The Lech Is in the Mail

March 27, 2016

Question (from "Young Prof. Ingenue"): I’m in my first year on the tenure track at Ordinary U, where Prof. Priapus is my senior colleague. He’s taken it upon himself to mentor me, and I appreciate his knowledge. He started teaching at Ord U before I was born and says he knows "where the bodies are buried." I’m afraid I’ll wind up as one of them.

At first we had coffee or lunch (I always paid for my stuff). Professor Priapus would talk about discoveries in our field. He’s a nationally known, prizewinning scholar who got me connected with our national organization, including its women’s caucus. He’s been very generous with his time.

But lately he can’t keep his hands to himself.

Since he’s practically my grandfather’s age, at first I thought it was cute when he’d pat my knee. I even flirted a little. But then came the meeting where his hand rode higher on my leg; I stood up and said I had to leave. He often would kiss me hello or goodbye on the cheek, but at yet another recent meeting he attempted a kiss on the mouth. I left quickly. But that apparently wasn’t enough discouragement.

Now he’s been sending me lewd e-mails offering to take me to dinner, to Paris, "to the moon." He writes very specifically about my body, using words like "shapely" and others more crass. He describes scenarios. Because I’m Southern, he makes crude jokes about what we could do in "an ole pickup truck."

As a Southerner, I’m trained to be polite. As an academic, I’m trained to be a scholar, not a paramour. How can I stop this without hurting my career?

Answer: Sometimes Ms. Mentor bemoans the invention of cheap paper. If people still had to carve their ravings onto stone tablets, there would be one-time-only screeds ("U RAT"). If they had only expensive parchment, they’d have to go out to the road to shout "Stella!" or "Juliet!," and any wise woman could pretend not to hear.

Ms. Mentor wishes it weren’t so easy for people to sit at their machines, any time of day or night, and torment their fellow creatures. In the dark, loner-academic types lose their inhibitions. With a few keystrokes, a reckless senior professor can turn a happy young colleague’s life into a world of anxiety and fear.

While Professor Priapus ruminates and rhapsodizes, Ingenue has to strategize — to protect herself against his advances without making an enemy.

In sexual-harassment cases, the victims always have to work harder. Ms. Mentor can hear some naysayers hollering already: "You can’t do anything until you define your terms! Ingenue’s situation is not sexual harassment, since by definition that requires X, Y, and Z." This will be followed by a diatribe about the overly politicized nature of academe "these days," and the rush to claim "victim status."

Ms. Mentor tunes out, because that’s a delaying tactic much like the old excuses: "If she wore longer skirts, this wouldn’t happen." Or, "He’s a harmless old goat." Or, "Can’t you take a little spicing up of the everyday routine?"

Ms. Mentor reminds her flock that Ingenue is an academic, not a geisha, and her only official job requirements are good teaching, research, and service. But her senior colleague has power over her career. He will be among those voting on whether her contract is renewed, and whether she gets tenure. He may or may not recommend her for grants and awards; he can get her stuck on useless committees. He can get his entrenched friends to ignore and disparage her.

Professor Pripaus should be helping Ingenue to grow and learn, not trying to seduce her.

Ingenue is, of course, not alone. Ms. Mentor has been dismayed by recent revelations of sexual harassment that has gone on for decades. Too many senior professors have been the ruin of young female students — while the men are kept on for their fame, their bonhomie, their grants. Some, like bad-behaving priests, have fled and gotten jobs at other institutions.

But it’s now possible to follow their operations, using a sarcastic online guide by John Johnson, "The Serial Harasser’s Playbook." Professor Priapus fits the pattern, although, unlike most harassers, he’s left evidence.

And so Ingenue must save every communication from him. She should forward each one to a private off-campus address, and she should print them out and keep them in a folder at home (documents do disappear from campus offices). She needs to keep a journal — small jottings will do — about any untoward behavior: What happened? When? And where? She’s building a self-protective dossier in the event she needs one — if, say, this senior "mentor" votes against her.

What to do publicly?

Ingenue could write back rudely: "Desist, creep!" Or forward the suggestive emails to her department email list, for all to read. Or she could print them out and post them around the department. She can go out to the quad and read them aloud.

All of those would be satisfying, Ms. Mentor says, and would make great scenes in an academic novel. But Ingenue should never do them. She would seem undignified and unprofessional. His long-term colleagues could rally around Professor Priapus and claim that’s he’s the beleaguered victim of a crazy troublemaker.

Ms. Mentor suggests, as a first step, a quiet strategy: Send a note to Professor Priapus saying something like, "I value you as a colleague and mentor. Please don’t send me emails like this. Let’s keep our interactions professional."

But for doing anything more, Ingenue needs allies — people who can advise her abut the culture of Ord U. Are harassers usually protected? Is there campus lore about harassing profs who were punished, or even "fired for cause"?

That kind of history is secret, but it’s usually known to women’s-studies faculty members — and they’re the ones Ingenue can consult, especially if there are no trusted senior women in her department. The women’s-studies faculty will know whether the rules for sexual harassment/hostile environment in the faculty handbook are enforced. They can tell Ingenue whether the human-resources office is helpful (or not).

HR’s main function, Ms. Mentor notes, is to keep the university running smoothly — no lawsuits, no scandals. Some HR people are zealous in pursuing justice for targets of harassment. Others are not. It depends on the culture at Ord U.

The best HR offices would have someone meet privately with Professor Priapus, to inform him that his conduct "can be misinterpreted" and that it violates certain faculty policies. Sometimes that is enough of a deterrent.

Ingenue may discover that Professor Priapus is a serial harasser — like "K," the late literature scholar who used to pick out a blond graduate student as his pet each year. No one ever caught him doing anything clearly against the rules — and his wife would complain about "those slutty girls who just won’t leave him alone." But his grad students always dropped out, and their contributions to human knowledge were lost.

Ms. Mentor urges Ingenue to remain professional, to monitor and take note of Professor Priapus’s behavior, and to look for other professors who might also mentor her. Sometimes harassers do change, but she can’t wait for that.

Ms. Mentor grieves for all the lost Ingenues, their attentions diverted, careers stunted or stopped, knowledge lost. It was in 1974 that Lin Farley, at Cornell University, coined the term "sexual harassment," but the Professor Priapuses of the world still haven’t gotten the word. Ms. Mentor urges senior faculty members to step in when they see something awry. There are too many who know about those individuals but do nothing.

Averting one’s eyes isn’t wisdom. People with tenure haven’t earned the right to be cowards.

Question: Our department meetings always have a written schedule, but it is never followed. Instead we have endless quarreling and sniping based on obscure past animosities. Is that what people mean by "the hidden agenda?"

Answer: Yes.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor’s request for academic nicknames netted a handful. There’s an eccentric professor who wants to be known by the name of a well-known birdcall. There is a dynamic duo who teach in billowy black academic robes and are known behind their backs as "Batman and Robin." Otherwise, academic nicknames seem to be the property of the athletic department: Bo, Bear, the Gipper. Can’t scholars do better than that?

Ms. Mentor reminds her flock that spring is coming, and with it her annual column on academic novels. She invites nominations by email: books worthy, books unworthy, and best of all, books not widely known. All that’s needed are author and title, but further commentaries are always welcome. Please do not send the books themselves, as Ms. Mentor is a spiritual presence who does not have a physical mailbox. Do feel free to consult Ms. Mentor’s previous columns on academic novels, especially last spring’s.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes rants, gossip, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, identifying details are muddied, and anonymity is guaranteed. Feel free to forward any e-mails of particular valor or pungency.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is