Survivors’ stories reveal the human costs — physical, emotional, and economic — of sexual harassment. When the perpetrators are faculty and mentors in the sciences, those costs also include the lost personal and professional contributions of the female survivors who abandon STEM careers because of harassment. In addition, the institutional costs of high-profile faculty committing sexual harassment include reputational damage and the potential loss of National Science Foundation (NSF) federal research grants if there are Title IX violations.

Title IX has been the law since 1972, but its impact on institutional reputations for noncompliance is a relatively new phenomenon. Student complaints of sexual harassment and violence didn’t present a real threat to a university’s reputation until the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter put colleges and universities on notice that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights was ramping up Title IX enforcement, and those investigations were made public.

The result was a perfect storm of transparent Title IX enforcement, investigative journalism, and survivors using social media to share their stories, which created public outrage as the scope of the problem was unveiled. At least one journalist credits campus sexual assault activism as the springboard for the #MeToo movement, which, in turn, has led to more women in academia exposing sexual harassment by high-profile faculty members. It is now crystal clear that the risk of harm to a university’s reputation is not confined to student-on-student sexual assault.

College and university leaders ranked sexual assault and campus climate issues among the top reputational risks to their institutions, according to a 2017 United Educators’ (UE) survey sent to board of trustees chairs, presidents, chief financial officers, and other senior administrators at 145 schools. Leadership responding to the survey consistently identified reputation as the institution’s most valuable asset, which must be “aggressively and proactively managed.” The report also lists Title IX compliance and prevention of and response to sexual assault as “examples of areas to assess for reputational impact.”

The recent media revelations of rampant sexual harassment in STEM research spurred action by the NSF to hold universities accountable when they do not address sexual harassment against persons working on NSF-funded research projects. NSF Director France Córdova said she hopes to create harassment-free research climates that keep students in science, and put schools on notice that the agency would implement reporting and transparency requirements and suspend or eliminate research funding for Title IX violations. Threats to cut research grants worth millions of dollars is a powerful incentive to comply with NSF requirements.

On February 8, 2018, Director Córdova sent a letter to 2,000 colleges, universities, and other institutions that receive NSF funds for science research and education, reminding them of their obligations to address sexual harassment. To ensure harassment-free science projects, the NSF is imposing new award conditions that require schools to:

  • Report to the NSF: (1) findings of sexual harassment, or any other kind of harassment, by personnel working on NSF-funded projects, and (2) when a principal or co-principal investigator is put on administrative leave during an investigation
  • Notify all personnel, including students, that their standards of conduct prohibit harassment “wherever science is conducted,” including activities at all research facilities, field sites, and during conferences and workshops
  • Have “accessible and evident means” for reporting harassment, conduct timely investigations of allegations, and take corrective action

The NSF Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) will enforce these new requirements by investigating Title IX complaints ODI receives and by conducting regular Title IX compliance reviews. It also provides information, policies and procedures, best practices, and frequently asked questions about harassment.

These new requirements build on the NSF’s previous efforts to address harassment in science and engineering research. In 2016, the NSF awarded the National Academy of Sciences a grant to:

  • Collect evidence showing the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment in academic science, engineering, and medicine
  • Develop evidence-based strategies to prevent campus sexual harassment

The study, scheduled to be completed in August 2018, will help quantify the problem and provide further support for prevention efforts with proven impact.

This issue was also addressed by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), who introduced legislation — the ‘‘Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act’’ — last September that would have required research universities to report substantiated incidents of sexual harassment and violence committed by principal investigators to the federal agencies that funded research and development grants to the institution within the past 10 years.

At that time, Congresswoman Speier cited reports about sexual harassment by research faculty, including:

  • In 2005, astronomer Timothy Slater had engaged in sexual harassment and created a hostile work environment
  • In 2015, famous exoplanet hunter Geoff Marcy resigned after sexually harassing students
  • In 2016, Christian Ott, a professor of theoretical astrophysics, was suspended for gender-based harassment

Rep. Speier’s legislation never made it out of committee, but sexual harassment of graduate students by faculty continues to make the headlines, harm institutional reputations, and create lawsuits. On August 30, 2017, eight current and former university faculty and students filed a 111-page complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), after their university’s counsel cleared Dr. T. Florian Jaeger, a linguistics professor, of sexual harassment charges. Dr. Jaeger is currently on paid leave but still on campus.

Doctoral candidates, especially those in scientific fields, can be particularly vulnerable because they spend years working with one primary faculty member who often have the power to influence the candidate’s future career path. The harm caused by those who exploit this power imbalance, as highlighted by these cases, is a roadblock for women entering STEM fields and should raise red flags for all graduate schools, and especially research universities.

Research shows that women in academia experience sexual harassment at alarmingly high rates. The Association of American Universities researchers found in 2015 that an estimated one in ten female graduate students at 27 large U.S. universities reported they were sexually harassed by faculty. In another 2015 survey of female scientists, 35 percent of respondents said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. A separate survey published in 2014 found that the number rises to 71 percent among female scientists working in field programs.

In 2017, the National Postdoctoral Association surveyed postdoctoral scholars about workplace sexual harassment. Preliminary findings were shared at a meeting in October 2017 of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on the Impacts of Sexual Harassment in Academia that include:

  • Nearly 30% of postdocs reported being sexually harassed
  • 90.6% of victims did not report sexual harassment because:
    • 43.4% of victims did not know how to report incidents
    • 51.5% of victims felt the workplace was not helpful in reporting incidents

The research reflects the need for effective prevention programs and a strategic plan to address acts of sexual harassment committed at all levels of academia. Implementing these two parallel strategies so they support each other aligns culture with compliance. Moreover, protecting a respectful culture and good reputation starts at the top but will not succeed without contributions at all levels of the university. This is critical to building an organization’s ethical culture and helps maintain one of the university’s most valuable assets — its reputation.

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