Blog Implications of the #MeToo Movement for Academia

The Commonality of #MeToo in Academia: Why we need to change

grayscale photo of man walking on street near buildings
by Shannon Portillo, Ph.D.:

As a graduate student I attended the Midwest Political Science Associate conference. It was my first academic conference, and I was excited to meet many of the scholars I had read in the field. I was fortunate to attend a dinner with quite a few senior scholars. After the dinner I was thrilled to be invited out for drinks with some of them. At the end of the evening, one of them insisted on walking me back to my hotel. I naively thought it was a faculty member being overly protective of a student in a city at night. Unfortunately, once we arrived in front of my hotel and I tried to say goodnight, he tried to force a kiss on me. Maybe he didn’t recognize the gross inequity in power in the positions we had. Maybe he was just acting on an attraction. He sent me into a spiral of questioning my own worth and intelligence. Maybe I would never be taken seriously as a scholar. Maybe I didn’t belong at that conference or in this field. Maybe there was something uniquely wrong with me. 

The power of the #MeToo movement founded by Tarana Burke is the power of storytelling. When Ms. Burke started the hashtag that eventually went viral with the help of celebrities, scholars, students, and women from every walk of life, she knew her story and her trauma were not unique. It’s the commonality in these stories that is truly horrifying and moving. 

I told a friend, a fellow graduate student, my story at the time, but I knew there was no complaint to file, no public outrage. I felt like an interloper in a field dominated by men. I didn’t want to speak out or seem high maintenance or call attention to my otherness in this space. As I progressed in graduate school and early in my career, I learned that other women had similar stories. There were whispers shared about scholars you shouldn’t be alone with or who the safe men really were in the field. I learned as best I could, and navigated the field based on whispers and guidance from strong mentors of all genders. I knew early on I wanted to become a leader in the field, I wanted to mentor future generations of scholars, and ensure that other students didn’t experience what I had. I don’t want to be a part of a field that is seen as only old, white, and male.  

Unfortunately, the #MeToo movement has shown that my story is not unique. Fortunately, the #MeToo movement has also shown that there are brave women willing to speak out, share their stories, and demand that things change. Public administration is not exempt from this moment. Our field must change. We should support women speaking up and sharing their stories. But, this moment is not just about women sharing their stories. We should encourage senior scholars of all genders to be strong mentors and create an environment where we don’t turn the other way when we hear whispers about our colleagues. This is a moment for senior colleagues to recognize that they set the tone for what is acceptable and tolerated, and who is seen as belonging to our field. Let’s all ensure that the stories about our field are the ways that we lift each out up and push the scholarship forward. 

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About the author:

Shannon Portillo, Ph.D.
Assistant Vice Chancellor 
KU Edwards Campus 
Associate Professor
School of Public Affairs & Administration
Twitter: @Prof_SP 

Shannon Portillo is Assistant Vice Chancellor of Undergraduate Programs at the KU Edwards Campus and an Associate Professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. Dr. Portillo takes an interdisciplinary approach to her work pulling on organizational theories rooted in Public Administration and Law and Society to explore how rules and policies are carried out within public organizations. To date she has done work in a broad array of organizations including local government, the military, courts,  policing, and higher education. Using a variety of methods, she collects empirical data to assess how social, cultural and legal factors influence the day-to-day operations in these organizations. Teaching and research interests include social equity, social justice, organizational theory, and law and public management. Her work has appeared in Law & Policy, Administration & Society, Law & Social Inquiry, Journal of Public Administration Research & Theory and Public Administration Review among other outlets.