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Letter to the Editor: Sexual harassment in electrical engineering

There is no greater power discrepancy in all of academia than between a Ph.D. advisor and their advisee. Sure, professors can determine course grades, but a course grade is one among many, so the influence of any one professor is diluted. An advisor-advisee relationship, on the other hand, is one that spans many years, and an advisor’s voice can make or break your career. Students must be able to trust that their advisors will treat and evaluate them fairly. It is impossible to have a functional system built on these relationships if violations of this trust are not met with the severest of punishments: termination.

For those who are unfamiliar with the process, there is very little coursework involved in getting a Ph.D. In graduate school, you conduct research for many years, typically under the mentorship of a single professor. When you go to look for jobs, that advisor’s recommendation is the single most important determinant of your success. Even after you have a job, that advisor can open (or close) doors, often having the power to weigh in on decisions about research funding, awards and honors, peer review of publications, and promotion. Your relationship with a former advisor is one that echoes throughout your career.


The potential for abuse in this relationship is strong. When an advisor sexually harasses a student, that student has no good options. If a student pushes back, they must worry about the potential far-reaching impact on their career, and they may have to change research fields entirely. Because the pressure to acquiesce is so severe, the only way to protect our students is to ensure that these situations never arise. Unless the punishment for sexual misconduct between an advisor and advisee is extreme, I do not believe we can make this assurance. We must adopt a zero-tolerance policy, where violation equals termination.

Following the news in recent weeks, we can see that the world is rife with unreported or unpunished sexual misconduct, particularly in fields where one person has the power to act as a gatekeeper, like Hollywood, Congress, and, sadly, academia. As reported in The Huffington Post and The Daily Princetonian, we recently had such a case in my department. I am appalled at the reported behavior of my colleague, and a lack of severe punishment undermines our ability as a department to foster the advisor-advisee relationships needed to properly teach and train our students. 


Andrew Houck ’00

Professor, electrical engineering