More Still To Do: Combatting Sexual Harassment in Academia

By Julie Lesnik and Aaron Sams


Julie Lesnik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Wayne State University. Aaron Sams is a Research Scientist at Embark Veterinary, Inc., a start-up focused on providing genetic health insights to dog owners, veterinarians, and breeders. The views presented here were written solely by the authors and have not been reviewed or approved by their employers.


Sexual harassment in academia is a serious issue and anthropologists have played a critical role in highlighting the scale of this problem. For example, in 2014, a survey of academic field experiences (SAFE) conducted by biological anthropologists gauged “gendered experiences, sexual harassment, and sexual assault” in scientific fieldwork. The authors found that harassment and assault were commonly experienced by respondents during trainee career stage. These incidences occurred most frequently to women targeted by senior scholars on their research teams. Since the SAFE study, several employees (including students and postdocs) made accusations of sexual harassment/misconduct against high-profile scholars in several fields. Examples of high-profile cases include UCLA faculty and students protesting the return of an accused sexual harasser to campus, the quandary of when the accused is a professor of ethics, and a case where a professor under investigation at one school leaves and takes a different job across the country. The SAFE study also brought heightened awareness of these power dynamics to the field of Biological Anthropology. For example, at the 2015 annual meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), reports of sexual harassment occurring at the conference site were exposed via social media. The increased attention to these problems prompted the AAPA to write an open letter on sexual harassment, include a registration Statement of Ethical Conduct during the 2016 annual meetings, and update their Code of Ethics to specifically speak to sexual harassment.
Despite these recent efforts the field of Biological Anthropology has not been immune to scandal. Early in 2016, Michael Balter exposed “the sexual misconduct case that has rocked anthropology,” in an expose in the journal Science. This article detailed the charge made by an American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) research assistant that her boss, noted paleoanthropologist and the museum’s curator of human origins, Brian Richmond, had sexually assaulted her in his hotel room during an academic conference in Italy. To our knowledge, this case is still being investigated, and Balter, as a free-lance writer, is still committed to following the story.


Similar ethics statements, like that issued by the AAPA, have recently been crafted by other academic disciplines. For example, the recent meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) included a Statement of Ethical Conduct in the front matter of their conference program. Yet, cases of harassment were still reported, leading to the question – is a statement enough? As the AAA meetings approach, it is important for us to learn from these incidents. Like field research, academic meetings provide the perfect storm of sociality, alcohol, power differences, and distance from academic departments that can lead to sexual harassment and coercion. We would be remiss to think that our meetings are an exception. Sociologist Eric Anthony Grollman strongly urges for the bystander intervention approach. The AAPA statement on sexual harassment specifically mentions bystander awareness, but how do we make it second nature to all of us while in these settings?


We think that we need to keep doing what we are doing, but do more of it. As we worked on this piece, it was difficult for us to keep track of all of the relevant blog posts on the topic. That is a good sign, a very good sign. Scholars in privileged positions, which include the security of tenure but also fitting into any of the following categories: straight, white, cis, male, should especially consider speaking out as advocates and allies. This piece and this piece are particularly salient examples. But we also think that in addition to writing, we must do more. We must speak up. Although it is difficult to stand up to someone as the bystander, especially when these power dynamics are in play, we can speak up in other ways. We can all make a commitment to have these conversations with our peers and to point it out to someone we know when they might be exhibiting problematic behavior. We need to be good role models for the next generation, through our behavior and more. We can include Title IX statements in our syllabi, have conversations with our grad students about how they are to treat undergraduates and assistants, and let them know that we are there to help in case they find themselves the victim of harassment. Lastly, don’t be silent if something happens to you. The AAA does not adjudicate assertions of unethical behavior, but we do have a Committee on Ethics who are there to provide advice to AAA members facing ethical dilemmas. If you find yourself in a position where you need advice, contact the committee here. No issue is too big or too small.


An Intersectional POV On How the Contingent Faculty Market Is Against Our Other Principles in the AAA Code of Ethics

The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.

This blog discusses the ways in which people of color, and especially women of color first generation PhDs, experience the contingency market differently because of their intersectional identities and how this undermines the discipline’s goals of contributing a diverse body of knowledge under truthful conditions of knowledge production.


This blog entry seeks to encourage a long-needed discussion on how our structural participation in the contingency market can be seen as contra to the general AAA Ethics Principles we, as dues-paying members, hold ourselves accountable to. In their March 27th 2015 AAA Ethics blog post “Professional Precarity, Ethics, and Social Justice,” my colleagues and fellow linguistic anthropologists Netta Avineri and Steve Black focused on how the contingency market compromises the final part of the AAA Code of Ethics. Their focus naturally was Principle Seven, “Maintain Respectful and Ethical Professional Relationships.” I want to expand on their important contributions here to foreground how structural conditions of the most marginalized contingent faculty, which I will define below, impacts the other objectives in more indirect but just as equally consequential ways to the profession, the communities we study, and the students and broader society we aim to serve.


Before heading into the principles, I want to make a few important caveats that are often not made when this complex issue is discussed. I am not talking about faculty and administrators at all higher education institutions that rely on contingent faculty. Many institutions have actually created and shared best practices through forums like the Delphi Project at the University of Southern California. (Sadly, these practices are still few and far between and still seen as anomalies rather than innovators in higher education.) Moreover, I am not addressing all members of the contingent faculty class. There are contingent faculty members who are post-academics, or scholars who no longer work full-time in any academic position, and retired academics. These two classes often use contingent faculty positions as supplemental income and, at times, even donate their salary back to the institution. Some even say this is who these positions were originally designed for–people who are able to bring ‘real world’ experience to student instruction. Sadly, this minority of contingent faculty is also used by many to rationalize the current inequities in resources, compensation, and more for these positions when in fact we know this is not the majority of those we hire to teach classes.


Invoking Kimberle Crenshaw’s (1989) original framing of intersectionality to recognize not all oppression and ethical violations are felt equally, I emphasize that I am writing from the place of lived experience with the most marginalized of contingent faculty in anthropology departments: those part-time PhDs and PhD graduate students not in post-academic careers that are typically women and scholars of color (if not both–see the New Faculty Majority/New Faculty Majority Foundation’s Women in Contingency Project as well as the statistics from the American Federation of Teachers Report). Many times, like myself, they are also first-generation PhDs without adequate financial and cultural/social capital resources, which also includes knowledge of how to use the PhD as cultural/social capital in post-academic careers because they are often unintentionally cut out from other networks due to ‘pattern matching.’ They return to their home communities after having given a bulk of their lives to academia with their hopes dashed of contributing to knowledge production not only for themselves but also for the betterment of the profession and their communities. Moreover, they occupy a unique place in these discussions. Within their ‘own’ native professional circles that seek to promote ethnic, sexual, and gender diversity in the discipline, these scholars find that, when they make moves to speak of contingent issues, it is often construed as undermining or detracting from the ‘more important’ agendas of anti-racism work underway in academia. What is overlooked is that this is work that only some privileged tenure/tenure track academics get to fight. At the same time, to speak of intersectional identities and their invisibility in the contingent faculty movement risks them being called race-mongers and seen as undermining the labor movement. They are, in essence, in limbo and often relegated as an exception to be dealt with later on both sides.


When they face structural discrimination, one cannot tell if it is because of their adjunct status or their ethnic and gender status, if not both. Thus, as Crenshaw reminds us, when we help the most disenfranchised–who often are the most difficult to design new practices of inclusion for because of their intersectional status–everyone gains. So this is the position from which this is addressed, especially since these intersectional beings tend be silenced both in anthropology and in the contingent faculty movement through various micro-aggressions that often reproduce their dual stigmatization. To continue to speak of contingent faculty in general, non-intersectional terms contributes dangerously to the assumption that academic and socioeconomic disenfranchisement is equally felt the same by all and has the same consequences when it does not. Thus, my remarks below come from my position as an intersectional contingent faculty involved in both circles that, in my perspective, have not done nearly enough in creating alliances in the contingent movement due to ‘divide and conquer’ mentalities that pervade academic structural practices.


Principle #1: Do No Harm (You Can’t Hurt the Anthropologist and Not Hurt the Field Communities)

In anthropology, interconnectedness is not just a fancy abstract concept–it is the crux of how we do our work. This is echoed in many sentiments that locate anthropological enterprises as embodied and inscribed onto bodies of researchers. When the anthropologist is embedded in and socialized to be dependent on working conditions that do not allow them to disseminate their findings, we hurt field communities by decreasing the possibility of their stories and concepts being told. Every time a contingent faculty person is denied adequate living wages, affordable health care, has health problems that are exacerbated by working conditions that dehumanize them, discriminated against implicitly in tenure-track job searches because they are contingent, and so on, writing and dissemination become distant if not impossible goals. Conference papers do not get written, much less presented live at conferences due to employer-imposed travel restrictions, and journal articles do not get drafted. In short, research findings that could very well do more good than harm to communities–especially critical perspectives from underrepresented communities that push forward and challenge paradigms rather than stagnate knowledge production–end up on the cutting room floor. The (ab)use of the contingent market places scholars, especially persons of color and women, in a position that unintentionally causes harm through silence. Thus, when we speak of doing no harm, it might be best for the AAA to move away from seeing it as an individual, interpersonal aspect and understand it is a structural aspect, like sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva contends about race no longer needing ‘racists’ because it is in the structures we live and reproduce everyday. In this way, we can see that our daily reproduction of the contingent market structure through everyday practice, whereby faculty are not supported to disseminate their research but solely ‘teach,’ creates harm to many underserved field communities.


Principle #2: Be Open and Honest Regarding Your Work (Let’s Get Real About Working Conditions That Produce the Work across All Stages)

When this principle is invoked, it tends to focus primarily again at the level of the anthropologist at an interpersonal, micro arena. In contrast, it does not usually concern the honesty of the ways in which academic labor is often not based on meritocracy but on a labor system that rationalizes disenfranchisement in the name of a good cause. We rarely ever disclose that the production of our work by tenured/tenure track faculty relies on the use of contingent faculty who are typically underpaid. For instance, when the money to hire contingent faculty is officially written into research grants and the same contingent faculty is not provided adequate pay, this remains hidden from all of our accounts of how the work was produced. How many times do we see contingent faculty thanked by scholars in books and articles, those faculty who have used the time and skills of a fellow anthropologist at a discount cost? How many times have many said faculty come to observe their contingent faculty counterparts and write letters of recommendation for future teaching and research opportunities? In essence, maybe it should not even be about sponsors but about stakeholders who also help get much anthropological scholarship done and rarely are acknowledged because of their invisible labor, a term coined by one of my colleagues. I wonder, if we were to put this practice into action, how many of us and the general public would see the ethnographic enterprise much differently beyond its claims of deep human understanding when we learn at what cost these understandings are produced.


Principle #3: Obtain Informed Consent and Necessary Permissions (I Hereby Consent to Let You Tell My Story at the Expense of Another Human Being’s Well-Being)

In conventional musings on consent, this discussion typically focuses on the consent for prospective research participants to interact with us for our own research to proceed. This often gets to how much to tell them so that we can enter into and sustain research in these communities so as not to impact the findings. What if we were to tell our participants (especially those in vulnerable communities of color) that, in the production of this work, this may (and probably will) involve the use and abuse of another vulnerable population: contingent faculty (including and most often disproportionately women and scholars of color), who will be underpaid and underserved when many of us take our sabbaticals to turn our dissertation findings into book-length projects. If our participants knew about this (just as people rallied to tell others of the harmful side effects of other products we consume in the US), how many would actually agree to the way we produce work in many top institutions? By not telling them each and every time that we make use of the contingency market for the production and dissemination of some stories and not others, do we ultimately deceive them about our own complicity and participation in structures that allow for the simultaneous reproduction of knowledge and socioeconomic and racial/ethnic inequity in academia?


Principle #4: Weigh Competing Ethical Obligations Due Collaborators and Affected Parties (And Yes, Contingent Faculty Are Affected Parties of Research)

To think of contingent faculty in the broader research game must include a key discussion of how they are affected parties in research, as listed in the AAA Ethics Statement. Contingent faculty are professional colleagues, since they are often anthropologists with PhDs, and also stakeholders in the research process. By stakeholders, I mean that they are brought in to teach courses when a faculty member at a research institution needs to go on leave to delve further into research or, in some cases, cheaply fill a retirement gap so other faculty do not have to compromise their own productivity. By releasing colleagues from their teaching commitments, contingent faculty are affected parties because they contribute to the production of knowledge, many times at the expense of their own and their field communities’ well-being due to contingent working conditions. Yet our ethical concerns around equity and just treatment toward contingent faculty are often ignored or not given strong thought. For instance, how many of us actually ask ourselves what our ethical obligations are to our contingent colleagues who support us with their invisible and marginalized labor? They are not just teaching, but they are also teaching in support of someone else’s research, if not more, for the structure permits this to be so.


Concluding Thoughts

This blog has aimed to show how, as we anthropologists continue to engage in the contingent market, we enter into some dangerously murky ethical waters. I often think to myself if this were any other industry happening in our own fieldsites, we would waste no time passing resolutions and creating actionable steps. And yet, we find ourselves often times dangerously silent because, for many of us, we reap many material and personal gains through this structurally-licensed disenfranchisement. This is often because, even in academia, there is a greater incentive to turn activism outward rather than engage in a reflexive, inwardly-turned academic activism. In this light, I encourage us all to act on behalf of the contingent faculty movement not because it is the ‘right thing to do,’ but to show that we as anthropologists can actually live up to our Code of Ethics in order to create quality learning and research conditions for our students and ourselves. As Crenshaw reminds us, when the most marginalized win, we all win. When we short-change even one group, we short-change all of our students and ourselves. So I ask us to be anthropologists not just in name only or in research, but also in academic activism turned inward. Our undergraduates, graduate advisees, colleagues, and field participants from the world over are depending on us. Let us not be slow to act but to actually use the academic freedom many of us possess to leave a more just and sustainable academic footprint that doesn’t come at the expense of harmful silencing of communities and research. It is time for us to use this critical discussion of our ethics as a springboard to create new practices around contingent faculty that support, rather than contradict, our professional ethical stances.