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Why Don't We Know More About Sexual Harassment of Grad Students by Faculty?

A new study reveals that the problem is worse than you think, and likely much worse than we can tell from available data.

Students pursuing an advanced degree occupy an unusual perch. They don't get paid much, if anything, but many of them are destined for lucrative or prestigious careers. They aren't fully fledged professionals yet, but their careers are well underway—they get to work closely with highly motivated peers and professors who will form their professional networks. You might expect graduate students to be a relatively empowered group, on balance, with standing to dictate how they are treated by their professors. A new study suggests otherwise.

Forthcoming in the Utah Law Review, the co-authors William Kidder and Nancy Chi Cantalupo, of the University of California–Los Angles and Barry University, respectively, examined nearly 300 faculty-student harassment cases from media reports, federal civil rights investigations, and court documents from litigation involving masters and Ph.D. candidates alleging harassment by faculty member at their schools. For the study, which the researchers claim is the most systemic review ever conducted, they also surveyed much of the social science literature around the problem.

Studies of sexual harassment in the workplace suggest that the vast majority of sexual harassment cases never make it into public record, and the authors speculate that their work is only the "tip of the iceberg" for schools. The cases they were able to find were also likely especially egregious examples with better, more vivid evidence available to the victims. Nevertheless, a few obvious patterns emerged in the public record; here are some of the statistics the researchers uncovered:

  • Female graduate students are harassed by faculty three times as frequently as female undergraduates.
  • Over one-fifth of transgender and genderqueer graduate students and one-tenth of female graduate students experience sexual harassment by faculty at their universities.*
  • Over half of sexual harassment cases involving faculty involved some indication that professors were repeat offenders with multiple victims.
  • Only 26 of the cases they examined resulted in faculty termination as a result of enforcement.

The study also came with some informative graphics, a few of which are featured below:

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*UPDATE — July 20, 2017: The figures in this article have been updated.