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How to Hold Predators in Academia Accountable

Recent reforms at UCLA demonstrate that it's possible for universities to implement just procedures to protect victims and oust abusers.
The Janss Steps at the University of California–Los Angeles.

The Janss Steps at the University of California–Los Angeles.

"I'm so thrilled I can't even tell you. There's 10 years of weight lifted off of me." These are the first words that Kristen Hillaire Glasgow says to me over the phone as she reacts to the news that the professor who sexually harassed her and other students for years at the University of California–Los Angeles is being forced from his job at the university. Today, she's feeling satisfied about how UCLA has handled her case and reassured by its procedures for addressing sexual harassment. She wasn’t always so happy. Her first experience with UCLA's Title IX office was a disaster, she says, an experience that's all too typical of the erratic ways in which American colleges and universities adjudicate sexual misconduct. Universities can, and must, do better. More recently, UCLA has changed its procedures in order to support people like victims, proving that it's possible to hold predators accountable.

Glasgow grew up in Hollywood, she tells me, so she understood the pervasiveness of workplace sexual harassment and was skeptical that anyone in power would ever try to stop predators. She graduated with a bachelor's from UCLA in 2006 and entered the university's Ph.D. program in history. She wanted to connect the activism of free people of color, especially female intellectuals, in Philadelphia, Boston, and Salem before the Civil War to modern civil rights movements, but was having trouble finding the right graduate mentor. One day she ended up having coffee with her former undergraduate adviser, who introduced her to Gabriel Piterberg, a senior professor in the history department.

Like any diligent graduate student, Glasgow hoped that she might find an ally in a well-connected professor like Piterberg. During that coffee, Piterberg never discussed her academic work, but instead started asking her about her marriage (which was coming to an end) and her sex life. He asked to walk her to her car, asked her more pointed comments about her sex life and marriage during the walk, and then at his car said, "In another place and time, we'd be together," then assaulted her. Glasgow says: "I'm pushed against his car and he shoves his tongue down my throat. With my hands, I pushed him back up, moved him off of me." He then offered to drive her to her vehicle. Instead, she made excuses and ran to her car. She tells me that she sat in her car, "shaking like a leaf, and I cry and I cry."

It didn't stop there. Glasgow says that Piterberg was never again as physically aggressive toward her, but the comments escalated, and her informal attempts to seek help went unheeded. Other graduate students told her that the professor talked about her sexually behind her back. Meanwhile, Glasgow was struggling to get funding, and Piterberg kept coming by her office and telling her that he was on the funding committee and would help her, then would inevitably shift the conversation to sex. It went on like this for over four years.

Glasgow wasn't the only victim. In 2013, she learned that another student (who did not respond to emails requesting comment) was filing a Title IX claim against Piterberg. Not only had he repeatedly physically harassed this second student, according to a lawsuit that Glasgow and the other student eventually filed, but he was also allegedly threatening to withhold letters of recommendation. Glasgow told her story, but found herself frustrated that the Title IX office treated each case as a "one-off," rather than looking for patterns of misconduct. Piterberg ended up with a slap on the wrist. He had to take a break from teaching at UCLA, but got a fellowship in Florence, Italy, and spent his brief exile there.

In the meantime, Glasgow and the other student joined forces, sued, and won significant damages (most of Glasgow's went to legal fees), then tried to resume school. Piterberg was still there, but Glasgow soon discovered that the university had totally reformed its Title IX processes. The Title IX officers asked if she wanted to initiate a new claim—after which, they treated her complaints seriously, interviewed substantial witnesses, looked for patterns, and found in her favor. Throughout the process, Glasgow says she received a confidential advocate and timely updates. When the process was over, the Title IX office took its findings to faculty leadership. They initiated a procedure to strip Piterberg of tenure, deny him emeritus status, and remove him from the university. On March 10th, 2018, almost 10 years to the day after the assault in the parking lot, Glasgow found out that Piterberg had been fired.

I spoke over the phone to Kathleen Salvaty, the first system-wide Title IX coordinator for the University of California system, about what changed between Glasgow's first experience with her office and the more recent one. Salvaty tells me that her office was created as a result of a 2014 system-wide task force empowered to shift how the system's universities responded to campus sexual harassment and assault. Now there's a separate office employing advocates for victims and making sure each person is receiving the support and guidance that they need outside of the Title IX office, which has to remain impartial. Meanwhile, the hearing process itself has become more formal and transparent, so that anyone coming forward knows exactly what the procedures will look like before they start talking. There are, Salvaty says, "no guaranteed outcomes, but [each person is] treated with respect and given a roadmap [for] how this process is going to work."

I ask Salvaty if she thinks that the new procedures are really making a difference. She believes that high profile firings of harassers like Piterberg matter. "I actually do think that holding [offenders] accountable is really important deterrence," she says. It sends the message that abuse will not be overlooked and that victims will be believed. Salvaty says she's heartened to hear from campus offices that more and more older incidents are being reported since this fall, perhaps as a reaction to the #MeToo movement.

Too few victims of sexual violence and harassment on college campuses feel comfortable reporting their assaults. Some studies estimate that only 5 percent of victims come forward. And why should they? A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that only one in five of the people who report an assault receive any counseling or other victims services (to which they are legally entitled). Victims are often afraid to report, feeling that any offense short of violent rape won't be taken seriously, or else they often blame themselves. These are problems that extend far beyond college campuses, but the BJS finds that students are less likely to report assault than non-students. Given the mission of Title IX offices and the resources poured into supporting students, those numbers ought to be reversed, if anything. The investment in prevention and support throughout the University of California system is encouraging. It's a good first step to prioritize victim support and transparency, if one that feels decades too late.

Meanwhile, Glasgow is getting back to work on her dissertation. She feels free to roam campus again, to use the library, and to focus on her work as a scholar. "Title IX isn't perfect," she tells me, but getting a tenured professor and serial harasser fired is "historic. It signals to a lot of other tenured professors that time is up."