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Yep, you read that headline right. Last spring I became one of the 20% of women in the United States who has experienced sexual assault since starting college. More specifically, I was raped. Then, one of my professors banned me from his class for seeking Title IX accommodations — namely, an extension on three essays he violated college policy in adding to the syllabus after the fifth week of classes. I’m writing this piece because what I experienced should never happen to any other student who is a survivor of sexual assault. Yet, due to a lack of communication between administrative bodies and a lack of procedure for reigning in rogue professors, similar situations could easily unfold again. As it is now, what protects sexual assault survivors from mistreatment in an academic context is the fact that the overwhelming majority of faculty at Middlebury trusts deans’ judgement and are able to balance their sense of authority with student wellbeing. But as we’ve seen in recent years, our campus has no shortage of professors who see themselves as the lone protectors of academic principles like freedom of speech and thought, humor and fairness, the adversaries of a generation of triggered, nail-biting snowflakes who dare question their expertise on these issues. I hope that my speaking up will prompt administrators to address what is a systemic problem in both the college’s Title IX and dean accommodation policies. I hope to make students aware of their lack of rights and recourse when dealing with a professor’s abuse of power. And because I doubt much tangible change will come of my words here, I especially hope that any professors reading this will reflect on their role in providing accommodations, their respect for deans, and the serious consequences of neglecting the humanity of their students.
I’ll start from the beginning. My assault happened during spring break, when I was visiting an exciting, faraway city. I thought I knew the person and how I would react to any unwanted advances, but it turned out both of those assumptions were wrong. It’s hard for me to use the technical term for the man at the center of my sexual assault. He is a family friend. That is one of the reasons I’m publishing this piece anonymously, the other being that I believe I don’t owe the public my identity for my story to matter.
When I came back to campus, I was a wreck. I felt hurt and confused, and I blamed myself. But I had gotten through tougher times at Middlebury, and I knew there were ways I could help myself. I was only taking three classes, and was was on track to ace two of them, but I knew that I needed extra support to finish the semester in good shape. So, the first week back from spring break I:
Continued therapy at Parton
Began seeing a psychiatrist and taking antidepressants
Took a leave of absence from a work-study job I loved
Began weekly time management meetings at the CTLR
Met with my dean about my depression and PTSD recurrence, without specifying the most recent traumatic event in my life, and with his help I:
Reached out to my professors to let them know that I would need extra support in the coming weeks
Initially, I decided not to report my assault to the Title IX office. I didn’t want to go to the police, it hadn’t happened on campus or with one of my peers, and I didn’t feel comfortable talking about it to a stranger. In my mind, it made little sense to involve another college entity when I had had already laid the groundwork to heal emotionally and maybe even to succeed academically. I had faith that everything would turn out okay. But the triumph of Middlebury College’s student support system is not the resolution to my story.
In the midst of ticking all the boxes on my “what to do when you’ve been sexually assaulted” check-list that first week back, one of my professors handed out the guidelines to our first essay assignment. I had been getting an A in the course prior to spring break, but my assault had happened so recently that, going into class that day, I already anticipated I would need an extension. It was only supposed to be five pages, but 30% of my grade, so I wanted to be proactive. However, when our professor handed out the prompt, my classmates and I were shocked to learn that what had previously been described as a single, short essay was now four 3-4 page essays. I didn’t take it seriously at first, convinced that my professor would see our puzzled expressions and realize there had been some mistake. There was no mention of this anywhere in the syllabus, after all. Instead, he informed us that yes, we were expected, with no prior warning, to churn out 12-16 pages in the next seven days for this 200-level history course. I suppose that’s unfair. He caved to student pressure and gave us eight days, and we were allowed to brainstorm with each other.
I had no idea how I was going to write so much more than expected while managing everything else going on in my life — not to mention my other courses. I immediately reached out to my dean and secured a four-day extension. However, the unexpected and newly formidable nature of the assignment prompted my anxiety to skyrocket, and I felt hopeless and overwhelmed. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t submit anything by my extension deadline. Instead, I met with my professor to talk over my options. I told him I had been struggling with my mental health, briefly mentioning family issues instead of my assault. He was kind and assured me that we would figure something out that wouldn’t compromise my health or my work in other classes. “Maybe at some point down the line there will have to be penalties, but let’s not decide anything today,” he said. “I’ll talk to your dean and reach out tomorrow.” I felt supported and was actually calm enough to make headway in outlining the essays that night.
The next morning I received an email from my professor stating that I had one week to turn in the essays, with various point deductions starting at 10% by 5pm that same day. After one week, it would be a zero. I was stunned at his about-face, and respectfully asked him to rethink the timeline for the penalties. His response? “I am bound by the syllabus… I will not negotiate points on your late assignment.” My dean was also shocked, particularly at the fact that my professor didn’t see the hypocrisy in mentioning his faithfulness to the syllabus. I decided to only communicate through my dean from that moment on. That was also the moment I decided to officially report my sexual assault, incorrectly assuming that doing so would help my case for accommodations.
For the next several weeks, my dean worked tirelessly on my behalf, stressing that mine was a case through which the College does just about everything to support a student (nudge nudge wink wink Title IX). Every week we made headway, and yet by the next we were at square one again, always as if my professor’s memory had been wiped clean of all prior correspondence on the matter. When my professor told the class he would drop the lowest of the four essays and let us rewrite one, my dean and I rejoiced. I had submitted two of them, couldn’t I take an incomplete for the third and skip the fourth? Sure, he replied. Then, a few days later: actually, no, and you can’t rewrite one of them like the rest of the class. During the penultimate week of classes, my professor dealt the final blow, unprompted. I was not allowed to write the final, nor was I to attend the last week of classes until I submitted the remaining two essays. He argued the former stipulation was logistical while the latter was a fairness issue, as the essays would be discussed in class. Classmates provided me the final assignment prompt as well as recordings and notes of the last two classes that prove otherwise on both counts.
I had no choice but to drop. He forced me to. The irony of that statement in the context of my specific situation is not lost on me, either. In spite of the fact that I had never missed more than two classes (both with dean’s excuses), and that even after my assault I had actively participated and completed A-level work on all subsequent assignments outlined in the syllabus, there was no alternative. I couldn’t even file a complaint with the department; he’s the chair. Over the summer, in meetings with the Dean of Faculty and the Dean of Curriculum, I learned new things like, “wow, there are so many policy violations here!” along with such classics as “this should have never happened!” and “I’m so sorry, but there’s nothing we can do at this point.” Well, perhaps not nothing. While I must take 5 classes to graduate on time — what will be an amazing feat in itself as I struggled last semester below the standard course load — I can now count on even more administrators to email on my behalf. A relief, as I have such faith in that method.
I’ll admit, the bulk of this piece is more bureaucratic farce than the lurid report its title implies, but the consequences are no less appalling. I spent only one session at Parton talking about a traumatic sexual assault. I didn’t even tell my psychiatrist until this summer. It’s not that I was uncomfortable, but rather that I was consumed with meeting the ever-changing, arbitrary expectations of a professor who showed no regard for my well-being when it entailed ceding some of his authority to a trained professional.
Perhaps my professor didn’t trust my dean because he couldn’t see my “extenuating circumstances.” I still joked around in class and nailed my presentation. But I cried with every new email that erased my dean’s progress, and I couldn’t leave bed for three days when I found out I was banned. That all my hard work had been for nothing. Perhaps my professor didn’t get it because no one explicitly spelled it out to him that I had been raped. Twice. By someone I’ve known since elementary school, who bought me drink after drink until I blacked out, and who, when my vomiting all over the bed ruined the moment for him, decided to wait for round two until later, when I was merely sleeping in that same bed. That this whole memory is so hazy, I can’t help but question what I did to give him the impression I was interested, and worse still, that I was in such a state I wonder if I even initiated all of it, not registering the weight of my actions. That when I woke up the second time and it finally dawned on me what was happening, I felt it would be rude to stop him, and that I hated myself so much in that moment for allowing it to continue that I thought I deserved the consequences and didn’t say anything until the time could be used as an excuse to cut things short. If my professor is reading this now, I wonder if he still thinks my dean was out of line for requesting an incomplete. Or maybe for that to be true, he needs to know that the trauma and mystery of what happened that night and my inner turmoil surrounding it continues to haunt me.
Students shouldn’t have to disclose the sexual violence they’ve experienced to gain reasonable acommodations from old-school professors. But until college policy changes to empower survivors on this campus and their deans, our only consolation may be this: while decades of professorship at Middlebury College often means unchecked power over students, it also means fewer years until retirement. To those aging professors who prioritize rules over compassion, I speak on behalf of all students who have struggled to find realistic academic support when I say: good riddance.
Author’s Note – December 2019:
In the last month or so I confronted the person involved with my sexual assault, and I have felt a lot of peace since having that conversation. It feels like, “Okay. We’re on the same page. This shouldn’t have happened. There can be understanding and learning going forward.” It remains a part of my story, but I feel settled on this front. Yet while it has been a great relief to me personally, I recognize it’s not the typical outcome most students in my position can expect. Now what keeps me up at night is the fact that the College continues to ignore issues in its accommodation policies and policies that protect students’ rights when dealing with rogue professors.