While critics from inside academia can only be willfully blind to what it would cost the accusers, to many people outside the infamously opaque world of academia perhaps the stakes were not as clear as, say, the idea of the ‘casting couch’ in the movie business.
When women students and young female academics stay quiet about sexual harassment what it is they fear they will lose? Are they convinced they’d be thrown out of the university if their identity became public? When we spoke to a small group across the country, the answer turned out to be more complex.
Universities are so tilted to favour the perpetrators over the victims that you are likely to not even think of talking. These unspoken, unofficial systems in academia often enforce a misogynistic subculture while pretending to be a community driven by intellect and excellence. The very space that’s aimed to help students find their launchpads, uses the mechanics of shame, pressure, fear, and conditioned doubt to quell women’s voices. And to this end Masterji has many instruments.
Instrument #1: Marks
For young female students the stakes are perhaps the plainest to see. For example, Madhavi*, a first year English literature student at a Kolkata college, said that she consistently received low marks in a professor’s subject because he sensed that she would not be compliant to his inappropriate attitude or tolerate his innuendos.
Kalphana SD, a political science M.Phil student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), points out that universities have no feedback mechanism for professors to hold them accountable for their behaviour in class. “If a professor marks me low for personal reasons, there’s no feedback form in which I can complain. So, there’s no recourse against being marked unfairly.”
Instrument #2: Recommendation Letters
The fear of losing out on a good recommendation holds many students ransom. Rohini Banerjee, an English Literature student from Delhi University, says, “Suddenly you find yourself become ‘the girl who complained’ and no one wants to write you a recommendation. More than the degree and graduate certificates, personal letters from eminent members in the faculty are what students seek from reputed universities.”
Recommendations are crucial for higher education and jobs. Highly reputed professors hold clout with international institutions; their word could make or break an admission.
Instrument #3: Fame
The eminence and reputation of some of the academics on The List stands tall like the proposed Shivaji Maharaj statue in the middle of the academic sea – costs too much to challenge and yields too feeble a result. Look at what happened with Harvey Weinstein. It took 82 women speaking up to take down one man who held the keys to the doors of a powerful network. And even then, it was women of significant fame and fortune who made the highlights of the accusations – Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie for starters. In context, in academia it’s female students, as young as 18, up against men who have spent three or four decades pruning their national and international reputations with this paper, that book, this conference and that fellowship.
Instrument #4: Intimate work culture
Even simply avoiding predatory professors is not always an option, especially if the student is engaged in a course that requires working for years on an M.Phil or Ph.D with a professor. But even when starting out, some programmes require you to work closely with professors.
Rushati Mukherjee, a first year English Literature post-graduate student from Jadavpur University, says, “It’s very common to stay back after lectures to speak to professors for your chosen elective, especially if you know they have clout. If you’re a research fellow, then the professor becomes your only source of information. It not only becomes difficult but impossible to speak up against the professor if you’ve worked that closely with them. They are practically responsible for your entire degree.”
Instrument #5: Paperwork
The hierarchy in universities ensures that any student who speaks up against a faculty member pays the price for it on all administrative levels. There’s also the fact that a student’s academic progress is signed off by different people in the faculty on different levels. For a signature on a transcript, the student has to go the Head of Department, for a form, to an administrator, for a report card to the professor.
Ishita Kumar, an undergraduate arts student at JNU, was denied the admit card for her exams because she spoke up against an alleged harassment she witnessed from a member of faculty, she says. Although that wasn’t the official reason she was given.
Instrument #6: Old Boys Network
A faculty member sends you creepy text messages and drunk calls you at night. While you wonder whether you should complain or not, you realise at a department gathering that the man went to college with your Ph.D advisor. Would you feel confident that she will take your side and not his? Even if she doesn’t say anything explicitly to you, do you feel prepared to tolerate a certain chilly distance and disinterest in your work for the next 5 years? Both female and male professors have been known to protect accused colleagues and intervene to deny students academic access.
Instrument #7: The After Hours Games
In many campuses, hierarchy, networking and reputation muddle together to form an academic culture that thrives on inclusion and exclusion – one best seen outside of the classroom. Madhavi, the literature student from Kolkata, says, “Campus parties with teachers and students are where the lines start blurring. If students stay quiet about any harassment they are subjected to, they get invited to more gatherings. It makes them feel included and opens more doors for them. Being excluded from this circle sends a non-verbal message that you cannot enjoy these privileges. It’s a form of academic peer pressure.”
Instrument #8: To Crush or Be Crushed?
We’ve all had crushes on teachers in college. Imagine how flattering it is when a professor who, by all means, is smart, respected, articulate also expresses interest? But how does that work out for students? As Kalphana says, “Most colleges and universities, like JNU, don’t have explicit rules that prevent student-teacher relationships. It becomes a breeding ground for the academic casting couch. Many professors stay within the campus and students are often invited to their quarters. None of this is illegal, but we never know at what point the legal and consensual becomes coercive. Naturally, a student does not express hesitation or doubt for fear of being ostracised from the entire academic network.”
Instrument #9: Brilliance = Non-conformity = All is Forgiven, Masterji
Neha Mathews, a post-graduate media student at the Asian College of Journalism, believes that many female students are made to believe that a professor’s creepy moves is just a ‘quirk’ in an otherwise impeccable man. “There’s a lot of canonisation in academic circles and it’s difficult for a student to consider that an amazing professor did a disgusting thing,” she says. If a student gets past the stage of accepting the ‘quirk’ as worthy of complaint, she will find herself on a giant chessboard, fighting off accusations that she is besmirching a brilliant mind, why can’t she let it go?
According to Nidhi Kinhal, a second year student of sociology and anthropology at Ashoka University, it becomes confusing to process what to feel or think in the face of imminent gaslighting. She says, “Many of these professors fashion themselves as feminist allies. It’s very conflicting to suddenly realise their words haven’t matched their moralities.”
Instrument #10: Good Old Patriarchy
‘Silence is golden.’ Aren’t we taught this right from our childhood? This was particularly reinforced in school, only to prepare women for more years of holding this flag in college. As gender studies professor at Ambedkar University Delhi, Vikramaditya Sahai points out, “Women on campus are constantly taught to fall more into line with what they consider to be feminine – ‘be more polite’, ‘be more sensitive to others’. There’s a history of women doubting themselves. So female students are marred with doubt in the face of harassment.”
It’s easy to look at the world of academia to be a benevolent father figure, looming ginormously, but affectionately in the background. But its web of rigid systems, gaslighting tendencies and an ‘intellectual’ bro culture denies women what’s probably the most important education – that of how to stand up for themselves.
* Name changed on request