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Witness to Sexual Harassment

By Karen Austin

Photo by SupportPDX on CC

While I was in graduate school, I encountered several tense situations where students experienced sexual comments or sexual touch from another student or from a faculty member. Most of the time, I was not a direct witness, so these situations aren’t ones where I can serve as a witness.

I did, however, witness many students reporting an inappropriate comment. When I was studying at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, several graduate students reported the same comment from a faculty member. At the start of an academic conference, one of the tenured faculty members who organized the event stood at the podium.

She launched the conference by telling a “joke” that her sexual preference was graduate students.

There was audible laughter from several of the visiting scholars.  The faculty member said this with over a dozen graduate students present in the plenary session.

Not good.

This resulted in several conversations in the graduate carrels about how students felt threatened by her, given that she had a lot of power over her students as a teacher, dissertation advisor, and potential reference for obtaining a job in the field.

I was, however, a direct witness to other awkward, tense, or threatening situations.

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