The Pervasive Power of Male Privilege at America’s Elite Universities

Institutions have hired men with predatory reputations despite complaints from women students and faculty. All because women haven’t had a strong enough voice in the system.

Detail of Nancy Bowen’s “52 Great American Personalities with Kali’s Tongues” (2018) (photo credit: Lorie Novak, images courtesy the author)

Like many women in the United States, I have been following the fall of famous men these past year with a little bit of glee, some shock, but really underneath all of it — no surprise! These were titillating stories with dramatic moments, rightly focusing on the abusers and their victims who have formed the #MeToo movement. Yet behind each of these incidents is a far less sexy story about the social and institutional mechanisms of patriarchal power that supported such egregious behavior by men in positions of power. Women have long been aware of the “old boys club” that allows men to promote their own and banish the party poopers.

Last October, I was contacted by a former colleague at Columbia University to see if I would talk to a reporter who was investigating alleged sexual misconduct by the photographer Thomas Roma, who had been teaching at the university since 1996 and was the director of the School of the Arts’ photography program. The incidents the reporter was investigating overlapped with the years I taught sculpture at Columbia. My story was not salacious but was every bit as enraging. What I had to say addressed the pervasive power of male privilege and its machinations, and was part of the backdrop for the article Colin Moynihan wrote for the New York Times last January.

Feeling it was time to tell the whole story, I posted a version of what I am writing here on Facebook in early January. I was overwhelmed by the response to the post — over 680 comments and 93 shares within a few months. Most of the comments came from women offering support or telling similar stories at other institutions. People were outraged that, again, the man in question was allowed to retire rather than being fired.

Institutions have hired men with predatory reputations and retained them, despite complaints from women students and faculty. All because women haven’t had a strong enough voice in the system.

The outpouring of responses confirmed for me that speaking up is vital.

I worked at Columbia from 1994 until 2000. I was hired to help start the newly reopened MFA Program and to teach undergraduate sculpture. One day, then-chair Allan Hacklin announced at a faculty meeting that someone wanted to donate money to start a photography program at Columbia. A professor by the name of Thomas Roma, previously at Yale University, would be hired. Did anyone know him or know anything about him? I hadn’t heard of him, so I put out feelers to friends in the photo world. I heard from several sources that there were allegations of harassment circulating. At that time, in 1994, I was one of two full-time tenure-track women in the department. The climate was one in which faculty had sexual relations with students on a regular basis. I brought what I had heard to the faculty for further investigation, but there was no interest in pursuing, or even in discussing, the allegations.

Of course, Roma was hired. Soon after, he approached me and said something along the lines of, “I know you don’t want me to be here. Allan told me what you said about me. But we have to work together.” Oh, great! I was shocked that what I said had been repeated to him. However, work together we did. As I recall, he made assertions like, “Don’t mess with me, I have connections.” Was he invoking Lee Friedlander or the mob? I had no idea. I was not intimidated by him, but I kept my distance.

At one point around 1999, an undergraduate came to me and claimed she had been sexually accosted by Tom Roma. She wanted to do something about it but didn’t know how to proceed. I took her to Ron Jones, who had succeeded Hacklin as chair, and she told him the story. He said he would make sure her complaint went through the proper channels. I had done my part, he told me, and now I should let the university handle it. So I did. (I have no idea what happened, but I do know that the woman was not one of the ones who came forward in the Times article.) Tom made a remark to me to the effect that he knew I had helped that student make that complaint.

In 1999, I was up for my fifth-year critical review. The administration chose Roma to be the representative from the art department on my review committee — the one man who had openly expressed his displeasure with me and also the one who knew the least about my area of work. By that time, the only other full-time woman teaching there had lost her job. I got along with these men, often quite well, with as much humor and frankness as I could bring to the situation. It was basically a cigar-smoking art-world wolf pack. There was an ongoing history of professors having sexual relationships with students, whether it was harassment and abuse or consensual affairs and marriages.

Needless to say, I did not pass my review. I am not at all saying this was the only reason I did not pass my review. I am saying that this is the kind of peripheral damage accrued by a whistleblower. I am sure this has happened over and over again in academia and elsewhere: a woman complains about a male colleague’s behavior and she is punished.

I filed a gender-based complaint about how my review was handled. As a feminist artist, I felt it was not fair to be judged by a panel of men. When Columbia formed a committee to investigate my complaint, I had to point out to them that they themselves were three men. “Oh, but I have daughters!” one of them said to me, trying to be helpful. In the end, the university reached out to outside evaluators, though due to institutional practice, I did not know who they were, nor did I see what they wrote.

I have since been happily tenured at SUNY Purchase. However, when I left Columbia and began teaching at Purchase I took a huge pay cut and had to start my tenure clock over. Still, I was lucky. Many of my peers were not able to find another job after calling out bad behavior by colleagues.

It broke my heart to read the details of the stories these brave women told to the New York Times in January. It is hard enough to get through college without having to worry about being accosted by a professor’s dick. The climate was different then — these actions obviously were considered acceptable because administrators did know about them, as did other faculty, and they were allowed to continue. Thomas Roma stayed at Columbia and retired rather than being fired. But I hope the climate will be different now. If not, I hope men will realize the power they hold and use it more wisely. I also hope women students can feel empowered to speak up against wrongs done to them.

Sexual harassment at education institutions is a systemic problem. And, as many of the commenters on Facebook point out, the mechanisms that kept Roma in power also adversely affect people of color and queer and disabled people. As Susan Faludi eloquently noted in an op-ed piece last winter, we must “[fight] the ways the world is structurally engineered against women. Tied to that fight is the difficult and ambiguous labor of building an equitable system within which women have the wherewithal and power to lead full lives.”

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