story | Winnie Li
photo credit | Avani Adhikari
The saddest things about these cases … are the degrading things the victim begins to believe about her being. My hope is to undo these beliefs.
— Chanel Miller, Know My Name
This article contains mentions or depictions of faculty misconduct, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and suicidal thoughts, which some readers may find triggering. Please read with discretion.
In the first section of this article titled “My Heartbreak,” I delve into my grievances resulting from my interactions with a faculty member, who will henceforth be referred to as A for identity-protection purposes.
My experience, by definition, is a subjective recollection of events, but to me, it is my everyday reality. Many have witnessed with their own eyes the emotional distress that I was forced to endure over the last two months. Without the constant and generous support of my friends, I would not have the courage to write this article and publicize my vulnerabilities. Readers are welcome to skip the most personal and emotionally-loaded section, “My Heartbreak,” and proceed directly to the segments titled “My Struggles” and “My Hopes” where the discussion is more institution-oriented.
I am sharing my story because it is from this experience that I formed the belief that our institution can improve its policies in dealing with faculty misconduct. I do not include my heartbreak to make another accusation against A. If that were my intention, I would have filed an official complaint, instead of starting a conversation on the matter here on The Octant.
It is my earnest wish that no one ever finds themselves in my situation. However, should any future kingfishers end up in a similar position, I hope that my story can be seen as one of empowerment and healing. If I can survive this, so can you. And as per Friedrich Nietzsche’s motto, Increscunt animi, virescit volnere virtus (“the spirits increase, vigor grows through a wound”).
I know that now is a difficult time for everyone, and I have thought about shutting myself up and withdrawing this article multiple times. However, as I strive to show throughout this piece, the issue that I am set to discuss is an extremely urgent and serious matter; any delay in addressing the problem may lead to more victims. Around the world, many students have already suffered from their professors’ misuse or abuse of powers, our college certainly does not need to contribute more cases.
Approximately two months ago, I found myself in an unhealthy professor-student relationship that began to turn emotionally abusive.
Me: “I just think that …”
A: (Forcefully) “Listen!”
Me: (Terrified; shuts up immediately)
This dialogue was the epitome of my relationship with A; instead of being treated with basic respect, I had to earn it. I remembered how nervous and terrified I was before our meetings. During my interactions with A, I felt like walking on eggshells. I had to go out of my way to make A feel happy enough so that A would not use hurtful words against me. I simply could not shove away A’s harsh words as if they were some mean comments online because A was an extremely important professor to me. Like many of my peers, I looked up to A and aspired to be someone like A. A knew how deeply A’s (non-academic) criticisms would pierce through my heart (because I told A so repeatedly), but A did not seem to care.
Whenever I failed to perform enough emotional labor to meet A’s demands, A would create mistakes for me just to put me down or, as A did on one day, directed an angry outburst at me and commanded me to get out of A’s office. When I attempted to stand up for myself and refute some of A’s false allegations, A would deny that A had ever made them. After our meetings, I felt emotionally drained — I would not have the energy to do anything else. I had to spend at least another day or two to fully recover my strength. My academic life suffered as a result of my deteriorating mental health. In the end, I broke down.
I felt hopeless and powerless in this relationship. I kept apologizing, including for mistakes that I did not commit, all the time. I started to internalize A’s unfair judgments of me and took them as valid pronouncements of my problems. I began to believe that I was the problem when no other faculty members had ever accused me of having the issues that A charged me with over the last four years. I lost sleep. I felt unworthy. I cried endlessly. I repeatedly thought of withdrawing from college so that I would not need to see A on campus despite this semester being my last one.
Throughout the past two months, fear dominated me. I was too scared to tell A that A was emotionally manipulating me when A put me down first and then praised me afterward (these compliments and criticisms were not academic-related). I was too scared to tell A that it was ironic for A to advise me to seek counseling when A’s words were the major cause of my mental distress. I was too scared to ask for help from other professors because A would know it was me who reported A’s behavior and might retaliate. I convinced myself that I must endure this mental torture. “Just a few more weeks,” I told myself again and again.
The passing of my grandmother during this time forced me to rethink my decision. As a primary school teacher in rural China, she had devoted her life to paving the road for future generations. I decided to carry on this legacy. I decided to stay, come forward, and testify so that no one else will end up in my situation. I decided that my name and my story shall be known too. I would not back down regardless of how much pressure, silencing, and victim-shaming I would be receiving. Yale-NUS taught me to stand up for myself, and I am now putting that education into practice.
The long-lasting, detrimental effects of emotional abuse are still understudied, especially those that occur in non-romantic relationships such as the professor-student relationship. Although suicidal thoughts did not appear in my head, research has shown that emotional abuse can lead to the death of some victims (recall from the movie, 3 Idiots, how Dean Viru caused two students to commit suicide with his words). If I do not speak up today, more students may suffer in the future. It would simply be too late for us to regret our lack of action after someone took their lives.
True, I walked out of this relationship with A without broken bones or a bruised body. All I have left are a shattered heart and a scattered soul. No one deserves to have their hearts shattered and souls scattered in Yale-NUS, including mine.
According to the current policies and procedures on reporting faculty misconduct at Yale-NUS, I have two options lying in front of me*. Option A — the Dean of Faculty will hold a mediated conversation between A and me. Option B — I can lodge a complaint in writing to the Dean of Faculty. The Dean of Faculty will then decide whether further steps should be taken. These follow-up measures include taking no further action, referring my case to the mysterious Human Resource Office (yes, we have an HR office), and referring A to relevant faculty members for mentoring or teaching support. During an earlier conversation with Dean Jeannette Ickovics, our Dean of Faculty had also kindly suggested to me option C in which she would speak to A on my behalf and communicate my concerns without mentioning my name.
The author of a previous Octant article, “Students Need Better Ways To Report Faculty Behavior,” has already explained thoroughly why all three options fall short of the ideal. Given that I largely share her reasonings on why both option A and option C are undesirable, I will only be focusing on discussing why I did not file a report in my case — the opaque system for reporting faculty misconduct at Yale-NUS and the power imbalance between A and I made me feel extremely uncertain about the outcomes of the investigation following my complaint. I had to play safe so that my heart would not be shattered again.
If I were to file a case against a student, I would not have felt so anxious. With the Code of Student Conduct and the procedures that will follow my complaint readily available with a quick Google search, I can easily gauge the legitimacy of my grievances and evaluate whether my case is worth pursuing further. I would not need to perform any extra labor other than filling in the Yale-NUS Incident Report Form.
However, to the date of writing, I still do not know for sure whether emotional abuse counts as faculty misconduct and, if it is, how serious such an offense is. In fact, despite being a senior, I do not even know what the general expectations that we, as students, should have of our professors besides the obvious ones, such as that professors should not be racist and that they should not discriminate against students based on the latter’s nationality, ethnicity, or religion. I only assumed that my concerns were worth raising based on Article 3.2 of the Code of Student Conduct which seemed to apply to my case:
“Harassing behavior refers to any repeated threatening or abusive action taken or situation created to produce an unsafe or uncomfortable environment. This may include but is not limited to creating mental or physical distress, embarrassment, or ridicule to another individual/group.”
Obviously, A is not a student, so I would need a similar article to appear in the Code of Faculty Conduct in order to truly know that I have the “legal” basis to report A’s behaviors.
My lack of access to the Code of Faculty Conduct exacerbated my uncertainty about how seriously the senior administration and the HR office would consider my grievances even if I filed an official complaint. After all, when it came to emotional abuse, no one could see from the outside how much my heart had bled. Moreover, I did not have much evidence other than my own accounts of events because I did not record my meetings with A. My heavy reliance on my recollection would lend myself vulnerable to possible labels such as “overreacting” or even “lying”, especially when A, to my knowledge, had never behaved similarly to other students. When professors are selective in picking their victims, who would come to the latter’s defense? Furthermore, thanks to the aphorism, “words only hurt you if you let them,” I worried that others would engage in the easier option of victim-shaming or forcing me to go on a Leave of Absence rather than investigating A’s unprofessional behaviors. Under these circumstances, how could I convince others of my integrity and the legitimacy of my grievances? Expecting someone else to be abused — isn’t that extremely absurd and immoral?
Besides the question of whether I had the “legal” basis to file a report, I was also concerned with the investigation process that would follow my complaint. While I do not doubt that our college will faithfully implement the “fair hearing” policy by which both sides will receive an equal chance to express their side of the story, I worry that, because of A’s pre-existing authority and connections to the general “academia” network, A might, by default, occupy a more advantageous position than me, in this trial.
Although my case has never reached this stage, let us, for the sake of argument, assume that I have arrived at such a point. A may try to call on other faculty members to testify for A whereas I can only rely on other students who are, in comparison, less articulate and have less influence in Yale-NUS or the wider academia. Consequently, I worry that my words, even when combined with my peers’ testimonies, would not be viewed with equal merit as those presented by A.
Would my grievances be discounted by the fact that I am a student and that I will be gone in a few weeks? The cost of burning the bridge with me, or most students, can never be compared to that of burning the bridge with a colleague, even a junior one. Unlike students, faculty members, especially the tenured ones, will likely stick around campus for more than four years. Consequently, when students receive an unfavorable verdict, the college only needs to endure our protests for a few years at worst. However, if the faculty members involved deem the outcome of the investigation undesirable, they could bring considerable cost to the college, depending on their current status. At the very least, they could impose some interpersonal costs to the individuals conducting the investigation and the ones issuing the verdict.
What further added to my worries was that, although some of my peers told me in person that they echoed my other grievances in their interactions with A, they might not testify for me**. To be clear, some of them might come from a totally legitimate position — students might not want to risk burning their bridges with their professors. However, what if they decided that they would testify against me in order to gain favor from A? If that happens, what should I, or any students, do to safeguard our integrity and the legitimacy of our grievances?
Returning to the aforementioned article, the author concluded that:
“Our college severely lacks an accessible mechanism for students to report staff or faculty members for inappropriate behavior. We need one: one that is taught to us from Orientation, and one that considers the students’ need for protection from authority. I personally hope that this process never has to be used, and we should try to prevent such conflicts from arising in the first place by building a healthy community. But in reality, wishing and hoping for a perfect campus with no conflicts between faculty or staff with students is neither enough nor realistic. There needs to be a more student-friendly, transparent system for not only student-to-student behavior, but also faculty/staff-to-student behavior as well.” (emphasis mine)
Two years have passed since the author voiced her concern, and my experience has shown that her proposal to the college has been neglected. Hence, I would like to take this opportunity to re-emphasize the importance of the author’s call for a more student-friendly and transparent system for reporting faculty (and staff) misconduct. To this end, I would like to further recommend four action items for our community’s consideration:
First, students should have access to the Code of Faculty Conduct as it will help students identify whether their professors have breached the rules of the college and know when to stand up for themselves. Additionally, students must also have access to standardized, clear procedures on how their grievances resulting from faculty misconduct will be addressed. Further modifications must be done on the current guidelines that deal with reporting faculty misconduct so that it becomes as comprehensive and clear as the procedures to address students’ grievances against their peers on the Dean of Students Office website. Outside of Yale-NUS, Yale University also serves as a good example. Our parent institution has devoted a specific page for Faculty Standards of Conduct and made its Faculty Handbook, including the procedures for reporting and handling faculty misconduct, available even for the public’s view.
Second, given that emotional abuse is a misconduct for students (if I have interpreted Article 3.2 of the Code of Student Conduct correctly), I urge our college to include emotional abuse as a misconduct for faculty members, if it has not already done so. In comparison to the student-student relationship, the inherent power imbalance of the professor-student relationship can easily become emotionally abusive. If their relationships with their professors turn sour, students should have a costless exit option.
However, I am not arguing here for hard punishments for professors who engaged in emotional abuse. I know my place; it is not in my qualifications to decide on how serious this misconduct should be. However, if I may offer my perspective, I tend to believe that most professors would not even know that they have engaged in emotional abuse, especially if their students were too scared to protest against them. Another possibility is that some faculty members may have simply adopted those behaviors from their professors uncritically. Hence, I suppose the best institutional approach, as the current guidelines have already identified, is to provide professors who have engaged in emotional abuse further training and mentorship, especially for first offenders.
Aside from recognizing emotional abuse as a misconduct for faculty members, introducing preventive measures is also important. I would rather never see any faculty member engaging in emotional abuse than to see them being disciplined after they have already caused irreversible injuries to their students. I am not asking all professors to become experts in educational psychology. All I am suggesting is that faculty members should be familiar with the basic concept of emotional abuse (this knowledge may help their other relationships too) and be mindful that the misuse of the power attached to their positions can sabotage the overall well-being of their students, instead of furthering it.
Third, when conducting the investigation, the senior administration and the HR office should take into consideration that students often occupy a disadvantageous position vis-a-vis the more educated and established faculty members, even when the “fair hearing” policy is strictly adhered to. Hence, our college must try its best to alleviate the labor that students must perform in order to make their voices heard on equal terms with those of the professor. An important first step would be for the investigators to recognize that they may be unconsciously biased toward faculty members.
However, this unconscious bias toward faculty members is something that our entire community should be aware of. When it comes to faculty misconduct, a lot of students (including myself) who come from schooling environments that worship authorities, sometimes blindly, often end up becoming more tolerant and accepting of inappropriate behaviors of faculty members than we would be of other students. These differing expectations make it easy for some professors to escape scrutiny that many students cannot. If our community genuinely values equal treatment for all, we must start materializing the concept at our home front, before we encourage our students to fight for it outside of campus.
Fourth, although I have not experienced any victim-shaming so far, our community must guard itself against any form of victim-shaming in the future. Many survivors are already grappling with feelings of guilt and shame for what has happened to them, even when they did nothing wrong. It is essential that our community do not reinforce those feelings. I know it is difficult for many of us to reconcile the fact a professor that we hold dear can treat another student so horribly. It is simply easier if we avoid dealing with this cognitive dissonance and find problems in the victims. Besides worsening the survivors’ mental health, victim-shaming also discourages them from coming forward and testifying against problematic behaviors. It is only when survivors speak their minds without reservation and when we take their testimonies seriously can we stand a chance to make our community a safer place for everyone. Just because I dare to come forward does not mean that our community has stopped engaging in victim-shaming. We have definitely come a long way, but we can certainly do more, especially in supporting victims of all forms of abuse, be it emotional, sexual, or physical.
Having a Ph.D. does not make professors immune from making the mistakes that their students may make. Having a Ph.D. also does not automatically make professors more credible than their students at all times. As a community, we are here to help each other to become the better versions of ourselves. We can still respect our professors’ expertise while recognizing that they can be fallible too. After all, making mistakes, and the subsequent corrections of them, is what makes all of us human (homage paid once again to John Stuart Mill).
The author wishes to thank The Octant for providing a platform for her to voice her concerns for the college. She also wishes to thank the individuals who proofread this article. Long live freedom of the press!
* Two days after I made a public Facebook post regarding the lack of support for students who want to report faculty misconduct at Yale-NUS on Mar. 17th, 2020, this document was uploaded, as shown in the file’s name. I thank the senior administration for responding in such a timely manner.
** The author regrets that she cannot identify what her other grievances are because they may reveal the identity of A. Additionally, her other grievances are relatively minor to her main one.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: email@example.com