Abusive Academia | Vol. 3 / No. 23.5

This post is equal parts rage-inducing and disturbing | Photo: Prayitno, CC BY 2.0


For fairly obvious reasons, I’m particularly sensitive to feminist issues as they pertain to academia. The two things are almost inextricably linked in my mind; academia is where I first really learned about feminism, and started to call myself a feminist. But it’s also where I’ve seen some of the most extreme examples of sexism in action, and it’s where sexist traditions and abusive power relationships seem most reluctant to die. (Hey, did you know that Columbia started admitting female students the same year that Return of the Jedi came out? Now you do.) So it was with a fairly queasy stomach that I read about the case of UCLA professor Gabriel Piterberg. Piterberg has been sued by two UCLA graduate students, who allege that Piterberg has been a generally gross excuse for a human being:

A lawsuit filed last year by Nefertiti Takla and Kristen Hillaire Glasgow, two PhD students in the history department, claims that Piterberg repeatedly harassed them, making sexually suggestive and threatening comments beginning in 2008. The lawsuit also claims that, in addition to verbal remarks, Piterberg physically assaulted them by groping and forcing his tongue down both of their throats. Takla and Glasgow both claim that the university ignored their complaints and actively discouraged them from filing Title IX complaints.

…..sorry, had to take a moment off to scream into a jar for a while. Better now.

Glasgow, who was not a direct student of Piterberg, was nonetheless verbally harassed and groped by him for roughly five years, and was reluctant to come forward about her treatment because Piterberg was on the committee that awarded funding in her department. She filed a Title IX complaint after she learned about the complaint put forward by Takla, whose story sounds like basically the worst nightmare of any female PhD student.

In Takla’s case, Piterberg was her dissertation adviser, and started harassing her in 2011. He claimed that he was “frustrated” and desired to kiss her, and at one point used this as an excuse for his distant behavior. Twice in 2013 he “groped her and tried to force his tongue down her throat.”  But because Piterberg was one of the only two specialists in Takla’s field, Takla was “worried that switching advisers would effectively end her career” (which thanks to the messed up dynamics of the adviser/advisee relationship, is entirely possible. More on that later). She tried to get Piterberg to act professionally, though that pretty obviously didn’t work since he responded to her request for a Fullbright fellowship recommendation letter by asking, ‘“Why can’t we just be lovers?’” Just FYI, that question is the incorrect answer in 99.9% of social interactions. It is correct in 0.0% of academic conversations, unless it is in response to the question “What should you never, ever ask your students?”

Despite Takla’s Herculean efforts to put up with an amazing amount of bullshit in order to preserve her eventual career, “Piterberg allegedly soon told Takla that he was having trouble controlling himself around her, and that he wouldn’t blame her for switching advisers, but that it would be very bad for her academically.” Which totally doesn’t sound like a threat and/or a way to force Takla to remain in a bad situation. He continued to be entirely creepy, including talking with Takla about having sex with a graduate student on a desk, and lamenting the fact that he couldn’t use research funds to hire a mistress rather than an assistant.  I can only imagine that he said this while giving an exaggerated wink and nudge, since he’s about as subtle as a mallet to the forehead. He made good on his implied threat to Takla by giving her a weak recommendation letter, and turned up the “pretentious academic sexism” to 11 billion when Takla finally told Piterberg that she didn’t want him as an adviser anymore:

He responded by saying that philosophers Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger had had a career-long love affair, and that “if done right, professor and student relationships are supposed to [be] intimate,” according to the complaint. He also allegedly said he masturbated while thinking about her, and said that “if anything happened between us, it would be while you are writing your dissertation.” Takla took that to mean Piterberg might insist on sex in exchange for signing off on her dissertation.

Time to scream into jars again. Takla tried to report the harassment to UCLA’s Title IX coordinator at the time, Pamela Thomason. She also tried to get a new adviser. Both things… did not go well. According to the complaint, “Takla also tried to secure a new adviser but was allegedly encouraged within the department to stick with Piterberg, based on his expertise, and then later encouraged not to talk about the harassment.” Thomason also failed to advise Takla of her rights under Title IX, and also allegedly discouraged Takla from seeking a formal hearing in front of the Academic Senate because Piterberg’s colleagues would probably side with him. (This is a depressing assessment whether or not it is true.) The Title IX investigation took nine months and miraculously returned no results (which is not actually supposed to happen) and officials denied Takla information about how Piterberg had been punished.

Glasgow apparently faced similar frustrations when she tried to file her own complaint. Thomason failed to contact her for weeks after Glasgow filed her complaint. When Glasgow finally contacted her instead, Thomason said she didn’t remember meeting with her. Glasgow also asserts that Thomason discouraged her from a hearing in front of the Academic Senate.

If this was an inspirational “fight the system” movie, then I would now be able to tell you that Thomason was fired for incompetence, Piterberg faced justice for his disgusting abuse of power, and Takla and Glasgow became an awesome crime-fighting duo. This is not one of those movies. Thomason is now the Title IX compliance officer for the entire California State University System. And when UCLA finally released the details of the settlement with Piterberg it was… less than just.  (Jury is still out on the crime-fighting duo part.)

Piterberg’s settlement literally says that it exists in order to avoid the ‘“cost, uncertainty and inconvenience of an administrative proceeding related to this matter”’ (isn’t pursuing punishment for criminal actions just so expensive and inconvenient?) and under the terms of the agreement, Piterberg doesn’t actually have to acknowledge that he did anything wrong. Instead:

Piterberg was suspended without pay for one quarter, charged $3,000 by the university and made to write a letter of recommendation for Takla. He also acknowledged university policies against sexual harassment and consensual relationships between faculty members and students wherein a supervisory relationship exists. He was assigned Title IX training and prohibited from engaging in relationships with students. He may not contact Takla.

For the three years following the agreement, Piterberg also is prohibited from meeting with students outside of office hours or off campus, and must meet with students with the door open “at all times.” Any future claims against him shall be promptly presented to the Committee on Privilege and Tenure for an immediate hearing. Possible sanctions include suspension without pay or dismissal.

The bottom line is, Piterberg is supposed to think really, really hard about how relationships with students should go. Because he doesn’t even have to admit to wrongdoing, he gets to avoid even the punishment that toddlers get, which is to go to the corner and think about what he did wrong. To add insult to injury, Piterberg’s suspension conveniently coincided with a prestigious “Fernand Braudel Senior Fellowship at the European University Institute.” So his punishment was basically to go to Europe, where he was planning to go anyway. Graduate students are protesting the light punishment, and Piterberg’s eventual return this summer, and some of Piterberg’s fellow history faculty members have expressed their concerns about Piterberg’s return signaling a campus climate of tolerance for harassment.

One of the most disturbing takeaways of this case (out of so, so many disturbing takeaways) is not just that universities appear strangely tolerant of harassment, and seem to value the reputation of faculty members above the well-being of students; it’s that the PhD system seems almost designed to facilitate this type of abuse. Both Takla and Glasgow feared complaining about Piterberg’s behavior because Piterberg, in one way or another, held their careers in his hands. His position of funding power meant that Glasgow could not safely confront his behavior, even though she wasn’t his student. And in Takla’s case, Piterberg was legitimately her most important academic relationship. A PhD student’s dissertation adviser can literally make or break their academic career. The right one can nurture students along their path, challenge students to do their best work, and open doors for students in the academic world. The wrong one can turn students’ lives into a nightmare of self-doubt, lack of support, and bullying. Or, as Takla experienced, outright sexual harassment. Rebecca Schuman points out the “daddy issues” inherent in the adviser/advisee relationship, wherein a poor adviser is as devastating as a bad parent.  Many graduate students have amazing advisers who do all that they are supposed to do. But students like Takla are left in a no-win scenario: report the abuse and change advisers (or even schools), potentially giving up years of work, being labeled as a troublemaker, and ending up with a less prestigious mentor in the process, or suffer through an abusive adviser relationship in the hopes that they will eventually reach their career goals as planned.

That isn’t a choice that anyone should have to make. Academia can be a wonderful, nurturing place, but not if men like Piterberg are protected in positions that are so prone to abuse.


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. . When she’s not reporting on disturbing cases of abuse being swept under the rug of academia, she studies gender in  popular culture.

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