuses real?
“Because I’m a social scientist, I would simply say I don’t have data on that,” said Marianne LaFrance, professor of psychology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Yale University. She directs the Yale’s Gender Lab.
“Because things get reported in the news doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re talking about a tsunami,” LaFrance said. “I think there’s a real social movement afoot of people coming forward where previously they have been not inclined to do so for lots of good, sane, rational reasons.”
The #MeToo movement – the social media hashtag encouraging women to share their own experiences – catalyzed a cultural reckoning and brought recognition to the unpleasant truth that bad behavior had long been an open secret.
But higher education institutions were already focused on developing a better understanding of the attitudes and experiences of their students involving sexual assault and sexual misconduct.
A survey commissioned by the Association of American Universities in the spring of 2015 found that nearly 48 percent of students reported being victims of sexual harassment while enrolled in school.
Larger schools had the lowest rates of harassment in the Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, which surveyed more than 150,000 students at 27 schools. Rates were highest among undergraduate females and those identifying as transgender, genderqueer, non-conforming, questioning, or as something not listed on the survey.
The survey defined sexual harassment as “a series of behaviors that interfered with the victim’s academic or professional performances, limited the victim’s ability to participate in an academic program or created an intimidating, hostile or offensive social, academic or work environment.”
The most common behavior cited by the students was making inappropriate comments about their body, appearance or sexual behavior, followed by making sexual remarks or insulting or offensive jokes or stories. Graduate students were more likely than undergraduates to identify the offender as a teacher or advisor.
LaFrance published an essay in The Wall Street Journal on Dec. 1 about research she and colleague Julie Woodzicka conducted to compare what women thought they would feel and do in response to sexual harassment in a job interview with how they reacted to the real thing.
Their results published in the Journal of Social Issues in 2001 showed that women who read the script for a hypothetical job interview where they were asked inappropriate questions reported mostly anger and little fear. Many said that they would refuse to answer at least one of the questions while others said they would get up and leave or report the interviewer to a superior.
But the researchers found that young women who experienced harassment in person when interviewed for the job by a man in his 30s reported predominantly feeling fear. None refused to answer a question or left the interview midstream or tried to report the interviewer to his supervisor.
After the essay was published, LaFrance said she heard from women “who reported that they had never fully appreciated that maybe being afraid was not a sign of weakness but was a normative response to an untenable situation.”
While LaFrance thought it was premature to apply the term “Weinstein effect” to the academic world, she said she wouldn’t want to use it anyway. “In fact, I would hate to have it labeled that because the man should not be made famous even if it is for infamous acts,” she said.
Dana Scaduto, general counsel at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, said she wasn’t seeing a “Weinstein effect” on her small private liberal arts campus of 2,400 students, but she believed there was a greater receptivity nationally for women to come forward to report campus incidents.
“We have those processes in place to review situations when they’re brought to our attention and hopefully that’s a good thing for higher education,” said Scaduto, a past chair of the Board of Directors of the National Association of College and University Attorneys. She was a negotiator in federal rulemaking for the regulations to implement the Violence Against Women Act 2013 and 2014 and also testified before Congress on Title IX.
“Where we are now, if we’re successful, we’ll see an uptick in reports when people are confident and comfortable with coming forward so that they can get the support they need,” Scaduto said.
The national conversation about sexual harassment led some university administrators to review and raise awareness about their sexual harassment and sex-based discrimination policies.
University of Connecticut President Susan Herbt sent an email to the university community on Nov. 15 outlining the school’s policy, which was revised for January 2016.
On that same day, the State University of New York Board of Trustees and the SUNY chancellor revoked a 2001 honorary degree awarded to Weinstein, an alumna of The University at Buffalo.
By Janine Weisman