"Winning" a Title IX case

(by proflikesubstance) Dec 20 2016

The post below was written by a friend who has been through a lot in the past few years. I'm hosting it (was previously on pastebin) here to keep a permanent archive and also to make sure it gets seen. I am always shocked at what some universities will do to keep their "reputation" from being tarnished, while destroying those who build that reputation every day. And yet...
It's time we stop being shocked and start making sure this shit doesn't happen at our own universities.

Did I win yet? The papers I have in my hand tell me I've won. Liars have been revealed. Gossip spread about me was shown to be untrue. Misdeeds, harassment and retaliation that were all showered down on me when I participated in a Title IX investigation at my university were revealed. The committee that wrote the report got the major facts right. They named the folks who did horrible things. Some of these people opportunistically piled on me for betraying the 'reputation' of my university. And others were paranoid and crazy to begin with and thought they could gain something by just adding some colorful lies. But this little gem of a report I’m holding, it really managed to dig out the truth. Of course, there is nothing in this report saying any of the liars, gossips, slanderers or attackers should face consequences. The report just says I should not be punished. I should not face consequences for having been truthful in a sexual harassment and retaliation case.

A giant report that spans years of my life is now sitting in my office. It contains my emails. My social media. Testimony about who hates me, and every problem anyone on campus has ever had with me, because disagreeing with me makes me a less credible witness, I guess. The person who ran the Title IX investigation that allowed me to be pulled apart for two years is still working for my university. He allowed my integrity to be openly questioned amongst my peers. What the Title IX investigator actually needed was a statement about what I witnessed. But he took so much more. He took the word of the accused and made me the focus of an investigation. The Title IX investigator took these false allegations to my peers - people who were use to this faculty's harassment, who had justified it to themselves and collaborated with it - just to see if any of them had anything bad to say about me. My report now says the accused was wrong to try to divert attention to me in this way and the Title IX investigator was wrong to pursue me.

But the committee studying this whole thing says I won. Winning is an odd word to put with having paid a lawyer $10,000 to sit in a room with me while lawyers hired by my university asked about my friendships, my sex life, my funding, my marriage. They were also very keenly interested in knowing why was I such a bitch? I stared straight ahead thinking of the $450 and hour my lawyer was charging and wondered what part of my frontal cortex I could dissect and to not be a bitch under these circumstances. I stared straight ahead answering all their questions. For hours and hours. I wasn’t trying to be friendly. I was trying to be honest to the best of my ability and I was focusing intently on the truth.

It turns out this kind of intent focus made me both unlikable and, oddly, less credible. Which is interesting from a scientist’s perspective. I mean…..I don’t have to like you to look at a fact and see if it’s supported. I see many people who don’t like each other agree on science and facts. But lawyers, they get to write reports and discuss how much they like you.....how 'credible' you are. I wish I got a chance to tell them I didn’t like them much either.

Another fun fact about having the tables turned on you and being investigated by someone covering up bad behavior at your university is that you never get to call a single witness on your own behalf. Not a single person who could talk about the minority and mentoring programs I run. No one who can talk about the culture of horrific harassment, gossip and meanness that swirls around here and particularly around ‘women with opinions’. I would have liked to call a witness who could say that maybe this all started when I was at dinner and a senior faculty who collaborated with the accused and he asked me if I was the on top during sex with my husband. And that when I marched into my chairman’s office the next day and told him this was degrading, that I was, in fact, taking on decades of this kind of behavior at my university. That is was not an ignorant comment. It was a hostile culture. I left my chairman to handle it as he saw fit but in doing so, I opened the door to becoming ‘the bitch’. So much for a measured response.

The 'bad guys (and gals!)', the ones that piled on, have all gotten promoted during this process. The university has their back professionally. Having tenure will do that. But I won. I have a report that says so. What I don’t have is a raise, an apology or even an acknowledgement of what the administrators at this school did in an effort to get me to Stop. Telling. The. Truth.
The funny thing is, I would have gladly saved their reputation. At the outset, I wanted to be the poster child for how this process could go right. I was going to make damn sure it went right. It would be hard, but maybe I could help people see the bigger picture of what we needed to do for our students. Apparently no one thought of that. No one bothered to think I might want to help. Now I'm just some sort of weird academic PTSD poster child.

In spite of being a winner, I have to say, I haven’t been very good at my job during these past few years. I have been subject to multiple rounds of investigation. I check the boxes that need to be checked, move up the papers I can, but I use to write 6-8 grants a year. Last year I wrote none. It’s hard to have the energy just to go into work, and with writing a grant I might as well be willing myself to fly. I have no wings.

The university, well, they found in my favor.....mostly. They did want to mention that when they ask me about small details from 10 years ago that weren't even part of any investigation previously but the accused harasser 'just found', one of them found my answers confusing and insincere. Which seems reasonable since I was sincerely confused. And my confusion on this 'thing', it was a topic that had nothing to do with harassment, yet one panelist was so vexed by this 5 minutes of confusion that they repeat over and over under every 'charge' I faced, that my answers to events 10 years ago made me no longer credible. That, as you know, means that person doesn't like me much either. But here I am. It’s 2 am and I've won, dammit. Which is nice when you’re telling the truth and deans and lawyers have told you are lying for so long that the gaslighting has made you think you are a terrible person for pursuing this in the first place.

Early on, I was told by emphatically that not to talk to anyone about this case. I was not to talk to anyone to defend myself against these liars. Friends came to me desperate to help. And I told them to leave it. I also had no advocate to help me. No one to help prepare documents that took weeks to write and rewrite. No one to help me read testimony and put together timelines that would show people were lying.

But, here’s the thing, even in my testimony, I was only telling part of the truth. There’s a whole lot more no one even bothered to ask about. Just between you and me, everyday I walk around feeling like someone is cryosectioning my heart while it beats in my chest. Even worse, I have had people I love walk away from me. Because it’s too much to bear. My tears, my anger and my despair, they are simply too much to bear. They write emails and tell me they support 'my cause' but can't talk to me. I am now a cause. I just wanted my friends back. And there it is...this feeling as though I am having 10 micron sections cut from my heart, day after day, like some freak side show at The Bodies exhibit.

These three years taught me about how anxiety can take a fully capable and confident young scientists and make them sit in their car hoping to get the courage to go into work and cheer my students on, ever fearful they may see thru me. Afraid that my exhaustion, brokenness and sadness will one day over run my desire to see them succeed. I have cried every day since May 9th and many days before that. Sometimes I cry giant ugly fat tears of rage and despair. Other times hot tears of injustice. I have seven main kinds of crying. When you cry enough and you're a scientist, you start to categorize them. My family and friends have seen me turn from exuberant and engaged to shattered and with no clear career path. No one asks me to give their kids tours of the campus anymore because I just sort of mutter things and point at trees. I don’t have anything to say.

Tomorrow I'll talk to the Justice Department. They have assured me that they are the best of the best; that I have followed every step as I should have and now they will take on my university’s Title IX office. They tell me my university loves lawyers and fights hard against any punitive action or being forced to acknowledge wrong doing about sexual assault or harassment. I understood that pretty clearly a long time ago, but I guess it’s nice they confirmed it? The Department of Justice has also told me that the most severe punishment they can impose is to require more training for everyone at my university. Nothing public. Just everyone taking more training. I laughed when they said it. I asked them if they knew training didn't work for sexual harassers. People had studied it and it doesn’t work. Yes, they said…they do know that. I then wonder why I was laughing. Maybe I haven’t found tears for when the Department of Justice says you’re screwed even if you win?

It's 2 am and I’m sitting with my winning report in one hand and knife a friend gave me to protect myself in another. He sent it to me because the person accused of harassment also cyber stalked and intimidated me and my friends. He posted pictures on our account of him with his guns and called us out by name. He told my husband he “didn't have any plans” to hurt me or my children. Others told the committee that yes, he was obsessed with me, but they weren't worried-he couldn't be *that* dangerous. Many a sleepless night I’ve wondered how far I'm going to get with a guard dog and a 3 inch knife and a heart that is barely intact when this man finally goes into his inevitable rage. The knife won't do much. I know this. But I want my friends to know I went down fighting. I wonder when this man's rage will come out fully. Sometimes I’m 100% convinced that will be the day when this all becomes public, and I'll need that knife. On particularly bad nights, when I know he’s been taken to task for his bad behavior that day, I have friends check on me in the morning. To make sure he hadn't killed me in my home. I tell them about what’s happened that day, tell them where my diary is hidden that night and make them remember to tell the police to look him up first. I forbid my children to sleep in my bed. I desperately want to curl up with them, but it seems unsafe for them to be so close to me if he comes. This is what it's like to win your Title IX case.

Friends and the DOJ suggested I call the police. When I did, a very sweet officer came and sat in my living room and told me the kind of gun I should get. And how, when I had to kill the trespasser I was to say, "I was in mortal fear for my life" when the police come. Apparently juries and judges like that. I am, in fact, in mortal fear for my life. This is what it’s like to win a Title IX case.
And if, while I’m talking to the DOJ tomorrow, someone on my campus is be assaulted, the investigator who interviews them may be the same one that helped to turn the tables and make a Title IX investigation about me. He still works here. And he can decide to take a manila folder of information from the victim's assailant and investigate her, because maybe she too will have a credibility problem. Because that's how Title IX works. I should know. I’m a winner.


19 responses so far

Unofficial Drugmonkey Day

(by proflikesubstance) Sep 23 2016

Today is a bit of a day of appreciation for one of the steadiest presences in the Blogging As Scientist game. Whereas I haven't been blogging here in.... a while, there was a time when I had 4-5 posts a week rattling around in my head. Everything was new, and I had no idea what I was doing in this job, but blurting it all out on a screen somehow made me feel a bit better about the chaos. For a while I was writing for only me, in the sense that I didn't really have an audience and I was just writing to write. Somehow, Drugmonkey noticed a tiny blog and linked to it, significantly changing my audience and approach.

Much has changed in the 8 years since then, but ultimately blogging changed me. I know that sounds corny AF, but through conversations here and on other bogs, my perspective on several issues evolved in ways it wouldn't have otherwise. This is in no small part due to Drugmonkey's influence and tireless writing.

More directly, I never would have tried my hand at obtaining NIH funding without reading the near endless supply of NIH information on Drugmonkey's blog. Between a variety of posts and his patience in answering a stream of n00b questions, I can actually say that I've been able to trick NIH into giving me some money successfully obtain some funding from NIH.

In many small ways and some large ones, a person whom I have never met has been a significant mentor throughout my early career development. For those who would argue that blogging is a waste of your time as an academic, just send them over to Drugmonkey's place for a bit of an education.

3 responses so far

How do we fix reporting of harassment?

(by proflikesubstance) Mar 08 2016

The more and more we hear about discrimination and harassment in academia, the more it becomes clear that one of the biggest problems with the current system is the potential for roadblocks along the reporting path. Somewhere along the way, it is possible for a Chair, Dean, Administrator, Lawyer, etc., to say "this isn't enough to be considered." and that's it. And certainly, with the degree to which universities appear to be more interested in self-protection than fixing the problem, these incidents can and have been swept under the rug with little to no change.

So how do we start to fix the reporting side? How do we remove roadblocks to the reporting process so that complaints are at least heard at the different levels they need to be? At my institution there is a form that one fills out to submit a complaint, which is filtered through our (woefully understaffed) Affirmative Action office, which spends 90 days investigating before a finding is sent to the Provost. Just the Provost.

I see a lot of issues here, many of them stemming from whether the mindset of a few individuals is set to protect the university or protect the complainant. Recent cases in the news make it very clear where many administrators are inclined to come down.

I don't have the answer, but I do seem to have the ear of the people in admin who could likely effect change. How do we set up a reporting system that is both transparent enough, while protect victims? Who needs to be informed of a complaint and when? How do we simplify the process to make it as easy as possible for victims to be heard? What safeguards need to be in place to protect them after a complaint? How do we make it so we are not asking the victims to shoulder all the work and consequence of this process?

I am aware of the issues that exist on the punishment side of this equation, but for now I would like to focus on the reporting side.

5 responses so far

Let's stop blaming the alcohol

(by proflikesubstance) Feb 10 2016

As more and more cases of academic sexual harassment continue to come out into the light (and I believe this is barely the appetizer course), there's a lot of people navel gazing about what can be done. And rightfully so - this is a problem that has festered WAY too long, as the stories make clear. Pretty much every field has AT LEAST one dude who "people know" is a lecherous asshole, but there he/they is/are at every meeting. They still have labs and trainees and still get funding. They exist within the field, in spite of their crimes.

An obvious focus has been the use of alcohol at university functions, society meetings, social gatherings, etc. I get it, it's those nighttime functions where a lot of this stuff is initiated. Lower inhibitions, or in some likely criminal situations like the Richmond accusations, an inability to consent. Those in the power position of these situations are quick to blame the alcohol for something they would never do otherwise (until the rest of the stories spill out) or use it to victim blame. So, The People Say: BAN THE ALCOHOL!

But here's the thing. It was never the alcohol. The alcohol didn't let the lecherous predator out from the normally totally cool prof dude who is universally beloved. That's not how this works. If someone has a couple of drinks and goes into sexual harassment mode, chances are they do it sober, just not in front of *you*. If someone is a couple drinks away from endangering someone, especially someone they have some form of power over, it has nothing to do with the alcohol.

So rather than ban alcohol, I have a better solution. How about we actually punish people when these situations arise? And don't give me all the "well but" hypothetical solutions that come up all the time. I'm sorry, but if you find yourself aroused by someone you have career power over, then deal with the situation through proper channels while sober before advancing things. If you want to consensually knock boots someone at a similar career stage without a loaded power dynamic, I'm not talking about you. Will there be some gray areas? Yeah, but I'll take that if it means consequences for serial harassers.

It's well past time to address the culture that enables this behavior without pretending like the real problem here is adults acting like adults after a beer or two. It was never the alcohol.

17 responses so far

What IS indirect cost money, anyway?

(by proflikesubstance) Feb 09 2016

Based on discussions on twitter, it seems pretty clear that a lot of Non-PI scientists don't really understand the concept of indirect costs, aka overhead. Most people know that a university's overhead rate is what they take from federal grant dollars to "keep the lights on", so to speak. But how is it calculated and how is it spent?

The indirect rate is something each university negotiates with the federal government. So, when someone tells you their overhead rate is 51%, that the number their university has worked out with the feds. The rates for NSF, DoD and NIH are always the same, USDA and (I think) NASA are lower. That's a discussion for another time. Now, a rate of 51% does not mean half your grant goes into the dark cauldron of university expenses. Overhead is calculated by taking the total of adjusted* direct costs and finding the 51% of that number and adding it to the total direct costs.

So, if your adjusted direct costs are $100k, the overhead on that will be $51k. If, once you add tuition and equipment in, your total direct costs are $120K, the total budget will be $171k. In this hypothetical case, the overhead amount on the grant is only about 30% of the total budget. NIH applicants only ever deal with their direct costs in a budget (ie, NIH budget limitations, inasmuch as the exist, are on direct costs only, not total budget), but everyone else calculates the total budget.

Ok, so now that we have calculated overhead and you were awarded the grant, what happens to all that money? Well, it doesn't get freed up into the coffers until you spend money off your grant. For every dollar you spend, fifty-one cents of overhead money gets it's wings. As you spend, the university gets cash.

Most of that cash will find it's way directly into the university-level machine. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 70-80% will get gobbled up right away, with the rest landing next in your college. Your college will take a giant bite out of that (usually at least 50%), before your department gets to swing the bat. Different departments do it differently, and I've seen situations where the department takes everything that remains, whereas others return all of the overhead back to the investigator. Usually the solution is somewhere in between, so let's say that 50% goes to the department and 50% goes to the PI.

The PI is allowed to use that money to do things like cover shipping, buy software and journal subscriptions, bring in people for interviews for lab positions, cover salary, etc. In many places, this is a very useful, if small, pot of money to have available. However, overhead generated on a particular project should, by law, be expended entirely by the end of that project. In practice, this is almost impossible, but stockpiling overhead money to CYA later is heavily frowned upon.

What the university and college do with the overhead money varies, but much of it is related to supporting costs of the research enterprise (think, compliance, university vet, grants staff, etc.). Additionally, those monies are often used as part of start-up packages for new hires, meaning a lean year for indirects directly effects the hiring and recruitment process.

* Some things like equipment and tuition are non-overhead bearing budget lines, so they are subtracted from the total.

17 responses so far

The new class

(by proflikesubstance) Jan 28 2016

For better or for worse, I decided to ditch the class I had been teaching pre-tenure and create a new class. The new class has some cross-over with my previous one, but is aimed at an earlier (2nd years) and larger audience. I also decided to team teach the course, because my co-instructor brings a ton of interesting and useful experience to the table for this class.

The last time I did a new class prep, it was horrible. That was the hardest semester I've had in this job, for a variety of reasons, but class creation was chief among them. I thought I had a plan for it, but it kicked my ass so hard. That experience left me with mixed feelings going into this semester. I know have way more service and departmental responsibility than I did back then, a much larger lab and I'm juggling different grants while writing for some new opportunities. I don't have time for an ass kicking.

It's early yet, but this time around is completely different. I could almost saying I'm kind of enjoying it. The experience I have at this point makes it WAAAAAY easier to know what to include in a lecture and what to toss. I have a good feel for timing, which was lost on me before. I don't feel like I need to add content to avoid coming up short. Instead I have the confidence to know I can talk through the material in different ways, depending on the time available. Since the class is right in my wheelhouse, I'm having fun with adding in information from the literature.

In short, it could not be a more different experience. I am controlling the class, rather than surviving it. This job continues to amaze.

One response so far

Tenure Funk

(by proflikesubstance) Jan 14 2016

So much academic advice and energy is focused on tenure. How do you get tenure? How do you survive pretenure? What are the tenure requirements at your institution? On and on and on. It's an important milestone, since it is a rare opportunity for your university to tell you to leave, but for 90% of institutions there is far more bark than bite.

I never focused on tenure. It was never my goal. I focused on staying relevant in my field and getting good science out. I focused on keeping the lights on by getting grants. I focused on training my students so I would be proud of them when they left. I reasoned that doing those things would put me in a position to get tenure and stressing about the milestone itself did no good. We also have annual reviews here, so I knew I was on the right track.

And it worked. I jumped the bar and have the official letter to prove it. And then something unexpected happened*.

That summer and well into the next year I fell into a funk that I hadn't experienced before. I wasn't depressed, I wasn't sad, but I felt like I needed some time away. I let deadlines go unmet. I ignored things I shouldn't have ignored. I went to conferences and barley attended talks. I pretty much stopped blogging or reading blogs. Once I got tenure I looked back and realized that I had spent years either writing grants to pay someone else to do cool science or writing papers about cool science someone else had done. I had an office job and now all the benefits and protections of being pretenure were torn away like a badly stuck band-aid.

In retrospect, the drive to tenure was taking a toll on me, whether I realized it or not. I never felt anxious about getting tenure, but clearly the looming deadline had been weighing on me. While I was great to get that behind me, it felt a little like bursting through the curtain to an empty auditorium. "Congrats, now which of these committees would you like to be on!"

I took a semester sabbatical, which did little to change things. I wrote a pile of new grants and some got funded. It was fine, but really not until this last summer (a year post-tenure) did I start to re-engage. I honestly don't know why I stepped away or what brought me back, but things are rolling again. We have new stuff going in the lab. We have some new opportunities and some old ones have starting bearing fruit. Things are good, but it took a bit to be at peace with where I was at, professionally.

*And yes, I know this is basically the top of the First World Problems mountain.

14 responses so far

Protecting students from bad PIs

(by proflikesubstance) Jan 13 2016

Astro physics has been in news a lot recently, with a series of sexual harassment cases involving male PIs and female students. As anyone who has worked in academia for a while knows, these are not isolated cases. Academia is as bad about dealing with sexual harassment as many private and public sector jobs are, and the consequences for the students involved can be complete career annihilation. This is a massive problem tat we are not treating with the urgency it deserves, and it is hardly the only issue that can lead to students being pushed out of academia.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that needs to be dealt with at the departmental and university levels. Of course, an issue that disproportionately effects students that needs to be dealt with by administration is only acted upon if that admin is motivated. They rarely are, which is why the problem exists. And we go round and round.

I get that it makes sense to take the bull by the horns as a student applying to work in a lab, but some things just don't work:

On first glance you might think, "okay, that's one way to start a conversation about expectations, etc...." but take this a step or two further.

- Asking someone an incredibly invasive personal question on an interview aside, what's to say that the situation today is predictive of tomorrow? Things could be going great today, but a car accident, unexpected health issue of a child/parent/spouse, or relationship issue down the road is no less likely to occur if you ask this question. Life happens and it's impossible to predict what the reaction will be.

- Do you have the right to even ask this question? I mean, should a potential PI feel obligated to describe their personal health information to you? The answer is no. You don't know anyone's home situation and you're not privy to that information, even if it may affect you one day. Why not ask if they're on anti-depressants? How much they drink? Whether they do drugs? Are they seeing a therapist? I mean, that's basically shades of the same question. Can you see where this becomes problematic?

Asking that type of question will not protect you from anything and is more than likely going to alarm a potential PI. Maybe it's a vehicle to a good conversation in a few instances, but I doubt it would generally play well.

I am acutely aware that the power differential between PI and trainees is a very steep slope, and that more protections need to be in place for students. Reforms at the department and university level for student (and really anyone junior) protection are desperately needed, but the "advice" above is not how we get there.

20 responses so far

The New PI Goldfish

(by proflikesubstance) Dec 18 2015

There's lots of ways to start a new lab. Some, however, have proven more successful over time than others. Whereas the responsibilities of different new PIs are wide ranging, most include advancing a research program. How does one do that?

I am a huge fan of taking a diverse approach to one's research question. My lab has had success working across different system and focusing on a couple of main questions, who's trajectories may be headed in distant or similar directions at any one time. I think the key to surviving in a time of tight budgets is flexibility and locking into a single question/system is unlikely to make that simple. Obviously many people find success going down a single rabbit hole, but I don't think I would be as effective at that.

With that said, the new PI cannot chase research projects like butterflies in a garden if the hope is to build a program that will attract external funding. You have two resources as a new PI that you must invest very wisely: Time and Money. They are finite and wasting either has far greater consequences for you that it does for your senior colleagues.

Really cool opportunities will come up all the time. Your ability to discern which ones are worth your resources, and particularly how much of your resources, will play a large part in whether your research program takes off or sputters. As tempting as it is to chase down everything that comes along, spreading yourself too thin is a bad trap to fall into.

Identify your bread and butter and invest heavily in that. Cultivate side projects that you contribute to, but don't do the heavy lifting for. Your grant writing and paper writing should mainly concentrate on advancing your core, with minor contributions to side things. The bar for funding, WRT preliminary data and proof that you know what you're doing is too high to mess around. If your goal is an externally funded research program, having initial focus is fairly critical, before you broaden your scope.

3 responses so far

Considering the fame of potential advisors?

(by proflikesubstance) Dec 02 2015

In the context of the three most important questions on should ask when choosing a postdoc, came this:

Ok. I get this. But damn if this isn't bad for science. We complain about the homogeneity of academic science. There are large fields where the Academic Tree of Life looks more like a bush, with a few central hubs (almost always older white men). We complain about science too often being a "who you know" game, despite claims of a meritocracy. And the reason all this is an issue is precisely encapsulated above.

Was your advisor famous enough to turn some heads in a search committee? On a funding panel? Are you one of the chosen, or just someone doing science for people who have to work to get their papers in the upper tier journals?

From the selfish perspective of a student who might benefit from such career advantages, I recognize the utility here. But this kind of thing is as corrosive as the Glam Mag Game. Doing great science and learning new tools (Matt's other two suggestions) should be the most critical pieces of the puzzle. Unfortunately, like the Glam Mag Game, individual decisions and motives drive a behavior that is bad for the overall endeavor.

15 responses so far

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