Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Brief History of Threats

Some of the more disturbing threats I've received in my academic life were:

1 - undergraduate: A practical joke that a friend played on me (because I had played one on her and well deserved some sort of retaliation) backfired. The joke was to advertise widely that I was associated with a particular repugnant political group. I got death threats until the college president intervened with a college-wide announcement. There were even announcements to this effect on the local radio stations, as the death threats had included mention of snipers targeting me on and beyond campus. My friend felt worse than I did about this all, and yes, we are still friends.

2 - graduate student: A male student in a lab for which I was the teaching assistant kept asking me disturbing questions, ranging from "Do you walk home alone at night?" to "Do you worry about being raped?" and then even "Would you like to be raped?". I reported that one, but no faculty in my department thought it was serious enough to discuss with the student, and I was too clueless to talk to anyone outside my department about it. Friends walked me home for the rest of the semester until we all felt that the threat was gone.

3 - professor: An unstable postdoc told the department chair that several faculty (including me) and a grad student were trying to kill her. The postdoc then had a personal chat with God, who gave the postdoc permission to do whatever was necessary to make these faculty and their families suffer. There were some scary incidents involving broken glass, knives, astrology, theft, and the postdoc's showing up late at night in the department (and in my office) even once denied after-hours access to the building. The department chair refused to call the police, but he did fire the postdoc, which then involved a loss of visa status.

There have been others, but those are some of the more memorable. So far nothing really bad has happened to me or my colleagues, just some anxiety and stress. In another case, however, an unhappy grad student threatened some faculty (including me), got some professional help, seemed to recover, and then committed suicide a few years later. This was really tragic and shook everyone up, but one of my colleagues commented that he was just glad that the student didn't decide to take some others along when the suicidal urges became so extreme.


Jane said...

Geez, what is it with department chairs refusing to recognize threats like this as potentially dangerous? When I was regularly getting harrassing phone calls at my office, and finally brought it to my chair's attention, his first reaction was to caution me against "jumping to conclusions too quickly" and "unnecessarily involving campus security". Um, yeah, because being called a f*cking bitch is harmless, I guess. (Luckily, when I finally went to campus security, they were rightfully appalled....and *then* my chair and the deans started taking the threats seriously. Imagine that.)

Auntie Em said...

Ugh - how horrible for you. I can't believe (no sadly, I can believe) the lack of support you've received through official channels.

In my time as a lecturer I suffered harassment and intimidation from a "gang" of 4 male students who would come to my 7pm lecture (after security had all retired to the periphery of the campus, far away from my theatre) and make a point of being as provocative and intimidatory as possible. I brought this matter up in a professional development course (on skills for newbie teachers) and was advised by the tutor to "sit down with the four of them after the lecture and try to negotiate some boundaries". A course which, needless to say, I didn't pursue!

When harassment and intimidation are never tackled by those with the power to do something, it's depressingly likely that we'll each build up a fund of scary stories in the course of our careers.

Ms.PhD said...

Very, very scary. And appalling to think how many of these things are squelched to try to maintain the reputation of the school, when in fact dealing with the police in the first place would probably prevent the sort of thing that happened a VA Tech.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the power structure and the demands placed by academia lead to a higher incidence of such problems or if women in non-academic settings face them too.

mapletree7 said...

In retrospect, do you think you should have been more willing/quick to involve the polie or campus security?

Mr. B. said...

Anonymous raises an interesting point concerning the rate of incidence of such bad behavior in academia vs. that in non-academia.

Having worked at a reasonably good company, 3M, I would say that things are much WORSE in academia for a variety of reasons.

I once witnessed an incident of harrassment at 3M and when I reported it to someone from management he literally RAN out of my office to do something about it.

I have witnessed many things worse than this since returning to academia and not much gets done about it, mostly because the administration is gutless and the juveniles responsible are bringing in a lot of grant money.

A disappointed Bonzo.

Auntie Em said...

Mike the Mad Biologist has an interesting post on the failure of campus judicial systems. It seems to go to the heart of what's being talked about here.

Philippe said...

Feel free to dismiss the following wild & unsupported theory as I have zero evidence to back this up!
I completely sympathise with those of you who report abusive behaviour but get no support from college bureaucracy - is it because people who gravitate to such safe little roles find it difficult to face the Real World off-campus?
Whatever their issues - in the light of the latest gun atrocity, is it possible that you can lobby the governors/local politicians to improve this complaints process?
My thoughts are with you guys.

Mr. Driver said...

It is no wonder you have nut cases like the one who shot all those students when I read this sort of thing.

Is it not proof that America get more and more sick by the day?

Hugh said...

There is indeed something strange about academia. The huge majority of people I have ever met have no connection to the university I attended, but about half the people I have ever met who I found out later killed themselves had at one time been either students or faculty there.