Under the Veil: The Silence Surrounding Sexual Harassment in Labs At Columbia
Article Image

Written by Gavrielle Jacobovitz

Edited by Maya Perry, Lyric Bowditch

Illustration by Sam Wilcox

Photography by Athena Chin

Sources referred to only by their first names in this story have been given pseudonyms due to fear of retaliation.

Last September, Samantha filed a report to Columbia’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action alleging sexual discrimination, gender-based misconduct, and stalking against a man in her lab in the Columbia University Medical Center who had influence over her job.

The perpetrator, Blake, who was a research associate in her lab at the time, had a reputation for inappropriate sexual behavior, according to those who have worked with him and testified in the investigation. One professor at the Columbia University Medical Center, Eleanor, says she knows of five women who have been victims of Blake’s sexual misconduct. Another professor tells me this number is too low. From as early as 2007, there are stories about how he has harassed and stalked women in his lab. Until September, these complaints were never officially brought to the University’s attention.

I learned about this man and the case filed against him in early March, six months after the EOAA investigation had begun. At the time, no one could tell me how far along the investigation was—not even the complainant. After filing the report in September, she was fired and lost access to her research, while the perpetrator remained. Neither the complainant nor the other witnesses to his behavior, some of whom have provided testimonies to the EOAA, had heard from the office since Thanksgiving. Depositions stretched throughout the fall and ended around the winter holidays.

Having seen what happened to Samantha, Eleanor, who originally encouraged her to file the report, says that she can no longer, in good conscience, persuade other women to bring sexual harassment cases to Columbia in an official capacity. She cannot tell them in all honesty they will not face retaliation if they speak out.

There are many campuses at Columbia that house labs—some feel more hidden than others. Columbia University Medical Center is a handful of tall buildings jutting out like overgrown blades of grass in an otherwise uniformly flat cluster of neighborhoods on Manhattan’s upper tip. There are some buildings made of brick—they feel old and worn and a little bit fixed. Others wear vast windows that unveil serrated little figurines. The George Washington Bridge stretches across a twinkling Hudson River, the grey skyline like a jagged heartbeat along the horizon.

The tucked away lab settings sometimes feel a bit too far away to students at the main campus—like it doesn’t quite matter to the little bubble of Morningside. They should.

In the past six weeks, I’ve spoken to nearly two dozen women who have experienced, seen, or known about the problem of sexual misconduct in Columbia laboratory settings. They speak to me in lobbies of buildings, and offices plastered with posters, in coffee shops, over the phone. These were conversations punctuated with muted voices, and long pauses, despondent declarations, and slow answers. Almost everyone requested anonymity.

In lab settings at Columbia, sexual and gender-based harassment, for many women, is understood as a simple reality. An opaque bureaucratic system and unequal social and professional power dynamics, coupled with a distrust in the institution, means that many of those who face this abuse do not report through official channels.

Anne Taylor, vice dean of Academic Affairs at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said in an interview with The Eye: “We take these issues [of sexual harassment] very seriously ... We have a process for dealing with them, we deal with them promptly and expeditiously, and we don’t have reservations about sanctions when behavior is inappropriate.”

A University spokesperson emailed a statement to The Eye emphasizing Columbia’s commitment to addressing sexual harassment. “University policy prohibits any retaliation against an individual who complains of discrimination or gender-based misconduct,” they wrote. “The policy is essential to our ongoing efforts to end gender-based misconduct and discrimination on our campus and reflects our deep concern for the well-being of anyone who comes forward with such a claim.”

Nonetheless, there seems to be a discrepancy between University intention and impact.

“Right now,” Eleanor says, tapping against her desk for emphasis, “the trust that I have in the institution to support women is just zero.”

I. The Lab

Spotlight on a nondescript lab: There are waxy black nonflammable tables, bottles of clear and colorful solutions, maybe some buffers and acids and bases, a fume hood for toxic or volatile gases, fridges for storing samples.

There are also postdoctoral researchers, research associates, graduate and undergraduate students, and lab technicians. Lunch breaks nestle in the lulls of the research. Sometimes, days stretch into nights. Lab members might come in on the weekends—maybe mice need tending to, or cells have died, or this particular experiment has to be attended to every 48 hours, or maybe a grant or publication deadline is approaching. This is the nature of the job.

In this lab, there is also a principal investigator, who holds the research grant and leads the research. They might not be in the lab at all times, but they have nearly complete control over the rest of the lab team’s professional and social livelihood. A PI or advisor can influence how the field will see a lab member for the rest of their career—in recommendations, through word of mouth, in preventing a scientist from authoring a paper or helping out in experiments as much as they should.

A lab is a little world—sometimes, so small that there is nobody in it who knows what’s going on on the outside.

Sexual harassment—according to over two dozen professors and students in laboratory settings at Columbia—is as systemic as it is pervasive.

“PIs around here are little kings and queens of their own labs,” Eleanor notes. “And there are people that are very, very disturbed.”

Witnesses point out how Blake’s position as a research associate—essentially a postdoc with a higher pay grade and more influence over the lab—allowed his behavior to go unchecked. He had control over women’s jobs, their visas, sometimes their husband’s visas. A witness who is a research associate in a nearby lab at CUMC recollects details of the abusive ways Blake would isolate Samantha and speak inappropriately about her personal life.

Both the research assistant and the PI I interviewed mention at least two other cases of gender-based harassment in their department, which women in their department also know about. Neither is willing to provide any details about these cases—they were both asked by victims not to speak about them publicly.

A document is currently circulating with anonymous reports of sexual harassment and assault in universities in the United States—Columbia is one of the most cited schools, with over two dozen explicit mentions. The woman who sent me this document says she knows very little about its origin, and cannot personally corroborate its contents. But she does tell me that the stories feel all too familiar. She recounts “how women in the lab are groomed by predators. It’s a predator situation in a lot of ways. They’re groomed, they are promised things … It’s amazing how similar these [stories] are—they’re coming from different places.”

When Stephanie, a woman who no longer works in academia, was a postdoc at Columbia in 2007, she faced similar harassment and stalking from Blake. He was a postdoc at the time. He began by calling himself her boyfriend, even though she had a fiance at the time. His behavior escalated from there: She began seeing him outside of her apartment, on the street.

Stephanie was concerned that officially reporting the situation to Columbia might put her at risk of losing her job—and her green card: “You’re constantly living with the fear that you’re going to lose that green card that’s keeping you there.”

For international students and workers—whose visa statuses are dependent on enrollment or employment at Columbia—the threat of repercussions can be especially terrifying. Principal investigators can influence whether or not postdocs or graduate students are fired, and research associates or other members of their lab can sway a PI’s decision.

There is no due process—if an international student loses their job, their visa will be revoked, Cora Bergantiños, a research associate in the department of genetics and development, explains. For some visas, like the H-1B, you have 60 days to leave the country. With the J-1 visa for academics and scholars, which a majority of international postdocs at Columbia hold, you have 30 days. At Columbia, nearly half of postdoctoral researchers are international students.

“We are actually poisoning the careers of a lot of brilliant people around here,” Eleanor remarks. “I know many, many different cases … it’s always the woman that goes away, because it’s always the woman that [is told] ‘no, you are being paranoid, no, he was only trying to be nice.’” For instance, one woman Eleanor knows faced psychological harassment from a higher-up in her lab and was warned against getting pregnant. The women who faced his harassment left.

II. The Cover-Up

Just as power dynamics can allow for and normalize sexual harassment in lab settings, a lack of accountability enforced by others who hold power in a lab can also protect perpetrators. Jessica, a former graduate student in cellular, molecular and biomedical studies, left Columbia to begin working in industry partly because of the sexual harassment that she and fellow labmates faced for multiple years. She worked in a smaller lab that was a part of a larger laboratory space, in which there worked a postdoc “who had a very clearly different way of treating women.”

She remembers he “slapped a random girl on her behind,” a couple of weeks after beginning his job. He would comment on women’s weight and tell everyone about who in the lab he would have sex with. He told Jessica how she should treat her wife. She admits she was worried about working weekends alone with him.

After some time, Jessica mentioned this problem to her PI and began to speak more widely about her experience. Eventually, she says, even the director became aware of the situation. Though both her PI and the director were mandatory reporters, she says, “Ultimately, nothing happened.”

“It kind of [felt] like his word versus all these other women’s words,” Jessica recounts. She says postdoc was later fired for workplace violence against a male labmate.

Jessica points specifically to an absence of oversight as an obstacle that keeps perpetrators from being held accountable. Other PIs and postdocs in the laboratory room were unwilling to challenge the perpetrator’s behavior, she explains. “I was really perplexed that this was able to go on for so long.”

The continuation of sexual harassment seems to emanate, in part, from a lack of general institutional protection of people who work in labs. Jessica feels that a “vast majority of people that work in academia are respectful and follow the rules,” but that those who do not “get away with it pretty egregiously.”

When Eleanor asked a senior administrator why nothing had been done to address the harassment in her department, he responded that women needed to speak out more. She agrees in theory, she says. Women do need to speak up. At the present moment, however, many don’t trust that either those in power or the investigation process itself will listen to or protect them.

After several months of dealing with Blake’s harassment, Stephanie brought the issue to her PI. When they met, he was dismissive, she says. What she was telling him couldn’t be true, she remembers him telling her, because Blake was married. “He completely sided with this other guy, didn’t do anything about it,” she tells me.

Once Blake began sabotaging her experiment, Stephanie went back to her PI.

“I will say [my PI] hushed hushed it,” she says. After 18 months of being a postdoc in the same lab as Blake, she began to look for another job. “I wanted to move on.”

Stephanie has long since left the institution. This year, she testified about her experiences to EOAA during its investigation of Samantha’s report. He would have been fired a long time ago, she says, if her PI had just listened to her.

Taking each of these stories into account, it seems internal cover-ups most often hurt those who face harassment—they may transfer labs, leave departments, exit the institution, or even leave academia itself. Often, these cases will not even make it to the University.

I sit with Columbia Postdoctoral Union organizers Bergantiños, Medini Annavajhala, a postdoc in the department of medicine, and Alvaro Cuesta-Dominguez, a postdoc in the department of physiology and cellular biophysics, to discuss the power dynamics involving postdocs at the University, especially in the context of sexual harassment.

A fear for one’s own career, Bergantiños explains, is exacerbated by a broader concern that hinders the filing of official reports—a fear for lab partners. “In cases of sexual harassment, if the PI is found guilty and is fired,” she says, “it’s not only the victim that suffers, but everyone else in their lab—their research.” However, they argue that the postdoc union could address this lack of job security and can encourage victims to come forward.

Sejal Singh, class of 2015 and a law student at Harvard and policy and advocacy coordinator at Know Your IX, said at a sexual harassment forum held by the Graduate Workers of Columbia University around two years ago that “when half of women in graduate programs experience [sexual harassment], then there’s a systemic barrier to women’s ability to participate in their education and the academy.”

I ask her over the phone about the impact of an opaque investigatory process. “The vast majority of cases of sexual assault and harassment aren’t reported,” she responds, “and that’s partly because people fear that they’ll lose control over their story.”

III. The Report

The EOAA’s Columbia University Employee Policy and Procedures on Discrimination, Harassment, Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, and Stalking policy covers any instance of sexual harassment on the University campus or in connection with sponsored programs or activities, and defines a violation of its policy as any situation that “creates, contributes to, or continues a hostile work, educational, or living environment for University employees or students.”

Its handbook describes “discriminatory harassment” as conduct that creates an intimidating or hostile working environment, like verbal abuse, stereotyping, and denigrating jokes. “Sexual harassment,” is described as unwelcome sexual advances and appeals for sexual favors and contact, that is coerced as a condition of employment, activities, or academic decisions. “Gender-based” harassment includes acts of aggression, intimidation, stalking, or hostility on the basis of gender. I have spoken to women who have faced all three forms of harassment.

When the EOAA learns of a University employee or third party engaging in this prohibited conduct, it begins an investigation. The associate provost of the University oversees investigations of sexual misconduct and determines who the EOAA investigators will be. These “matters will be handled with care and discretion,” the EOAA states in its handbook.

This March, prominent neuroscientist Thomas Jessell was removed from his administrative post, following an investigation that found him responsible for sexual misconduct. Most students and faculty at CUMC, learned about his termination through a New York Times article.

Bianca Field and Olivia Goldman, both former employees of research institutions at Columbia, wrote a petition demanding transparency from the University on Jessell’s case. “We call on you, the leaders of our community,” they wrote, “to lead in shining light on sexual harassment in academia and Columbia University. Our community deserves an administration that protects it explicitly and publicly.”

Of those I’ve spoken to about Jessell, one clear message comes through: He is not an anomaly.

The lack of transparency in Jessell’s case reflects a broader systemic problem with the obscurity found at every step of the bureaucratic process dealing with sexual harassment. Bergantiños describes the questions many have raised in regard to the case: How was it adjudicated? Who was the impartial arbitrator?

Knowing the answers to these questions, she believes, would encourage individuals to come forward when they experience harassment. She points to a potential postdoc union as an opportunity for a neutral arbitrator and resource for affected postdocs.

I ask Lale Alpar, a Ph.D. student in her last year in the biological sciences department affiliated with the Graduate Workers of Columbia University how the investigation process works—I googled it, I tell her, and still don’t quite understand it. She tells me she had a similar problem. We sit in the coffee shop connected to the Hammer Health Services Building on a day of bitter wind and congested sidewalks.

She then points out that there is a yearly fire safety presentation for graduate students—it would be easy, she thinks, to do something similar on a yearly basis about sexual harassment.

The investigation process begins with a form you can fill out online, Alpar says. It starts with a slot labeled “Your full name,” with an asterisk beside it. It’s the only asterisk on the entire form, but it actually, misleadingly, can be left blank if a complainant wishes to remain anonymous. Once submitted, the EOAA will respond within the next few days asking you to meet with them.

The investigation then begins—five business days after the initial report. The investigation will be completed within 45 business days after it begins, the EOAA claims.

Alpar herself has testified as a witness in a case of sexual harassment. “No one came back to me,” she says.

Although a complainant may decide to remain anonymous, sources working in labs explain that it’s nearly impossible for the PI, who oversees only a handful of graduate students and postdocs, not to know who made a report.

The EOAA will gather phone logs, text messages, and other documentation during the investigation. The office chooses whether or not to keep them confidential, according to the handbook.

Columbia’s investigation process ends with the University offering a disciplinary recommendation to the respondent’s supervisor.

“The culture of silence exists [at] every institution in America,” Singh mentions, when I inquire about what the institution can tangibly do to address this problem. “But there are steps that the University should be taking to make sure that it has really well publicized and clear policies for responding to harassment.”

For instance, she says, there should be a confidential victim service provider on campus. At Columbia, this is the Ombuds Office—an external space, without any obligation to report and outside of the University investigation process—where faculty and students can speak about personal and professional issues.

Crucially, Singh feels a standardized and transparent investigation and reporting process should be a basic expectation from the University. “Responsiveness is just the absolute baseline of what they should be doing,” she explains, when I mention some women expressed a fear of reporting.

“Nobody should feel like they are reporting this extremely painful, personal, difficult experience and putting themselves at risk, and then thinking that complaint goes into a black box.”

IV. The Resistance

It is hard to confide in an opaque bureaucracy. So, women confide in each other.

When structures in place fail to adequately address sexual harassment, internal methods of resistance begin to form. Whisper networks—warnings, chatter, passed-on information—becomes a survival instinct. “That’s the only option you are left with,” Carmen, a professor in neurology, says. “As a woman, you know to protect your fellow women.”

When women in Blake’s department had had enough, they began to coordinate. Eleanor herself accompanied Samantha to the first meeting with the department chair. Older professors gathered other women who had directly faced his harassment to testify. A web of solidarity configured. Once the investigation was brought forth, they were ready to see it through.

And sometimes, even though the system is in much need of improvement, reporting really can lead to change.

Five months after the report against Blake was filed to the EOAA, and three weeks after I first learn about him, Eleanor writes me to let me know that Blake has been found guilty—she calls it a “little victory.” He was fired at the close of this investigation.

At Columbia, there is a policy of mandatory reporting––an institutional duty to report sexual misconduct or harassment––for the abuse of minors, prohibited conduct that involves students, and prohibited conduct by employees or third parties. It’s a controversial policy—in theory, it holds perpetrators accountable, standardizing the process for reporting and ensuring that there is a centralized effort to address sexual harassment. But sometimes, faculty and students may not trust who they are being compelled to confide in.

Another professor in neurology says she includes discussions about sexual harassment in her mentorship of younger faculty and students. Her responsibilities as a mentor, she says, are not merely scientific—she feels she must teach her mentees how to advocate for themselves. This includes discussions about dynamics in a workplace. One of these is gender. “Awareness of harassment, how it starts, what to do when it happens, is part of that.”

When I ask Alpar, herself a member of the union, if she has anything else she’d like to say, she pauses. She thinks hard, humming a little bit. At last, she responds.

We’re at a moment right now, she says, where there seems to be a shift—for many people, the perception is that it’s a movement toward “kicking everybody out.” “And I just want to point out,” she concludes, “that it’s not about that. I think it’s a very reasonable demand—what the students are asking for is a little bit more transparency, a little bit more accountability, and then some channels that would allow us to advocate for ourselves and have representation.”

In the months following the #MeToo movement and in the weeks after Jessell’s termination, there seems to have been a surge in the conversation. Bergantiños, Annavajhala, and Cuesta-Dominguez attribute it to Jessell. Bergantiños’s department, for instance, met to discuss sexual harassment for what she believes is the first time in her six years as a research associate.

An employee in Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute—whose beginnings of answers often linger—is firm when I ask about the impact of the #MeToo movement and Jessell. They say that they and their lab members had a discussion right before they learned Jessell may be implicated for sexual misconduct.

“I think most people’s impressions are that there are no consequences and the University seems to be protecting themselves more than anyone else,” Alpar explains. “Having a neutral arbitrator that would feel more like our advocates would help us a lot.”

For many I spoke with, the unions offer an opportunity to standardize and improve some of the deficiencies in Columbia’s approach to preventing and addressing sexual harassment. This procedure feels cloudy and slanted to many—if nothing else, a union could offer a bit clarity.

“The first place to report a sexual harassment instance [is] a faceless University,” Annavajhala says. “Who do you report to? Who do you have on your side?” A GWC-UAW contract would provide a third option for the final step of the investigation process—neutral arbitration. That is, they would advocate for the complainant and arbitrate without having the priority and advancement of the institution in mind.

At the end of a conversation I have with Carmen about gender discrimination in her department, she mentions Jesell. It’s a few days after he has just been terminated—she says she can’t tell me what the exact reason for his removal is, but also admits it’s sexual harassment. The University talks in euphemisms, she remarks. “Call it by the names.”

“Put yourself out there and say the institution of Columbia is not going to let go—whatever it is sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, sexual whatever.”

She’s brought this to me—I didn’t even ask about Jessell.

“Do you think that this removal will affect the open investigation?” I ask her, after she expresses frustration about the length of Blake’s investigation.

“I hope so,” she replies.

“Do you think there’s been a culture change?”

“I hope so. I hope so.”