Blog Implications of the #MeToo Movement for Academia

Closing Thoughts on the Implications of the #MeToo Movement for Academia

by Dr. Nicole M. Elias and Dr. Maria J. D’Agostino:

In January 2019 we invited public administration scholars to contribute to our spring blog series, Implications of the #MeToo Movement for Academia. We asked bloggers to respond to the following questions: What does #MeToo mean for the world of higher education? What are the issues, dynamics, power structures, and practices that are taken for granted and make sexual harassment and sexual assault so prevalent in higher education? At the time, we were not certain what types of blog submissions we would receive. The responses were eye-opening and thought-provoking, ranging from personal #MeToo experiences to structural and policy recommendations aimed at mitigating sexual harassment, assault, and gender inequity.

The blog contributors acknowledge that the culture in academia, especially in academic departments, needs to be recognized and addressed in order to move from reactive to proactive #MeToo solutions. As the anonymous contributors illustrate, their choosing to be anonymous is mainly linked to their untenured status, department culture of silence, and potential repercussions of speaking out. These contributors are not alone in their experience, and the culture of silence is one that resonates with many women in academia. This pervasive culture sustains sexism, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment and assault in higher education.

Several practical suggestions have been made to move forward in order to break this silence and create safe, civil workplaces, particularly by moving us from a reactive to a more proactive approach to addressing #MeToo. David Shapiro emphasizes the barriers to reporting #MeToo incidents: “A detailed itemization of reasons not to report publicly need not be exhaustively recited (e.g., personal relationship with the offender, fear of retaliation, lack of belief in the helpfulness of the criminal justice system). In fact, BJS statistics for years 2015 and 2016 suggest that almost one-half of serious violent victimizations, including sexual assault, are not reported to the police. Unfortunately, obstacles to reporting may not be limited to the U.S.” As suggested by Shannon Portillo, senior colleagues need “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 other up and push the scholarship forward.”

One practical approach to address sexual harassment in academia, as discussed by Mohammad Alkadry, is the use of climate assessments as a means of exposing perpetrators before a victim comes forward. This tool would be used as a means to diagnosing organizational “health.” Similarly, Sean McCandless, makes several recommendations for individuals, including querying ourselves about our roles in creating safe workplace environments. Gender responsive budgeting is another avenue  proposed by Shilpa Viswanath. She explains that gender responsive budgeting serves as a tool for reducing the number of sexual assaults. Such an approach highlights that in order to prevent #MeToo incidents, we need to recognize budgets are a reflection of our values and biases, and as such we should use resources to communicate priorities for addressing inequity.

Another practical idea communicated by the contributors referred to addressing the embedded social practices that inhibit inclusion. One example, is Sean  McCandless’s suggestion to incorporate diverse and inclusive readings in course syllabi to emphasize the values of women, in general and to the field, as well as making diversity and inclusion the cornerstone of teaching. Such changes are important as they contribute to questioning deeply embedded biases and taken for granted practices in academia. As professors of future public servants this is a powerful opportunity to change structural and organizational practices. On a similar note, Richard Gregory Johnson advocates for inclusiveness via ally building. This approach entails coming together as a unit across social class, race, gender, etc. but also collaborating in professional organizational spaces in order to increase opportunities for mentoring and career growth for underrepresented scholars. As articulated by Amanda Olejearski, faculty, including women faculty, have to lead by example. She presents a metaphor for women in academia: “It’s like the turtle approach. Keep your head down, and you won’t get in trouble.  But the only way for a turtle to make some headway is by sticking her neck out. Women mentoring one another takes many forms, sometimes the neckless turtle, but sometimes we stick our necks out for each other.  In this era of #MeToo, we stand taller as we stand together.” Clearly, the #MeToo era is not without risk in academia, where reputation matters and stakes are high. Perhaps a way forward is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as suggested by Rod Colvin,  to provide redress for the voices of everyone affected by sexual impropriety and misconduct, and provides the space “to speak openly, honestly and frankly about the complexities of power, gender inequity, and sexism” in order to “remediate ongoing and decades-old incidents between individuals.”

From these rich contributions, where do we go from here? Next steps should include sharing knowledge to address #MeToo. From formal outlets like conference panels and workshops to informally sharing personal stories, knowledge, and resources via social media or dialogue. Second, we need better tools to address #MeToo in academic institutions. Often, our responsibilities and options are ambiguous or unknown. To provide better tools, we should be explicit and proactive. This can take the form of events on campus that empowers students, faculty, and staff. Finally, academia is just now beginning the formal study of #MeToo. In addition to the practical work, we need to apply a scholarly lens to the topic. Given the deeply personal and sensitive nature of #MeToo topics, we should think seriously about what a scholarly agenda for #MeToo looks like. This is uncharted, yet critical, territory.

These are broad first steps, but as scholars we can do more. Along with identifying practical steps and setting a research agenda, we should reflect on the #MeToo movement itself. Specifically, the question of who is not included in this conversion and how can we bring them in? Marginalized populations that fall beyond traditional, heteronormative, white identities are often silenced. Thinking outside of gender norms and recognizing racial dimensions of #MeToo by exploring intersectional identities and questioning how #MeToo can be applied differently to different demographics is a key scholarly task. These are not easy tasks, however. The Reference Tool developed by  AWPA-WPS  beginning to tackle these issues by promoting work on substantive topics targeting underrepresented groups, sharing resources for research and teaching from underrepresented scholars and practitioners, and diversifying resources used in teaching and practice.

We want to thank all of our blog contributors to this series who have added much-needed perspectives to these challenging topics. To continue the scholarly dimension of this conversation, Public Administration Review will publish our “#MeToo in Academia: Understanding and Addressing Pervasive Problems” Viewpoint Symposium in 2020.  

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