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'Fear of cutting ties': Why some students are hesitant to report harassment

Content warning: This story includes detailed accounts of sexual harassment. 

Editor’s note: The Chronicle has changed the names of students with asterisks next to their names due to the sensitive nature of their stories. This is the second story of two about how and why students did not report their professor’s behavior earlier and how harassment persists, more broadly. The first describes how Duke handled allegations of sexual harassment against a professor.

Students who participated in Duke’s investigation of their professor and supervisor for harassment discussed how issues of harassment could have persisted for as long as they did.

Last semester, Duke’s Office of Institutional Equity found William “Tony” Rivera, former visiting professor with the Social Science Research Institute and director of the Laboratory for Unconventional Conflict Analysis and Simulation (LUCAS), responsible for violating its harassment policy. Rivera now works at the University of Maryland at College Park.

One former student and LUCAS staffer, Robert*, contacted OIE in 2014, 2015 and 2017, but did not name Rivera until a fourth time, in May 2017, according to an OIE report. He said he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to get someone to vouch for his time at the lab to potential employers. 

After the first incident in 2014, Robert actually told OIE what allegedly happened. He said Rivera took his students to an off-campus bar on the last day of Rivera’s class. Robert, who was drunk, said that he was walking back to his East Campus dorm when he noticed Rivera behind him. When they were on East Campus, Robert said Rivera told him that he wanted him and Robert felt compelled to kiss him. But, he soon regretted it and went to his room.

In the 2017 OIE investigation report, Rivera said “he ‘bumped into’ [Robert] after leaving [the off-campus bar], and [Robert] kissed him unexpectedly. He did not recall placing his hands on [Robert] or telling [Robert] he wanted him.”

At the time of the incident, Robert couldn’t bring himself to name the professor.

“I felt extremely worried and scared about my future at Duke because he was still here. He's still connected,” Robert said. “I had mentioned to [OIE] what class I was in, but I didn't tell them the name because I wanted assurances first. And that was what I was really trying to get at—like what assurances can you give me so that I can give you the name?”

Because he didn’t feel assured in this first conversation about his future, Robert didn’t report Rivera’s name the first time. He was told that without a name, OIE couldn’t do anything. He went back later to talk to OIE after the last day of classes his senior Spring semester. 

Soon after Robert contacted OIE, Noah* also contacted OIE in June 2017.

“I decided pretty soon after I left the lab that I just wanted to do it—to just go through with the process,” he said. “Like this now, it's not fun to talk about, but I felt I had a duty to do it. That it would be worth it to share it.”

‘That’s just Tony’

Another former student worker in the lab, Emma*, said that Rivera was a “charismatic and personable guy.” She added that his personality and behavior were possibly attempts “to make students comfortable to talk in class or work on his research projects with him.” 

At first, his behavior seemed “harmless,” but after she rejected him when he approached her about the possibility of starting a romantic relationship, he turned cold toward her, she claims.

“When I rebutted him the last time, our working relationship changed drastically,” she said. “His mood around me, which had always been joking and friendly with non-work situations and serious and considerate for work-related interactions, turned cold, bordering on hostile.”

In the report, Rivera “declined to provide further response” when asked if he had ever expressed a romantic interest in Emma.

Some of the students The Chronicle interviewed justified Rivera’s behavior as “that’s just Tony.” Emma was one of those students.

“You can't ask someone to not be them, right? I mean, that's not fair,” Emma said. “And in trying to be fair to who that person was, I think myself and maybe other people in the lab might have just made that excuse almost consciously for him.”

In a statement to The Chronicle, Rivera said that he would not change the way he expressed his masculinity.

“If [the investigator] or this or that student do not like the way I express my masculinity, that is too bad,” he wrote. “That does not constitute sexual harassment in any reasonable world. That it does so in this world is just too bad.”

Another reason a few students stayed quiet was that they feared no one would believe them given their perception of Rivera’s connection to Human Resources and other faculty members. 

“I just felt like I didn't have the same kinds of relationships to be able to get somebody maybe on my side or see my side of the story because ‘Tony's such a cool, funny guy. Like, what do you mean he's making this workplace hard for you? You're a student with this awesome lab position.’” Emma said.

Emma also noted that Rivera asked all information about day-to-day office management issues, such as pay and hours, to go through him and not HR. She added that she didn’t feel like she could go to HR because “he was closer to them.”

‘You rely on your professors’

Some of the students The Chronicle talked to said they felt as though the lab did not have proper oversight. A few students said that they told certain political science faculty members about what was going on in the lab, but that the professors did not seem to take any intervening action or perhaps were unable to do so.

One professor told one student that he would keep an eye on the situation for other complaints and told another that the lab was sort of like a startup, where workers are “expected to punch above their weight.”

Emma also used the idea of a startup when describing the lab’s structure, saying that it made it hard to identify where to go with complaints. 

“There wasn't a lot of these mechanisms that you might see in the more professional company-type settings that would have some sort of structure for students or interns to go to when these policies were violated,” she said.

Ultimately, Emma felt that the power dynamic between Rivera and his students and interns created a situation where these incidents could occur. She added that unfair power dynamics can be seen everywhere in academia.

“You rely on your professors for grades, for letters of recommendations. You rely on your [principal investigators] for the same thing. Even if you leave the job at some point, you need a letter from them saying that you did good work and that they're happy to recommend you to somebody else,” she said. “So, I think there's a level in academia where a student might be hesitant to characterize something as inappropriate with the fear of cutting those ties and missing that opportunity of a recommendation letter or glowing review for a possible internship just because that's the kind of student, career-driven environment [in which] we exist,” she added.

'We must do more'

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. Students have said that they think this training is inadequate. 

Students were also disappointed in the lack of transparency in the process. Both Robert and Noah said they were disappointed they didn’t know what disciplinary action, if any, had been taken against Rivera. 

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 whether OIE will inform both parties of sanctions, nor does it mention informing anyone not a party of the case of disciplinary actions.

“The reason I came forward was to stop him from doing this to other people,” Noah said. “Because I never was informed of the result of the OIE process, I assumed that nothing had changed. So I was under the impression that he was still at Duke, which was tough.”

President Vincent Price last month announced a campus "self-assessment" of sexual harassment and wrote, “We must do more.”

He asked the leaders of all academic units to self-assess the current sexual harassment climate. Provost Sally Kornbluth, Chancellor for Health Affairs A. Eugene Washington and their teams are developing an assessment plan by May 15 and will work with academic leaders to develop action plans by Sept. 1, 2018.

“Over the past few months, we have experienced a profound moment of reckoning about sexual harassment in the academic world,” Price wrote. “We have seen situations around the country, and here at Duke, in which faculty and students have been subjected to behavior that creates a hostile environment or leads to damaging consequences for work, careers and personal welfare.”

Read Rivera’s full statement here

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 likhitha.butchireddygari@duke.edu.

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