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The Silent Treatment

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What did we have to go on in 1983 but rumor? In the absence of transparent procedures, decoding the right rumors was how you survived. One friend reminded me of a young woman who had been assaulted by a graduate student and, she said, had gone to the grievance committee. The grad student’s male mentors, my friend said, defended the man, explaining that he was under pressure and just stealing a kiss. The woman’s complaint would jeopardize a young man’s entire future career, they had protested. The woman had had a breakdown and left campus, we’d heard.

If I had come from wealth, perhaps I would have had the confidence to speak out. But my father at that time made $35,000 a year; Yale cost $13,000. My mother had lost her job. My parents were going deeply into debt. If I was going to grad school, it would have to be on a scholarship; even to finish college, I needed to be in the good graces of the faculty and the financial-aid office.

I wanted to tell Patricia Pierce, my residential college dean. She had called me in because I was spiraling downward; I had gotten a C-, a D, and an F, and was put on academic probation. My confidence shaken, I failed in my effort to win the Rhodes Scholarship at the end of the term. When Pierce asked me what was wrong, I felt it was not safe to tell. I had also heard that a secretary in the Women’s & Gender Studies Program, worried about the safety of female students, had posted on her door a handmade sign about a “guilty” ruling from the Grievance Board in a case of a professor harassing a student. Pierce, I’d heard, had run down the hall and torn it off, saying “You can’t do that!” Pierce, now dean of the School of Management, e-mailed me to say, “I have no recollection of the incident.”

When I described to my parents what had happened, they had gone to a friend of theirs, a scholar of Middle Eastern literature, who was close to Bloom. “You were outraged; you felt violated,” my mother, Deborah Wolf, recalled recently. They begged him to speak with Bloom and ask him to leave me alone. “He refused,” my mother said. “He said it would be awkward. We felt so helpless. We had no power to protect you.” (My roommate, now an editor, who asked not to be named—“I’m still terrified,” she confessed—said: "We knew something had happened that night. You were really nervous; you were anxious for the rest of the semester.”) I longed to go to my thesis adviser. But John Hollander was Bloom’s close friend.

Harold Bloom never met with me again that semester. Not knowing what to do about my grade, I went to his department mailbox and dropped off the collection of poems I had tried to show him at our dinner. I never heard back from him. When I got my grades for a class he had never taught me, he had given me a B.

Once you have been sexually encroached upon by a professor, your faith in your work corrodes. If the administration knew and did nothing—because the teacher was valuable to them—they had made a conscious calculation about his and our respective futures: It was okay to do nothing because I—and other young women who could be expected to remain silent—would never be worth what someone like Bloom was worth.

After months of futile calls to Yale, I began to understand why there had been so much silence on their end of the phone: Even though I wasn’t asking for legal redress, what I was reporting to Yale raised major legal issues. According to equal-opportunity law, if administrators know of a faculty member’s tendency to approach students sexually, and do not take sufficient action, the university may then be responsible for condoning a hostile environment. If a member of faculty does reward a student who agreed to sleep with him or her with a plum job, or downgrade students who reject advances, that can be considered “quid pro quo,” one of the definitions of actionable sexual harassment. If there is a pattern of concealing and covering up instances of sexual harassment and even sexual assault, or acts of retaliation against students who complain, then a university can be charged with having failed to take corrective action.

Still getting nowhere with Yale authorities, I called around to see if someone else could reassure me so I could drop the matter. Linda Anderson, a brave senior administrative assistant in the Women’s & Gender Studies Program (the one who had posted the sign two decades ago), told me that the issue was far from settled. As I started to investigate further, several women willing to tell me their stories came forward.

They were a distinguished group, including a lawyer, a college dean, and a chaplain. What made their stories even more disturbing was that as early as 1980 Yale had already assured a court in Alexander v. Yale that it had adopted effective procedures for managing harassment complaints. The case had been brought by five Yale women, alleging sexual harassment. All their claims were dismissed. But the court took “important . . . note” of these measures.

Then, more women began to call me, several of whom had followed the university’s grievance procedures and were dismayed with what they felt to be bureaucratic stonewalling, and even the use of the procedures to protect faculty and the university at the student’s expense.

Deborah Amory was the first to talk. In 1985, when she was 23, Amory, now a dean at a SUNY campus, was a senior in the Scholar of the House Program. She was at a program dinner at Mory’s, seated next to a faculty member. He got drunk and put his hand on her leg. She was startled—another student asked her later if she was okay. She excused herself to get away from him. When she returned, he leered at her and said, “It’s okay. I talked to your family, and they say it’s fine.”

Amory immediately told the head of the program what had happened; he said he was shocked, but did nothing further. Amory filed a grievance. She, too, like me, went into an academic tailspin. “It is a miracle that I finished my thesis,” she said. When the grievance committee made its judgment, she was told that “I had been right in considering his behavior inappropriate.”

When she asked what the sanctions were, she was told no one would tell her. She was also forbidden to see a copy of the report. “The secrecy around the sanctions was more traumatic than the original event,” she told me. “I just understood that students were not safe and the university was not accountable.”

Another gutsy secretary mailed Amory a copy of the committee’s findings; Amory recalls that the document suggested the faculty member get alcohol counseling, and to stay away from students when he was drinking. There was no mention of professional consequences.

I had assumed that such cases were all in the distant past, but then I received a call from a lawyer called Cynthia Powell. In 1992, she was an American Studies graduate student and a law student. Powell says that one of her tenured professors assaulted her sexually. The professor asked her to dinner, she said, with himself and a dean. At the last minute, she was told the dean could not come. After dinner, he insisted they have a drink at his pied-à-terre nearby, and she had one glass of wine. He started making advances; she resisted, saying “No, no” several times, but then started experiencing blackouts. When she regained intermittent consciousness, she says, he had removed her clothes and penetrated her.

Deeply traumatized, Powell had her bruises documented at the hospital. She also called the police, but was made to feel there would be no point in bringing a criminal charge against someone she knew. “But I filed a grievance at Yale. Immediately, they brought in the university’s counsel. I was not allowed to have a lawyer there. Because I am an attorney, I understand that their principal concern was litigation. Their attorney said to me several times: ‘We are really glad you are not going to make a crusade about this.’

“The committee said he was tenured, so they couldn’t just terminate him. Off the record, the university’s attorney told me they wanted quietly to push him out. I didn’t know why it had to be ‘quietly.’

“They said he’d been ‘careless,’ ‘reckless.’ They didn’t want to use the word rape.”

Powell says she was never given a copy of the report and was able to read it only by going to a specified room where it was kept in a drawer. A few months later, the professor resigned and was promptly hired by another university. According to Powell, Yale offered her $30,000, which she rejected.


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