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Inappropriate actions taken by advisers leave some grad students with nowhere to turn

graduate student sexual assault
Significant challenges exist for graduate students when reporting sexual assault from faculty advisors.

Content warning: This story involves instances of stalking, sexual harassment and an abuse of authority.  




She changed offices twice. She kept her schedule random. She avoided campus as much as possible. But she couldn’t escape him.

Mary, a former UNC graduate student in a humanities department who chose to remain anonymous, knew it wasn’t in her head. Her former adviser, a tenured professor in her department, was stalking her on campus. 

He would always only stare, never making advances, but it continued for two years before Mary left UNC last summer without finishing her doctoral program. The experience revealed to her the prevalence of inappropriate faculty-graduate student interactions.

“Once I started talking to other grad students in other departments about it, everyone — mostly women — had stories like mine or worse,” Mary said. 

Mary tried to report her stalker to multiple offices, including Title IX. Each one either referred her to another resource or said their hands were tied since he didn’t threaten her or touch her.

With #MeToo raising awareness of sexual harassment, graduate students are fighting to stand up for themselves against tenured faculty. But reporting cases of inappropriate behavior outside of traditional definitions of misconduct can be challenging, and graduate students are often reluctant to report department mentors overseeing their research and recommendations. 

‘In the gray area’

In 2016, a New York Times article revealed that Jason Lieb, a former UNC biology professor, sexually harassed graduate students at several universities without punishment. Biology Ph.D student Alissa Brown and other peers formed a group of graduate students called Academics Taking Action in response. 

“Our department is not unique in having a guy who sexually harasses students or harasses in any other way,” Brown said. 

A 2018 publication by the group revealed that, based on a climate survey of 116 graduate students and post-doctoral students in the biology department, incidents of sexual harassment were witnessed 183 times and experienced 99 times. 

The publication lists other anecdotes of mistreatment — faculty members demanding a graduate student work for a semester without pay, publishing a graduate student’s data without listing them as the author or reaching for the name tags on multiple female graduate students' breasts at an event.

Kerry Bloom, the biology department chairperson, said the department has held several training sessions for faculty and graduate students to learn about power dynamics since news about Lieb broke.

Before the stalking began, Mary’s adviser threatened over email to kick her out of the doctoral program after she expressed a desire to do a new project with another adviser, which she said would have reduced his authority over her research. After consulting with department leadership, she switched mentors. 

Then, Mary heard he was calling her “ungrateful” and “spoiled” in front of other graduate students. She and other witnesses informed her department chair, who told the professor to stop.  

That’s when the stalking began. 

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For two years, Mary’s adviser hovered and stared at her all over campus — intimidating her around her office, classrooms, hallways and department events. 

“I could just feel him looking at me before I would make eye contact with him,” Mary said. “It just made me feel gross and exposed and vulnerable and terrified.”

Mary had to switch into three different offices. When he found her second office suite, he blocked the doorway so other graduate students couldn’t leave and and demanded he and Mary “sort things out.” After some persuading, he finally left. 

That was the only time he confronted her, but Mary never felt safe. The chairperson warned him to avoid all contact with Mary.  

When he showed up to her third office, Mary wasn’t there. She had a panic attack when she found out. The chairperson took away his key to that floor, but the stalking continued.

Mary said she believes she experienced gender-based harassment. But she was repeatedly told by reporting resources that he couldn’t be punished unless he touched or threatened her.

“This whole experience lives in the gray area,” she said.

‘Kings and queens’

The Academics Taking Action publication lists the many powers that faculty have over graduate students: they control their working hours, grant submission timelines, recommendations and access to money, equipment and data. 

Brown said tenured faculty can abuse their authority as long as they don’t break laws.

“Our bosses — faculty members — are kind of like the kings and queens of their own little towns,” Brown said.

Bloom said students and faculty generally report inappropriate behavior to him first. While he hasn’t handled sexual harassment cases, he has dealt with bullying and mistreatment of graduate students.

Director of Title IX Compliance Adrienne Allison said department administrators must report suspected sexual misconduct cases to Title IX. Confidential resources include the University Ombuds Office and Gender Violence Services Coordinators. 

At her department chairperson’s urging, Mary filed a Title IX report, compiling emails, witnesses and other evidence. But less than a week later, Mary said the investigator told her she hadn’t recalled events clearly enough and dismissed the case due to lack of evidence. 

“At the end of the conversation, the investigator was kind of shooing me from the office and said, ‘If there’s anything we can do for you, just let us know,’” Mary said. “I said ‘What can you do? What is the next step?’ She certainly didn’t seem to be expecting me to follow up on that because she said, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’”

Bloom said the College of Arts and Sciences outlines formal processes for chairpersons to follow for department grievances. Chairpersons must take action immediately and inform involved parties but do not discipline faculty themselves if cases go to a higher administrative level.

Sarah Miles, a history Ph.D student and member of the Workers Union at UNC, which advocates for campus and graduate workers, said departments often make flimsy accommodations when disciplining faculty, like switching graduate students’ advisers or revoking a professor’s right to new graduate students. 

But she said many graduate students also don’t trust Title IX’s effectiveness and fear that reporting to the office could hurt department relationships important to their careers.

“I think people are really hesitant to go through something like that and become that person -- that person who made the department deal with all that," Miles said.

Vice Chancellor of University Communications Joel Curran said in a statement that UNC cannot comment on specific cases but handles misconduct reports with a commitment to fairness and safety. 

The Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office acts as a neutral fact-finder, and all parties have an equal opportunity to submit evidence and meet with investigators. When an investigator finds insufficient evidence for a policy violation, that does not mean they do not believe the student.

“In all cases, we remain steadfast in providing appropriate care, support and resources, and to conducting impartial, thorough investigations in a timely fashion,” Curran said. 

Mary reported her old adviser to other resources, such as campus police, the Carolina Women’s Center, the senior associate Dean of Students, a graduate school associate dean and the University Ombuds Office. She said none were equipped to deal with her “gray area” case.

“It was just this sort of waiting game for him to assault me,” Mary said. “I just felt incredibly unsafe on campus at all times.”

Mary’s mental health suffered. She dropped out of a project with peers, skipped classes, missed an exam because of a panic attack and took an extra year to finish her master’s thesis. Other graduate students in her department distanced themselves from her.

With too little accomplished after three years to apply for more funding, Mary left UNC without a Ph.D, wishing graduate students had more power to stand up for themselves. 

“If only we could get rid of this precariousness and fear of a grad student position, I feel like this wouldn’t be so life-altering.”