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I am a junior faculty member and as part of my work I have to supervise students. I am required by the University to have one-on-one meetings with them every week to check their progress and give feedback. I usually have these meetings in my office like all the other staff.

One piece of advice I have received from senior colleagues and online fora is to always keep my door open during the meetings to minimise the risk of being falsely accused of misconduct (in particular harassment). This could happen for instance with a student trying to hurt me or the university for failing a course.

I understand that the probability of this happening (being falsely accused by a student) is very small. Yet, the advice of keeping the door open during meetings is standard in academia, which means a probability must exist (albeit very small) - or, the universities think so.

Question: Is there any other advice, common practice, or university policies for precautions to be taken - along the lines mentioned above (open door) - to minimise the risk of being falsely accused of misconduct by a student (with the focus on false harassment accusations) during private meetings?

I reject in advance any answers that might discriminate or bias against any group of students based on their gender, origin, or background history. Also, I would prefer to avoid solutions that include audio-visual recording, as this is not usual in my university.

For context, I am a male professor having meetings with students of all sexes. My main concern though are meetings with female students (due to past experience of a friend being falsely accused by one of his female students, with severe effects to his professional and personal life).

Note: My original question was misinterpreted leading to debates concerning what I actually asked. You can retrieve the original question in the edit history for context on some of the answers.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Further comments will be deleted. – StrongBad Oct 31 '17 at 15:16

13 Answers 13

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I am not sure if my experiences are common, but as a faculty member in a psychology department I have had a number of unique and uncomfortable experiences with female students. I have described the two most egregious cases here and here. As for an answer, I want to start with an excerpt from this answer since I think it is so good

1) Never sexually harass your students. Don't even come close -- have a clear-eyed view of what the boundary of acceptable behavior would be and make sure that you stay two stops on the side of that boundary. Especially, maintain a very strong sense of what is acceptable physical contact with a student. (Handshaking: okay. Tapping someone on their clothed arm or shoulder to get their attention: probably okay, but monitor while you do it to make sure that it is being received that way. Almost anything else: as a rule, don't do it.)

In addition, it is important to think about your behavior. I advise always keeping your door open, and remaining on opposite sides of the desk/table when appropriate. You need to be mindful of physical contact with students (cf. What physical contact, if any, is acceptable between a supervisor and a student?) and what you say to them.

Apart from actually not harassing your students, I advise you to document any awkward interactions you have with students. If you accidently (remember rule 1) inappropriately interact with a student (e.g., physical contact or an odd turn of phrase), regardless of if was you or the student that did/said it, you need to tell someone. Similarly, if a student gets unusually upset about a grade, or anything else, you want to document it. I suggest email so there is a written record. I always told my department chair, but the director of teaching or a faculty mentor could also work. I would advise always telling the same person, so they have some context.

In cases where you know the situation could be difficult or where students have been difficult in the past, you my want to have another faculty member join your meeting. You obviously cannot do this for all meetings (e.g., having a faculty member sit in on all your office hours would not work), it would be fine scheduled meetings with problematic students and difficult situations (e.g., failing a student or academic misconduct).

It is also worth noting that sometimes students want privacy (maybe you are discussing grades or a medical condition). If a student wants to shut my door for privacy, I am fine with it, barring a past history or an obvious difficult situation. If anything uncomfortable happens after the door was shut, or if you are feeling the slightest bit concerned/paranoid, you should document what happened.

Dear Department Chair,

I met today with Jane Doe to discuss her medical condition. She requested and shut my door while meeting. At one point she briefly came around my desk and showed me the rash on her arm. It was a little odd and in the future I will make sure students know to respect our personal space. I don't foresee any issues, but wanted to keep you in the loop.

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    Your advice is good but there is unfortunately conflicting requirements put upon educators. Any educator is advised to keep their door open when meeting with students to avoid liability. We're also told that student privacy is important and student records (grades) are confidential. I don't see how I can maintain student privacy while also keeping my door open, especially for the student who is being told they're failing and/or distraught, but those are exactly the students you're concerned about doing something like this. – David Oct 31 '17 at 18:54
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    @David that should probably be a new question. In regards to this question, in the absence of a past history or an obvious difficult situation, if a student wants to shut my door for privacy, I am fine with it. If anything uncomfortable happened after the door was shut, or if I was feeling the slightest bit concerned/paranoid, I would email my chair explaining that the student shut the door and what happened. – StrongBad Oct 31 '17 at 19:25
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    @David I generally keep my door open also, but occasionally students do want shut the door, either for privacy or because of loud noises (e.g., construction) outside my office. I have always heard the "open door" advice as a general rule of thumb rather than something to stick by legalistically. Really I think the main reason to keep the door open is (i) for convenience, and (ii) so all parties feel "safe." If those reasons are absent, closing the door at a student's request seems generally okay. – Kimball Oct 31 '17 at 20:30
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    I am not sure this works. If you email the chair on a frequent basis documenting interactions with female students, this would rapidly start to look very suspicious. – Lembik Nov 3 '17 at 8:40
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    @aparente001 any reason you think my geneder/sex matters for this answer? – StrongBad Nov 4 '17 at 13:28
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Frankly, it is not clear to me why you are so concerned about being falsely accused of sexual harassment. Yes, there is a chance of this happening, but the chance is very small, even compared to other equally or more grave things that are largely out of your control (serious health problems, accidents, and so forth).

Lately, maybe because of the news, I am afraid that if I displease one of the students (for example fail her) she might accuse me of harassment to hurt me or force the University into a deal.

How often does a student fabricate a sexual harassment claim against a faculty member who has behaved entirely professionally? Such a student has a lot to lose as well.

No matter how it ends up, it will have serious consequences on my life (personal and professional).

I don't really agree. Such allegations are treated confidentially at first, and if they are totally without merit they need not go public. I speak here from direct experience with the process for dealing with harassment allegations at my university. I have reported (as required) secondhand information about possible harassment by faculty members at my university, and these investigations were indeed kept confidential and the faculty members remain in good standing at the university.

It happened to a colleague (different university) and it practically destroyed his career and marriage; even though he was finally cleared.

I'm sorry to hear that; maybe that's what's setting you off. I don't know your colleague's situation at all, so I can't speak to it. I do however respectfully disagree with your claim that any false claim of harassment by a student will come close to destroying one's personal life. There are many public examples of marriages that survived sexual harassment. Moreover, there are people in my life whom I would not believe guilty of sexual misconduct based on any amount of circumstantial evidence. I think a lot of people feel this way about their spouses.

I thought of rejecting any female students (you can select the students to accept), but I could never discriminate like that. I thought of hiding a camera in my office, but that could go badly if it's detected (and it's illegal). Asking only the female students to meet me at the library or public space would seem very odd and discriminating. Asking all students to do the same would be difficult to me.

I agree that with the possible exception of the last, these are terrible ideas. (Really, you thought of putting a hidden camera in your office to protect yourself from claims of sexual harassment?) The last idea is not inherently bad, but...how is it different to have students meet in a library than to meet in your office with the door kept open?

How do you protect yourself from this? How can I not discriminate, be a good educator, but protect myself and my family? Am I being paranoid (probably)? I am uncomfortable asking senior academics in my department about this.

"Paranoid" is a little strong, but I don't really understand where your worries are coming from. Nor do I understand why you are reluctant to talk to your colleagues about this. You seem to be slightly "hung up" on something here.

Anyway, here is my strategy for avoiding allegations of sexual harassment. The first two points are key, and the third is optional but helpful. Here we go:

1) Never sexually harass your students. Don't even come close -- have a clear-eyed view of what the boundary of acceptable behavior would be and make sure that you stay two steps away from that boundary. Especially, maintain a very strong sense of what is acceptable physical contact with a student. (Handshaking: okay. Tapping someone on their clothed arm or shoulder to get their attention: probably okay, but monitor while you do it to make sure that it is being received that way. Almost anything else: as a rule, don't do it.)

2) Make sure that your interaction with students looks to all observers like you are a steadfast subscriber to point 1) above. So, yes: keep your office door open whenever students are in your office. Feel free to make a point that you are doing so. Make a point of not talking about romantic relationships with your students -- either theirs or yours -- except possibly in ways that are so passing and innocent that they actually reinforce that you know where the boundaries lie.

3) Actually be ahead of the male-academic curve when it comes to knowledge and sensitivity about such issues.

In your case, I caught a few minor things that suggest that you have some room for improvement on the latter point.

  • Most of all, being fearful of being falsely accused of sexual harassment suggests a certain lack of empathy with your female students. I am aware that pointing that out is not directly helpful, but I do hope you can attain a better state in the fullness of time.

  • For every female student who falsely accuses their male faculty member of sexual harassment, how many female students are truly sexually harassed, or borderline sexually harassed, or not harassed but treated differently from the male students in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable? In my experience, if you include all of the above the ratio is something like 1:100 or more. If you can come off as legitimately sympathetic to these issues, then (apart from other benefits!) you make yourself a much less appealing target for students to make up stories. And having other students step in and say "On the contrary, Professor A is one of the good ones..." will certainly help to defuse things if it comes to that.

  • "Some of the students are girls." Do you mean that they are under 18? If you do mean that, say that. It is no longer considered appropriate to refer to adult women as "girls." Probably you would not refer to your male students as "boys," and by the way, you shouldn't.

  • "I understand that the same accusation could come from a male student. My 80s small town bias doesn't allow me to consider that possibility." What the what?!? First of all your statement is literally contradictory: you are evidently considering the possibility. Second of all: what are you trying to say -- that you're more backward / less progressive than other people in your position might be? You are giving an excuse that excuses nothing and that could be quite off-putting to many other academics. So don't say things like that.

Added: Here are some statistics on the prevalence of sexual harassment in American universities. I can't find statistics on prevalence of false accusations of sexual harassment against American faculty members (and doubt such exist), but in my best judgment it somewhere between two and three orders of magnitude more likely that a female student gets sexually harassed by someone in the university than makes up a claim of being sexually harassed by a faculty member. Several people have suggested that such statistics are not relevant to the OP. I respectfully disagree: as others have said, a rational approach to this problem is to quantify the risk and ask what tradeoffs the OP is willing to incur to lessen it. Knowing that female students and faculty routinely occur a risk hundreds of times greater is something to take into account when making these considerations.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat and new comments will be deleted. – StrongBad Oct 31 '17 at 20:33
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While it is nice that the other people show consideration for all women who are harassed, they do not seem to fully appreciate the position of the many men who are falsely accused. Someone in another answer claims the ratio is 1:100, there is no statistics for that in academia, but in the field I am aware of (family law) the percent of women fabricating accusations against their husbands is around 50%.

While the OP might be seen as paranoid, people who think that do not understand how devastating is to be falsely accused (or to know someone who has been falsely accused), and this is much more common than people often assume. In many cases men are assumed guilty until proven innocent.

I am not saying this to scare the OP, on the contrary, I think it is important that he feels people understand he is not paranoid. However, we also need to be realistic, and while, as I said, it is true that men who have been falsely accused have felt devastating consequences, it is also very unlikely for this to happen in your situation.

The best analogy I can make is this: think of air travel. If your plane crashes, your chances of survival are almost zero, and if you know someone who died in a plane accident, you might be afraid of flying. Understandable, and everyone should be understanding and sympathetic of how you feel, you are not paranoid if you are afraid of flying. However, flying is also quite safe, in the sense that driving is actually more dangerous, and so are many other activities.

Be aware of the dangers, but don't stop flying, you cannot take the train from New York to London. In your job, you need to understand you need to be relaxed, and feel comfortable with both men and women. Do keep that door open, the same way you will fasten your seat belt, and understand that the probability of being falsely accused is quite low.

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    Family law is a completely different situation. Moreover, the ways that women in academia are discriminated against / mistreated / harassed are quite well documented. There is nothing in your answer that is specific to academia. Do you have any relevant expertise to share with us? – Pete L. Clark Oct 31 '17 at 2:35
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    Do you have a reference for your 50% number? – StrongBad Oct 31 '17 at 3:17
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    The self-selected population of people involved in acrimonious divorce proceedings are very much not the right comparison. As for the 1:100 statistics, those are indeed for the general population, not academia - and probably on the low side, because that is as far as I am aware the rate for rape, which presumably is somewhat rarer than harassment. Most studies of reports of rape to the authorities find a false accussation rate of 3-9%, and other studies find that less than 1 in 10 victims report at all. But why would academia be different from the general population? – nengel Oct 31 '17 at 3:20
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    @nengel Your statements that women get marginalised does not apply at all here. This is a legal problem, and ANY court, not just family law, is heavily biased against men. Men get on average 30-50% longer sentences than men for the same crime, and are much less often believed. In courts men are marginalised. There is no point in arguing whether women are marginalised in academia, the point is, if a woman makes a false accusation (maybe she is bitter because she is marginalised) than the man falsely accused is facing an uphill battle because in the Court men face a heavy bias against them. – user Oct 31 '17 at 11:57
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    I know a few people who have (visible) cameras in their office or other workspace for exactly this reason; a certain employee was falsely accused by a student to get a better grade, the employee was quietly fired but then re-instated when the student's was later discovered to be completely fabricating the incident. It was really treated as a "guilty until proven innocent" case and many other employees decided they'd rather get in trouble for having a camera than possibly MORE trouble after being falsely accused. – iammax Oct 31 '17 at 13:49
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If you read the news lately more closely, you will see that almost no one believed the past individual accounts of harassment, and it took about a dozen simultaneous accusations for anyone to even begin to take it seriously. So even if it comes to that, the scale is still utterly weighed in your favor. The best thing you could do, IMO, is educate yourself more about how sexual harassment plays out. Try to put yourself in the place of your female students, rather than reflexively identifying with harassers just because you share a gender with them.

Right now, you are treating your female students like some bomb that might go off at any moment. That is no way to be an advisor. Knowing the patterns will let you both:

  • rest more easily in the knowledge of where the boundaries are, and that you are not crossing them
  • recognize when others are crossing them, and not make excuses for those of your colleagues that actually do harass their students.

The boundaries are not even all that gender-specific. For instance, do not talk about sexual or romantic feelings in the office. Since you are heterosexual (I assume from your post), this would likely take very different forms for male and female students, but it is equally inappropriate to bond with your male students by talking about who you find attractive than it is to expound on your marital problems with your female students. Watch yourself in moderation in both situations, rather than walking on eggshells around only half your students.


Edit: based on the comments, let me expand this answer some more. The reality is, one sufficiently motivated person of any gender can make your life hell. This is simply a fact of life, and it is ultimately impossible to guard against every avenue of attack. Any student with a grievance might just as well file a report that you have falsified data. (In fact, my institution has recently revised their grievance procedures following a report of research misconduct that was deemed frivolous after investigation. I am sure the professor in this case also suffered. You can find news articles if you are so inclined.)

Focusing on the one variant that is more likely to come from female students has disparate effects on some of your students. This is discrimination. Since you note in your question that you would prefer not to opt to discriminate against female students just to assuage your fears (a commendable position that I wish more people would take), but it is impossible to find some way to hush up any accusation immediately (for obvious reasons this is also undesirable), the way to deal with this is to become more comfortable with the situation. Just like women learn to live their lives with the constant threat of being sexually harassed, and somehow still manage to interact with men normally, you can learn to live with the possibility of being accused of harassment.

How do you do this?

  • Step one, and this is why "don't harass anyone" keeps showing up in the answers, is to make sure your behavior is above reproach. If you are afraid someone will think your house is too dirty, put some extra effort into cleaning, for your own peace of mind. (This can also include always treating your students fairly in matters of grading etc. It is harder to make up an accusation against someone you respect than against someone you hate.)

  • Step two, make sure your standards are in line with everyone else's. Read a forum where people talk about housekeeping, and learn how many days in a row it is normal to use a towel before putting it in the wash.

  • Step three, get involved in the process. I'm giving up on the analogy now: read up on past accusations, join the equal opportunities commission, or volunteer to assist in an investigation, etc. Learn more about what happens after an accusation, which types of evidence are used, what the standards of proof are, etc. Get familiar with how your institution deals with grievances. This will let you have strategies in place for how to deal with an accusation if it does happen, and return some feeling of control of the situation to you, rather than just being afraid that your life will be over at that point.

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    That may be true for high-profile Hollywood stars, who only became newsworthy because of their position, but is not necessarily the case for an average academic so accused. This seems to be a case of availability bias. Do you have any statistics showing the average number of accusations that an academic gets before it is taken seriously? I'll be seriously surprised if that number is more than 1. – March Ho Oct 31 '17 at 12:41
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    This answer is also not helpful. It's not about treating every female as a bomb. It is common knowledge among educators that you should keep your doors open during meetings with students anytime. Why? So that you are clear if anyone accuses you of anything. OP is asking if there is any more advice along this same vein that he hasn't heard. He likely does not need a lecture on gender politics. If you think he is already doing everything he needs to protect himself adequately, just say so. – EvSunWoodard Oct 31 '17 at 17:07
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    @EvSunWoodard: there's truth to your comment. I started out writing a comment but ended up putting it in an answer when it became too long, because I felt that OP... kind of did need a lecture on gender politics. I've expanded on why I think that that is in fact relevant advice in this situation. – nengel Nov 2 '17 at 1:49
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    "Just like women learn to live their lives with the constant threat of being sexually harassed, and somehow still manage to interact with men normally, you can learn to live with the possibility of being accused of harassment." This is a very nice argument I never thought and I shall keep in mind from now on. Although, the actual question was about "Step two": are there any standards I don't know about? I didn't ask for psychotherapy concerning my fears or for a lecture on gender politics. This is supposed to be a Q&A site, not a Q&lecture. – electrique Nov 2 '17 at 14:32
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    @nengel - Your example of a student saying data was falsified is a bit of a red herring as the consequences are no where near as severe, and it can be quantitatively disproved. Which is likely why the teacher got off. Sexual misconduct has a much more severe penalty (as it should), and is often much, much harder to prove (which is why too many people get away with it), but while trying to fix the fact that too many get away with it, it opens the door for false claims to get more credit. So, if there are ways to stop false claims, then real claims get more attention, helping both problems. – EvSunWoodard Nov 2 '17 at 21:28
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Perhaps think of this the same way you think of avoiding being run over as a pedestrian.

There are obvious precautions you should definitely take, such as looking both ways before crossing a road, and keeping your interactions with your students strictly professional, no touching, no dating students, no sex-related remarks.

There are a series of further pedestrian precautions you can take, such as only crossing at light controlled intersections, not walking at times when drunk drivers are especially likely, working up to never walking outside your home or buildings at all. Each further reduces the risk at an increasing convenience cost.

Similarly, there are a series of further accusation-preventing precautions you can take, discussed in other answers. The equivalent of never walking outside buildings is to not take any job that requires one-on-one meetings with students some of whom will be women.

Life is a constant series of trade-offs between risk and reward, in which you have to decide how much risk you are prepared to take to get things you want in life. If you want a job that involves meeting one-on-one with students, and want the convenience of using your own office rather than going to a busy public location, there is going to be a non-zero risk.

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    This is a great answer. I think your comparison really nails it, and captures the fact that there is no foolproof way OP can avoid the thing he fears with 100% certainty, since it is simply part of his job, but at the same time gives a vivid illustration of the (very low) magnitude of the risks involved if proper precautions are taken. – Dan Romik Oct 31 '17 at 16:23
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    Thanks for the nice answer. I will try to lighten up; I am a stressful person by nature. However, I did receive some nice suggestions to decrease that risk (mainly in the accepted answer). I'll take the criticism along with those :) – electrique Oct 31 '17 at 21:10
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    I also like this answer. We all agree that the OP is right to observe that there is some risk, but putting the risk in perspective and asking what tradeoffs he is willing to incur to decrease it is a psychologically astute approach. – Pete L. Clark Nov 1 '17 at 1:26
  • Don’t professors mostly use their own office because they have no other choice? If a professor took a student to a quiet and secluded place that was not their own office, that would look really bad, – Lembik Nov 3 '17 at 8:37
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    @Lembik Indeed. I would expect a professor who is just trying to avoid accusations and who decides against meeting in their office to hold their student meetings in a busy public location, such as an active college library, not a quiet and secluded place. – Patricia Shanahan Nov 5 '17 at 2:17
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The OPs clarification:

Assume there is a person that might want to hurt their educator for failing them by spreading lies or accusing them of something they didn't do (harassment during 1-1 meetings). How can that educator protect themselves (best practices, measures, etc.)?

changes the question somewhat. It's not about the one student in X (whatever X is) who is willing to risk mutual destruction to satisfy a grievance. In this case, I agree with StrongBad regarding general precautions. I would also be selective in which students to accept. There is nothing bad about it if done on an individual basis (instead of based on the sex of the person). After all, you need to work with the student and if the interaction does not work out, it's unlikely you'll both get something good out of it.

But your clarification sounds like there is a student out to get you. In that case, it might be helpful to talk with trusted colleagues who also know the student (about your difficulties with the student). It might even be time for legal support — someone who knows academia and knows how to deal with these cases. Also, "always be recording" might be helpful here (again: talk to a lawyer first).

In general I have found that conflicts with students (e.g. about grades) can be mediated if done correctly (needs a neutral and skilled mediator). However, this might not work for all students.

One issue I haven't found in the answers so far is a worst-case scenario plan for the unlikely but possible case of a false accusation happening. I find that with rare but devastating events, having a plan on how to deal with such a situation might help. You are unlikely to think clearly if that event occurs.

A website I have seen long ago (page no longer exists) listed a few tips in case of a wrongful accusation (albeit directed at students). Among others:

  • not to talk with others about it (save close family or attorney; never ever talk about it on social media; you never know how it might be used against you),
  • keeping your cool (influences perception)
  • seeking independent counsel (the university might decide to protect its reputation)
  • not use the university eMail/phone system (again: the university might not be neutral)
  • be wary of pretext calls (friend calling you and trying to get you to admit guilt; just decline to answer any questions and hang up)
  • be wary of physical danger (person who accuses you might instigate violence)
  • never talk to the police if accused (let the attorney deal with it)
  • getting to know the procedures on how the university deals with it (esp. to know your rights)
  • recording anything that you are legally allowed to record (state laws! consult attorney)
  • document-document-document — and keep everything organized
  • adhere religiously to no-contact orders (even if the students wants you to call back or wants to meet)
  • and the like.

Hopefully you never need it, but a worst-case plan might be helpful.

Talking about helpful, a comment about the question and some of the reactions here:

I think a false accusation is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. It can destroy a person's life, can socially isolate them, can drive them to suicide, and can undermine the basic trust in the legal system.

And yep, sexual misconduct/harassment/assault happens. A few people — male and female — are criminal assholes, no question about it, esp. in positions of power. But there also are a few people — male and female — who will use any method to get at someone. There is a phase in conflicts where even devastating personal losses are accepted just to get at the other person. It's not rational but deeply human. And in some cases, this can involve wrongful accusations.

Which sucks, given that most people in academia just want to do a good job — do good research and teach good courses — and these things make life unnecessarily difficult.

With this in mind, I wonder how some answers would read if you gender swap it (useful test to see biases). If the question had been about a female professor being afraid of possible physical violence from male students. After all, a wrongful accusation is essentially assaulting a person via a proxy, and over a longer time period. Here the proxy is the legal system, and sometimes also the court of public opinion (which sometimes comes with actual violence, not to mention violence in prisons).

In this swapped case, essentially saying: it's rare, bad things do not happen to good people, don't invite it, just be professional, and what's really important are cases of Y ... just does not cut it. It would probably be called "victim blaming" and "derailment". Yes, being professional is good advice, but it doesn't work if the student is not. Humans aren't always professional, or even rational.

So, with the question asked here I think it's best to ... well, assume the best: the OP just wants to do a good job and cases of false accusations just scare the shit out of many people. No matter how rare they are. And as useful as statistics are (which would have to be about false accusations), a person has only one life and the consequences are devastating. Even if the probability is low, if the consequences are serious enough it pays to prepare for such an event. That's why we have insurances.

So, kudos to the OP for asking the question and dealing with the reactions.

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    This isn't like preparing for nuclear war or an asteroid strike. "Protecting yourself" (beyond very basic common-sense precautions) against false accusations of sexual harassment necessarily means treating men students and women students differently. And there's still the question of just why this particular very-low-probability event is apparently so frightening to many men. A car accident, violent crime, or serious illness has devastating consequences too, and they're much more likely. – Elizabeth Henning Nov 1 '17 at 1:56
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    @ElizabethHenning People generally fear risks they can't control. After the July 2007 terrorist attacks in London, there was a big increase in people cycling to work, despite the fact that one is much more likely to die in a cycling accident than a terrorist attack on the public transit system. Similarly, people feel that they have some control over car accidents (drive carefully, be more aware of other road users), violent crime (avoid the dodgy parts of town) and serious illness (adopt a generally healthy lifestyle). False accusations are impossible to control. – David Richerby Nov 1 '17 at 14:59
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    @ElizabethHenning: you think it is control over students, while it is probably control over his career. As with the example of driving a car, people that think that if THEY are good drivers they are in control and everything will be fine, and then they realize that doesn't help at all when the driver next to you has a stroke and runs you off a bridge. Never drinking doesn't prevent you from dying in a drunk driving accident, and never engaging in inappropriate behavior does not prevent you from loosing your career due to accusations of inappropriate behavior. Scary. – jmoreno Nov 3 '17 at 0:36
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    @Elizabeth-Henning I find this to be a very low opinion of male students, not to mention of men in general. I guess such a mindset can explain why it is so difficult to show empathy for men‘s concerns and listen to them. And why it’s so easy to conflate concern about wrongful accusation with a desire to have control over others. It‘s wanting to have control over one‘s life, incl. in the face of (devastating) low probalility events. – Daniel Wessel Nov 3 '17 at 6:05
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    @PeteL.Clark So, is it 23% the percentage of female professors being harassed by male students? Because that was the gender swapping comment about. Also, my original question was very specific about an admittedly low probability scenario. Nevertheless, I must be very poor in communication, because I seem to receive answers and statistics about (very important) issues but not what I asked for. Anyway, I give up trying to convince I'm not a unicorn (or, a male pig trying to extend my patriarchic dominance). Cheers! 🙂 – electrique Nov 3 '17 at 23:30
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I will answer only one question out of many; for the other questions, see other answers.

"Am I being paranoid (probably)?"

No.

Some female student might wish to take revenge for having failed in an exam, especially if her failure in the exam led to a major failure in her whole life planning. Now, your responsibility for this failure might be even justified, since absolute perfection in grading every single student is impossible. You might have erred somewhere. So, the female student might wish to incur as much harm to you as possible. The ways she might incur harm to you are endless, starting with love letters such that your spouse sees them, adding Viagra to the beans in the open-kitchen coffee machine before a meeting with you and accusing you of harrasment, or actually taking a gun to the campus and shooting you! (It is a rare situation, but it did happen on my memory: life is much richer than we think.)

As you see, you cannot protect yourself against all that; it's probably not worth even trying to. If you are really concerned, contact the legal department of your insitution and get a legal advice. And continue with the open-door policy during meetings with women. (You may also keep the doors open while having meetings with male students - not because of potential accusations, but because you might be afraid of physical violence.) And, if you have not learnt it so far, "don't steal rolls", which should go without saying. All that is easy to do, simplifies your life, and complicates the life of those trying to harm you.

Now, returning to whether you are being paranoid: no, since you don't blame women per se. You are afraid, perhaps phobic, but not paranoid.

  • 4
    In short, you cannot protect yourself against everything and trying to is the definition of paranoid – StrongBad Oct 31 '17 at 19:41
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    If you leave the door open, do so for all student meetings. That makes it a habit, not a reaction to the student's gender, which you should be ignoring. After all, a male student might be equally vengeful, and make a false accusation of sexual harassment. – Patricia Shanahan Nov 1 '17 at 2:06
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    "The ways she might incur harm to you are endless, starting with love letters such that your spouse sees them, adding Viagra to the beans in the open-kitchen coffee machine before a meeting with you and accusing you of harrasment, or actually taking a gun to the campus and shooting you!" You are worried about being shot by a female student but not by a male student?!? It is really hard for me to view this as anything else than gynophobia. – Pete L. Clark Nov 1 '17 at 2:57
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    I'm sorry but if you consider viagra in the coffee beans as even a possibility, that's paranoia. – David Richerby Nov 1 '17 at 15:05
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    My point is that asking "How do I protect myself from being shot by female students?" is a strange and not very rational question. If you don't see why, perhaps consider the question "How do I protect myself from being shot by Asian students?" – Pete L. Clark Nov 1 '17 at 16:24
6

A teacher I know defends himself so, that he never talks with female students without external observers.

He prefers talking them where also other people are present. If the student comes into his room, then he opens the door, so others can see (and, later, testify) what is or is not happened.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Nov 5 '17 at 2:22
3

If you really want to nip false allegations in the bud, put a camera in plane sight. Announce at the start of each meeting that you are recording the meeting to prevent any potential issues from arising (you can even be candid about your fears here).

Record all of the meetings, not just those that are worrisome to you. Archive them for as long as you are worried. A low resolution webcam won't come close to filling a $100 hard drive anytime in the next 10 years.

Be sure to label the files well in case your fears manifest themselves and you need to show the meeting to your administration.

  • 1
    A less-intimidating way to explain it might be that you're recording for their benefit, so that if they wish to complain about your behavior, they can do so with a complete recording of it. Saying that you, as a prof, are protecting yourself might make some students more anxious than they already are. – Knetic Nov 1 '17 at 22:23
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    I don't think this is a good idea. American academia has strong protections on the privacy of students (FERPA and all that). If (as a faculty member) I walked into a meeting and there was a camera recording me, I would begin by asking a lot of questions about the purpose and use of this, and if I didn't like the answers I would walk out of the meeting. I view being recorded without my consent as a form of harassment, and also being pressured to consent to being recorded as a potential form of harassment.... – Pete L. Clark Nov 3 '17 at 20:51
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    ...If as a student in a department there was a single faculty member with this policy in their office hours, I would consider speaking to the department chair about making alternate arrangements so that I did not have to be recorded. Finally, how does recording everything that happened in your office show that no sexual harassment occurred? Maybe the harassment occurred in the elevator, or in the hallway, or outside on campus, or in some off-campus location. If I am a student fabricating a harassment allegation, I can claim that it happened in some place without cameras. – Pete L. Clark Nov 3 '17 at 20:56
  • @PeteL.Clark This question was not about the elevator, this was about one on one sessions in a closed office. A camera in this place with full disclosure before the meeting begins is not recording without your permission. Police are now wearing body cams for this very kind of issue. It's a two edged sword that protects both parties. – boatcoder Nov 4 '17 at 13:38
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    The question is about how to avoid getting falsely accused of sexual harassment. Most faculty members could not reasonably limit their interactions with students to only their office. "A camera in this place with full disclosure before the meeting begins is not recording without your permission." Right, but if I have to consent to being recorded in order to show up to the office hours, then my consent is being somewhat coerced. Law enforcement is very different from academia. Are you active in American academia and aware of the current privacy regulations protecting students? – Pete L. Clark Nov 4 '17 at 13:50
3

I am afraid that if I displease one of the students (for example, fail her) she might accuse me of harassment ...

If there is no actual cause for such a claimed harassment from your side, such an accusation can always happen quite independent of any actions you can take. Inventing a cause is probably not such a big obstacle for someone determined to accuse you falsely of sexual harassment. For example the accuser could state that the harassment happened outside of office hours when you met in private.

Therefore I conclude that this is a general risk of a teaching/research career and quite unavoidable.

You could minimize it by not giving bad marks, not letting anyone fail, avoiding to teach female students or going full surveillance, but all these strategies have their own severe drawbacks prohibiting their use while ultimately not eliminating the risk that someone still might accuse you of harassment no matter what.

You can just hope you never, ever get into such a situation. Whether it's true or false, it's really bad for all affected persons. I know that in general the burden is on the accuser to prove the harassment, which should be difficult even with office hours and one-to-one meetings, but the social implications often do not wait for the legal processing of the case.

It probably applies to anyone of any profession and may be more likely the more people are dependent on you.

0

Law enforcement usually cannot press charges unless there is preponderance of evidence such as injury, witness(es) testimony(s), past crimes such as the accused being a registered sexual offender, or evidence that the victim showed that they were in some real danger. If they were a minor, then the rules may change, depending on your local laws, but normally there's more leniency for those who want to press charges when there's a minor involved because not even an attorney is required to press charges according to this Florida Statute 784.

There are some fallacies in your assumptions, most of which already pointed out.

Always document your interaction with your fellow students, such as the amount of time spent with a student. Whether it's a handwritten or typed log documenting the amount of time you spent with a student for the day. Phone call logs or even your Internet history states what you did at what time to counter-argue against someone who may think of accusing you.

Do you have an office? Tutor in an area with the door open and visible glass. Is there a camera nearby it? All the better for you. Take advantage of your office space. That's why it's built that way: to help prevent civil liabilities against school employees such as yourself.

Of course, since you work in a public institution, I assume, that means whatever evidence supports you may be used against you if the accused wants any evidence. But with what I stated about being open to all of your students by tutoring in an open area in front of others whether they are passing by or waiting in line, then there may be witnesses who support you no matter what.

I'm sure you were presented with a type of teacher-student agreement or contract when you were hired. It is an agreement that you will not engage or seek personal relationships with your pupils and you will be held to that standard. I, for example, cannot engage in a personal relationship with my clients and if I was discovered just meeting them outside the workplace for a drink at the pub and it was proven that we met at my job, then I could definitely be terminated or worse, charged with a crime, depending, of course. So, no matter how you tell it: if they give you their phone number, e-mail, whatever and then can prove they did so and you accepted it, then that's it.

Don't assume the worst, but always be secure. Good luck to you.

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    Unfortunately, in some jurisdictions, the bar has been lowered quite a lot, and you may be tried even without a past history, witnesses and/or injuries. And what the OP is concerned is the fact that these accusations will linger on the falsely accused person for quite a long time after he/she has been cleared. – user Oct 31 '17 at 12:17
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    I am so glad that I have never heard of a university that makes me log all of my interactions with students. I have also never seen a teacher-student agreement/contract, although some universities have policies regarding faculty student/staff relationships. It sounds like you are trying to map your experience in industry onto how universities work. – StrongBad Oct 31 '17 at 15:24
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    @h.pacheco University teachers do not usually have certifications to teach. We just do. – Johanna Oct 31 '17 at 19:07
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    If you could only prosecute people who have a past record of similar crimes, it would be impossible to prosecute anybody. Also, there are consequences beyond criminal prosecution: one can be fired or suspended on much less evidence than the criminal standard of "beyond reasonable doubt". – David Richerby Nov 1 '17 at 15:02
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    "Law enforcement usually cannot press charges unless there is preponderance of evidence such as injury, witness(es) testimony(s), past crimes such as the accused being a registered sexual offender" If someone claims to be victimized, there is a witness: the person who is making the accusation. Also, past crimes are generally not admissible. – Acccumulation Nov 3 '17 at 1:42
0

Maybe handle it like many male doctors do when performing gynecologic examinations: Always keep another person in the room. You could handle this by simply not isolating yourselves in your office, but rather meet somewhere open? It might be kind of an extreme, but..

  • 3
    The question already rejects the idea of meeting somewhere open, as being too inconvenient. – David Richerby Oct 31 '17 at 11:19
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    In the case where student meetings (with students of either sex) have potential to become difficult or uncomfortable, as with a failing student or academic misconduct, I invite a colleague to the meeting as an observer. – Bob Brown Oct 31 '17 at 12:24
-4

If there is an actual chance that you would fail a student, then seek out resources to help the student academically. That's the right thing to do, and it's the right think to focus on, rather than fantasies of how the student might want to take revenge.

Your concern seems irrational. Statistically, which is more common?

A. A student is sexually harassed and reports it, yet the university does nothing to address the problem.

B. A student falsely accuses an instructor of sexual harassment.

If you're not sure, then I recommend you do some reading on recent activism around Title IX.

If you spend a significant amount of time worrying about this, then you may want to check whether you have any additional intrusive thoughts beyond this one. If so, you might benefit from a treatment called Exposure and Response Prevention. Ideally you would be able to stand back and notice yourself having an irrational, perhaps outrageous thought, and just watch it go by, as you might watch an interesting cloud float by overhead.


Here are some specific observations to back up my conjecture that you might be spending "a significant amount of time worrying about this":

  • You wrote, "Am I being paranoid (probably)?"

  • Several participants quoted and addressed this question in their answers, and you did not remove this line from the original question, and you did not jump in below their answers to try to convince them they had misunderstood you.

  • A participant wrote, "You are afraid, perhaps phobic, but not paranoid." This suggests that I'm not the only one who wondered as I did.

  • You wrote, "I will try to lighten up; I am a stressful person by nature."

  • Your title and focus were "How to avoid being accused of harassment by a student," not "How to avoid giving the appearance of harassment," or "How to avoid making a sensitive student uncomfortable."

I wondered if you were making yourself just a bit miserable about this. All over this page, you basically say, "Well, yes, ... hmm, no...." Look, IF there is an element of phobia here, the only person suffering from it is you. You get to decide whether this is limiting your enjoyment of life or not, and if so, whether you want to do anything about it. If I were in the set of people close to you, and I confronted you with my conjecture, that could make things uncomfortable for you. But the beauty of the internet is that you are free to consider my conjecture, or not; you are free to consider it, and reject it; you are free to accept it, and then put your head in the sand and leave things the way they are.

There are two aspects to my answer. One is motivated by a sincere interest in sharing information about what you could do about it if you conclude that your worry has wandered outside of the realm of healthy fear.

The other is indeed about gender issues.

There are students who have been traumatized by previous experiences, and there are professors who spend a reasonable amount of energy avoiding causing discomfort to such students. I wonder, would such considerations make you less reluctant to hold some of your office hours in a public place, such as the library, as you were considering doing?

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    Sure, another lecture. I know that A is more frequent. For that, I'm involved with the Women in Engineering group at my university and my professional organisation, I help organise the 1st year information sessions, I've attended several sessions on how to recognise and treat such events, on unconscious bias, etc. Fortunately, there is a lot of support and information out there and through my school to inform people on A. My question was about B, since the only precaution I found anywhere was keep your door open. I simply asked if there is something else along those lines that I haven’t heard. – electrique Nov 4 '17 at 7:36
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    I don't spend a significant amount of time worrying about it. And based on the comments of the people here, I have implemented some simple measures and forgot about the issue. Keeping the door open for all students, informing my manager in cases of awkward situations, and bringing a colleague in the meeting when I have to announce bad news or there is a history of abnormal behaviour by the student. These measures give me the peace of mind that I have done what humanly possible, thus I don't need to bother anymore. – electrique Nov 4 '17 at 7:41
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    Please do not add comments I didn't say. I didn't ask how to avoid being accused. I asked how to minimise the risk of being falsely accused. A paranoid person wouldn't call themselves paranoid, it was a joke I made to show that I know that the risk is minimal. Finally, I did try to clarify my question in an edit, but if I modify the original question, all the answers (incl. yours) will be incoherent. It will create havoc with people seeing answers totally irrelevant to the question. – electrique Nov 4 '17 at 14:41
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    @electrique - "Please do not add comments I didn't say. I didn't ask how to avoid being accused. I asked how to minimise the risk of being falsely accused." Um, I believe your question title does state, "How to avoid being accused of harassment by a student?" But why nitpick about that, anyway? Isn't it clear from what I wrote that I have accepted your premise, that you haven't, and will not be, harassing any of your students? – aparente001 Nov 5 '17 at 13:13
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    "A paranoid person wouldn't call themselves paranoid, it was a joke I made to show that I know that the risk is minimal." A person can still be aware that an intrusive thought is irrational. If you have phobias, then you know that being aware that your thought is irrational doesn't necessarily make it just go away, poof! – aparente001 Nov 5 '17 at 13:14

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