Essay - Contrapower Harrassment on Campus: Incidence, Consequences, Implications (Claudia Lampman)


Disrespectful and disruptive students can have a poisonous effect on the classroom environment, for faculty as well as for other students. This essay explores the little-known phenomenon of contra-power harassment, when students disrespect, harass, bully, or threaten their instructors. Dr. Lampman recounts her own experience with student bullying, and some research she conducted at her home campus. Her survey and interviews of UAA faculty reveal the frequency of contrapower harassment at a large, public institution, and the high cost of failing to deal effectively with it, particularly among female faculty.

Contrapower Harassment on Campus: Incidence, Consequences, Implications

Dr. Claudia Lampman
Professor of Psychology
University of Alaska Anchorage

“You can speak to my lawyer.”

Those are the only words this particular student ever spoke directly to me all semester long. He was a very large man in his fifties and an intimidating presence in my classroom. He always sat directly in front of me and glared, making his hostility clearly and visibly known. Aside from those six words, he communicated with me solely by angry note.

In this course on the psychology of women, students are required to complete weekly assign- ments that typically involve a kind of data collection, such as interviewing women about the experience of getting their first periods, or observing parents and children interacting at a playground or fast-food restaurant. Most assignments come right out of our best-selling textbook. Students are given a choice in case they find doing one of them uncomfortable.

This student refused to do the assignments, writing in an early note that he could not be ‘forced’ to do research. I responded in class, pointing out that psychology is a social science (emphasis on science) and that upper-division psychology classes, as this was, typically involved data collection and analysis. I reminded the class that alternate assignments were always available; students could analyze advertising, television programs, or make observations at toy stores, if they were uncomfortable with face-to-face data collection.

My response to the class just seemed to make him angrier. In subsequent notes, he labeled the assignments dangerous. Watching children would put him in danger of appearing to be a pedophile, he wrote. The assignments were causing him tremendous stress and anxiety; he was going to file a grievance or a lawsuit. I tried on several occasions to talk to him about his concerns, but he wouldn’t talk to me directly, only in writing. Although he rarely participated in class activities or exams, he was always there before the class began, and he stayed after it ended.

If his intention was to frighten me, it worked. I was scared to be around him, and I started to fear that he could make significant trouble for me at work. I became afraid to go to my classroom alone, grew significantly anxious and stressed, and had trouble concentrating and sleeping. Once, I inadver- tently let my class out an hour early because I was so stressed-out by his behavior. I did not, how- ever, report this to anyone until it became clear that I would have to give him a failing grade. I feared that reporting him might make him more angry, hostile, and potentially violent; I also think that as a female faculty member I was afraid of appearing weak. I just wanted the semester to end, and the student to go away. But even after it did, my fears lingered for quite some time.

Several months passed before I began talking to my colleagues about this student’s threatening and harassing behaviors. What I found was that my experience was not unique, especially among female faculty, and that many of my peers believed student incivility and bullying were on the rise. Colleagues felt that students seemed increasingly disrespectful, as evidenced by their answering cell phones or reading the newspaper in class or asking them out on dates. Others mentioned that students openly questioned their authority or credentials, yelled or screamed at them, made hostile comments or threats, stalked or harassed them, and even became violent. I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who had been derailed emotionally by such an experience. My colleagues told me about stress-related illnesses and loss of productivity, and some also mentioned that they changed assignments, avoided controversial topics, and gave grades students didn’t deserve just to make them “go away.”

The social scientist in me headed to the library to see what research had been conducted on disrespectful, hostile, or harassing student behaviors. I soon learned a new term: contra-power harassment, which occurs when a person with lesser power within an institution harasses someone with greater power.[1] Over the past twenty years, several studies have surveyed faculty members about their experiences with contrapower sexual harassment.[2] These studies clearly find that women faculty members are more distressed and negatively impacted by these experiences than men. With most of the research focusing on sexual harassment, I thought it would be important to study the broader definition of contrapower harassment and focus on behaviors ranging from student incivility and bullying to outright violence. So I put together a research team (myself, an adjunct faculty member, and two undergraduate students) and began a series of studies.

In 2005, I conducted the first of these studies, a survey of faculty on the UAA campus.[3]  The survey asked faculty about their experience with a broad range of student behaviors, including incivility, bullying, and sexual attention from students. Incivility was defined as rude or discourteous behavior demonstrating a lack of regard for others.[4]  Bullying was defined as “physical and verbal aggressive behavior that has the potential to cause physical and/or psychological harm to the victim.[5]  On college campuses, incivility might take the form of disrespectful or rude behaviors (like reading a newspaper or answering a phone during a class), bullying might involve hostile or aggressive behaviors (like questioning faculty credentials, making threatening comments, and stalking). Sexual attention would include such actions as asking faculty out on dates or commenting on their appearance.

A total of 399 faculty responded to the survey (61% of the Anchorage campus faculty). Uncivil behaviors were reported as extremely common by both males and females. More than 70% stated that a student had engaged in a non-class activity, slept during one of their classes, or asked them to make their exams or assignments easier. More than 60% said a student had answered a cell phone, continually interrupted them, or showed disdain while they were teaching. More than half reported that a student had challenged their authority or verbally disrespected them. Between 25% and 50% stated that a student had asked them to change a grade without cause, referred to them in an inappropriate way, addressed them by their first name, or violated their personal space. Ten to 25% indicated that a student had questioned their credentials or qualifications, called them at home without permission, touched them in an uncomfortable way, given them an inappropriate gift, or commented on their physical appearance in course evaluations. Sexual attention was reported by 15-30% of faculty respondents, including comments of a sexual nature, unwanted sexual attention, and flirting or requests for dates.

Although bullying behaviors were less common on average, almost half of the respon- dents indicated that students had written hostile comments on course evaluations. About 30% said a student had yelled or screamed at them, one in four said a student had threatened to file a grievance, and more than one in five had received hostile or threatening emails, letters, or phone messages from a student. Finally, between 5% and 10% of faculty said a student had threatened to harm or file a law suit against them, or had followed or stalked them. Fewer than 2% said a student had actually harmed them or filed a lawsuit against them.

A substantial number of faculty also reported significant negative consequences as a result of contrapower harassment. More than one in five indicated they were significantly anxious or stressed, or had difficulty sleeping during a time period when they were experiencing student problems. Between 10% and 20% said they felt depressed, had difficulty concentrating, suffered a loss of productivity, felt physically afraid, did not want to go to work, or changed assignments or teaching style as a direct result of student harassment. In addition, 5-10% said they suffered from stress-related illness, felt embarrassed to talk to their colleagues, thought about giving a grade a student didn’t deserve, or dropped a controversial or difficult topic because of problems with a student. About 5% of respondents indicated that they had to let a class out early or went to see a mental health professional for help related to an incident of contrapower harassment. Approximately 2% canceled a class or had a substitute because they wanted to avoid contact with a particular student.

Female professors were significantly more upset by incivility, bullying, and sexual student behaviors than male professors, even when they experienced it less frequently. Female faculty, those who teach women’s studies courses, and those who reported more incivility, bullying, and sexual attention from students experienced significantly greater negative impact on their health, teaching, and work life. Fewer than one in three said they had reported the incident to their department chair or dean, and fewer than one in ten said they had spoken with the dean of students. Male professors were significantly less likely to take some sort of official action than female faculty. Twice as many women (10.2%) as men (5.0%) said they had spoken to the dean of students about a harassment incident. Similarly, 30.5% of women versus 17.5% of men said they had reported student harassment to university administrators. Finally, women were twice as likely to seek the social support of colleagues than men.

One year later, I conducted a follow-up study to explore whether certain types of students, faculty, courses, or situations are more likely to be involved in incidents of contrapower harassment. Of the 399 faculty members who responded to the original survey, fifty-six (14%) reported having experienced at least one “significant incident of contrapower harassment,” and all but one of those agreed to a follow-up interview. During the interview, they were asked to describe 1) the incident; 2) demographic characteristics of the student (sex, race, and age); 3) characteristics of the course (title, level, discipline); 4) whether or not they reported the incident to their department chair, college dean, and/or dean of students; 5) a description of the troubling student behavior; and 6) consequences for their health, teaching, and work life.

Analysis of interviews revealed incidents of stalking, violence, death threats, and other threats of physical harm, unwanted sexual attention, threats of legal action, character assassination, and intimidation and bullying. Although contrapower harassment was not more likely to be reported by women than men, the nature of the incidents and consequences for female faculty appear to be more severe. Contrapower harassment was stressful for all faculty interviewed; however, women were significantly more likely to report depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, and stress-related illness than men.

The interviews also revealed some clear patterns in terms of the types of courses, faculty, and students most closely associated with harassment. Faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences were disproportionately represented among those interviewed. Faculty were significantly more likely to experience harassment from students of the opposite sex. Although both students and the faculty they harassed tended to be white, the student perpetrators were typically described as nontraditional in age (in their 30s to 50s). Psychopathology (including personality disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia) was often suggested as a contributing factor. Finally, these interviews suggested that successful outcomes were more likely if the incidents were reported to the dean of students rather than academic administrators in one’s college.


So, far my research on contrapower harassment suggests that the vast majority of faculty members on the UAA campus have experienced one or more forms of student incivility or bullying, that very few report it, and that female faculty members are more likely to suffer negative consequences as a result of it. These results suggest a strong need for faculty development regarding the appropriate ways to handle these situations. Faculty need to understand their rights as instructors as well as when to seek help, whom to talk to, and what campus resources are available to help them cope with such experiences.

[1] Benson, 1984.
[2] Caroll & Ellis, 1989; DeSousa & Fansler, 2003; Grauerholz, 1989; Matchen & DeSousa, 2000; McKinney, 1990.
[3] Lampman, Phelps, Beneke & Bancroft, in press
[4] See Nydegger, Paludi, DeSousa & Paludi, 2006
[5] DeSousa & Ribeiro, 2005:p.1019