Text published in the Bulletin de l'Association Nationale des Etudes Féministes, n° 46, 2005, pp. 97-100.

Blackmail and abuse of power in the university

In late November 2004, the French national Women''s Studies association (ANEF), like dozens of other feminist organizations and research centers in France and around the world, wrote to the President of the University of Toulouse-le-Mirail to protest the hiring of Daniel Welzer-Lang for the Gender Studies sociology professorship in Work, Gender and Society. Daniel Welzer-Lang had been an associate professor at this university since 1995. This full professorship was explicitly created to reinforce the Simone-SAGESSE Research Center and its ability to incorporate and advise doctoral students. However, in July 2003, Daniel Welzer-Lang had been suspended from Simone-SAGESSE, and he had been asked repeatedly to explain his professional ethics and practices; instead, he chose to resign in September 2003, and to officially apply to, and join a different research center at the University (in sociology, CERS-CNRS), all the while declaring that he intended to leave Toulouse in the near future.

In Women's Studies circles, the collective protest against Daniel Welzer-Lang's promotion for "disagreements around issues of professional ethics" may have seemed like a euphemism, since several written and oral testimonials describe this professor's sexual harassment, moral harassment, abuse of authority, and violation of human dignity, targeting students, and employees working on research contracts under his authority, either at the university or in the "Traboules" association.

In October 1998, several students declared that they were "invited" to his home and were subjected to sexual propositions. Our Toulouse colleagues reprimanded Daniel Welzer-Lang; however given that no formal legal charges were brought against him by these students, and due to the absence of clear disciplinary procedures within the university, Simone-Sagesse members accepted his promises to amend his ways. Why did it take a new spate of collective denunciations by Simone-Sagesse doctoral students at the Center to measure the extent to which Welzer-Lang's teaching and management of research contracts seems to have violated women's dignity and intimacy? Indeed, it was only in July 2003 that members of the Simone-SAGESSE Center decided, after long internal debate, to suspend Daniel Welzer-Lang. This decision became inevitable as new testimonies came to light describing pressures resembling sexual and moral harassment, and their long-term effects as well as potential handicaps to the students' university career and personal well-being. Some of those who spoke out have dropped out of the university; others have changed institutions and/or advisors. None of them have emerged unscathed.

A large part of Daniel Welzer-Lang's research explores areas rarely studied by sociologists ("swingers" couples clubs, minitel [phone computer] sex, prostitution, etc.). This exploration requires the development, in his view, of particular modes of methodological experimentation. It is neither our intention to negate the interest or the legitimacy of sociological research into sexualities, nor to minimize the fact that it requires specific methodological approaches. In our view, it is obvious that in research into sensitive issues, ethical concerns must apply not only to those being observed, but also to those conducting the research. If training in sociological research methods-for analysis of sexualities as for many other areas-means addressing a multiplicity of taboo questions and undoing many preconceptions, it is nevertheless crucial that this teaching, all the more so in this area, must be excruciatingly respectful of students' personal convictions. Nothing is worse than teachers who, under the guise of "educational innovation" or "politicization of the private," use their authority to make students give up all their physical and moral defenses. To offer, as an integral part of the sociology curriculum, participant observation in a nudist colony for "swingers," should only be envisaged with extremely rigorous educational supervision, and only if it can be done with no risks to the researcher's human dignity and with no constraints, using scholarly or any other arguments. In view of the testimonies that the ANEF has received, this rigorous and respectful supervision was sorely lacking in this specific case.

When a certain number of students, repeatedly and over the years, make similar allegations of their teacher's direct sexual propositions, accompanied by promises to act as their advisor in academic work, to hire them to work on research contracts, to promote their work through joint publications, it indicates an unacceptable risk of manipulation and abuse of power.

Why were the reasons for Daniel Welzer-Lang's suspension from the Simone-SAGESSE Research Center not considered admissible by most of the University of Toulouse-le-Mirail's faculty and authorities? Why were they generally dismissed as rumors and malicious gossip, sometimes as a question of rivalry? Cannot the students' voices and suffering be heard? It is fashionable today to denounce the silence and inertia of victims of male violence, given that they are supposedly first-class citizens who have the legal means to take their alleged perpetrators to court and obtain reparations for the suffering endured. In the case of students, who are adults with well above-average cultural assets, public opinion and university hierarchy seem even less sympathetic than in the case of other victims. Beyond the shocking promotion of Daniel Welzer-Lang to full professor, the French national Women's Studies association (ANEF) is concerned with the situation of students and teachers. We would like to stress the difficulty-even, given the current situation, the impossibility--to sanction abuse of power, moral and sexual harassment, and other forms of violence when they occur in academia. We hope to expose the perverse effects of various attempts to deal with these issues "internally"--in universities, departments or research groups, social services or preventative medical services-when the prosecutors' office or legal authorities should normally be notified.

Despite Daniel Welzer-Lang's threats to sue anyone who speaks out publicly about the reasons for which he left the Simone-SAGESSE Center, the ANEF has decided to publish this letter to clarify the situation, and to provide information to all those who so request, respecting the rights of confidentiality and protection of the private lives of the persons concerned. In doing so, we hope to reopen the public debate on sexual harassment in academia begun by CLASCHES IN 2002, and to contribute to measures that lead to punishing illegal and unacceptable practices in institutions of higher education and research. It is not because the victims' voices are not being heard that the impunity of certain perpetrators should be left unchallenged. It is necessary and urgent to break the silence.

Association Nationale des Etudes Féministes