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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.

Comments
1
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.
2
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!
3
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.
4
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
5
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.
6
Thank you for sharing your story. As a cis-man of color at MIT, I did not face the harassment you faced, and I only hope that your piece helps to open up the eyes of many on campus that don't think about those targets and perpetrators of harassment and how to be an advocate for change. Thank you again for your bravery in sharing. I often think that many of the systemic short-comings of such important and serious matters happen because literally, these services are not "valued" in a budgetary way. That is, support mechanisms seem to often be under-funded and staffed and are left with well-intentioned individuals who burn out easily and end up delivering sub-par services. No excuse of course, but the more I work in broken systems, the more motivation there is to create new programs and supports for people.
7
This other student sounds disturbed. MIT faculty and staff should have acted more quicky for your protection and his.

I'm sorry you had to endure this. Thanks for making noise about this. Hopefully this will encourage change.
8
Sheila, thank you for bravely sharing your story. To "Heather at 10:31 am on April 2...", thank you for your statement. Destructive behavior at MIT - not only on the part of the students, but on the part of faculty and managers in the non-academic units - are specifically unaddressed by those in a position to affect change out of concern for their own self-preservation. The lack of action to address these issues is perpetuated not out of choosing science over people, it is perpetuated out of choosing self over both science and people. To "Anonymous at 5:27 pm on April 1...", clearly a violation of Title IX is a grave concern to MIT. What about Title VII? As much as MIT is obligated to comply with Title IX, I am concerned that the Institute may have additional egregious violations under Title VII that are unaddressed and unmitigated because these claims are evaluated by biased individuals within MIT's central Human Resources Department. While central MIT HR certainly has its share of stellar individuals, it also has inept staff who simply don't want to get their hands dirty handling these sensitive issues, and choose to pander to Department managers rather than rectify harassment. One HR staff member, Lianne Shields, serves more than one of the non-academic units reporting to the Executive Vice President and Treasurer. During her tenure in MIT's central Human Resources Department, Lianne has acted inappropriately to address employee harassment. Consider: an employee was retaliated against by a supervisor and was demoted. The employee carefully documented a case of retaliation - a form of harassment - and raised the complaint with the MIT Ombuds Office and then HR. The information was submitted to Lianne Shields. Lianne Shields met with the individual's management, against whom the complaint was made, but never met with the complainant. The complainant was demoted, without full title restoration until at least 5 years passed. Is it a coincidence the title restoration occurred following the Employee Engagement Survey Israel Ruiz initiated for EVPT reporting units? Read the Tech article: http://tech.mit.edu/V136/N3/istfeature.html and you will realize Israel Ruiz and Tony Sharon are surrounded by managers who spend more time covering each other's butts out of self preservation than correcting the Institute's most severe risk exposures including ADA, Title IX, and Title VII. HR reps like Lianne Shields are propped up by the managers she protects.
9
Thank you for sharing your story. It was incredibly courageous, and important for the community to hear and reflect on. Harassment is such a huge problem at MIT, and we need to do a better job responding when it happens.
10
It seems The Tech should investigate/cover these issues; or, at the very least, the fact that MIT is on "the list" of institutions under investigation for Title IX violations. It seems very relevant considering April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Will they? I'm not holding my breath.
11
If you also think that MIT needs to do more in the way of addressing harassment and holding those accountable who try to sweep it under the rug, please respond via Twitter, using
#StopHarassmentMIT and please feel free to retweet the original comment referencing this article: MIT has a need-blind admissions policy, but is it also blind to harassment? To echo "Anonymous at 5:28 PM on April 3, 2016" a response from the community is especially timely given April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It goes without saying that violations of Title VII are no doubt a slippery slope toward violations of Title IX.
12
Sounds like an awful experience to have repeatedly found that the people who should have been helping you could/would not and that the institutional systems were so clearly unfit for purpose.

I hope that your bravery in sharing this story will provide (yet more) evidence that universities and institutes need to go beyond making easy statements about "harassment being unacceptable" (etc.) and actually devote the will and resources to act - and act quickly - when a problem is reported.
13
Sheila, thank you for sharing your story. By luck of the draw for the body that I was born into, I do not face the same pressure or harassment you do, but know that I stand with you and I hope that you are the last that has to go through this.

MIT's reponse to your harassment was basically to harass you further.

For science, for humanity, for the love of the flying spaghetti monster, I hope MIT comes to its senses and handles complaints promptly, solves problems properly, and treats victims with respect. So that no person is made to suffer unjustly and so that we don't lose more brilliant minds to more unnecessary of apathy, aggression and bureaucracy.
14
Thank you for writing this. It is hard to speak up about this anytime and especially in a non-supportive environment.