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'I started dreading going to class': Women speak out about sexual harassment experiences at Duke

Amid the #MeToo movement, two women share issues with the University’s handling of their cases

Content warning: This story includes a detailed account of sexual harassment. The Chronicle has changed the name of the students with an asterisk next to their name due to the sensitive nature of the story. Their harassers have also been given different names or not named upon the students’ request in fear of retribution.

If you have had experiences with sexual harassment or the Office of Institutional Equity that you would like to share with The Chronicle in a confidential manner, please contact Likhitha Butchireddygari at

“If you just put a frog in boiling water, it jumps out. But if you slowly turn up the heat, it stays in it until it dies.”

That’s how Anne* described her experience with one professor in the religious studies department, George*, last Spring. For Anne, who was enrolled in George’s class during her last semester as an undergraduate, it was small things over time.

Anne told The Chronicle that by the end of the semester, George had created an uncomfortable environment for her by talking about her appearance and regularly asking her before and during class to get coffee. Another student in the class also noted that George made inappropriate comments towards Anne.

“I started dreading going to class, because every time I walked in the door he had a comment about what I was wearing—if I wore a normal outfit and mascara, I looked ‘lovely’ and if I wore a sweatshirt he would say ‘surely [you] are heading to the gym,’” she said. “He asked me to meet for coffee one-on-one to ‘pick my brain’ most weeks, too, which I declined again and again.”

At approximately 9 p.m. the night before Valentine’s Day last year, Anne got an email seen by The Chronicle from George that she felt was improper.

“Ever since our first meeting, I was impressed with your keen intellect and unusual maturity. Every additional meeting has only confirmed those early impressions. I feel privileged to share a small portion of your college experience and just wanted to let you know,” he wrote. “I look forward to sharing the rest of the semester with you and reading some of your written work.”

Anne said she went back and forth about whether George’s behavior was inappropriate. At points, she thought he could just be an overly-friendly old guy. But then, in March, George asked Anne for a hug—something she was decidedly uncomfortable with.

“One day after class he walked up to me and said, ‘I’m sad, can I have a hug?’ I stood there frozen, with no idea how to respond to the request—I stood there awkwardly while he put his arms around me,” she wrote.

But by the end of the semester, Anne said she felt so uneasy about his behavior—which she said he made during most classes—that she would get to class exactly on time and dart out as soon as it was over. She also started not participating in the class.

“I was just so worried that he was just going to pick on me, and say things about me or make comments about my appearance that I just felt so uncomfortable that I would just sit there taking notes and be totally silent,” she said. “Then, when I would do that, he would come and sit next to me and lean over my desk and look at my notes.”

Anne decided not to file an official complaint with the Office of Institutional Equity—which handles harassment and discrimination complaints—but shared her experience with OIE and various religious studies department administrators. OIE decided to follow-up on Anne’s concerns with an investigation that included an interview with George.

“During his interview, the instructor denied engaging with you in an inappropriate manner,” concluded an OIE investigation. “He also denied some of the incidents you reported. The instructor acknowledged using phrases that were personal or intended to engage with students, but explained they were not used in a romantic or sex based context.”

The outcomes

Anne was not alone in her experience. Esther*, a graduate student, also faced harassment in the form of creepy emails and unwelcome touching from a male superior, who was found to have “more likely than not…violated the Duke Harassment Policy” through an OIE investigation. She said that she did not want to publicize the details of her story in fear of retaliation from the University. 

Both Esther and Anne’s alleged harassers are still at Duke and interacting with students, based on LinkedIn, DukeHub and Duke websites. In fact, George taught classes in Fall 2017 and is currently teaching this semester. 

For Esther, termination of her harasser was the only appropriate solution. 

“If he is found responsible, I think he should have been fired because it's a high-risk situation for him to interact with other female students,” Esther said.

For Anne, a just outcome didn’t necessarily include George’s termination. 

“I'm not saying that they need to fire him or to put him in jail or anything like that,” she said. “I'm really just saying, do the things you need to do to keep your students safe because that's what a university should do.”

She suggested that more useful University responses would have been further training for George, monitoring of his classes and collecting student evaluations tailored to his behavior. It is unclear whether any of these or other sanctions were placed on George following an OIE investigation in his behavior. The Chronicle reached out to George for this story and he declined to comment.

“As a result of the garnered information, we have reported them to the appropriate dean,” the OIE investigation into George’s behavior concluded.

David Morgan, professor of religious studies and chair of the department, wrote in an October 2017 email to Anne that the University’s response to her complaint went beyond what was in OIE’s letter, but didn’t give any specifics.

“I believe your concerns were frankly explored,” he wrote. “Moreover, as department chair, I can assure you that the entire matter has signaled to me the importance of diligent monitoring and proactive consideration of matters of sensitivity to gender dynamics in the classroom. The need to continue learning about this is ongoing, and the experience you’ve had has underscored the fact. Record-keeping is also a significant take-away.”

Morgan did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Issues with the OIE process

Like in Anne’s case, OIE did not share with Esther the sanctions placed on her alleged harasser. Both Anne and Esther found the lack of transparency to be problematic.

“At the very least, I think sanctions should be required for anyone found responsible and I think the process for deciding those things should be transparent for the person filing the claim,” Esther said.

According to page 14 of the OIE Harassment Policy and Procedure, the office will notify the parties of any sanctions that “relate directly to them” and will verify that remedial actions have been implemented. It does not say OIE will inform both parties of sanctions. 

Another aspect of the process that was troubling to Esther was not being able to talk to an objective, non-Duke affiliated advocate during the process. Both Anne and Esther interacted with Cynthia Clinton, assistant vice president in the OIE and director of harassment prevention and special projects.

“It shouldn't have just been me and a Duke lawyer,” Esther said. “That's an unfair power dynamic, where she tells me what I should be doing and I agree because I'm traumatized from this experience.”

Esther noted that this is where a graduate student union would have been helpful as they might have been able to provide her with an advocate. Clinton, however, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the office doesn’t push people in any direction regarding decisions they have to make during the process. One such decision is whether to go through the informal or formal process. 

The informal process, which should take no longer than 45 days, is when OIE and/or the respondent's department in consultation with OIE conduct an investigation. The formal process, which should be completed in 60 days, is when a three- or five-person panel adjudicates the case.

One factor that deterred Esther from choosing the formal process was having to appear in the same room as her alleged harasser. Clinton wrote that such a requirement is to ensure fairness.

“The procedures for the formal hearing process were adopted with the intent to protect the rights of both parties and to assure a fair process,” she noted.

Still, even if a complainant chooses the formal process, the hearing panel can decide that the case should be handled via the informal resolution process. When asked on what basis a hearing panel would make that decision, Clinton noted that it was “case-by-case.”

Clinton also wrote in an email that the office does not “discourage or encourage complainants to use a specific process”—informal or formal.

OIE’s Harassment Policy and Procedures, however, does include benefits of the informal process, stating it is generally “more expeditious and less polarizing than the formal process.”

In fact, Clinton noted in an email that “a very small percentage of complainants elect to use the formal complaint handling process.”

During the OIE investigation, there was a no-contact agreement between Esther and her alleged harasser. As part of that agreement, Esther had to inform a third party if she needed access to a certain building that her alleged harasser worked in. Through that process, he would be told that he wasn’t allowed to be there at that time. Esther found this provision troubling.

“It all required responsibility on my part to keep track of where he was and it would require him to know where I was,” she said.

But, now that the investigation is over, there is no institutional provision—even one that is perhaps flawed—that helps Esther avoid her harasser, who still works on campus in buildings Esther needs access to for work.

“Rather than risk encountering him in the spaces of my research and networking, I continue to avoid them entirely or develop contacts not relevant to my work,” she said.

One aspect of OIE’s harassment procedure was especially “ridiculous” to Esther. According to Duke’s harassment policy, there is a statute of limitations for when a complainant can file a complaint after the harassment incident occurred. For students, complaints are actionable until the student graduates. 

For all others, a complaint must be filed “no more than year after the most recent conduct alleged to constitute harassment.”

“I think it's ridiculous and it benefits only faculty and staff in superior positions to graduate students,” Esther said. “I think it's horrific, especially for graduate students because we're here working with [staff] for so long. Undergrads, you're here for four years, which is a really long time. Grad students are here for upwards of nine or 10 years.”

Esther submitted her complaint four months after the most recent harassment incident and Anne talked with OIE about two months after. Clinton wrote that the time limit is “intended to support the integrity and effectiveness of an investigation.” 

“While the Office for Institutional Equity may grant a reasonable extension of any other deadline established in the following procedures, the one year limit in which complainants may submit an allegation or complaint shall not be extended,” the policy states.

However, Clinton noted that OIE could initiate a complaint after a year. The policy states that this can be done “if the nature of the allegation or complaint is particularly egregious,” which will be determined by OIE, and as long as OIE initiates the complaint within a year of the learning about the incident.

#MeToo and preventing sexual harassment

Both Esther and Anne felt there isn’t enough being done at an institutional level to prevent sexual harassment. Currently, all Duke employees have to undergo online training modules regarding harassment when they first get hired by Duke and occasionally after, according to the Duke Human Resources website.

Esther said that the training isn’t an “effective or meaningful” preventative measure.

“I don't think there are any institutional preventative measures, except for an online module that we have to take before teaching, which you just click through the PowerPoint presentation and you're done,” she noted. “There's no in-person sort of orientation that makes harassment a knowable thing that we can also see and provides a community for addressing it.”

Esther said it was hard for her to even know if her experience was enough to merit a complaint. She said the #MeToo movement, which has sprung up in the last few months and included sexual assault and harassment allegations against prominent figures in the United States, gave credence to her experience.

“What #MeToo is doing in making this space for talking with each other is saying the experiences are all different, but they're all as important as one another,” she said.

Esther also felt that graduate students are particularly at risk of sexual harassment given their position at the University and the various workplaces they inhabit. In the 2015-16 academic year, about 19 percent of female graduate students and 6 percent of male graduate students reported experiencing sexual harassment, according to the Duke University Student Experiences Survey.

“Harassment and discrimination don't stand alone,” she said. “Harassment and discrimination emerge from issues of class discrimination, race discrimination, gender, trans-, and presentation discrimination, religious discrimination, linguistic discrimination, ability discrimination, all these things that Duke or any kind of structure of oppression, whether it's the advisor/advisee relationship, the general faculty and student relationship, male/female relationship—that deem some people powerless and some more powerful—that allow harassment to happen and for people to get away with it.”

Anne wrote in an email that there was an “upside of all this mess,” which is having an “opportunity to keep changing our institutions.” She added that more transparency in the process would benefit everyone.

“Ideally, everyone would feel like they were playing from the same rule book, one in which we are all able to learn and do great work with everyone feeling safe and cared for, without playing guessing games or going behind the scenes,” she wrote. “I think administrators want that as much as survivors do, and now we have to go through the hard work to make it happen in a way that centers around survivors, women of color, trans and [gender non-conforming] folks and workers.”

Likhitha Butchireddygari

Follow Likhitha on Twitter

Class of 2019

Editor-in-chief 2017-18, 

Local and national news department head 2016-17

Born in Hyderabad, India, Likhitha Butchireddygari moved to Baltimore at a young age. She is pursuing a Program II major entitled "Digital Democracy and Data" about the future of the American democracy.


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