Opinion guest column

Reporting harassment at MIT

One student’s call for greater support

Over the course of 2010-2011, while I was a graduate student at MIT, I struggled to find help with harassment. I encountered both bureaucratic ineptitude and a culture of denial and silence that made the situation needlessly difficult for me, my advisor, and others in my lab. I am writing because I hope that by sharing my experience and insights into how MIT’s system can fail, I can help those working to improve it. While I understand that there have been some changes on campus since I graduated three years ago, I think MIT still needs to improve the way it handles harassment on campus.

In the middle of my graduate studies, I received an email from an account called sheila’s.hearts@gmail.com and realized it was from a visiting student in my lab who I had politely but firmly refused to date. I then sought help from the MIT Ombuds Office. One function of the ombuds is to provide a non-intimidating way to raise concerns about harassment without triggering MIT’s legal obligation to investigate.

Unfortunately, the ombuds I interacted with, who still works at the office, was neither professional nor helpful to my case. Twice, immediately after reading harassing emails, she made comments about my body, the second time bringing up my decision to wear shorts. The comments felt unwelcoming and even seemed to blame me, despite my being the victim. Anyone who deals with harassment should treat victims with respect and sensitivity. The ombuds advised me not to use a shared computer in the lab, because it might give the visiting student the impression that I was interested in him if I used equipment “on his side of the lab.” Restricting a student’s access to lab equipment should not be the Institute’s response to harassment complaints. She also told me to question my intuition about who had sent the email and advised that I look around at everyone in the lab to see who else might be acting strangely. This advice left me feeling even more isolated and anxious in the lab. Before visiting the Ombuds Office, I felt confident that the visiting student’s behavior was his own responsibility and that MIT would be able to help me. Afterward, I felt both embarrassed that I had sought help and helpless to prevent the situation from escalating.

Three weeks after receiving the first email, I spoke with the visiting student about it and asked him to leave me alone. For about a month he would sit with his head down, sometimes crying, when I came into the lab. One day he stopped me as I was leaving the lab and held a pair of scissors against the skin of his wrist and then stomach as he asked me repeatedly if I would date him. Each time that I answered no, he pressed the blade more tightly against his skin. From that point on, it became exceedingly difficult to continue working in an isolated basement lab with him. I went back to the Ombuds Office, but it continued to move at a very slow pace. I also spoke with my graduate advisor, which meant that MIT had been notified and had a legal responsibility to investigate and remedy possible harassment within a reasonable amount of time.

It was 72 days from the day I spoke with my advisor before anyone from MIT even spoke to the visiting student about what had happened, a delay that I believe was in violation of relevant laws. This long period put me in a difficult situation. My harasser knew that I had gone to our supervisor, saw that there was no response, and escalated his behavior. On one occasion he followed me out of the lab and down the street. During this period, I reached out to ask for help three times. It is difficult to ask for help, and some students may only be willing to ask once.

There are a number of reasons why faculty may find it difficult to handle a complaint, so MIT needs to provide guidance and support to ensure that problems are addressed promptly and fairly. MIT could introduce a specific timeline for addressing informal harassment complaints; clarify to faculty and staff that according to Title IX, MIT has a legal responsibility to address harassment that an employee knows about even if no formal complaint has been filed; and designate someone outside of a research group to take over the management of a harassment complaint in place of a faculty mentor.

When I became impatient with the Ombuds Office and looked for help elsewhere on campus, I encountered a confusing and bungling bureaucracy. My advisor worked with the MIT Office of the General Counsel to draft an agreement that restricted the hours both the visiting student and I would work so that we would not overlap. The lawyer, who did not even contact me to hear my take and thus could not have been fully informed, made an assessment that what happened was not actionable harassment. I was even told that the visiting student complained that I had somehow harassed him by working unpredictable hours and entering the office he shared with a staff scientist to speak with her about our project, both of which are normal in the life of a graduate student. I was asked to work alone at night in a lab where I didn’t feel safe (which I refused to do) and to sign an agreement threatening me with termination if I was in the lab outside of the hours of 5 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. (which I did do). I was later accused by my contact at the Ombuds Office of lying and telling my advisor that I had felt safe in the lab.

When I looked into filing a formal complaint, I was actively discouraged and told that it would create unnecessary hassles, reflect poorly on my lab and the physics department, and anger my advisor. MIT needs to make sure that the formal complaint system is effective and available. Complaints should be seen as steps to solve problems rather than as threats to the reputation of any department or lab. I was told by a physics department administrator that my advisor had been pleased with my progress as a student “until this happened.” Twice I asked for help from the Office of Student Citizenship. The first time, it took two weeks before I received an email response. The second time, I got no response at all because the office was unstaffed for a period of months in 2011. If for any reason essential offices have to be unstaffed for some period, their emails should be forwarded to someone who is available to help. When I turned to the Office of the Dean of Graduate Education, no appointments were available for a month. When I did get an appointment and told the dean that I was thinking of withdrawing because of harassment, she simply directed me to the appropriate forms.

I was fortunate to have the support of my family and friends to get through this difficult and disheartening time in my life, and luckily a productive research opportunity off campus became available to me in late 2010. While my best available solution was to leave campus, MIT needs policies and administrators who can do better than let harassed students leave while their harassers stay. As time goes by, I’ve begun to enjoy my work with the same enthusiasm I had before, and with the support of my advisor and other mentors, I’ve been able to contribute to exciting science and a ground-breaking discovery. However, it continues to bother me that current and future MIT students may face the same ineffective response, victim-blaming, and denial if they come forward about harassment. I hope that by sharing this story I can help push MIT towards fairness, accountability, and a safer learning and working environment.

Sheila Dwyer was a graduate student in the Department of Physics from 2007 to 2013.

Amber Houghstow almost 8 years ago

Thank you so much for sharing this. I went through a similar-ish experience and felt very alone at the time. I would love to help in any way I can to make sure other people don't have to experience this.

Anonymous almost 8 years ago

Fun fact: MIT is currently under investigation by the Dept. of Education's Office for Civil Rights for violating Title IX. You're not alone!

Heather almost 8 years ago

Oh... my. I think you have done us all a real service by sharing the details of your story. Basically we need clear systems in place, because doing the right thing is not the easiest path. A lot of times academics just want to focus on "the science", not on people.

Maria Niedernhuber almost 8 years ago

Thank you very much for sharing this!

I completely agree, I made similar experiences when filing a harassment complaint at the University of Oxford.

It is an embarrassment for the institution to act like this and such stories must be shared.

I will tweet this

Holley Hodgins almost 8 years ago

Thank you, thank you for writing. By perpetuating harassment, MIT could be losing brilliant scientists who are less brave/resilient than Sheila, and were unable to stay. And btw, MIT also endorsed criminal behavior in this case.