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Sexual misconduct and the abuse of power

U.C. Berkeley’s former law school dean; two Stanford English professors; one Columbia history professor; three Dartmouth psychology professors; and at Princeton, one world-renowned engineering professor found guilty of sexual misconduct and an ongoing Title IX investigation into a professor from the German department. 

In the midst of a national conversation on sexual misconduct and the abuses of power by national figures like Harvey Weinstein and others, it should hardly surprise us to learn (or perhaps, remember) that academia is home to perpetrators of sexual misconduct as well. A university’s hierarchical organization enables those in authority to exploit vulnerable individuals in the hierarchy, often without consequence. 


The Editorial Board recognizes that graduate students are at the greatest risk of experiencing sexual misconduct related to the abuse of institutional power. According to recently released results from the annual WeSpeak Survey, 23% of graduate women who experienced sexual harassment said that the most serious incident involved Princeton faculty, postdocs, or employees, in comparison to less than 3% of undergraduate women.

Graduate students are also two to three times more likely than undergraduates to have experienced sexual harassment in an academic or work environment. And perhaps most telling, undergraduate and graduate students gave distinct sets of reasons for why they chose not to tell anyone about their harassment. Among graduate students, the top two reasons given were: 1) they feared telling someone would negatively impact their work relationships or damage their career prospects; and 2) they feared they would not be believed.

Following the 2016 WeSpeak Survey, the Faculty Student Committee on Sexual Misconduct made several recommendations for the University, focusing particularly on graduate students and faculty. At the time, they had recommended further training for graduate students around “sexual harassment and professionalism in the workplace”; the results of the 2017 WeSpeak Survey, coupled with recent news across different academic institutions, including ours, bolsters the need for this training. The University’s 2016 campus climate survey indicated the degree to which graduate students are exposed to sexual harassment in the workplace. We support the Committee’s recommendation of designing a workshop and/or training opportunity. In particular, training should be mandated through individual departmental meetings, as posited by the Committee.

Departments can play a unique role in mitigating sexual assault on campus by taking measures to clarify reporting procedures and disseminate information on the rights of both graduate and undergraduate students. For instance, they can provide new students with this information at an initial meeting, to supplement training. Additionally, each department can task an individual in its staff or faculty to serve in a capacity similar to that of the University-wide Title IX Coordinator, who would then be responsible for making necessary resources available to concentrators and faculty, facilitating trainings, and serving as another confidential resource for sexual assault/misconduct on campus. This would, in turn, help increase transparency, accountability, and efficiency.

Furthermore, faculty training should be expanded with regards not only to professionalism in the workplace, but also to becoming more effective bystanders and intervening in situations of sexual misconduct and discrimination. We recommend the University mandate competency training across all faculty around sexual misconduct on campus. It is crucial that faculty across departments work together to protect the professional nature of academic relationships between students and professors, particularly the advisor-advisee bond that can span years. As one electrical engineering professor pointed out, these relationships present the greatest potential for the abuse of trust, power, and authority. 

While we recognize the increase in the percentage of students who are aware of campus-based and off-campus resources, we are nonetheless extremely concerned by the disparity between undergraduate and graduate students. According to the 2017 WeSpeak survey results, only 46% of graduate students were at least “somewhat aware” of the Office of Graduate Student Life as a resource. Notably, 64% of undergraduates are either “very aware” or “extremely aware” of SHARE as a resource, compared to only 33% of graduate students.


Graduate students need to know where they can turn to for help. We emphasize the need for greater visibility of and access to — or rather, equality in access to — resources on campus. The Board commends SHARE (Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education) for all the work they have done and continue to do with regards to mitigating sexual assault, supporting survivors, developing education and training opportunities, and increasing access to resources on campus. Nonetheless, just as first-year students receive mandatory SHARE training during orientation, SHARE should work with first-year graduate students in a similar capacity. Moreover, student groups regularly interface with SHARE in requesting and planning trainings; we ask SHARE to encourage this sort of working relationship with faculty and departments.

In 2015, in an essay for Princeton Alumni Weekly, President Eisgruber wrote that “the only acceptable number of rapes on a college campus is zero.” We agree wholeheartedly, and would like to take this point even further. The University has a responsibility to protect all members of its community from discrimination, sexual harassment, and assault, especially those in vulnerable positions because of institutional hierarchy or historical and present discrimination. The only acceptable number of instances of discrimination and sexual misconduct on campus should be zero, and the University has a duty to make that known to all students and faculty. 

The Daily Princetonian Editorial Board will pen editorials in response to important matters that impact our community. It is composed of a combination of current editors and students from outside the ‘Prince’: Sarah Sakha '18, Grace Rehaut '18, Samuel Garfinkle '19, Nicholas Wu '18, Samuel Parsons '19, Emily Erdos '19, Ashley Reed '18, Connor Pfeiffer '18, Sebastian Quiroz '20, and Crystal Liu '19.

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