At Columbia, Three Women, 30 Years and a Pattern of Harassment

Posted December 8th, 2017.

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The three stories are nearly identical. A young woman arrives at Columbia University for her doctoral studies, eager to prove herself as a scholar. A star professor’s attentions seem to indicate she has succeeded. The attentions soon turn sexual, and the student grows uncomfortable. But she feels powerless to speak out.

The difference in the stories is the decade in which they took place. Jennifer Sheridan Moss said she was harassed by William V. Harris, a renowned Greco-Roman historian, in the 1980s. Jennifer Knust said he harassed her in the 1990s. And an anonymous graduate student, identified in court papers as Jane Doe, said he harassed her in the 2010s.

The women’s stories of alleged harassment — and in particular of how Columbia and other professors responded to them — shed light not only on one powerful man’s behavior over the years, but also on changing mores in academia, and the shifting understanding of universities’ responsibility to enforce them.

Graduate students and professors work together with a high degree of intimacy, and the power dynamic between them is often fraught. But only recently have rules been put in place to regulate whether their relations can tip over into sexual interactions. For decades, Columbia discouraged romantic relationships between professors and students they supervised, but it did not explicitly ban them until 2012.

“At the time, it was a certain level of cultural understanding that female students were available to professors,” Dr. Moss said of her experience with Dr. Harris in the 1980s.

“But we are now 30 years later,” she said. “And I do hold Columbia responsible for not doing something about a person whose reputation was widespread. That, to me, is absolutely inexcusable.”

On Oct. 30, four weeks after Ms. Doe filed a lawsuit accusing Dr. Harris of kissing and groping her in 2014, Columbia announced that Dr. Harris, 79, would step down from teaching and other student-related duties. He remains an employee of the university.

Dr. Harris did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for Columbia said administrators were dedicated to making the school harassment-free. “Universities do not exist apart from the widespread re-examination of workplace conduct that has dominated so much of the nation’s attention in recent weeks,” she said in a statement.

Dr. Moss and Dr. Knust are the first women to publicly accuse Dr. Harris and allow their names to be used. They said they decided to come forward after seeing Ms. Doe’s lawsuit. They, along with four other women who declined to be identified, have signed on as witnesses in support of Ms. Doe’s claim that the university turned a blind eye to Dr. Harris’s longstanding pattern of harassment, according to David Sanford, Ms. Doe’s lawyer.

Dr. Moss, now an associate professor at Wayne State University in Michigan, said she never expected Columbia to take action when she was a student.

Dr. Harris’s interest in her developed slowly, she said. During her second year of graduate study, in 1985, he began inviting her to dinner after seminars.

At the dinners, the topics of conversation moved from Roman history to sex in general to her personal life, she said. Dr. Harris never explicitly propositioned her. But she said “there was a constant sexual thing hanging over all of these interactions.”

She did not voice her discomfort outright to him, let alone to any other professors. “He was a very, very important person in the field, and I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere without his support,” she said.

Her only recourse, she said, was gradually to stop going to dinner with Dr. Harris, and also to begin working more closely with another professor, Roger Bagnall.

Jacqueline Long, another student in the department at the time who is now a professor at Loyola University in Chicago, said she recalled Dr. Moss telling her about her discomfort with Dr. Harris. “She was getting hives and all sorts of allergic stress reactions,” Dr. Long said.

In the fall of 1986, Dr. Moss said, she sat for a Greek language exam, the last exam she needed to qualify for official status as a Ph.D. candidate. Dr. Harris administered the test, then told her she had failed.

Dr. Bagnall intervened and asked to see the test, but Dr. Harris refused.

Now an emeritus professor at New York University, Dr. Bagnall said Dr. Harris’s refusal was unprecedented, as the standard practice for disputed exams was to bring in a second reader.

Eventually Dr. Harris agreed to let Dr. Bagnall see the exam. Dr. Bagnall said that she had passed. So did a third reader, who served as a tiebreaker.

Dr. Bagnall said he was aware of Dr. Harris’s reputation for pursuing and harassing young women.

But he acknowledged that university policies surrounding such behavior had not yet crystallized. He did not report the dispute over the exam to administrators.

Dr. Moss said she would not have expected him or other professors to do so. “I just don’t think at the time there was anything, if they had gone to a dean or provost, that would have happened,” she said.

But even by the standards of the day, Dr. Bagnall said, Dr. Harris’s actions were clearly out of line.

“I think anybody would recognize that there’s a duty of care” between professors and students, Dr. Bagnall said. “And certainly in any situation where you use power against the interests of the student, even in the mid-80s, that just wasn’t acceptable.”

When Dr. Knust, now a tenured professor at Boston University, entered Columbia in the fall of 1993, a university committee had recently published draft guidelines stating that while Columbia was not barring romantic relationships between faculty and students, it was “always the faculty member’s responsibility to interpret with the greatest sensitivity the signals, negative or positive, received from the student and to refrain from exerting any pressure on that student,” according to a Nov. 3, 1993 article in the Columbia Spectator.

“Not taking ‘no’ for an answer may well constitute sexual harassment,” the draft said.

But administrators at the time said they doubted the draft would ever become policy. There was a “disposition not to write out this kind of thing into codes and rules,” Elinor Barber, an assistant provost at the time, told the student paper.

As that policy debate unfolded, Dr. Knust was experiencing a replay of what Dr. Moss said she had experienced a decade earlier: invitations to office hours and cocktail receptions, which turned into private meals.

At a lunch in 1995, Dr. Harris made his affections explicit, inviting Dr. Knust, who was married, to engage in a romantic relationship, she said.

Like Dr. Moss, Dr. Knust said she felt unable to be forthright in her rejection. She laughed off his advances instead, bringing up her husband and children more often in conversation.

“I played the game I learned in seventh grade when a boy likes you,” she said. “You make up some reason so that you protect their feelings, so that they don’t get angry with you, and you still manage to escape. It’s a skill a 12-year-old girl learns that she needs for the rest of her life.”

Dr. Knust said she never felt that Dr. Harris retaliated against her.

She said she told a fellow graduate student about Dr. Harris’s proposition at the time, and a professor several years later. Both confirmed her account.

By the time Ms. Doe began studying with Dr. Harris in 2014, Columbia had codified its stance on faculty-student relationships. “No faculty member shall have a consensual romantic or sexual relationship with a student over whom he or she exercises academic authority,” reads a policy approved by the faculty senate in 2012.

But Ms. Doe said the university paid only lip service to that policy. After she complained about Dr. Harris’s behavior, administrators asked her to avoid him, rather than restricting him from their shared buildings on campus, her lawsuit says; and professors dismissed her concerns, even though they said they were not surprised by them, she said.

Ms. Doe filed her lawsuit just three days before The New York Times published its first article on the allegations against the film mogul Harvey Weinstein.

In the months since, as the country has reckoned with revelations of harassment and assault in entertainment, media and politics, the world of academia has emerged as something of a paradox.

Mr. Sanford said he had seen an uptick in calls from people who said they had been harassed.

But Gayatri Phadke, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut and member of the graduate student union who has worked to negotiate the school’s sexual harassment policies, said students are by definition less likely to feel empowered to speak out against harassment. They are just beginning their careers, dependent upon their professors not only for connections and recommendations but also for their very degrees.

And while universities have often been at the forefront of conversations about gender equity and consent, “Whether you finish your Ph.D. or not is highly dependent on the individuals who are on your committee,” Ms. Phadke said. “And if one of them is the abuser, there’s very little chance that you can successfully stay in graduate school while outing that person.”

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