#MeTooPhD Creator Chronicles Sexual Harassment in Academia

Oct 16, 2018

Karen Kelsky spent 15 years teaching at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and in that time she's heard dozens of stories alleging sexual harassment in academia.
Credit Karen Kelsky

It’s been a year since the MeToo hashtag spread virally on social media, sparking a movement against sexual harassment. Academia – like Hollywood, the media and Congress – faced its own Me Too movement. HPR Reporter Ku’uwehi Hiraishi sits down with someone who’s been following the issue closely.

Former university professor Karen Kelsky knew sexual harassment existed on university and college campuses, so when the Me Too movement began...

“I thought you know there has to be a way to expose this in the university setting,” says Kelsky, “So I knew how to make a crowd-sourced, anonymous Google Doc spreadsheet and make it available to anyone, so I did that. And within minutes, I had entires.”

Within a day or two she received hundreds of entries from folks who said they had been groped, harassed, stalked or assaulted by their professor or colleague. By the time she shut down the project months later, she accumulated more than 2,500 entries.

“I think you could add a zero or two zeroes to that number and still probably not even encompass them all,” says Kelsky, “But the speed with which people volunteered this information that was so painful…people were just longing for a way to safely tell their story.”

Without fear of retaliation – which in academia can range from losing access to research funds to being altogether blacklisted by faculty. Sometimes the culprit is a well-respected academic.

“And we say, ʻThey are so brilliant, we need to protect them at all costs because the world needs their contributions.And what I want us to look at are the costs to the sum of human knowledge of all of those victims being hounded out of the academy, hounded out of their careers,” says Kelsky, “What cure for cancer do we not have because the woman that would have discovered it was hounded out of her lab and couldnʻt complete her research? Or what solution to global climate change do we not have because that scientist was unable to proceed in her studies.”

Kelsky created the hashtag #MeTooPhD, to provide a virtual space for survivors in academia to share their stories. She says the heightened awareness surrounding the MeToo movement has allowed everyone to act as a check on these institutions of higher education.

ʻ”And that’s what keeps happening is that there are all these perpetrators at UCLA, Columbia, a famous case in Rochester Florian Jaeger, and the universities do try routinely to sweep it under the rug,” says Kelsky, “And now because of social media, more people have a voice to be able to publicize it.”

Kelsky will be discussing the #MeToo Movement in the academic setting at 5 p.m. today at the University of Hawaiʻi William S. Richardson School of Law’s Moot Courtroom.