As It Happens

This prof put out a call for stories of harassment on campus — and received hundreds of responses

December 05, 2017

Karen Kelsky started a crowd-sourced open survey, inviting academics to anonymously share their personal stories of abuse, and the impact on their lives and careers. Several Canadian universities have already been named in the stories shared so far. (

Click to show more
Hundreds of people say they've been groped, harassed, stalked or assaulted by their professors or colleagues at academic institutions in Canada and around the world.  7:21

Story transcript

Hundreds of people responding to an anonymous survey say they've been been been groped, harassed, stalked or assaulted by their professors and colleagues at academic institutions in Canada and around the world.


Karen Kelsky posted the survey on Friday, inviting people to anonymously share their stories of abuse and harassment in academia.

As of Tuesday, she received about 850 submissions — some of them about staff at Canadian universities.

"I think it's because these stories are so common in the academy, combined with the fact our consciousness has been very abruptly raised about how egregious this kind of abuse is and how harmful on women's lives and women's careers," the Oregon writer and anthropologist told As It Happens guest host Jim Brown.

"The numbers have been there all along. It's just that women are beginning to feel more empowered to talk about it openly."

Protesters in Palo Alto, Calif., hold signs during a 2016 university commencement ceremony to raise awareness of sexual assault on campus in the wake a high-profile rape case Stanford University/ (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

Kelsky said she was inspired to create the survey in light of the recent surge of sexual misconduct allegations against men in Hollywood and the news media.

She spent 15 years teaching at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before founding The Professor Is In, which provides advice and consulting services to those seeking academic careers.

Throughout her career, she said she has heard dozens of stories reminiscent of the allegations against high-profile men like film executive Harvey Weinstein.

"I thought back to all the people that I had heard from, all the women basically, and I thought ... one of the most important things that people can do is tell their story, even if its just anonymously," Kelsky said.

"So I decided to use the platform that I have in order to make a space for people to be able to tell their story anonymously and get it out there and know that they're not alone."

Groping, stalking, texting 

People wrote about being groped at conferences, sexually assaulted in professors' offices, cornered in empty classrooms, plied with booze by senior academics, sent sexually suggestive text messages, stalked, harassed and raped.

Canadian universities named in the document include the University of Toronto, York University, the University of Lethbridge, the University of Alberta, Western University and McGill University.

Click to show more
CBC Toronto's ongoing Sex Assault on Campus series examines how sexual assault policies affect survivors.  4:20

None of the allegations have been verified and neither the accused nor the accusers are named. 

"I have no intention for this survey to be to be considered a scientific survey, a quantitative survey," Kelsky said. "This is really a holding space for women, in particular, to be able to share their stories with others, read other stories and know that they're not alone."

Fear of reporting 

While harassment is a widespread issue, Kelsky said the academic setting is particularly ripe for abuse.

"There are huge power imbalances between the people who occupy different statuses. The people who occupy the higher categories have enormous power over those beneath them. They can basically make or break their careers," she said.

'It's just devastating to think of the loss of talent and contributions to the sum of human knowledge that we've lost because of this harassment.' - Karen Kelsky, The Professor Is In

"That's not an exaggeration to say. Junior people require the recommendation and the validation of senior people to get anything — to get funding, to get jobs, to get journal articles accepted — so you can't rock the boat."

One woman said in the survey that a department head refused to accept her dissertation after she rebuffed his advances. Another said her male colleague was denied a recommendation letter after he reported a colleague who was sleeping with his students.

Many of the incidents reportedly happened at parties, conferences, hotel rooms or even private homes. 

"The other aspect of academia that's interesting is that because it's kind of a way of life rather than just a job, the professional and the personal are really mixed," she said. "Lines are blurry and vulnerable women can find themselves in ambiguous circumstances with senior males and alone with them and drinking."

These are some of the questions asked in an anonymous survey about abuse in academia. (Karen Kelsky )

The vast majority of respondents said they never reported what happened to them for fear of repercussions to their careers.

"In the cases where they did report, overwhelmingly there were no consequences. None at all. The department hushed it up. They blamed the victim. They hounded the victim out of the department, out of the program," she said.

"It's just devastating to think of the loss of talent and contributions to the sum of human knowledge that we've lost because of this harassment."

What's next?

Kelsky said the next step is to take the stories she's collected and publicize them on her blog and in her weekly column in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Ultimately, I hope the departments and department heads, tenured faculty, deans, provosts will look at these stories and realize the kind of institutional change that needs to happen," she said.

"Even if people don't know the names, and I don't think they have to, they can see how deep this rot goes in the academy."