Graduate school can be an exciting time in a person’s life. Especially if you start a graduate program immediately after completing college, you can expect to spend the remaining years of your 20s honing your areas of academic expertise, completing a dissertation, and building meaningful professional connections with prominent faculty and staff in your chosen field. Unfortunately, the intimacy and trust of the mentor-mentee relationship between professor and student can sometimes lead to discrimination and harassment of graduate students by those who are entrusted to help them develop academically and professionally. Further complicating matters are the dynamics unique to universities, such as faculty tenure and the value placed on academic freedom, which gives professors a wide berth to espouse provocative positions. A 2015 survey of 539 graduate students at the University of Oregon found that more than one-third of female graduate students and about one-fifth of male graduate students experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff. And a 2017 study analyzing nearly 300 faculty-student harassment cases involving graduate students revealed that most faculty harassers are accused of physical, not verbal, harassment, and most perpetrators are serial harassers. Discrimination and harassment can have severely negative consequences in the graduate school context, such as derailing a promising career trajectory or causing debilitating feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation.
So, what laws protect graduate students from this type of conduct? Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 provides that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a). Title IX can only be enforced against recipients of federal funds, which practically means that a Title IX suit can only be brought against an educational institution, not an individual discriminator or harasser, like a dissertation advisor. In Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, 524 U.S. 274 (1998), the Supreme Court held that an educational institution must have “actual notice” of the discrimination and fail to act appropriately in response before it can be held liable under Title IX. Basically, to prevail under Title IX, a graduate student must experience unlawful discrimination or harassment, notify an “appropriate person” (a faculty or staff member with the authority to take corrective action), and the response of that person must be so inappropriate or lacking as to constitute “deliberate indifference.” Id. at 290–91. Importantly, this requirement does not require a graduate student to file a formal complaint with his or her university. As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has observed, Title IX only requires that a school receiving federal funds have “actual notice of the sexual harassment,” and not that the student “follow a formal procedure to put the funding recipient on notice.” Doe v. Miami Univ., 882 F.3d 579, 591 (6th Cir. 2018).
In addition to Title IX, federal employment laws can also protect graduate students, who frequently work as teaching fellows, assistants, and proctors at the universities where they study. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on sex as well as other protected characteristics. Because many graduate students also work as university employees, they may assert discrimination claims under Title VII as well as Title IX. And unlike Title IX, Title VII does not require an education institution that employs a graduate student to show “deliberate indifference” to the discrimination or harassment the student experienced. Highlighting this crucial difference between the two statutes, the First Circuit Court of Appeals has noted that “in the case of a Title IX claim (but not under Title VII), the institution must have had actual knowledge of the harassment and have exhibited deliberate indifference to it.” Wills v. Brown Univ., 184 F.3d 20, 26 (1st Cir. 1999) (emphasis added).
Beyond Title IX and Title VII, state law can offer much more meaningful avenues for relief for graduate students who are victims of discrimination and harassment. For example, at least one Massachusetts court has held “that a school is strictly liable” under state law “for the sexual harassment of a student by a teacher.” Doe on Behalf of Doe v. Town of Hopkinton, 34 Mass. L. Rptr. 137, 2017 WL 1553440, at *4 (Mass. Ct. App. Mar. 7, 2017). Under strict liability, a university doesn’t even need to be aware of the sexual harassment experienced by a student from a professor in order to violate the law.
Regardless of what laws you contemplate pursuing claims under, you should move fast. The statutes of limitations for education and employment discrimination claims are strict. To pursue a Title VII claim in court, you must first file an EEOC charge within 180 days (or 300 days if a state or local agency in your area prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis) from the last day on which the discrimination or harassment took place. Title IX, meanwhile, borrows the closest analogous limitations period from state law.
If you are a graduate student and have experienced discrimination and harassment at your university, you should consult with an attorney to determine what your legal options are. Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP has experienced education discrimination lawyers in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Tennessee, and Baltimore.