As her safety on campus is not guaranteed, the professor in this article has asked for her name and identifying details to be withheld.
This past semester, a professor who has taught for 25 years at the University of Utah was followed into her office by a male student who was upset with her homework policy. Much taller than her, the student became increasingly hostile and threatening as she continued to refuse to accept his late assignment. Warning him his behavior was not appropriate, she began to call campus security before he would leave her office. Trembling from the altercation, this professor tried to return to work, but was again interrupted when she was made aware of a conduct complaint made against her by this student. Meeting with her administrators, she explained her late work policy and how the student’s aggressive actions made her feel unsafe, but the male leadership in her department struggled to understand her fear. Returning to her office feeling frightened and unsupported by her peers, her personal security was again violated when the same combative student re-entered her office uninvited to “apologize.” When she told him to leave her office, he refused and repeated he wanted to apologize for his earlier behavior. He refused to abide by her boundaries, believing his need to say what he wanted to say trumped her need for safety. He stayed in her office until a male ally intervened and demanded the student leave.
This professor’s experience is not unique. It is a historical problem that has echoes across the U campus and every campus in America. A study published in 1989 found female professors experience a variety of inappropriate behaviors, mostly from male students, which range from sexist comments to physical intimidation to sexual assault. Her fear is not unfounded. At the U, 5.4 percent of all crimes reported involve violence against women. While a woman may have formal power as a professor, this power does not provide adequate protection against aggressive and violent students. Her support is limited. There are no designated campus resources that provide threatened faculty and staff with safety. Even current faculty resources fall short in their mission to support which is best demonstrated by the missing link to the Faculty Handbook on the University of Utah Faculty Resource page. As university leadership strives to increase campus safety, threatened faculty members must be made a priority.
One of the few resources currently available to U faculty on handling threatening students, the guidebook “Managing Difficult Student Behavior,” effectively highlights the weaknesses in how our university addresses students manifesting threatening behavior. The guide does acknowledge hostile student behavior should be taken very seriously and recommends professors take immediate action by contacting the U Police if there is immediate danger, reaching out to their department chair for advice and support, filing a student behavior compliant with the Dean of Students Office and having the Counseling Center debrief and assist those impacted by the student’s aggressive behavior. It fails to define a path for professors if these options do not fully address the issue, however.
“I have received no support from my department” was a sentiment reiterated throughout my interview with the aforementioned professor. She spoke on her frustration with the lack of resources available to her and how her administrators did not comprehend the gravity of the situation. She spoke about getting a whistle to alert her nearby colleagues if the aggressive student returns or if she feels threatened again, a strategy she came up with to increase the safety of her office after experiencing her administrators’ indifference to her fear. She spoke of how her romantic partner has been escorting her to class since the incident, something her administrators never offered to do. This is unacceptable and avoidable. Administrators should champion the professors in their department, a role the university at-large must encourage by providing mandated departmental leadership training on the commonness and severity of threatening student behavior. If this professor’s administrators had attended such training, they would have likely met her with sympathy instead of skepticism, worked with her to implement a plan to address this student’s behavior and asked what else they could assist her.
Side bar: Student retaliation is a very real consequence of reporting or disciplining students, especially for female professors who are more likely to receive death and rape threats from students than their male peers. If the campus is to be “an effective and safe learning environment” for professors along with their students, the guide must be at least complemented by training department administrators on how to support faculty affected by threatening student behavior.