A young blonde woman in a zip up sweatshirt looking down as a male figure in a black suit places his hand on her shoulder
Photo by Adam Blasberg

How Colleges Choose to Protect Creepy Male Professors

I spent my entire undergraduate and graduate years studying science. So, when I published a children’s book and became “hooked on phonics”, I decided to expand my literary prowess by pursuing an Associate’s in English.

I earned top marks. I took online courses through my town’s community college. They required little mental effort compared to writing and defending my Masters thesis. But, one professor who instructed four of the required classes, was a creep. And I argue he did/does not see women as equal human beings.

My first inkling to Professor Creep’s misogyny was in the second course I took that had him at the helm. The course’s textbook, a collection of poetry, short stories, and plays with review questions that the professor put together himself, did not include a single female poet, author, or playwright, and did not even include one strong, female protagonist. Professor Creep did feature Dover Bitch by Anthony Hecht, a satirical version of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach.

So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them, And he said to her, ‘Try to be true to me, And I’ll do the same for you, for things are bad All over, etc., etc.’ Well now, I knew this girl. It’s true she had read Sophocles in a fairly good translation And caught that bitter allusion to the sea, But all the time he was talking she had in mind The notion of what his whiskers would feel like On the back of her neck. She told me later on That after a while she got to looking out At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad, Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds And blandishments in French and the perfumes. And then she got really angry. To have been brought All the way down from London, and then be addressed As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty. Anyway, she watched him pace the room And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit, And then she said one or two unprintable things. But you mustn’t judge her by that. What I mean to say is, She’s really all right. I still see her once in a while And she always treats me right. We have a drink And I give her a good time, and perhaps it’s a year Before I see her again, but there she is, Running to fat, but dependable as they come. And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d’ Amour.

Okay. I cede that featuring a misogynist slur could spur a discussion on historical context. Or whatever. *eye roll* But check out Professor Creep’s follow-up question to the poem. “What evidence does the speaker give us to show she is actually a bitch?”

I responded:

“First, I would like to respectfully point out that if [Dr. Creep], as a professor would not imagine providing a poem with a racial slur or homophobic slur then he should also not imagine providing a poem with a misogynist slur that is used in the exact same way… to put down and oppress a marginalized group. Second, I respectfully refuse to answer this question as it is offensive to women and perpetuates the sexist notion that women must behave in a certain way in order for slurs to not be used against them.”

I received the lowest grade out of all my homework for this assignment.

Later on in that same course, in response to my turning in a homework assignment, he responded:

“If you’re near [the town his office is in] and ever want to meet, just say so and we can arrange a time to meet at my office.”

No explanation. No lead up information. Just an abrupt statement too vague for anyone in authority to reprimand him for.

Creeped out by this unsolicited invitation, I decided to do some research. Why was this man even qualified to teach English? What credentials did he hold?

What I found was the tabletop game he invented where the objective of the game is to acquire the most envied harem. Players act as Sultans and collect gold and jewels to buy concubines. Opponents can try to steal your concubines away. Then players also have to train their concubines to dance and seduce and to “adorn themselves.” Whoever has the best harem at the end of the game wins.

Do you feel like you need to take a shower yet?

Now imagine if I had gone to his office because he invited me to meet him. And imagine if he had assaulted me as a result. No one would say “I can’t believe he welcomed you to meet with him at his office alone and then he assaulted you! What an asshole!” No, I would be the one blamed if he assaulted me as a result of meeting him in his office alone. “Why did you go to his office?” “What did you think was going to happen?” “You should have known what he was really asking.” “Insert other victim blaming statement here.”

But I felt like my hands were tied. This man was a gatekeeper. I would have to complete two more courses with him to fulfill my English requirements. To avoid rocking the boat, I ignored his email, hoping it wouldn’t happen again.

Then, after turning in a narrated Powerpoint assignment, he provided this feedback:

“Good job not just reading each slide but filling in between the lines with your own voice and additions (by the way, in you don’t mind me saying, I love your voice!)”

This was the last straw. There was no way he would have ever written to a male student and told him that he loved his voice.

Dear Dr. Creep,

I am writing to bring to your attention an issue I have with some of our previous correspondence.

In response to Assignment #6 on March 30, 2018, you wrote, “[B]y the way, if you don’t mind me saying, I love your voice!” I believe we can both agree that this comment was irrelevant to either my assignment or grade and crossed a professional boundary. Because I highly doubt that you compliment male students on the sound of their voice when giving them graded feedback for an assignment, I felt that my work was not taken seriously. The comment left me wondering whether or not my assignment or any of my previous work had been reviewed through a strictly professional lens.

In addition, this comment made me further question the intent of another remark from September 21, 2017, when in response to an email regarding a World Literature assignment, you replied, “If you’re near [town] and ever want to meet, just say so and we can arrange a time to meet at my office.” Because the comment was not in response to a request for one-on-one, academic help, and in light of the recent compliment on my voice, it is my belief that the boundary of professionalism between student and professor was compromised in this instance as well.

When these types of confusing comments are made within an uneven power dynamic such as professor/student, the person on the short end of the power dynamic is placed in the uncomfortable position of simply hoping that the commenter stops on their own so as to avoid conflict or embarrassment. Whether intent to cross a boundary was present or not, it is very easy for the commenter to dismiss their inappropriate comments defensively, claiming that the comments in question were merely misinterpreted. This then leaves the person who received the unwanted comments in the vulnerable position of potentially being shamed or blamed for asserting their boundaries.

It is important for you, therefore, as an authority figure and potential gatekeeper for your female students, to understand this relevant, uneven power dynamic so that you do not unintentionally create discomfort in other students in the future.

Thank you for considering my complaint. I appreciate the time you will spend reflecting on the ways in which future corresponded could maintain an indisputable professional tone so that no future comments could potentially lead to a misinterpretation of intent.”

His response:

“Indeed ‘misinterpretation of intent’ is an understatement. I often give positive comments to students, both male and female, particularly with assignments where students can commonly feel anxiety, such as oral presentations. It is highly presumptuous of you to believe that such comments are not given to my male students as well. Additionally, wanting to put a face to a name and meet online students is encouraged here at [school], and if I can’t travel to remote places, which I often do, I often encourage those when in town, to make an appointment with me and drop in to meet. In fact, I was delighted when a male online student did just that yesterday. We had a wonderful 30-minute chat about his work in our class. I suggested the meeting at my office, a perfectly reasonable request, if you were in the area.”

After that, I received the lowest grades I ever had in all four of his classes.So, once I completed my final course, and he could not retaliate against me further, I brought my complaint to the school’s Title IX committee.

Then I discovered nine out of the twelve members of the Title IX committee — the committee designed to investigate gender discrimination — were middle-aged white men. Professor Creep was also a middle-aged white man. Hmm. I wonder how this is going to turn out.

SURPRISE!

“The official finding is that [Dr. Creep] did not violate college procedure or law.”

The school’s official letter then added:

“However your concerns do illustrate a potential need for additional training and perhaps closer supervision… [Y]our complaint indicates there is opportunity for professional development in this area.”

Oh? If “additional training” and “closer supervision” were recognized to be needed then the college recognized that inappropriate behavior occurred, and they decided to do nothing about it. The professor did not receive a reprimand at the very least.

Furthermore, what kind of training will they enact? What elements will they include in the training? Will they make the training mandatory for faculty and staff? When will the training take place? Before the next semester starts?

Do I believe the outcome would have been different if there were equal numbers of men and women of varying ages on the Title IX committee? Yes.

Do I believe that if this discrepancy does not appear problematic to the college, then they are ill-equipped to recognize and rectify gender discrimination? Yes.

I am fortunate, though. I am a 32-year-old, educated woman, confident in her agency to seek change. I am not an 18-year-old straight out of high school taking community college classes because I have to. I did not need an Associate’s degree in English. It was optional. So, I decided I wouldn’t be giving my money to this college anymore, and I withdrew my matriculation.

I can forward my complaint to The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights or the Chronicle of Higher Education, but will they care?

I can share my story with the world so that others can witness this injustice and use this information to move forward in their own complaints.

Or, in any case, I can use this catharsis to help me heal. This creepy professor will act even creepier now that he’s gotten away with his creepiness.

I can at least commiserate with the Medium world because I did what I could, and it resulted in nothing.

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Poet. Storyteller. Activist. annemariewellswriter.com