Education

A Degree of Justice

Twenty-five years of silence erupted with a roar.

It exploded with the words Lisa Schubert wrote in an email to the University of Washington’s Title IX coordinator, Valery Richardson, revealing why she had been forced to abandon her nearly finished dissertation in English in the mid-1990s.

“Dear Ms. Richardson,” she wrote. “Twenty-five years ago, I refused to have sex with my Ph.D. dissertation director at the University of Washington and, as a result of his sexual harassment, did not complete my Ph.D. program.”

In 2019, inspired by the #MeToo movement, Schubert demanded proof that the university had strengthened protections for victims of sexual harassment — a promise it had made after she dropped out and successfully sued her ex-mentor.

Her doubts had been fueled by local newspaper reports that UW graduate students were threatening to strike, with sexual harassment atop their list of complaints. If other students were still being subjected to the kind of abuse that had nearly cost Schubert, at age 27, her dream of a college teaching career, she was ready to break the silence imposed on her by a nondisclosure agreement signed with her former adviser.

Still, she had no idea if anyone would hear her. “To a faceless institution on three campuses … I was screaming, roaring,” she said. “What were my chances someone would listen?”

Richardson was just six months into her job when she got the email. She was appalled by what Schubert had been through. As a Pell Grant recipient who’d had a difficult childhood, Richardson understood the value of higher education and the need for a supportive environment, free from harassment or violence.

“I knew, reading and rereading Lisa’s letter, that I had both an obligation and an opportunity in front of me,” she said during a virtual forum that she and Schubert participated in last year.

Their correspondence would lead to a novel form of restorative justice that gave Schubert back what she had given up on nearly three decades earlier: a chance to finish a partly published dissertation whose original material was languishing on floppy disks she had long ago lost track of.

With a new introduction written last summer, Schubert defended her dissertation in November and was awarded her doctorate in December. She and Richardson say the arrangement could be a model for other colleges to help victims of sexual harassment find meaningful justice.

This time around, the support from the university was far different from the response Schubert received when she complained, back in the mid-’90s, that the dissertation adviser she idolized and considered almost a father figure had been making increasingly insistent sexual demands. She remembers crying in his office, asking him to stop, afraid that no one would believe the words of a graduate student over an influential member of the department and nationally renowned scholar. She was afraid to tell anyone — even the high-school sweetheart she had married a few years before — about the abuse.

“If I told anyone about this, then I knew I was losing him as my Ph.D. supervisor,” she said. Given his clout in the department and the control he had over her career prospects, “I had no power in this relationship. He had complete power.”

Her fears were realized, she said, when the campus ombudsman laid out the risks she faced if she pursued a complaint. “She thought she was being helpful, but her words were like a threat,” Schubert said. “‘If you do anything, you’ll be throwing your career away.’”

In 1994 she sued her adviser for sexual discrimination, harassment, assault, and battery. He paid her $117,000 (half of which went to her lawyer) and left the university soon after, but went on to teach at two more colleges before retiring, Schubert said.

Courtesy of Lisa Schubert

Lisa Schubert celebrated passing her doctoral exams, in 1992, by backpacking through Europe. Because of the sexual harassment she had suffered, she left the program before completing her degree.

Schubert also sued the university, which offered her a free year of graduate study in another department and a promise that it would strengthen its harassment policies. Discouraged by the lack of support from her department and despondent over the loss of her trusted teacher, she left “without my Ph.D., without a reference, and with a sentence of silence in the form of a nondisclosure agreement.”

She has no interest in naming her abuser now, even though the terms of her agreement might allow it since he’s no longer teaching, Schubert said, and The Chronicle is respecting her wishes. Her focus is on how the university protects students from harassment and how she believes it failed her earlier.

Like many survivors, Schubert said, “I just had to move on to survive financially. At some point, you have to look for new employment and start to rebuild your life.”

She said she had consoled herself with the university’s promise to restructure its complaint process to better protect future victims. “I had to bury that hope of a university career, and I had to rebuild myself and my self-esteem and my confidence in myself.”

As for the dissertation, “I never thought I’d return to it,” she said.

When Schubert first met with UW’s Title IX coordinator, each woman was flanked by a lawyer. By the time the meeting ended, they’d committed to collaborate.

Schubert appreciated that Richardson immediately apologized and acknowledged the harm Schubert had suffered. Richardson invited Schubert to help the university make changes like doing away with nondisclosure agreements, expanding anti-harassment training, and supporting a state bill making it illegal to “pass the harasser.”

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David Ryder for The Chronicle

Lisa Schubert (left) and Valery Richardson this week at the University of Washington

During a public summit on sexual harassment, Schubert expressed doubts about whether restorative justice did enough for victims of sexual misconduct. That got Richardson thinking that “maybe the only way to be restorative in Lisa’s situation was to restore the opportunity to finish what she had started. Maybe she could complete her program and receive her Ph.D.”

When Richardson broached the subject with Schubert, she was careful not to make any promises. She also warned Schubert that if she started and couldn’t finish, it could trigger even greater trauma.

Schubert said she’d been stunned by the offer. “I said, ‘Yeah, let’s try this. I don’t know where it’s going to lead.’ I told her I would try it only if it set up a path for other survivors to come back and get their degrees, and wasn’t just a one-off.”

The new introduction to Schubert’s dissertation explains why it had been put away for decades. It describes how much she admired her adviser, and wanted to please him, until his attentions turned way too personal and then sexual. Her adviser, she said, would kiss her, caress her hair, and place his hand on her thigh. Even though both students and faculty members had judged her worthy of teaching and research awards, she began to doubt her intellectual capabilities. She wondered if she could have done more to stop him, and why she didn’t see it coming.

“Finally, months into his advances, I remember shouting at him to stop so loudly that it seemed to register in his brain, and he went across the hall to the men’s restroom,” she wrote in the introduction. “I could hear him retching, as if finally aware and disgusted with his own behavior.” But instead of apologizing and stopping, she wrote, he told her that if she couldn’t love him the way he loved her, he could no longer supervise her Ph.D.

Schubert’s dissertation explores what she observed as a shift, in the 1990s, from corporate and educational institutions dismissing or disparaging diversity to “managing” it as women and people of color were increasingly asserting their rights. “Tragically, in the midst of writing a dissertation about the shift in corporate and institutional strategy towards ‘managing diversity,’ I myself became ‘managed’ out,” Schubert wrote.

As the perpetrator moved on to another prestigious university, … I walked into a community-based adult-literacy center and started my career over as a volunteer tutor.

“As the perpetrator moved on to another prestigious university, supported by the recommendation letters of University of Washington administrators and faculty colleagues,” she continued, “I walked into a community-based adult-literacy center and started my career over as a volunteer tutor.”

She stayed silent about the abuse as she completed a second master’s degree, in education, to allow her to teach high-school English and English as a second language. She rebuilt her career as a high-school, college, and statewide literacy teacher and administrator, learning how to survive from people who had suffered far worse: Cambodian refugees and elderly African Americans whose education had been cut short in the Jim Crow South.

She’s now teaching pre-college English at Edmonds College, a two-year institution north of Seattle. Many of her students face challenges, such as homelessness and abuse, that threaten their ability to even graduate from high school.

Working her story into the introduction to her dissertation was an idea that Eva Cherniavsky, director of graduate studies for UW’s department of English, supported.

“The point was not to pretend this hadn’t happened but to build in a recognition that this had happened into the project itself,” she said.

Cherniavsky was just one of the academic, legal, and administrative players whom Bill Mahoney, associate dean of student and postdoctoral affairs, assembled to sign off on a path forward for Schubert. He wasn’t convinced they’d be able to pull it off.

A dissertation that was supposed to take no more than 10 years had been collecting dust for 26. Schubert’s discipline had changed, and she was no longer current in the latest research. Then there were potential legal challenges. Given the nondisclosure agreement Schubert had signed, and the possibility that a colleague who supported her former adviser was still around and would complain, the state’s assistant attorney general had to be consulted. But no one did complain.

Scholars in the humanities had, for years, been encouraging more flexibility in the formats of dissertations, given how few doctoral recipients would be hired into the shrinking number of tenure-track jobs. It made sense, Cherniavsky said, for Schubert to weave her story into the introduction, showing how, in many ways, she had lived the themes she had been exploring as a young scholar.

This approach wouldn’t work for every abandoned dissertation. To replicate the process, a university would need to consider the time that had elapsed and whether the research was still relevant. If the work was dated, the dissertation supervisors would need a plan to make it meet current standards.

In Schubert’s case, it helped that she had nearly finished the dissertation when she left, and significant sections had already been published, Cherniavsky said. The dissertation “was basically missing a chapter.”

Schubert said that when she went to her college’s library to look up the sections of her dissertation that had been published in journals, the insecurities and heartache she’d associated with the unfinished work were replaced by pride.

“One of the greatest benefits of having this opportunity to go back for my Ph.D. was rereading my published work,” she said. “I realized it was really pretty good.”

Having a Ph.D. should open up more career opportunities for Schubert, but she isn’t necessarily looking to change her assignments. She says she loves her work and just wishes she could support her students into and through their first college course.

“I will always want to teach survivors — that’s what I would call my students,” she said. But because Edmonds separates pre-college and college English courses in different departments, she can’t teach them as corequisites, an approach used by many other community colleges.

Maybe, she said, her doctorate will give her more leverage to push for changes that could alter the trajectory of students who, like her, have had to fight to get to where they are.


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