Why the University Needs Harassment

Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen has recently argued that campus accusations of sexual harassment are often designed to achieve other goals.  According to Suk Gersen, “Title IX can also be used to discourage disagreement, deter dissent, deflect scrutiny, or register disapproval of people whom colleagues find loathsome.” On other topics, like the gendering of privacy law, Suk Gersen has made valuable contributions to feminist thinking, but here I think her analysis doesn’t go far enough. Based on my own experience as a life-long academic I would assert that it is the defenses for sexual harassment rather than the accusations that tell us more about a university’s goals, and more specifically its aspirations.

At University A, where the theme was nostalgia, the lost history of a fondly remembered old boy’s club was frequently romanticized.  My professors joked in lectures about marrying their students, as though it couldn’t be any clearer that women were second-class citizens incapable of achievements in their own right.  It was the era in which only a man of color and a postcolonial poet might be outed as a potential harasser.

At University B, where the theme was buyer beware, the institution was eager to hire tarnished faculty from Ivy League institutions like University A as a way to solidify its reputation.  After all, such professors could be purchased at bargain basement prices from places like Princeton.  In turn, the offenders from University B could go to lower-ranked public institutions.  Their seemingly hysterical accusers could be redirected to career paths other than the PhD.

At University C, where the theme was precarity mixed with salvation, the institution was so averse to litigation that it protected those who would otherwise be seen as disposable — people without the tenure ladder or collective bargaining protections — with extraordinary tenacity.  It was as though by being accused of harassment — especially harassment of women of color — such instructors and administrators had finally reached the level of academic freedom enjoyed by their more privileged top-tier colleagues.

Despite the diversity of individual subcultures, in every one of these cases, sexual harassment seems to speak to the aspirations of the institution.  It speaks to deeply held desires for elite membership, brand recognition, and communion with tradition.

Sexual harassment is profoundly aspirational in its character.  As such, the work of Lauren Berlant might be useful for considering this particular form of cruel optimism for university administrators, who are charged with affective labor, managing expectations, and organizational communication for their institutional units, but dream of more august possibilities both for themselves and for their campuses as a whole.

Given this framework, I might argue that sexual harassment represents the hopes and aspirations of the university rather than its fears and repressions.

Like many others I followed responses to the resignation of Sara Ahmed from her post at Goldsmiths and Ahmed’s eloquent discussion of the ways that sexual harassment reflects the norms of the institutional culture rather than the behavior of a few pathologized outliers.  Based on my own experiences in academia, it appears that Ahmed is right that such behavior tends to be central rather than peripheral to the operations of the university.

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