Falsely Accused

May 26, 2004

I am one of those trailing spouses who followed my heart over my head, and left a three-year position at an elite university in the East to move with my husband to his first tenure-track job at Western Research University. That university has a program to aid the academic partners who come along for the ride, but it offers very little. In my case, all I secured was a guarantee that I would be able to teach two courses for two years as an adjunct in my husband's department.

It wasn't enough, but 3,000 miles of separation seemed too much for my relationship to bear, so I gladly traded my full-time position -- at three times the pay of my adjunct job -- for the ability to live with my husband.

Such career sacrifices put a tremendous strain on many an academic couple, and my relationship was no exception. The tension was bad enough that it led me to contemplate having an affair with one of my husband's senior colleagues at our new university. But this is not a column about the marital strains of academic couples. Rather, it is about the precarious position that adjuncts occupy within universities despite the existence of administrative policies designed to protect the least-powerful employees from those with authority over them.

For my husband's senior colleague, who offered me emotional support during my period of professional and personal angst, ended up greatly adding to both. Fearing that our private relationship had become public knowledge within the department, he responded by accusing me of sexual harassment.

You may be asking yourself: How can an adjunct sexually harass a tenured professor? I've asked myself that question many times.

University codes typically state that sexual harassment can be committed by coworkers, not just by those with the power to hire and fire an employee. An employee can create an atmosphere of sexual intimidation that inhibits another employee's job performance. The key to defining that situation as sexual harassment is that the harassed must have established clear boundary lines indicating that the offending behavior by the coworker was unwanted. In my case, I received little but encouragement from this professor, who wined me, dined me, stayed in my conference hotel room until 2 a.m. one night, and freely engaged in multiple, open-ended conversations speculating on whether we should have an affair.

I've often speculated that the professor in question pressed the harassment charge against me in order to prevent me from filing a charge against him -- something I had never considered doing. All I know for certain is that he reported his complaint to our department head, who referred it to the university's senior administrative official in charge of sexual-harassment cases.

I was called into the administrator's office who, in accordance with the university's informal grievance procedure, read me the campus sexual-harassment code and asked me to cease-and-desist all contact of a sexual nature with the professor. It was quite a terrifying experience for an adjunct who had hoped to be offered a tenure-track position there someday.

Assenting to everything I was asked, I immediately fled from his office and told my husband everything -- from the flirtation to the harassment charge. He was angry about what I had done to our relationship. He was upset that I had destroyed any likelihood of my being hired by his department.

But beyond all of that, he was afraid of losing his tenure-track job. How would his colleagues react if the professor decided to take his charge through the university's formal grievance procedure, in which many of them necessarily would become involved as witnesses or informed of the findings of the case? Beyond the issue of guilt or innocence, the entire proceeding would have a sordid tone to it, which might make many of his colleagues wish that my husband and I would just go away.

Thankfully, the professor did not choose to go through the formal review. The downside was that I was never given the opportunity to refute the charges made against me and clear my name. Nor was the professor ever held accountable for his actions.

Our greatest fear became that this man might use his power to destroy my husband's chances for tenure. We kept quiet about the turn of events and tried to patch things up with the professor as much as possible. My husband did his best to ingratiate himself with this man and pretend he knew nothing of what had happened.

About six months after the charge, during a term in which I was not teaching at the university, I stopped by the professor's office to extend an olive branch. I asked him to meet with me to talk about the situation and try to move beyond it. The professor became enraged and ordered me to leave or he would call the sexual-harassment office again.

A few weeks later, I received a letter from him -- with copies also sent to our department head and to the sexual-harassment administrator -- asking me to refrain from all discussion with him regarding our contact in the past. Not only would I not have the opportunity to clear my name, but now I had effectively been put under a gag order.

At this point my husband and I decided to defend ourselves. We contacted the department head and the sexual-harassment officer to explain our side of the story. Once university officials realized that my husband knew about the matter and that it could become a grievance between two members of the standing faculty rather than between a professor and an adjunct, they began to handle the case more carefully.

The chairman informally assured my husband that he would prevent the senior professor from serving on my husband's tenure committees. The sexual-harassment officer explained to me that he didn't think the case in any way met the definition of sexual harassment and suggested that once I was teaching at the university again I might want to charge the professor with faculty misconduct. That solution might satisfy my sense of justice, but it certainly would cause bad morale in the department, which could hurt my husband's chances for tenure, so I declined.

This story may seem unique; as Humphrey Bogart says in Casablanca, "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." But I believe that my experience speaks mountains about the way adjuncts are treated at universities. Sexual-harassment policies are designed to protect the weak from the powerful. No one expects the powerful to use them as a tool against the weak.

I can't help but believe that if I had been a standing member of the faculty -- someone who was an actual coworker to this professor -- the administration would have handled the complaint much more judiciously. In any case, the professor was able to use the university's informal grievance procedure to levy accusations against me without any accountability and to intimidate me into silence about his less-than-perfect conduct by threatening my future employment.

Sadly, it was only my special status among adjuncts as a trailing spouse that allowed me a modicum of fair treatment in the end. It's now two years since the accusations were made against me. The department never offered me additional regular courses to teach. Thankfully I was able to obtain a tenure-track position at a nearby state university.

My husband still works in the department and is trying his best to reach tenure. His department chairman is stepping down and we have no guarantees that the senior professor in question will not try to retaliate against my husband in the future. He grinds his teeth every night worrying about this situation and conceals his fears beneath a mask of friendliness toward his senior colleague, who has experienced no repercussions from his actions.

Gilda Mundson is the pseudonym of an assistant professor in humanities at a state university in the West.