The Inevitable?: Abuse of Power and Sexism in Current Academia

Trigger warnings: abuse of power, sexual abuse, rape

If we agree with Foucault’s suggestion that knowledge is shaped by power, and that power maintains itself through knowledge, then it is not surprising that the academe, the site of knowledge production, is also a site prone to the abuse of power. The surprise is that the problematic power imbalance inherent in institutions of education is not foregrounded when we try to tackle issues of sexual violence on college campuses. While the discourse around sexual harassment is often precipitated by individual cases of sexual violation, and focuses on repercussion and punishment, it is also necessary to look preemptively at the entangled state of knowledge, power and their relationship to sexual violence and gender-based discrimination.

In the case of individual instances of gender-based intimidation and sexual violence, the community’s attention expires quickly, even though the pain and trauma stay with those affected long after the event. Discussions about sexual violence on campus often culminate in an unsatisfactory end when the perpetuator exits the school community, either as a faculty member who retires, or a student who completes the natural course of graduation. Without detracting from the discussion around pursuing justified punishment, this article asks the reader to trace the root of sexual violence embedded in systems of knowledge production, by referring to two article published in the Chronicles of Higher Education.

Written shortly after the Harvey Weinstein reports, K.A. Amienne’s article speaks of the difficulty to speak up against faculty members who abuse their power in the hierarchical sphere of the academe. The author highlights the drastic power imbalance between a professor and a student, especially in the case of a female working-class student like herself, as the foremost cause of abusive relationships that hinder a student’s work and life.

“Anytime you have a highly competitive system in which a single person has the power to make or break someone else’s career — whether it’s the crowded, greasy pole of Hollywood or a flooded Ph.D. pipeline — you will have abuse. Not only rape and overt sexual aggression, but also the many complicated and twisted forms of abuse that can sink a woman’s chances of succeeding in an already biased business.”

It is not enough to pay attention to extreme cases of sexual abuse. These infuriating and heartbreaking cases are only a manifestation of the “systemic, sexist dysfunction in academe,” which is too often felt and yet tolerated. Gender-based abuse, as a result of power imbalance, affects more widely and frequently the marginalized identities who find themselves in the power-saturated world that is the academe. To clarify the operation of this problem, Amienne names four facets that enable the culture of abuse:

  1. Abuse is normalized.
  2. Abusers destabilize their targets.
  3. Abuse thrives because co-workers enable it.
  4. It’s easier to blame the victim than change the system.

To find out about her suggestions for establishing an enabling environment on university campuses, read the full article here:

Mingwei Huang, an anthropology PhD student, emphasizes the importance of recognizing the production of knowledge as entangled with the conditions that enable sexual assaults.

While conducting ethonographic fieldwork in South Africa, Huang experiences rape by someone related to her main interlocutor and host. Huang’s experience poses a challenge to simplistically viewing the university campus as the site of knowledge production. As the researcher’s work takes her off campus, and as the ethonographer’s body, voluntarily or involuntarily, becomes inseparable from her research process, how do we rethink the spaces in/through which knowledge is produced? Her narrative further shows that female students remain especially vulnerable to layered structures of violence and injustice, despite the apparent vitality of liberal discourses in the academe.

When she returns to her university in the US, Huang’s writing about her being raped as an ethnographer is met with doubt by professors who are unaware and unsympathetic of the vulnerability experienced by those who are not normative white males. Speaking of their implicit and explicit reading of her decision to speak about her experience as careerism, the author says,

“The recasting of rape as a desirable career event serves only to silence and shame, and provides yet another example (if indeed we needed one) that academe has not escaped the insidiousness of rape culture.”

I encourage you to read Mingwei Huang’s sincere and poised article “Vulnerable Observers: Notes on Fieldwork and Rape” by following this link: