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These Women Are Exposing The Scale Of Sexual Misconduct In Academia

Meet the women who started the Medill #MeToo movement and the former professor who created a viral public survey of harassment in higher ed.
Posted at 2:35 PM, Mar 30, 2018

The #MeToo movement has taken many industries by storm — not just the high-profile worlds of entertainment and politics. And that includes academia, where critics say the extreme hierarchy of the system and the blurred line between personal and professional lives often lead to harassment.

"We learned in journalism school that the best defense against defamation is the truth, and I've been telling the truth and so have these other women," said Alison Flowers, a former research associate at Northwestern University's Medill Justice Project. "Alec Klein absolutely abused his power as a professor and as the director of a prestigious program at Northwestern. I witnessed and I experienced his bullying," she added.

Ten women recently issued a public letter accusing Klein, a tenured professor and director of Northwestern University's Medill Justice Project, of harassment, bullying and inappropriate physical contact.

"He told me a strange story that was, I think, kind of borderline sexual in nature, about a woman he wanted to kiss, and it was supposed to be this inspirational story, told it to me in a private meeting," said Kalyn Belsha, a Medill School of Journalism alumna. "And I've since learned he's told that same story to other women. He also offered me a letter of recommendation for a grade that I had to get that was higher than my male classmates," she added.

The co-writers — 10 of Klein's former students and employees — all signed with their names. 

"We know from other reporting on sexual harassment it's so powerful to have the names," Belsha said.   

The letter says Klein's alleged "predatory behavior" has been an "open secret" on campus for years and demands the university hold Klein accountable for his alleged misconduct. In a written statement, Klein "categorically" denies the allegation and says he intends "to take legal action." Referring to a past complaint against him that the school investigated and dismissed a few years ago, Klein also says many of the new allegations involve the same "disgruntled employee." Citing the private nature of the ongoing investigation, Klein's attorney told Newsy his client would not be interviewed for this piece. We should also note that Newsy sometimes hosts Medill students for their residencies.

"Part of the reason why I haven't come forward until now was one, because of the power he held over me for some time, but also I was scared, too, for how I would be perceived to the journalism industry, and you worry that people are going to think, 'I'm complaining,'" Flowers explained.

Northwestern University said Klein was taking a leave of absence and said it was investigating the matter "promptly and thoroughly." Since then, 19 more women anonymously described in a new letter stories of similar abuse by Klein. Klein's lawyer called these latest statements "outrageous and slanderous" and condemned the women for denying Klein his due process.

"It is incredibly painful and traumatizing for any victim to come forward publicly," said Karen Kelsky, a former professor who created a public spreadsheet that crowdsources examples of sexual harassment in academia nationwide. "The likelihood of anyone doing that in an unserious way or fraudulent way, to my mind in our current environment where there's so little support and so much harassment, I find the likelihood of that to be just vanishingly small," Kelsky said. 

Since Kelsky published the survey last December, her document has gathered almost 2,500 entries — as of March 2018.

"I was sitting in my living room one Thursday night, reading on Twitter about Harvey Weinstein. I said, somebody needs to do this in the academy, and I am the person to do it. The next morning, I created the spreadsheet and I put it live. It immediately went viral," Kelsky explained. 

Despite her spreadsheet often being compared to the so-called "Shitty Media Men" list, her version doesn't name victims or perpetrators. That's because Kelsky wanted to provide an anonymous platform for accusers and survivors to come forward. She says her other goal was to expose the scale of the problem, which is why the document reveals names of universities and departments.

"So many people told me in emails that it was therapeutic, that it was cathartic, that it felt like an enormous burden off their shoulders. That is what my goal was. That's a different goal than exposing predators, and I hope we get to expose more predators, but this was the step I felt was urgent to take right now," Kelsky said.

Besides asking contributors to describe what happened to them, the survey also asks about how harassment has affected their careers, mental health and life choices.

"My concern in all of this is that we — really as a society — we start looking at our aggregate loss when women are hounded out of their professional fields," Kelsky said.

"Do we not have a cure for cancer because the woman who would have found it was hounded out of her lab, who never even got to finish her Ph.D., lost her funding? I mean, we don't know what we've lost, and I really want the discussion to talk about that and not to focus, 'Oh, you know, these poor men, and what if they are inconvenienced by these allegations?'" Kelsky said.

In an effort to be as inclusive as possible, Kelsky also made it clear her list would leave the definition of "sexual harassment" open.

"Although there are cases of actual criminal activity — rape and assault and stalking and harassment — there are also things as small as an offhand comment, like, 'I love it when you wear a skirt in the lab,"' she said.

"That kind of small comment is as serious an issue of sexual harassment as much more concrete acts. And so, I would not have known that if I had myself tried to define that, and that's one of the things the survey shows us," Kelsky noted.

Part of the solution, she says, lies in hiring more women and confronting the matter more openly and more transparently.

"Make sure that there are more tenured women in your department and also female deans and chancellors and provosts. That's not a foolproof solution. There are many, many stories in my spreadsheet that show that women ally themselves with the harassers over the victims. So, I know that's not a foolproof solution, but it really does help." 

"Secondly, make sure that nobody can claim plausible deniability in terms of knowing what the policies are. Make sure that victims — potential victims — make sure that they are aware of their rights and know and feel supported before something even happens," Kelsky suggested.

As for the women who started the Medill #MeToo movement at Northwestern, they say they would like more women to share their experiences.

"I would like to see more women leveraging their whisper networks and feeling that they aren't alone, that they don't have to be a single accuser, and that together they can come forward and make a statement like we did," said Flowers.