The Duck of Minerva

Pressing Politics Panel on the #Metoo Movement

19 June 2018

This is a guest post from Sara McLaughlin Mitchell, F. Wendell Miller Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Iowa.

This is the second in the series on #metooacademia.

Like many female academics, I have experienced #Metoo moments. As a graduate student, I was invited to a visiting faculty member’s apartment expecting multiple people to be there. I found myself alone and being propositioned for sex. As a married assistant professor, a senior faculty member at a conference invited me to his room after we had been drinking together. In both cases, the professors respected my decision to say no to their propositions. As I began to advise more female students and faculty members, however, I noticed that my experiences were mild relative to what some of them experienced. Some of my students and colleagues were raped, some were assaulted or grabbed, while others were persistently harassed in a sexual manner. When my colleague, Arthur Miller, was accused of trading sexual favors for grades, an act that ultimately led to his suicide, my eyes became open to the broader dynamics of the #Metoo movement. Many students I advised were humiliated in my colleague’s office, facing a choice they should never experience. Some of my senior male colleagues knew about Art’s behavior which infuriated me. I didn’t initially post anything about the #Metoo movement because I felt that my experiences, while unpleasant on the harassment side, did not compare to students and colleagues who had been raped, assaulted, and placed into professionally inappropriate situations. Our discussions at the 2018 International Studies Association (ISA) conference, though, helped me to embrace my own place in the #Metoo movement.

I have mixed feelings about the #Metoo movement as well. On the positive side, I like how it raises awareness of women’s experiences with rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment and shows how widespread these experiences are for women. I am glad that women feel comfortable coming forward in our academic community if they have been threatened, harassed, or raped. I am happy that the movement creates a safe space for women to name and shame perpetrators. On the negative side, though, I find it problematic to equate sexual assault and sexual harassment in the broad label of #Metoo. As my experience makes clear, there is a distribution of assault and harassment experiences and the general statement dilutes that variation in my opinion. I have worked with students and colleagues who experienced sexual assault and rape and those issues have been extremely challenging for me to handle as a female mentor. I could bounce back from a male professor asking me to have sex with him. Some of my advisees could not recover their careers after their awful experiences. We need to acknowledge that experiences vary within this broad movement and that a one size fits all solution may not be wise or possible.


Universities make coming forward about #Metoo situations very difficult. In their attempts to prevent negative press and lawsuits, they often take actions that protect the assaulters, including forcing the victims to sign non-disclosure agreements. When the story about Art Miller broke, our department chair told us we were not allowed to speak with the press. I faced a similar situation with a sexual assault case involving someone at my institution where university attorneys silenced me. To protect their legal interests, universities sometimes make decisions that favor perpetrators over victims. Yet we have also seen institutions succumb to public pressure and rule against accused perpetrators without due process to protect employees’ rights. Watching people dismissed without pay or fired without a full hearing gives me pause. One step forward in this process is for universities to take responsibility in dealing with sexual assault, rape, and harassment while at the same time providing a fair process for protecting faculty, staff, and students who may be unjustly accused. We need to find a balance between taking complaints seriously and giving the accused due process to respond.

For victims in the #Metoo movement, I provide some advice based on my experiences as a student, faculty member, and administrator (department chair).

First, I would keep a record of anything that happens in an academic setting that constitutes harassment or assault including dates, places, events, phone messages, and emails. Legal cases are stronger when a person’s case can be supported with many forms of evidence. The same goes for advisors of students who have been victims of sexual harassment, assault, or rape. You will be asked to explain situations, emails, conversations and it will be difficult for you to recall things that happened years ago. You might be sued as well so protect yourself in these situations by keeping track of events.

Second, reach out to your department chair, dean, or ombudsman office if something happens. Do not let harassment continue unchecked. While flawed, universities and professional organizations have rules for handling these situations. Learn about the grievance procedures on your campus or in a professional association like ISA so that you know what to do if something happens and you would like to report it. Knowing more about the procedures will help you maneuver through an unpleasant experience more successfully.

Third, find tenured allies in your department, other departments on campus, or in the profession that can serve as your advocates. When you are a victim, you need to find allies who not only will hear you and believe you, but who will also go to bat for you in whatever way you choose to respond. Unfortunately, we have seen situations where accusations are met with condemnation by one side and defense by the other side. Victims must find allies to get through the process of coming forward.

We must also respect the wishes of those who wish to remain silent. There are costs that can be paid for victims coming forward, often more so than for the perpetrators, and this is something that not all victims should be forced to choose. It is also important to pay it forward once you are tenured by helping junior colleagues and graduate students navigate these difficult issues. The #Metoo movement has provided a space for us to share our experiences and take actions. The next step is ensure that our universities and professional associations are doing everything possible to protect victims and help reduce the situations that create #Metoo posts.