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Allegations of Groping, Lewd Comments and Rape: Academia's #MeToo Moment

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/11/2018 Melissa Korn

Students and faculty from universities in the U.S., Europe and beyond describe a wide range of alleged sexual harassment in an anonymous, crowdsourced spreadsheet

In December, five years after an incident that she says helped drive her out of academia, Samantha Ainsley went online and posted entry No. 1,132 to a spreadsheet entitled “Sexual Harassment In the Academy: A Crowdsource Survey.”

Without including names, she wrote that when she was a Ph.D. student, she was sexually harassed by a prominent professor at an academic conference in Singapore. She said that when she tried to engage the professor about her research, the man made lewd comments about her appearance, put his hand up her dress and asked her to come back to his hotel room.

Ms. Ainsley wrote that she was ashamed and in the following months, she “started to unravel.” She ultimately decided that she would never have been taken seriously in her field, and dropped out of her Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctoral program in computer science.

“Sexual Harassment In the Academy,” launched Nov. 30 by former anthropology professor Karen Kelsky, now contains more than 2,000 anonymous anecdotes that describe a wide range of alleged harassment at universities. The document is publicly available on her blog, and participants can add their entries by completing a survey. Those making the claims do so unnamed, and alleged harassers remain anonymous, though schools and academic departments are sometimes identified.

Schools named in the spreadsheet, including Indiana University and Georgia Institute of Technology, said they’re troubled by the allegations but need more details to consider any investigation, such as when the alleged incidents occurred and the names of those involved.

The University of California, Berkeley, was named more than two dozen times. Spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said the school is “saddened and unsettled” by the allegations but would need to know the accusers’ identities to determine possible next steps.

Sexual assault has been a flashpoint for years on college campuses, and schools have struggled with how to adjudicate harassment claims made against students, let alone those against tenured faculty, according to lawyers, school administrators and faculty.

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Institutional power dynamics help cultivate a climate in which sexual harassment can thrive, say professors and graduate students. Professors who bring in research funding are treated as stars, and senior faculty hold near absolute authority over doctoral candidates, who need references and dissertation edits.

Inspired by the #MeToo movement and a wave of public allegations of harassment in other industries, Dr. Kelsky created a survey form in late November asking academics to detail their harassment experiences, including any response from the school if a complaint was made, and what impact they say the alleged harassment had on their careers and mental health.

The first day, there were 60 entries. By the fourth day, there were nearly 800, including unwanted touching at social gatherings and insinuations that better grades could be achieved in exchange for sexual acts. Several cited rape. Some allegedly occurred last semester, others decades ago. They include claims from former undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and administrators.

Academics from New York to California to Europe and beyond have passed the link around via email and Twitter.

Dr. Kelsky, a former professor at the University of Oregon and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign who now runs a career-advising consulting firm for academics, said one of her goals with the survey was to demonstrate the scope of the issue. After the responses flooded in, she said, “I think plausible deniability has been eviscerated.”

She said she hasn’t received any requests from schools to take the spreadsheet down, and notes that it isn’t intended as a legal record of harassment.

In recent months, a number of universities have launched initiatives to address sexual harassment and have made more public their processes to discipline professors facing specific allegations.

The moves come as the U.S. Department of Education overhauls its enforcement of Title IX, a federal statute prohibiting schools from discriminating on the basis of sex. It has rescinded Obama-era guidelines on how to handle sexual-assault cases and issued interim recommendations, including allowing colleges to apply a higher standard of proof when determining guilt.

Scott Schneider, a Tulane professor and attorney who heads the higher-education practice group at Fisher Phillips, said schools must proceed carefully, even as other industries rush to respond to harassment allegations, in part because of faculty tenure protections.

“We want to maintain a climate that is certainly free from sexual harassment and sex discrimination,” said Mr. Schneider, whose firm represents schools on a range of legal issues. “We also should value, as an institution, some modicum of due process.”

Ms. Ainsley, now a software engineer at Google Inc., told The Journal that she had just completed her first big academic presentation at a computer-graphics conference in Singapore in November 2012 when she was invited to have dinner with other students and an influential Berkeley professor, James O’Brien, whose work is widely used by Hollywood animation studios.

Dinner turned into drinks at a club, where another attendee said that women could be hired to flirt with patrons at an hourly rate.

Ms. Ainsley was 23 years old at the time, had recently completed her master’s at Columbia University and was a Ph.D. student at MIT. She said she viewed Dr. O’Brien as a potential mentor and tried to discuss her presentation with him.

He put his hand on her back, she says, then: “He leaned in and put his hand on my thigh, up between my legs, up my skirt, and said, ‘I didn’t listen to a damn word you said because I was too busy imagining what was under your dress.’ ”

She says the professor later invited her to his hotel room. She declined. He demanded a good-night kiss, which she also declined, she says. When she told Dr. O’Brien the next day that she had felt uncomfortable, Ms. Ainsley says, he rolled his eyes and invited her to a conference in Barbados scheduled for later that winter.

Lyn Agre, an attorney for Dr. O’Brien, said in a statement that the professor “emphatically denies” Ms. Ainsley’s assertions, including her claim that he put his hand up her skirt or groped her, and that he “never tried to force himself on Ms. Ainsley in any way.”

She said that Dr. O’Brien hasn’t seen Ms. Ainsley since the conference, and that the only communication between the two since then was an email that Ms. Ainsley sent him thanking Dr. O’Brien for a recommendation to another academic conference. The statement also noted that Ms. Ainsley didn’t attend Berkeley and said that Dr. O’Brien had no supervisory role over her.

The Journal reviewed a log of an online chat Ms. Ainsley had with her then-boyfriend after she returned to her hotel. The account, in which she expressed panic about the incident and fear about the career implications of reporting it, tracked with her retelling on the spreadsheet and in interviews with The Journal. One colleague at the conference told The Journal that Ms. Ainsley was in tears upon her return to the hotel, and another attendee said her hands and voice were shaking the following morning.

Ms. Ainsley reported the incident a few hours later to Eitan Grinspun, the Columbia faculty adviser who oversaw the research project she was presenting in Singapore.

“I was outraged, but I was at a loss as to whom I could report this,” he said, noting that he wasn’t a witness to the incident, Ms. Ainsley was no longer a Columbia student, Dr. O’Brien was at another institution, and the conference was sponsored by neither. Dr. Grinspun, now an associate professor in computer science at Columbia, said he is glad she is speaking out about her experience now.

Ms. Ainsley said she didn’t tell MIT about the alleged incident when it occurred.

She says her experience shows that academia doesn’t always have clear reporting structures for handling sexual-harassment claims, and that fear of professional repercussions can perpetuate silence.

Empowered by seeing other women come forward with their own experiences of harassment in recent months, she said, she decided to more formally report the incident. Shortly before Christmas, Ms. Ainsley met with Berkeley’s Title IX office to discuss a potential investigation into the alleged incident and said she is meeting them again next week, though no formal action has yet been taken.

Berkeley spokeswoman Ms. Gilmore said the school can’t comment on existing or potential investigations until probes are complete and disciplinary action is decided.

Dr. O’Brien’s attorney said Berkeley has never taken any disciplinary or other negative action against him.

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