Review: The Lecherous Professor: Sexual
Harassment on Campus
Wright Dzeich and Linda Weiner. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984 (2nd ed. 1990).
by Chris Carlsmith, Graduate Student Associate, TRC and Department of
sexual harassment? How do you know if you have crossed the line?* The
issue of sexual harassment exploded into the national limelight in 1990
with Anita Hill's testimony on Capitol Hill, and has remained a troubling
and difficult question ever since. University campuses have been particularly
sensitive to this issue, given their unique combination of naive, impressionable
students and more experienced, powerful professors who wield nearly total
authority in the academic world. UVa has not been immune from the debate;
we received national press coverage last spring for our proposed ban on
all faculty-student relationships, a policy which continues to be discussed
on Grounds today.
provocative title, The Lecherous Professor offers an informative
look at the issue of sexual harassment on campus. The authors, both of
whom were professors at the University of Cincinnati, wrote the book in
response to data collected from their own interviews with college women
as well as from self- report surveys at several institutions. They admit
that they were "horrified" at the scope of the problem (estimating
that 20% of all female students are sexually harassed during their college
careers), and chose to construct a book around those anonymous responses
that they received. The authors focus their attention exclusively on relationships
between male professors and female students; while recognizing that harassment
can occur between female professors and male students, or between students
and faculty of the same gender, the authors dismiss these latter cases
as statistically insignificant.
The book is
divided into seven chapters, including a preface to the second edition
in which the authors comment on developments since the initial 1984 publication.
The first two chapters outline characteristics of sexual harassment on
campus, while Chapter 4 debunks the myth of the voluptuous college coed
willing to exchange love for a better grade. Chapter 5 sketches a portrait
of the lecherous (male) professor, and the following chapter assesses
the role that women faculty play in counseling students and confronting
their colleagues. The final chapter considers the "Future of Academe"
and includes several appendices from the EEO and other institutions that
will be of interest to policy-makers.
The most memorable
parts of the book are the short vignettes in which students recall their
surprise, anger, frustration, and helplessness when confronted by a "lecherous
professor." These brief case histories have the ring of truth and
paint a negative picture of the hallowed ivory tower and its inhabitants.
The underlying thesis of Dzeich and Weiner is that sexual harassment is
not about sex, but about power--and the professors hold all the cards.
The disparity is particularly evident in the stories recounted by graduate
students, many of whom are completely dependent upon their professor for
an academic future and have few methods of resistance. There is certainly
a great deal of truth in this characterization of powerful professor and
powerless student, as illustrated by UVa's policy which addresses potential
"conflict-of-interest" rather than sexual harassment. But this
portrayal of women as weak, passive victims also does a great disservice
to the active women who strive to explode the myth of "the weaker
vessel." Another weakness of the book is its psychological interpretation
of lecherous male professors as men who may be compensating for their
lack of success in high school with young women, where (according to the
authors) they were generally bookish, unattractive and unable to compete
with the football jocks for female attention. Dzeich and Weiner also suggest
that professors may be responding to a midlife crisis or to their low
salary, viewing the opportunity to have a relationship with a student
as one of the "perks" of the job. The authors are reluctant
to consider the fact that many students are willing to consider a relationship
with a professor owing to love or ambition, or a combination of both.
However, Dzeich and Weiner do make the point (as does UVa's policy) that
it is difficult to envision a truly consensual relationship between professor
and student given the wide disparity in their positions and the unequal
power ratio that exists between them.
The book provided
me with a heightened awareness of the complex and slippery issues that
surround this contentious debate. In emphasizing that the fundamental
issue is one of power rather than sexual attraction, the authors make
an excellent point, one that is all too often lost in the clamor of the
argument. The issue of sexual harassment is unlikely to go away and those
of us who live and work in the academy must come to realize how pervasive
it is and what steps are needed to eliminate it.