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University’s sexual harassment case reveals problems for students

University professors and students who develop romantic and sexual relationships together are by no means news in academic circles — it has probably been happening as long as there have been institutes of higher learning available.

For the most part, many universities turn a blind eye to the liaisons — with the attitude that everyone is an adult and the encounters are consensual.

But what happens when that “consensual” aspect is in doubt? It’s one thing for a professor to end up in a romantic dalliance with a sophomore that he or she had in a freshman class but it’s quite another when the situation involves a graduate student and his or her academic mentor.

That’s the situation that has ignited a powder keg at the University of Rochester where at least 14 women have now come forward to allege sexual harassment at the hands of one professor. Compounding the issue, the University responded to the first eight claims of sexual harassment by denying their validity, allegedly retaliating against seven of the women that complained and ultimately promoting the professor to a higher position.

In the rarefied heights of higher academia, graduate students are completely reliant on their mentors for just about everything. A grad student’s academic mentor in controls the work that the student is assigned, the amount of credit he or she gets in any published papers, his or her grades, what research he or she is permitted to do, the funding he or she receives and — ultimately — whether or not he or she receives the kind of reference necessary to secure employment in his or her chosen field after all that work is done.

That’s an imbalance of power that creates a situation where “consent” is something that a young woman or man may be afraid to withhold. The reaction to the scandal at the University of Rochester has captured national and international attention among academics — prompting many women to come forward to say that, particularly in the science departments, they’ve come to accept sexual harassment as part of the price of admission.

Anyone who has been subjected to lewd comments or unwanted physical contact, pressured for sexual favors and had his or her position threatened if he or she didn’t comply with the demands of someone in authority over them should talk to an attorney today.

Source: Wired, “The University of Rochester Sexual Harassment Case is Complicated — And That’s The Point,” Sarah Scoles, Sep. 27, 2017

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