The links between sexual harassment and corruption

The Ivory Tower is being shaken today by reports of sexual abuse and scandal after scandal is emerging. Despite its tradition of strong liberal ideas and student activism, the world of academia is quite conservative when it comes to its core mission of producing and transferring knowledge. This conservatism is being shaken to the core by sex abuse scandals that include both present-day accusations and revelations from the past, some of which refer to decades-old abuse.

The United States higher education media is naturally attracted to topics that reflect major problems in academia. While in the 1980s it was the spread of diploma mills, in the 1990s cheating and plagiarism, a decade ago student loans fraud and predatory for-profits, today it is sexual harassment. Not surprisingly, the Me Too movement is strongly represented on American campuses.

Incidences of sexual harassment usually fall under the category of unethical conduct, although, in some instances, they may well constitute a crime. There is no need to mention here the biggest scandals. They have inflicted reputational damage, lawsuits, multimillion-dollar pay-offs and dismissals and even resulted in suicides. Everyone knows these scandals from the press – and this happens in the US, the largest democracy in the world.

Silence and cover-ups

But there are other countries, where the problem of sexual harassment is a persistent one and yet is not discussed at all. These are not necessarily traditional societies with a strong religious influence on the state and education. Some, such as Russia and Ukraine, have transitioned from totalitarian Communist regimes to multiparty democracies.

In these countries, discussion of sexual abuse in universities is not welcome. If, during the Soviet era, this silence could be explained by the strictness of Communist morale, today this silence has no real logical explanation. At the same time, there is no doubt that university administrators are complicit in the cover-up of sex-related crimes.

Media reports may be worth looking at. Although very rarely, both Russian and Ukrainian media feature reports on sexual harassment at universities. Here are just a handful of examples. In Russia, a faculty member was fired from Saint-Petersburg University of Humanities and Social Sciences for allegedly offering positive grades in examinations in exchange for sex. Sexual harassment scandals were also reported in Tyumen State University and South Ural State University. Usually, such scandals – if they gain a lot of publicity – end up with the voluntary departure or even dismissal of the faculty member involved.

Not all big sexual harassment scandals result in simple dismissals, though. Rarely, there are legal prosecutions and even a court sentence. Imprisonment is also a possibility.

In one such incident, the president of Zaural’ski Humanitarian Technological Institute in Kurgan was prosecuted for sexual harassment. The university president was sentenced to more than three years in prison and a US$5,000 fine for raping his female student after she was asked to bring him alcohol in exchange for a pass in an exam.

A more recent scandal happened with Russian MP Leonid Slutsky, who was accused of sexual harassment by three female journalists. Student activists demanded Slutsky’s dismissal from his office of the chair of the department of international relations and integrative processes at Lomonosov Moscow State University. Certainly, this kind of negative publicity does not contribute to the reputation of this flagship of the Russian higher education sector.

Professors as pimps

In Ukraine, the media also offers some reports on sexual harassment in colleges and universities. One such media report is entitled “Faculty members of metropolitan universities earn supplemental income as ‘pimps’ in brothels and recruit new prostitutes”. A faculty member at National Aviation University in Kyiv was reportedly working as a pimp, recruiting female students to work as prostitutes in brothels in Ukraine’s capital.

In this anecdotal case, a female student majoring in journalism followed a job advert for an escort service and was surprised to find her professor at the brothel, working as a coordinator. Not surprisingly, the university’s leadership decided to ignore the scandal when it was reported by the media.

In yet another reported case, sexual harassment led to the suicide of a female student. She was 19 and attended Berdichev Medical College in Zhitomir. The director of the college was accused of sexually harassing her. The student wanted to leave the college, but the administration refused to return her documents.

A decade ago, the rector of Kyiv State Academy of Water Transport was prosecuted for organising a pornographic studio, prostitution ring and sexual orgies with underage children.

More recently, Ukraine’s leading higher education institution, Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, was embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal in 2019. Several female students publicly accused their faculty of sexual harassment. The university administration launched an investigation into the matter and as a result fired the accused faculty member.

In order to address the problem of sexual violence in higher education institutions, the Ukrainian feminist group known as FEMEN staged a protest featuring slogans such as “Blowjob for a Pass” and “Institution Prostitution”. That protest took place a decade ago in Kyiv in front of the Ministry of Science and Education of Ukraine. Since then, members of FEMEN have received political asylum in France.

Corruption enables abuse

In corrupt educational environments, such as those in Russia and Ukraine, faculty and staff may be involved in exploiting and abusing students in many different ways, including sexually. It is not only students who suffer from sexual harassment. Faculty and staff recruitment and promotion may be influenced by bribes or sexual favours as well. Abuse of power is common and sexual predators are able to prey on those over whom they have authority.

Ararat Osipian is the Alexander Mirtchev visiting professor and scholar at Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, a fellow of the Institute of International Education and a fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium, United States.