How to Detect and Dodge a Predatory Professor

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Image: Ronen Tivony, Getty Images

By Aisha S. Ahmad

As an established scholar in my field, I am sick of seeing brilliant women drop out or quit because of sexual predators in academe.

For years, I have fought to protect my own students and mentees, but since earning tenure this summer, I have stopped pulling my punches. Enough. This article is for graduate students and junior scholars who may be dealing with sexual predators at their college or university, especially Bipoc women who are already marginalized in academe. While I cannot remove these threats for you, I can offer some guidance on how to detect and dodge a predatory professor in the early stages, before he — since it usually is a he — backs you into a corner.

There is nothing more eviscerating to a scholar’s confidence and career than sexual predation by a professor. But know this: It’s not your fault. Even though I present tactics and solutions here, that does not mean you carry one iota of moral responsibility for this abuse. The shame is on the predator and the institution that empowers him. Nonetheless, what I offer here is a strategic plan to help you better protect yourself. Because right now, the problem of sexual harassment at colleges and universities remains hidden, unchecked, and unresolved.

The underground network. Most colleges and universities continue to deal with predators through confidential internal processes. The last thing senior administrators want is bad press and a lawsuit, and predatory professors with tenure are well positioned to sue. Terrified students also may want to keep the complaint process quiet and small. The result is a culture of secrecy and silence surrounding these incidents on most campuses.

How, then, can graduate students and junior scholars know whether a particular professor they are interested in working with has a history of sexual harassment and abuse?

One potent defensive strategy is to use the underground network. Previous doctoral students and early-career scholars usually have insider information about known predators and are well positioned to quietly share it. Some students — graduate and undergraduate — have even created and circulated a list of the names of “dangerous” professors, to warn unsuspecting newcomers about past incidents.

Of course, we all know that academic gossip often is just noise: Did you hear that Dr. Patel had a midlife crisis and bought a Lamborghini? But your ears should perk up when you hear “that Professor X dates his students” or “be careful, he is a creep around women.”

I am not suggesting that you raise an army. You may have no other information than these vague, unverified statements. But do not discard that inside information. File it away in your mind, and raise your alertness level to orange. Is your graduate adviser making weird comments that cross a line? Does that tenured colleague seem to be intimidating women in your department? Watch the vibe, and open a line of communication with other graduate students or junior faculty members about their experiences.

When it comes to sexual harassment, this informal network is probably your only access point into institutional memory. The campus administration is not going to tell you which tenured professors have decades-long records of harassment and abuse complaints on file. So when strange warnings come through the cracks, bring your guard up a few notches.

Unfortunately, the underground network is simply not strong enough to protect everyone, so there is a good chance that you will be unaware of a predator in your midst. But there are other clues that can alert you to danger before you are ensnared in a trap.

The grooming process. A seasoned predator will not take off his pants on Day 1. First, he will invest time in undermining your ability to defend yourself. Grooming is a well-known phenomenon in which a predator systematically desensitizes his target to abuse, in order to escalate and normalize it over time. That can seem bewildering and frightening from the inside, but there is actually no mystery here. Researchers have already documented these smoke-and-mirrors tricks.

Let’s break down what grooming looks like so that you can get off this toxic roller-coaster as quickly as possible:

  • Stage 1: Make the target feel really good. The predator will start by singling you out and telling you that you are special, smart, talented. He will speak of your unique academic gifts and spend extra time on your projects. He will say you are so much better than your peers. He can’t promise anything, but he has some very exciting opportunities in his lab that might just be in store for you. A smile and a wink. This professor is offering you special opportunities after all these years of slogging it out. You want to live up to his expectations and would hate to disappoint him. You slowly drift away from your peers, as you build this wonderful friendship with your new mentor. Maybe he tells you a secret or does you a favor. You are excited and deeply grateful.
  • Stage 2: Test the waters. The first time he crosses a boundary, it will be a small incident. A comment. An uncomfortable leer. This minor violation will occur amid a flurry of other positive, professional signals: Great work on that data analysis, superstar. I am thinking about adding you to the senior research team on our new project. You’re a knockout in that dress, by the way. Anyway, I will let you know when the new positions are available. But in the meantime, can you get me that file I wanted by next week? You really need this opportunity in his lab. Maybe you imagined him ogling your body. It has got to be a misunderstanding about the dress. Relax. Be cool. You smile and choose the path of least resistance: Sure, I’ll get you that file asap. Done. He’s across the line.
  • Stage 3: The line no longer exists. He will use your friendly response to justify his next violation, which will be just a little worse. This time, you might try to stand up for yourself: I’m really not comfortable with your comment. Please don’t say that again. You may get an apology or a defensive dismissal. But if you are dealing with a predator, he will proceed to punish you for rejecting him. Your special connection goes ice-cold. You are no longer the star researcher. In fact, you now seem to be at the bottom of the heap. Two weeks later, there is no sign of that job opportunity on his team. You are panicking: Did I screw up my career over an offhand comment? Am I too sensitive? Can I smile and fix it?

The predator is playing a game that you cannot win. The more you play, the more you will repeat the above cycle, each time with an incrementally more disgusting violation of your boundaries. If you think this feels bad now, I assure you that it will be exponentially worse if you play more rounds. One day, when he does take off his pants in his office, you will be running down the hallway horrified that things have gotten so bad. The sooner you flee from that future, the more damage-control options you will have.

Of course, while it’s happening, you may not be able to accept that escape is your only option. I know you have worked incredibly hard to get here, and walking away is heartbreaking. And so you may decide to play more rounds in the hope that it was a misunderstanding. If you follow that course, I strongly advise you to start a log of all your interactions with him, and review the laws in your city on recording private conversations. Your future self will thank you for keeping a record.

At some point, you may also try to talk to the predator and reason things out like a normal human being, especially because he was once friendly with you. This, too, will fail. He will manipulate the conversation, gaslight you, and escalate his abuses. You cannot negotiate with this type of terrorist. But everyone in this predicament must hit her own rock bottom, and you will know when it is time for you to run. When that day comes, trust your instincts and run.

To find yourself in this position is devastating and frustrating. I understand. Take a moment if you need to scream or punch something. Deep breath. When you’re ready, let’s look at your options.

The escape plan. As soon as you are able, begin work on your escape plan. Start by circling back to the underground network on your campus, and check if anyone has heard anything before about this professor. That may give you clues and context, but it is unlikely to be enough.

Next, request a private conversation with the fiercest and most discreet equity-seeking professor in your department. If you are lucky, someone has reported the predator before, and enough people will know about those secrets. If so, you may have more recourse. Check quietly and carefully. Call up that lawyer friend and ask her to lunch.

The ideal outcome is to extricate yourself from the predator, without dropping out of your doctoral program, changing your research focus, or quitting your department. If there is any other adviser, supervisor, or mentor with whom you could work, investigate how to switch as quickly as possible. A less-prestigious but safe lab is infinitely better than a prestigious lab run by a predator. The sooner you make the break, the better.

Ask a senior professor with a demonstrated commitment to equity to help you strategize your escape. Also quietly investigate if the department chair or any other senior authority figures could be potential allies. In choosing your allies, look for evidence of courage, not just rhetoric. If you find an allied senior colleague, ask that person to help quietly behind the scenes to ensure the predator is not on your tenure or evaluation committee. Junior scholars should also privately document the situation with union or faculty-association lawyers as early as possible, just in case it escalates to the point that your job is at risk.

Make an anonymous call to your institution’s Title IX or sexual-harassment office to learn how campus procedures for investigating such cases work. However, do not let anyone — including your allies — pressure you into making a formal complaint, whether through a Title IX grievance or another internal process, if you’re not ready for that. These are harrowing experiences, and the evidentiary standards can be daunting. Whether or not you decide to proceed with an official process is your decision alone. Ask that lawyer friend to help you make sense of the 2,000 pages of Title IX regulations, plus your own institution’s rules and procedures. Your college or university may have created user guides to explain the procedures or may have kept this information dangerously obscure. Do your research, and weigh the costs and benefits.

It is OK if you do not have enough evidence to proceed in a formal way. Count your blessings. You might feel like a Dumpster fire now, but you may actually be very lucky. It is best to escape from a predator quickly, and formal processes are often rubber stamps on injustice anyway. Just focus on getting safely out of this mess, finding a new supervisor or lab, and not letting your academic work tank. Most institutions will also allow you to list persons you do not want on your tenure-evaluation committee. Staying safe and afloat is your full-time job right now.

What if immediate escape is not possible? If you absolutely cannot leave the predator’s lair, you will need a survival strategy. If you managed to contain the problem early, and are now on cool but respectful terms with the predator, be courteous and professional yet maintain a solid defensive position. Let it be known that you keep records of everything. Post articles on Title IX. Such subtle measures may not work, but there is a chance he will retreat.

If the predator is already angry with you, do not attempt to placate him. Never play his game. You may get called nasty names and left out of important meetings, projects, and opportunities. He is making noise because he is livid that he failed to dominate you. Keep documenting everything like a scribe. Use the voice-record function on your phone in every closed-door meeting with him. Seek out principled, courageous allies. Decent people will stand by you, even at great personal cost. Get on the waiting list for campus mental-health services. Hold your position as best you can.

You may be afraid that the predator is a gatekeeper in your field, and will use his malice to undermine your professional success. But keep in mind: This predator is not the entire academic community. Diversify your intellectual networks as much as possible. Some of your peers might throw you under a bus and take the research opportunities and funding you lost by standing up to this predator. Expand your reach far beyond these pathetic scavengers. Your vision and community need to extend well beyond this toxic place. Seek out a new intellectual center.

Join a scholarly community of women in your field, and develop academic relationships outside your current department and institution. I know that this is the last thing you want to do right now, but isolation is part of the disease of sexual harassment — connection and community are part of the cure.

You do not even need to say anything at your first meeting of the Association for Women in Science, the Black Female Lawyers Network, or Women in International Security. Just show up. Eventually you will be able to talk to someone. In time, you will find a friend or mentor who you trust enough to tell what is happening. And once the established, principled women leaders in your field hear your story, we will step up and help you. Our strong male and nonbinary allies are also standing by, ready to assist.

This is the turning point. You are not alone. This garbage will not define you.

Your road to recovery. Remember, none of this is your fault. There are many women who have dealt with this exact problem before you — some even with the same tenured predator who’s been harassing you. They may not have ousted him, but they have survived, built their careers, and transformed into an army of fearless scholars. You do not have to drop out or quit. You can recover from this sickening episode and still become the brilliant researcher you set out to be. There is hope.

Your self-esteem is probably in the dumps right now. You felt smart and special, and then everything turned ugly. Now you think you are stupid and worthless. No, my dear. Those thoughts are just a side effect of having encountered a sexual predator in academe. The shame is on him, not you. You do not have to stay in this dark place. With proper counseling and mentoring, you can get your self-esteem and your joy back.

On the other side of this episode, you can find safe, friendly, and appropriate learning environments. I tell my doctoral students that they are special, smart, and talented all the time — because it is true. As professors and mentors, we get to know our students and junior peers over years, even decades. We invest in your projects and ideas. We review your articles and help you through tricky analyses. We stay up late to read the seventh draft of your dissertation or book chapter because we think you are worth it. We are delighted when you write to us years later and tell us about your latest success. There are no strings attached. This relationship is special because it is clean.

I promise that there are many decent educators in your field who would be happy to have this type of relationship with you. You will find them. They will help you. And when you succeed, you will then be able to help others.

Aisha S. Ahmad is an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the author of the award-winning book Jihad & Co: Black Markets and Islamist Power (Oxford University Press, 2017). She is chair of Canada’s Board of Women in International Security.

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