The German department has a two-to-one ratio of male to female graduate students.
After two female graduate students in the tiny German department left abruptly last year — leaving men to outnumber women two to one — student pressure forced administrators to organize a town hall. A third female graduate student was gone by the end of the year.
In the lead-up to the May town hall meeting, all but two of the 21 active graduate students in the department signed a letter in which they expressed concern about inclusivity and the recent departures. Students also circulated an anonymous survey.
Students read some of the responses and summarized the results at the town hall, which lasted around two hours, according to a recording provided to The Daily Princetonian. One response to an open-ended question about departmental climate was particularly stark.
“Female students are subjected to uncomfortable touching from certain faculty and emeritus faculty,” wrote one student in a response. “Female students’ appearances are often commented on to them and to other graduate students. Students from other departments approach students in the German department to voice these concerns.”
The three female students who left the department told the ‘Prince’ that the department’s treatment of women had affected their work and research and was a key factor in their departure.
The town hall and the student complaints raised the alarm in Nassau Hall, leading the University’s Title IX office — which investigates claims of sexual harassment — to open an investigation into a professor in the department this summer, according to documents seen by the ‘Prince.’
Assistant Vice President for Communications Daniel Day declined to comment about whether there are any Title IX investigations, citing that such investigations are confidential.
Professor Michael Jennings, acting chair of the German department, acknowledged the student concerns.
“We have been actively listening to and working with our graduate students to address their concerns,” Jennings wrote in a statement. “The department has a variety of responses in the works, such as offering inclusivity workshops. We are committed to providing our students a supportive environment in which to pursue their research and scholarship.”
During the town hall, which was attended by all faculty and nearly every graduate student in the department, two male professors said that a competitive environment was essential. “Making [classes] artificially protective … will not serve you well professionally,” said one of the professors during the town hall.
This account is based on interviews with five current and former graduate students in the German department, as well as a set of internal documents, emails, and recordings they shared with the ‘Prince.’ These graduate students were granted anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situations they discussed and their fear of retaliation.
One graduate student told the University’s Title IX office in writing about a conversation with a department faculty member in which that faculty member had been dismissive of a former student’s complaints about sexual harassment.
“It was great when women got the right to speak up about these things, but they immediately turned around and started taking advantage of it,” said the emeritus faculty member, according to the written account presented to the Title IX office and shared with the ‘Prince.’
Still, complaints within the department are not limited to sexual harassment. At the town hall, students summarized the concerns that had been raised in their survey, pointing out an uncomfortable departmental climate, discrimination, and a hostile work environment — especially toward women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals.
In response to a question asking if women are treated differently in the classroom, only one person out of 21 respondents said no. Regarding people of color, nine of 17 respondents said that people of color are treated “very differently” or “differently,” compared to eight who said they were treated the same as their white peers. Five students expressed severe concern for their personal well-being in open-ended responses on the survey.
Survey respondents also said that professors cut short presentations from female graduate students while allowing presentations of male graduate students to go as long as an hour.
Toward the end of the meeting, after a faculty member said they’d open up the floor to comments, there was a long silence until a female graduate student finally spoke.
“One concern that might explain the silence now is people’s discomfort in voicing things when they’re not anonymous because of pushback they [might] experience or retaliation,” she said.
One graduate student told the ‘Prince’ that before the town hall a professor told her, “Speaking out will only do you harm.”
Faculty members expressed surprise during the town hall, but also said some of the concerns raised were vague. One female professor thanked the students for speaking up.
“I am struck by and impressed by the way that you have structured the presentations today and the ways in which a certain number of you are speaking for the group and I think that, for me, is meaningful,” she said during the town hall, adding that she thinks the town hall marked a shift in graduate student culture, which she takes to “be a very good thing.”
Professor Devin Fore, director of graduate studies, declined to discuss the town hall with the ‘Prince.’
“Discussing any details of the town hall would betray the trust of the people who spoke there,” said Fore in an email. Three other professors in the department did not reply to requests for comment.
In addition to the town hall concerns, graduate students had also drafted a letter back in March where they noted their concerns about inclusivity, the departure of female graduate students, and the hiring of two additional male faculty members.
“This makes both the number of male graduate students and male faculty members twice that of female graduate students and female faculty members,” the letter stated. The letter called for faculty to release an inclusivity statement that would indicate that inclusive practices are a priority for the department.
Discussions within the department continued over the summer and into this fall.
In late September, Fore emailed graduate students updating them about changes resulting from the spring town hall. The town hall will now become an annual tradition and the department will also host three workshops about inclusivity — two over lunch and one day-long event.
Just last week, Jennings introduced new procedures to submit confidential complaints.
“You can be sure that your conversation will be treated as absolutely confidential, and that you will be told immediately whether the information with which you have provided me will be dealt with internally or whether I need to refer you to an office or individual outside the department,” Jennings wrote in an email to departmental graduate students.
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