Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Taking Account of Sexual Harassment

· June 21st, 2019 · 11 Comments

OI Executive Director Karin Wulf’s statement is followed by a statement from Professor Lisa Wilson of Connecticut College, and a statement from the current Council of the Omohundro Institute.

Taking Account of Sexual Harassment

Karin Wulf

“I was at an “Institute of Early American History and Culture” (now known as the Omohundro Institute) mixer at the Organization of American Historians annual meeting in the spring of 1992 when I was sexually harassed for the first time. Michael McGiffert, then the powerful editor of the William and Mary Quarterly, was my harasser.”

-Professor Lisa Wilson

Michael McGiffert’s harassment of Professor Lisa Wilson did not end with one incident.  It continued for the better part of a year. It was aggressive, included the intimation of professional favor or disfavor, and did not cease despite multiple communications from Professor Wilson.

The reality is that gender discrimination and sexual harassment have been features of our professional culture.  As we take account of the history of our professional organizations, this aspect of discrimination is essential to address.  The consequences for victims differ, but are both personal and professional and often traumatic and long-term in both areas.

The American Historical Association’s Professional Division no longer adjudicates these matters, but it did in 1994; Professor Wilson’s case was the first.  As the AHA reported, “this was the first complaint of sexual harassment received by the division under the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, and the division approached it with much trepidation, recognizing that this is a matter normally handled through other means. Nevertheless, the division concluded that it must review the complaint, since the complainant had no institutional means through which to pursue her grievance.”  Once the case was taken up by the AHA, McGiffert confessed to the behaviors.  The AHA noted that “as a consequence of the admission of guilt by the other party, the division was saved from a contested review process,” and concluded that the Professional Division would communicate with the offender’s employer, “stating that the purpose was not punitive or to initiate disciplinary action but as a measure to prevent recurrence.”

We believe this result did not go far enough.  The OI was informed, and there was an agreement that McGiffert would not be involved in any future evaluations of Professor Wilson’s work.  But in effect it left her isolated from the OI, and from its community and programs.  She came back to the OI to serve as a member of the Council from 2015-18, when she shared her experience and its lasting harm and encouraged the OI to address this history.  Once unknown to all but a few people, this information now must join the legacy of McGiffert’s era as WMQ Editor.

In one important respect Professor Wilson’s circumstances would be different today.  The AHA Professional Division managed the case in part because the two parties were employed by different institutions, and there was no clarity about how and where to report.  All Omohundro Institute staff are now employed by William & Mary, and are held to the professional requirements and standards of the university and the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Any OI staff member may be referred to the university’s title IX officer, or may refer a situation to that office.

The full account of Professor Wilson’s harassment by McGiffert, and the materials gathered in the course of the AHA inquiry, are now part of the OI archives.  The OI’s record of achievements is not complete without this record of misconduct.  We must, as ever, strive to be responsible historians not only of the early American past but of our own profession, including our organizations.

Our efforts to contend fully and frankly with this legacy at the OI is part of a wider academic and national project.   In the fall of 2017 many early Americanists were disturbed to learn, through a searing blog post, of the sexual harassment and violence against a graduate student by the late Jay Fliegelman.  Like many women who have come forward in the last two years as the #MeToo movement has given many the strength to share their experiences, the student, now a faculty member, experienced long-term personal and professional consequences.  A letter signed by more than 800 (mostly women) historians to the American Historical Association in the wake of a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education indicating profound issues around sexual harassment in the profession, asked that the organization take up the issue in a serious manner.

An overflow session on sexual harassment at the January 2018 AHA was followed by the adoption of a code of conduct for AHA events and venues, and then a survey of the membership.  AHA president Mary Beth Norton noted that women “movingly recount[ed] episodes of sexual harassment or even assault they had experienced either at conventions or in other professional settings” and also that “many women who work as historians in a variety of settings, including myself, have similar tales to tell.”  The AHA policy states that “Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal comment or physical conduct of a sexual nature, including situations in which the request or conduct involves any implied or expressed promise of professional reward for complying; or the request or conduct involves any implied or expressed threat of reprisal or denial of opportunity for refusing to comply; or the request or conduct results in what reasonably may be perceived as a hostile or intimidating environment.”

Discriminatory and harassing attitudes and behavior run along multiple axes.  In the coming year the OI Board has charged an OI Working Group on Inclusive Practice to research and to determine best practices for events, fellowships, publishing and other programs, and to report results and recommendations at its meeting next May.  The working group will include Lisa Wilson, incoming OI Council chair Jennifer Morgan, as well as current and former members of the OI’s Board and Council and other colleagues with particular expertise.

Let me be perfectly clear.  It is not only by code or policy that we condemn discriminatory or harassing behavior.   That behavior—and attendant attitudes—are in direct violation of the spirit of rigorous scholarly exchange which demands professional conduct and respect.  We do not learn when our minds are closed; we do not learn when we exclude.

I am grateful for Professor Wilson’s courage in coming forward, and for her dedication to the OI in wanting her disclosure to be part of a public reckoning with a harmful and painful past and an investment in the future.

Statement by Lisa Wilson

At an “Institute of Early America History and Culture” (now known as the Omohundro Institute – or OI for short) reception at the Organization of American Historians annual meeting in the spring of 1992, I was harassed for the first time. Michael McGiffert, then the powerful editor of the William and Mary Quarterly (WMQ), was my harasser. I had considered McGiffert a mentor and was very pleased when he asked me to dinner that night to discuss my new project. My first article was published in the WMQ and it had won the first Richard L. Morton award. McGiffert, therefore, had supported me for a number of years and I was grateful. To completely understand the power dynamic at play, I was coming up for tenure that year. Personally, I was also still trying to get my feet under me after a divorce and the subsequent challenges of single parenthood. So, I was both thankful to him for past support, and professionally and personally vulnerable. At dinner it became clear that McGiffert actually had little interest in my work and launched into a proposal of a sexual relationship, in vivid terms, suggesting a long-term liaison. He proposed bringing me to Williamsburg to give a talk to facilitate this proposed relationship. I was shocked and upset. I declined his offer and extricated myself as soon as I could from the dinner. I still remember hitting my head on the overhead lamp when I stood up. I got back to my room and promptly did what most women did and still do in such a circumstance: I blamed myself. How had he thought this was an appropriate way for him to behave towards me? What had I done?

Rattled, I went to my session the next day and gave my paper. McGiffert sat close to the podium and I was worried he might approach me again. I left the conference thinking that I had lost a mentor and hoping that his sexualized behavior towards me was a one-time occurrence. But after the conference, McGiffert wrote to me at the Charles Warren Center (where I had a fellowship for the year) propositioning me again in vivid terms.  I felt panicked and unsure of what to do.  Finally, I decided to send him a letter, making clear I did not want further contact. I sent it registered mail. Again, I thought the behavior would stop.

The following December at the American Historical Association annual meeting, I went to the OI reception as usual. McGiffert propositioned me again. I was upset and friends nearby came over to intervene. I went home scared and shaken. Why wouldn’t he stop? In the meantime, a friend had called after the conference and told me about a similar incident at the same meeting. At that point, I knew that I was not the only one.

Thanks to Anita Hill, I had a label for what was happening to me—sexual harassment. I became determined to stop McGiffert if I could. I talked to the appropriate offices at my home institution as well as at Harvard (there were no Title IX officers at the time). I was told there was nothing I could do cross-institutionally. The only option I could find was to bring my complaint to the AHA. The Professional Division at the time took on sexual harassment cases. They ultimately found in my favor. When confronted, McGiffert wrote a long letter about the problems in his life and apologized for his behavior. It was required, however, that both parties keep silent in order to take advantage of the process.

Nonetheless, the AHA felt his behavior was disturbing enough that they should contact his supervisor and asked me if I was comfortable with that. I said I was. However, there were no professional consequences for him as far as I could see.

There were consequences for me. I kept my silence and remained fearful. I avoided the OI when possible despite the significant power the institution had and still has in my field. My fear did not dissipate over time. For example, I saw McGiffert at one professional event from across a room. I can still see the room now. My heart was beating hard and I escaped as soon as I could. I was afraid to attend OI conferences and receptions. The few times I did venture into this world I did so with great trepidation.

I am breaking my silence now in part because the OI and the broader field have changed. I was asked by the Executive Director, Karin Wulf, and the Council members of the OI to join the Council in 2015. This was an honor, and I looked forward to serving. In the second year of my term, however, a lecture series was named after McGiffert. I was upset not just for myself but for others who might see this and be disheartened and angry. Finally, after almost twenty-five years, I told my story to a fellow Council member. She urged me to talk to Wulf. I did so, and learned that Wulf had not known of this history.  The lecture is now called the William and Mary Quarterly Lectureship and a copy of my paperwork from the AHA case is in McGiffert’s personnel file at OI. I felt comfortable with this response but did not believe then that I should make the story public.

Subsequently, I have become convinced that I have an obligation to speak out. I am one of many women re-traumatized by the Kavanaugh hearings. For many victims, the take-away from these hearings was that Dr. Ford was believed but in the end it didn’t matter. That is how I felt after McGiffert harassed me.  I appreciate this opportunity to tell my story. I also appreciate the support of the present Executive Director of the OI, who recognizes that the past needs to be reckoned with before we can move beyond it.

OI Advisory Council Statement

Last month, the Omohundro Institute (OI) Advisory Council learned of Michael McGiffert’s sexual harassment of Professor Lisa Wilson in the early 1990s. We applaud Professor Wilson’s frank disclosure of this traumatic set of events and we are grateful for OI Executive Director Karin Wulf’s public condemnation of McGiffert’s abuse of power. McGiffert, who passed away in 2016, was the editor of The William and Mary Quarterly from 1972-1997, and also taught at William & Mary.

The Council, a group of scholars nominated by members of the field, voluntarily advise the OI Executive Director and Board of Directors. In this capacity, we state our unequivocal support for Professor Wilson and offer our apology for the long-term deleterious effects on her life and career. We carry the burden of this harassment as a community. McGiffert’s actions caused great harm and we believe were not addressed adequately.

We recognize and regret the collateral damage resulting from McGiffert’s professional and intellectual misconduct during his time as editor of the Quarterly. We support a welcoming and safe environment, consistent with our own and the current OI’s standards for collegiality and equitable treatment for all.

Discrimination and harassment are incompatible with our values, goals, and practices. To that end:

We share with Professor Wilson a commitment to transparency and join her in calling for all records pertaining to McGiffert’s harassing behavior to be made as available as possible. We recognize that generations of leaders in the historical profession were too tolerant of harassment and discrimination and we are committed to open engagement with past and present abuses of power.

Going forward, we urge the OI to make amends beyond this acknowledgment. We hope that will lead to the creation of forward-looking structures and programs discouraging harassment and discrimination and ensuring that all kinds of diversity are encouraged and rewarded.

OI Council (2018-2019)

Sharon Block, University of California, Irvine
Alexander X. Byrd, Rice University
Christian Ayne Crouch, Bard College
Kathleen DuVal, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Cécile Fromont, Yale University
Marisa J. Fuentes, Rutgers University
Patrick Griffin, University of Notre Dame
Heather Miyano Kopelson, University of Alabama
Ann Little, Colorado State University
Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, University at Buffalo, State University of New York
Adrienne Petty, William & Mary
John Sherer, University of North Carolina Press
Terri L. Snyder, California State University, Fullerton
Alan S. Taylor, University of Virginia
Bertrand van Ruymbeke, Université de Paris 8 and Institut Universitaire de France
Michael Witgen, University of Michigan

11 Responses

  1. Leisa Meyer says:

    Brava! Thank you!!!

    • Dorothy A Bell says:

      Professor Wilson, thank you for your courageous and helpful post. The world has changed so positively since I was a girl trying to make my way in academia, but courage is still needed.

  2. Painful to read, but the presentation if anything increases my respect for OI and its determination to establish and maintain high standards. Human nature may evolve slowly if at all, but more appropriate standards of conduct can be made clearer and maintained, especially as more women are recognized for their work and talent, and more gain positions of authority.

  3. Amy E. Den Ouden says:

    Dear Prof. Wilson: Thank you, from my heart, for sharing this. I have been subjected to gender-based harassment repeatedly at the institution where I am an associate professor. I understand the trauma you refer to; and, as a single mother, I also understand the additional pressure one is under to hide the trauma. There is a culture of arrogance, cronyism, and impunity that serves certain segments of the faculty where I am, and while I have attempted to seek support and some accountability from the institution for what I have been subjected to, the institution is far more concerned with protecting itself and serving the crony class of faculty.
    Again, thank you for your courage and for making me feel safe enough to send this comment.
    Amy E. Den Ouden

  4. Eileen M Kane says:

    Thank you for doing this, Lisa Wilson

  5. Noeleen McIlvenna says:

    I salute your courage, Prof Wilson. You make the world safer for other women.

  6. Professor Wilson,

    Thank you for speaking out. It seems difficult for many people to believe that seemingly nice, smiling people in suits and ties could engage in sexual harassment or that it has been commonplace in American society. Every person who speaks up, informs the public that this is indeed a persistent problem, and encourages those who have been harassed to realize they are not alone. You have helped to make the world a better place.

  7. […] This is not about Canadian history, but you need to read this statement from Karin Wulf, Lisa Wilson, and the Council of the Omohundro Institute about sexual harassment at the O… […]

  8. Laura Mooney says:

    All honor to Prof. Wilson and to the AHA’s and OI’s responses. I am left wondering whether accountability is not only delayed but ultimately denied by everyone’s keeping silent about this until the harasser is dead. I recognize that current laws and policies have limited the possibilities for calling the sharks out while they are in the waters and on the attack. But let’s resolve to find a way to name names while the naming can result in real consequences for the perps while they’re living.

  9. Carole Watterson Troxler says:

    So sorry that this happened to you, and to so many others. Courage and persistence is the only way to address this, and Lisa Wilson deserves all our thanks.

  10. Thank you for coming forward and bravely sharing your story, Professor Lisa Wilson. I wish now that we had both shared stories with each other when we were younger. Thank you to the OI Council, too, for listening and taking action.

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