Sunday, April 23, 2006

When to be pushy and when to let go?

Update: broken link fixed.
Those of you who might remember reading about this incident earlier this year might be wondering if anything ever happened with it, or if it fell by the wayside like the incident before.

Well, it's time for an update.

I had not heard anything for a long time (couple of months, give or take a week), so I decided recently to check up with the higher-ups I'd been dealing with all along. (For those of you who are thinking that there is at least one fatal flaw in this scenario, it gets worse. Read on.)

I can't really go into details (of course not!), but I will say the following, based on my (very bizarre) conversation with the higher-ups:
* The higher-ups have actually had some...information...on what happened. For, oh, almost as long as I haven't heard from them.
* If what they're telling me is correct, there's not a complete story yet, but at least one person has come forward with some information about what happened. S/he was at least an accomplice.
* The student who came forward is not a disgruntled former student, but that doesn't really rule out anything yet.
* The student who came forward is "a model student, a pillar of the community, a real nice kid", etc. etc.

During the conversation, it was very clear to me that they were not planning on sharing this information with me voluntarily--unless I asked (or, maybe, until it was "too late to do anything"). It was also made very clear to me that the higher-ups do not want to pursue this. The theme was nice student, bad choice, s/he apologized to one of the deans, now isn't that enough? let's all forget this ever happened, mmmkay?

Um. No. Because the fact remains that there was at least one student who LEFT A HARRASSING MESSAGE ON A PROFESSOR'S VOICEMAIL. And the last time I checked, doing so was clearly against college policy (and possibly employment law too?). And because this is has happened to me multiple times now, and each time there is some excuse not to do anything. So I really don't care if this student is the second coming of Mother Teresa--s/he screwed up and there need to be some consequences, somehow.

So now I have more upcoming conversations with the higher-ups, and I'm sure they will really put the pressure on to not do anything about this. I don't want to let this go, but I'm not sure how to proceed. Should I be talking to senior women for advice, or talking to the campus lawyer? (For reasons I can't go into, talking to a diversity dean/ombudsperson is not possible.) Should someone in the administration not involved in this be made aware of what's happening? How hard should I push? What should I push for? Or is there no hope, and should I just give up and slink away and continue to cringe everytime I see the "message waiting" light on my phone?

Any advice, O Internets?


Ianqui said...

I don't know what the best answer is, but talking to the campus lawyer can't be it. I know you probably don't want to spend much money on it right now, but if you feel like the U is doing you wrong and you want objective help, you really should speak to an uninvolved lawyer.

A couple hundred dollars for a consultation might be worth it for peace of mind.

Good luck with this, Jane. It's such a crappy situation. And I don't think it should be swept under the rug.

Ianqui said...

I had another thought. I just read the old posts, and at those times, it seemed like the main concern was making it stop. Maybe that's because no one ever thought the person's identity would be known.

Now the issue is--apparently his/her identity is knowable, so what should be done about that? Should the person be punished? At the very least (and this probably isn't acceptable), the perpetrator should apologize to you. You have a right to know who it is. But something more punitive should be done about it so the person knows that actions have consequences. Amazing that a college doesn't realize this. (I'm wondering if the person is the offspring of wealthy parents or something...)

Anonymous said...

From the details (and broken links) you had provided I would say you should definitely do something, or maybe not.

You might want to mention some harassment settlements in recent history and how expesnive they were, and altough, of course these cases are not directly related in any way, you really strongly feel that this case should be handled considerably more seriously.

Marcelle Proust said...

Inform the campus police that you received threatening voicemail messages. It's a safety issue.

Liz said...

IANAL, but if it was a student rather than a fellow employee, it most likely wouldn't fall under harassment law.

And the campus lawyer is definitely not the person to talk to--s/he is concerned with protecting the institution, not you.

If it were me, I'd start by putting my concerns and requests in writing. What do you want? For the person(s) involved to apologize to *you*, not an administrator (that would be my minimum requirement)? Something more? What does campus policy specify for violations like this? You need to know exactly what the policy covers, and what sanctions it provides for--taking this outside of campus to law enforcement is likely to be (a) fruitless and (b) fraught with negative consequences for you.

If it's not in writing, it's much much easier for them to ignore. And if for any reason it does end up with lawyers involved, a paper trail will be important.

On our campus, there's an office that deals with student misconduct, and it's closely tied to campus safety--so I'd probably talk to them.

If there's a senior woman faculty member on campus whom you trust, that might be a good person to talk options through with.

Jill said...

Oh, how infuriating! That's really not acceptable. What a way of making sure your employees don't feel safe...

I'd definitely try to take this further - I'm not quite sure how though. Are you getting any support from your department? Didn't you mention a womens' faculty group - maybe they could help? How about a talk with a union representative?

It does seem as though talking with someone not directly involved but with some power to actually help you might be wise.

I mean, you could go to the media (does your university have an internal newssite?) but that's setting up a conflict that would probably be rather unpleasant unless you're sure you have other people backing you at the university.

So do they think that the earlier threats were also from the same "nice" student?

Laura said...

The campus lawyer would be defending the school should a case be brought forward. You should be able to get a free consultation from a lawyer who may even be able to simply write a letter.

Another option might be to contact HR and/or a student dean. I had a free go through this once via email. She was also a student at the time (TA threatened by one of her students). She managed to get a restraining order.

pjm said...

I definitely don't know the best way to proceed on this, but I agree with other commenters so far that it shouldn't be dropped. I think colleges and universities do a disservice to all their community when they sweep stuff like this under the rug (I wrote an indignant article about this in a campus magazine when I was an undergraduate.) If the point of the institution is to *teach*, why miss a chance to teach a student that her/his actions have consequences--and that facing up to mistakes is better than having someone else "fix" them for you?

That said... it's easy for me to rant on principle, and you're the one who's actually picking up the phone.

sb said...

unfortunately, I don't have any advice, only sympathy. This sounds extremely frustrating, I wish you all the best and all the strength you need to get throught this! I hope it gets resolved!

whatwas_that said...

I've only recently started reading your blog, and I'm enjoying it very much. I'm very sorry to hear that this is happening to you

Something similar happened to a former professor of mine, and because of that I can't urge you strongly enough to follow through on this. The price she paid - the stress, the anger she felt (at herself) for having "caved" (she was encouraged to not pursue the matter) - just wasn't worth it.

Talk to your colleagues. Take someone - a senior colleague would be ideal - with you to meetings with the higher-ups, since I've found that sometimes in stressful conversations it's hard to remember questions you need to ask, and later, answers you've gotten (or not). Get as much as you can in writing. Take notes during meetings with higher-ups, or make them as soon as possible afterwards.

What's happened to you is outrageous and competely unacceptable. The student should have to apologize to you (at the very least). And, IANAL either, but I don't think it matters if the harasser is a student or an employee - harassment of this sort may still be a criminal act (it just may not fall under federal workplace sexual harassment law).

noricum said...

I think you should pursue this. Why did "good student" not turn in accomplice? Why did s/he not apologize to you? If they get away totally scott-free, how will they learn that this is not an acceptable thing to do? Why did they think it was a good idea in the first place? Why did the higher-ups not pass on the information? You had a right to be kept informed. *They* should apologize to you too!

What Now? said...

No real advice, just sympathy here. I agree with the above commenters that it's definitely worth pursuing this further and that the women's faculty group is a good place to start in looking for support. It may even be that a letter to the administration signed by all of the women faculty would get some results.

Jane said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone! A few points of clarification:
* I filed a police report a while back, so at least it's on record there.
* I remember reading the harrassment portion of the student and faculty handbooks when this first happened, and I think they are sufficiently vague on consequences for these types of things. But I'll look again; that would be the logical place to start.
* Writing down what it is that I want out of this is a brilliant idea. (Thanks, Liz!)
* Talking to a senior woman is also a brilliant idea. I have two in mind; I'll contact them tomorrow. Thanks to all who suggested that.
* Not surprisingly, my department has been totally unsupportive. I wish I could repeat the things they've said to me about this, but it's really apalling. So I definitely have to go outside the department for support and help on this one.
* And most importantly, I've been putting everything in writing--meetings, phone conversations--along with the time and date. There is a paper trail.

I have really been overwhelmed by the support from the blogosphere throughout this ordeal. Thanks for listening and thanks for chiming in. It really means a lot to me!

kermitthefrog said...


I've been reading for a while, and just thought I'd echo the wishes for good luck and a non-crappy, satisfying resolution of the situation.


drshellie said...

Dear Jane,
Good luck with this-- you have my sympathy. I agree with everyone who said to figure out what you want (apology in writing from the student, for example) and put it IN WRITING. I think that anything you put in writing should always be perfectly clear and rational, reasonable, and loyal to your university (since it's on the record). But meanwhile... figure out what is really threatening to the university administration (outside lawyer? lawsuit? going public with your comments in your blog or in a newspaper?) and get what information you can. Casually mentioning that you are pursuing your options will help sway the conversation with higher-ups. If you can summon up the energy to think optimistically this situation, think-- this is actually a good chance to practice negotiating what you want from the people in charge. It is emotionally very difficult, because the easiest and most natural thing to feel in this situation is that their actions so far show a total lack of respect for you (I think). But don't stop there-- think strategically. Figure out how you are going to get them to acknowledge your concerns and PROVE that they do value you in some very concrete way. If they will not make the student apologize to you in person, be creative about a counter-demand. If you can fight back and get something of what you want, you will feel much stronger.

Soo said...

Do you have tenure yet?

If not, I would think very carefully before taking action about how being disruptive (I'm guessing that's how the high-ups will view you if you do anything other than play doormat) will affect your tenure chances. I'm not saying don't do anything, I'm saying that you want to think about possible consequences in advance, to try and avoid consequences that you don't want.

Though if your dept and the high-ups are so unsupportive and care more about cushioning bad students than justice for good teachers, then maybe it's an institution that you don't want to get tenue at anyway?

Btw, I think that it sounds like the behaviour of the high-ups towards you is immensely disrespectful, from what you've said. I can't believe how rude they are being, and dismissive of your concerns by wanting to ignore them. I'm sorry you're having to go through that. It sucks.

AiE said...

I'm sending hugs and support your way, Jane. Tenure is *not* worth enduring crap like this.

However, you proceed, you have our support!

wolfa said...

When you figure out what you want out of this, you might want to split it into two parts.

What do you want from this student who has done it? An apology? The student to be barred from registering in your classes? Etc.

And then, independently, what do you want done *in the future*? (Including under what timeframes.) Do you want caller id from now on, or caller id logs if there's an incident? If you aren't given logs, what will you do (close your voicemail, etc)? Make you you give this to them in writing -- including why you want every thing -- and get a response from them in writing. If they say they will do something but refurse to put it in writing, write it out yourself, then send it to them. During our meeting on this day, you agreed to do this if that happened, and something else, blah blah blah. This way you have some sort of proof of what they said they would do.

Also, do bear in mind the risks this involves, and decide if it's worth it to you. Yes, it puts tenure at a bigger concern -- but do you want to be tenured somewhere where a "good student" gets a pass for threatening a prof? Maybe you do, and you want to force change from within.

Best of luck.

Anonymous said...

I'll echo what everyone else said, with one caveat - we live in a very small gossipy community. A reputation for "being difficult" (no matter how unwarranted) can be incredibly damaging, especially for a woman in a male dominated field.

I would focus on a plan for the future and on getting caller id. If that's not possible, I have a colleague whose voice mail is a message stating that she is out and only takes messages left via fax or email and that it is not possible to leave a voice message.

Best of luck!

Anonymous said...

BTW, if you complained to the police, you might to contact them and ask them explictly what they did about this and what are they planning to do. The police would probably be happy to forget all about it if you do not bother them. As for tenure considerations, it depends on your department - some departments would in fact appriciate more assertive behaviour...

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Belatedly, I have no great advice, but lots of sympathy. This sucks, and it's terrible that your department isn't being more sympathetic. I hope that you are able to do something to address the matter, something that really does address the serious problem that this is.

However, I can also understand an institution concerned with smoothing over conflicts and not offending students (not that I *agree* with that, just know what it's like!). So I hope you can find good non-departmental advocates who can help you out!

Grad007 said...

That's a really difficult situation you're in. I cannot imagine why the department would put the interests of this student over your interests. The student is not that 'good' if he/she won't at least apologise to you. Unfortunately, it doesn't sound like tenure in this kind of environment is worth it.

Can you have your calls redirected to a secretary / coworker when you're not there to take them? What does the phone company say about tracing / blocking calls? You could have one phone number for research collaborators, and another which appears on your department's public web page: the secretary's number.

I wish you the best of luck in dealing with this situation. Don't let it get brushed under the carpet.

Jonathan said...

Jane, I hope you hunt this bastard down like a dirty dog.

Putting requests in writing is a great idea, but let me add that your letters will go down much better if you always give your colleagues a polite in-person heads-up about the letter they're about to receive before it arrives.

I agree that you must know exactly what you want before you start, or you won't get it. The choice between an in-person apology (written if you prefer) and expulsion sounds good to me.

I don't believe this will hurt your tenure chances if you stay as polite as you are persistent. It might even help your tenure chances, if your colleagues feel guilty about failing to back up their empty platitudes about supporting women (I assume you've gotten these at some point) with action. But here's where you need to gauge your abilities as a diplomat—can you be determined yet pleasant? Can you come off as affable at the same time as showing you won't back down an inch? Can you stay unemotional while repeatedly asking administrators to do what they manifestly don't want to do? If so, this could play in your favor.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jane,

You need to get an attorney to sit with you and look at your rights and the campus policies etc... and make sure when you next meet with the 'higher ups' that you state your case clearly.

Try to remain as calm as possible. I know its easy for me to say. May be you can review what you want to say with a friend.

Its unacceptable that you had to go through all this pain and harassment regardless if this 'model student' and 'pillar of the community' has to be penalised.

All I can say - the 'higher-ups' shouldn't inflict such deranged personalities onto society without making some effort to correcting this deviance.

Good luck
Sri Lanka

PhD Mom said...

I know I'm a little late (swamped lately), so I hope you will still see this.

This issue is really important. DO NOT LET IT GO!!!! It is unacceptable for students to threaten teachers in any way. Do NOT dismiss this as a prank or mistake. It is not unheard of for students to take serious action (i.e., shootings) against professors. It may be a sign of mental unbalance. I don't want to hear about some CS female professor on the news...

If you are unable to get a proper and serious response from the administration you could consider contacting off campus police. Additionally, I would strongly recommend contacting the AAUW (american association of university women). They have a legal defense fund and can probably offer you consultations for free. If a letter from one of their attourneys finds its way to your administration, they will begin to take this matter *very* seriously. You need the weight of other behind you. You might also consider talking to the campus newspaper, that usually gets things going as well. I imagine that would create enough of an indignant uproar to get them moving, and if they deny you tenure for pursuing the matter you can sue them for that as well.

Ohhh. This makes me sound so lawsuit happy and believe me I am not, but you have rights and they are being ignored!!!

Anonymous said...

Jane, pursue it. Your safety should never be traded in for someone's reputation. Perhaps it's also time that this student, irrespective of character, learned that actions beget consequences. It might be the most valuable lesson they learn in school.

Professor Zero said...

I disagree with the people who are worried about tenure, gossip, and being 'difficult'. If you're calm, yet firm about it, you won't be 'difficult', you'll be serious. In the long run, being taken seriously will do you more good than being seen as 'nice'.

I'm glad you've talked to senior female colleagues about it, and to the police. I agree that the idea of putting down what you want in writing, _and_ giving people a 'heads up' about the letter they're about to receive, is good.

When I was younger than I am now, I was
more tolerant of this sort of thing, and it got me nowhere. It just caused stress, which slowed productivity. Then (still before tenure) I became less tolerant, and things started working better.

It is important to be clear.

I never listen to voice mail, myself. I have a message on it saying that I'll pick up the phone if I'm there, but if not, to send me e-mail. I don't do this because of harrassment, but because I don't like our slow AUDIX system. My point: you can eliminate voice mail from your life, if you need to.

Clyde said...

Coming in super late on this conversation. What a horrendous situation. I'm reading it chronologically, so if there are updates I'll get to them eventually. Is this the kind of question one can ask of "Confessions of a Community College Dean"? I think it's important that you followed up on it and found out about the admin's lack of follow-through. What a horrid realization, though, that your administration has lost sight of a moral or ethical core. I appreciate the advice on being persistent and polite. It sounds like neither way (standing up for yourself, or trying to let it go) is going to be easy, advantages and disadvantages either way. Glad the blogosphere has your back and I'm bummed that I've been so out of touch that I had no clue.