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Davis, California

Friday, April 12, 2024

Power imbalances in academia open door to abuse


UC Davis conductor faces few consequences for sexual misconduct

Christian Baldini, the UC Davis symphony conductor who was put on unpaid leave after sexual misconduct toward a female undergraduate, has returned to campus. Though he received a disciplinary letter from Chancellor Gary May, the letter will not be placed in his academic review file and he will face no further sanctions. His explanation for kissing a student on the cheek, pressing up against her while teaching the tango, calling her a “bad girl” and requesting private meetings with her was that it “never occurred to him” that such behavior could be construed as sexual.

Those in positions of power must be more aware of the possible interpretations of overly friendly behavior. The excuse of “I didn’t realize my behavior would be interpreted in a sexual way” no longer cuts it amid the ongoing onslaught of news stories about similar or identical behavior being interpreted in a sexual way. Ignorance is no excuse.

For those who lead performance ensembles or artistic groups, being friendlier with students than a typical classroom professor may be or seem more acceptable. In such settings, where the pressure on victims to not report or make a fuss for fear of “breaking up the band” may be stronger, instructors have a particular duty to pay close attention to their interactions with their students.

With story after story of women being denied promotions or sidelined at their jobs after turning down a boss’ advances — and more dramatic headlines about girls being stabbed after turning down promposals — young women are acutely aware of the risks of saying no.

Particularly in the academic or artistic worlds, where careers and futures can be highly dependent on letters of recommendation and personal connections, it can be extremely difficult to give a clear, direct “no” to a well-known, well-respected professor. There are benefits to knowing a mentor on a personal level and cultivating a relationship with them, but such closeness can also open the door to abuses. Women go to great lengths to squirm their way out of private meetings and uncomfortable interactions or simply grin and bear it, hoping that career success will eventually be worth the emotional distress or, in extreme cases, the physical abuse.

It’s worthwhile to note that while nearly all university students are legally adults, there is still an extreme imbalance of power between students and faculty members. Students’ grades are at the discretion of the professor, and some may feel that they may suffer retaliation if they rebuff unwanted advances. Members of performance ensembles, whose future careers may depend on their success in the ensemble, may feel that they have to suffer in silence, lest their chances at a first-chair or soloist position be compromised.

Those on the receiving end of unwanted attention must figure a complex social calculus: If I say no, will he still write me a letter of recommendation? If I don’t accept his attention with a smile, will I suffer for it? When the boss asks you for a favor, it can feel like it’s less of a request and more of a demand. It’s time the academic world recognizes that too.



Written by: The Editorial Board


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