When I was a freshman, I registered for a calculus class to fulfill my FDR requirement with an older white, male professor that I had been warned was ‘difficult.’ My schedule and double major plans necessitated that I take his class regardless, and I figured he couldn’t be that bad.
In the class, I noticed he picked several favorites almost immediately, mostly attractive women and several male athletes. He was kind to these select students while he was, in my opinion, outright demeaning, sarcastic, and apathetic (at best) towards the rest, especially towards several BIPOC students. I mentioned this to classmates, and one responded with ‘if you want to get on his good side, I’ve heard you have to flirt with him.’ I have always struggled in math, so frequented his office hours.
One day while I was waiting with a friend just outside his door, I overheard him conversing with a fellow female classmate. At the end of their conversation, he told her (paraphrased from my memory, but the content in unchanged): ‘I can’t do much without others noticing, but I’ll see what I can do for you [on the exam].’
I rolled my eyes at my friend who shook her head, both of us used to it at this point. When our classmate left, we entered his office with our practice exams and began to work through problems on the chalkboard across from his desk while our Professor sat behind his computer helping us.
At one point, I needed to show him something I had written on my paper practice exam, and approached his desk from the side; he turned to face me, with his back to the computer.
A screensaver was playing through a slideshow of photos on the desktop behind him, facing me. While we discussed the math problem, the slideshow began to display pornographic, degrading photos of women, interspersed with personal photographs. I saw maybe three or four of these images while we discussed the math problem. My mind went blank and I began to feel nauseous; my friend was still at the chalkboard. I eventually blurted ‘thank you, I understand now (I did not),’ and left with my friend as quickly as I could. I had no idea who to tell, so confided in an upperclasswoman friend and peer counselor that evening.
The next day, I was asked to meet with the Title IX coordinator. She informed me that my complaint and report was not the first of its kind made in regard to this professor. She asked me to recount my experience, which I did.
I expressed the fear that this professor had been looking at pornographic images of women repeatedly while female students stood across from his desk in office hours. I expressed my shock that my report was not the first – how many others was this happening to? I was told it would be addressed. I left feeling fairly confident that something would be done – as I freshman, I had a lot of trust in the W&L community and the protection that I believed its administration would provide me.
I waited, attending math class with this professor every week, and nothing happened. I began experiencing several anxiety and several panic attacks in calculus class. Exam week came and nothing was done. Terrified of returning to office hours, I did my best to teach myself how to succeed in my worst subject. I received a C in the class – the only C I was given in my time at W&L, which prevented my GPA , and me, from reaching full potential.
I believe that this C was entirely due to my experience with this Professor – but that is not the point. I was hurt my W&L’s inaction. I buried this hurt; I wanted to love my time at the University, and the experience made me feel unsafe.
Then, during my junior year, I was contacted again by the Title IX coordinator. I went in to her office, and was told there had been another complaint about this professor, along the same line as mine. I was asked to recount my experience – two years later. I did, and left with renewed hope that something would be done. But I un-buried the hurt – I had to confront that the University was knowingly allowing this to continue happening to other women. This was a betrayal of my trust. I believe this inaction was and is a betrayal of the community’s trust. I believe this faculty member should be held accountable and should no longer be responsible for or alone with students.
This experience was damaging, academically, emotionally, psychologically – especially as a woman at a University that, in its fairly recent past, debated whether or not to allow women to attend at all. This professor remains teaching in his tenured position today, and I do not want to imagine what that could mean for the women who pass unknowingly – or knowingly – through his office.
Misogyny is still present at Washington and Lee, no matter how vocal its women are becoming. The University’s inaction on this issue is and was deeply harmful to my experience as a student – and I am a white individual. I recognize that my privilege protected me from a host of other harmful and disparaging experiences at this school. Misogyny and racism are old friends – I can not imagine the hurt that BIPOC students experience at the hands of the University’s inaction, on the matter on the name change alone. Mine must pale in comparison.
The University must take steps to protect its students and to cease to condone, whether overtly or unintentionally, a culture of white, male supremacy. A name change is not the be-all-end-all and a systemic shift is needed – but it is certainly a start.