Reducing Risk Around Contrapower Harassment on Campus

Host: Hello, and welcome to Prevention and Protection, the United Educators risk management podcast. Today, Janet Elie Faulkner, a higher education attorney and founder of Faulkner Legal, and Heather Salko, Manager of Risk Research at United Educators, will discuss the topic of contrapower harassment. Before we begin, a quick reminder to listeners that you can find other UE podcasts, as well as UE risk management resources, on our website, Our podcasts are also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.  

Now, here’s Heather. 

Heather Salko: Thank you, and welcome, Janet. I’m looking forward to speaking with you about this very interesting topic. 

Janet Elie Faulkner: Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here. 

Salko: When we initially discussed creating this podcast, you did use the term “contrapower harassment,” and that wasn’t entirely familiar to me. But based on some initial research, I now know it arises in the academic setting more often than I thought. Could you explain what it is and in what context these incidents take place? 

Faulkner: Sure. The term also was unfamiliar to me prior to attending a presentation on the topic, although unfortunately, the scenario itself is familiar. Contrapower harassment involves situations where there’s a shifted power dynamic. An individual with less power attempts to exert control or influence over someone with more authority or status. Most frequently, we use the term to refer to situations where a student allegedly threatens or harasses a faculty member or administrator. 

Initially, researchers first focused on sexual harassment or sexually aggressive behaviors. However, there were so many examples of harassing behavior within a shifted power dynamic in academia, they identified this distinct category, academic contrapower harassment. It covers a range of student behaviors — when students are uncivil, rude, or disrespectful; when they challenge a professor’s authority; or when they approach faculty through bullying, threats, or intimidation, or hostile, aggressive, or engaging conduct — which may involve either racial, ethnic, or sexual harassment. 

Salko: Oh, wow. So, is contrapower harassment another term for the decline in civility in the classroom and on campuses? 

Faulkner: Well, contrapower harassing behavior definitely shows a lack of civility in an academic setting, but the hostile or threatening conduct is much more severe. 

Salko: OK, so, does contrapower harassment target only certain ranks of professors then? 

Faulkner: Well, contrapower harassment can target teaching assistants or new faculty members, adjuncts, but also experienced professors. The junior faculty members already may not have confidence in their authority, particularly if there’s not a large age difference between them and the student. In other cases, the rank seems less important than the student’s objective in engaging harassment, such as wanting a higher grade or simply to undermine the faculty member. 

Salko: OK, so are there some general characteristics that define contrapower harassing conduct? 

Faulkner: At its core, contrapower harassment is bullying behavior. It includes verbal assaults, nonverbal displays like body language, or disruptive sounds or threats. The threats may be directed toward the faculty member’s personal safety or their reputation. Contrapower harassing behavior can include outbursts or brief demonstrations of aggression or violence in the classroom, sending threatening messages to faculty members, students physically following faculty members, negative comments about them either in person — often in a classroom or public place on campus — in the faculty member’s office or on social media. Students threaten to file complaints against the faculty members with higher ranking officials at the college. Students humiliate faculty members. 

Sometimes the harassing behavior occurs after a faculty member enforces syllabus rules, such as class attendance or timely submission of classwork, or after low grades are awarded. However, other reported situations involve proactive threatening, harassing behavior on the part of the student, often in a public setting as a test of a faculty member’s limits. 

Salko: Well, then, are there any patterns to when students might engage in contrapower harassment that you’ve seen? 

Faulkner: Students typically test a faculty member after an initial incident or milestone. Researchers have identified what I’m going to refer to as buckets of issues which may trigger students. It could be achievement-based like grades, a sense of entitlement, a discussion of diversity topics, or something called expectation management. Some of these so-called triggers are tied to the increased perception of students as consumers. For example, students engage in contrapower harassment if they refuse to leave the classroom after engaging in hostile or disruptive conduct. They respond, “I paid to be here. You can’t keep me out of this class.” Students may view their whole education as transactional. In their eyes, they pay tuition and faculty must award them the grades they expect, or be subject to outbursts, threats, or complaints to people in the professor’s reporting authority like the department chair, dean or provost. Those officials may be sensitive to the student as consumer, especially in this area of declining enrollments. 

A student may become disruptive when slavery or religious issues are raised in the curriculum, or which some students consider political or related to their own morals. For example, a student may say that enslaved individuals, or indigenous people, deserve the treatment they received. In one example, a student approached the professor after class, when they were alone, and pressured them to repeat the “liberal statements,” which offended the student. An example of expectation management is when a student expects a certain type of coverage of an academic subject. They sometimes try to impose what they wanted to get out of the class, instead of the course’s learning objectives, or when they prefer to do only selective portions of the coursework. 

Salko: Thanks, Janet. Do you have any specific examples you can share? Perhaps an interesting situation that you wanted to discuss in more detail? 

Faulkner: Once you look around, or do some research with this definition in mind, examples become more apparent. Here are some examples described by researchers or faculty. An older male student approached a female professor after other classmates had left and stood in a stance with his legs apart and stared at her. When the student approached her on the second occasion, she was terrified and had a panic attack. Once he left, she lay on the floor and turned out the lights to try and lower her heart rate. Reports or social media posts under academic hashtags highlight some aggressive, or frightening, behavior which faculty members reported, such as inclusion of graphic descriptions of physical abuse or sexual aggression in student evaluations. 

Students also may be increasingly aware that their comments on student evaluations may have real, negative impact on faculty members’ employment. Some of the examples where students used vulgar and violent language in writing include saying they wanted to kick a hole through the professor’s chest, or saying, “This woman wanted me to punch her in the face. She was wasting my time and acknowledged it,” or, “I chose this class so I could pick a fight and be contrary no matter what opinion was raised. I hate the subject.” That writing continued with extremely vulgar language. 

Other examples include calling professors fat or stupid, student shutting off video in Zoom class, followed by intense sexual sounds for more than 10 seconds, disrupting the class. In that case, the faculty member had to remove the student from class. Students argue with faculty members and follow them around campus, or then approach the dean or department chair. Students demand justifications for each place they were marked down on an exam or project, questioning the faculty member’s authority, changing emotional tactics, such as first communicating in angry and then petulant ways, or suggesting better ways to teach the subject matter. Sexual attention and sexual harassment were experienced less frequently than hostility, anger, and aggression, or rude, disrespectful, or disruptive behaviors. 

In fact, in recent months, reporting of students threatening faculty members seems to be increasing in higher ed publications, again, along with a similar increase in incivility episodes. An example of alleged contrapower harassment recently was the subject of a report in the Fresno Bee. In that situation, a student stalked a Title IX official. He brandished a knife in her office, and he covered his head with a paper bag as he threatened the administrator. He later showed her his artwork, which appeared to show a hanging and blood splatters. He tracked her activities when she took time off to avoid the student. The student’s aggressive behavior there was compounded by the school’s minimal response. Reportedly, the school repeatedly declined the employee’s request for police support. She was repeatedly advised to handle the situation on her own. For example, when she asked for help, she was told to personally escort the individual to another office on campus and to continue to meet with him one on one. 

Salko: Wow. That is a lot to take in. Colleges and universities often have Title IX, sexual misconduct, or sexual harassment policies that deal with certain unwanted or inappropriate behavior. But, what you are describing doesn’t necessarily seem to be necessarily sexual or sex-based, but more based on intimidating or hostile behavior, threats and this, as you mentioned, inverted power dynamic. Do institutions have policies in place to address this type of situation, when there isn’t necessarily a sex-based component to the behavior? 

Faulkner: This is an interesting point. What resources or protections are available to faculty or staff members who encounter contrapower harassment? In many ways, the types of behavior identified as contrapower harassment may fall under universities’ Title IX or sexual misconduct policies and procedures. Contrapower harassing behavior includes threats, intimidation, and potential stalking. It includes physical threats, but also verbal statements, or conduct designed to undermine the professor’s authority. Sometimes, there’s a gender-based component among the parties, but what I have seen so far is mixed. Interestingly, one of the studies in this area found that male faculty members more often reported that students proposition them to engage in sexual activity than similarly situated female professors. And, of course, this type of behavior can be reported under these policies. 

Behaviors reported by female faculty members tended to include aggression or physical threats. For example, a female faculty member reported a student who shouted at her in class. Another described a student who approached the faculty member in front of the room and slammed their hands on the desk. Faculty members have reported situations where other students have remained in the room with a faculty member after such incidents to ensure they won’t be left alone with the student, or that the student doesn’t continue their behavior outside the classroom, like in the parking lot. 

Gender can be a factor to the extent students expect female faculty members to conform to gender-specific stereotypes like being nurturing, forgiving, and sympathetic, while students may accept male faculty conduct, which is dominant, unyielding, or independent. Women may be seen as less authoritative or qualified, based on stereotypes. One Caucasian male related that his report of harassing conduct was not believed, based on his race and gender. And importantly, available research and anecdotal data shows that contrapower harassment often is directed toward female faculty members of underrepresented racial or national origin backgrounds, and as in other types of scenarios, individuals who may be subject to intersectionality. For example, Black female faculty members experience even higher levels of contrapower harassment. For this reason, an institution’s nondiscrimination policy and procedures may become operative. 

Salko: OK, Janet, that’s powerful information for people to know, but do these faculty members — many of whom I’m sure try to quell this behavior on their own, often in the moment — do they know how to get help if these incidents continue? They may seem, it seems to me, a little powerless when normal attempts at discipline, especially that in class have already been made and failed, but they might be reluctant to bring a formal complaint against a student. 

Faulkner: Unfortunately, and crucially, these faculty members often don’t know where to turn. In some situations, those who have experienced contrapower harassment very frequently reported they had no idea what offices or policies could help them. Some didn’t realize they could report these incidents and make referrals for misconduct by students or seek assistance from the relevant offices. They often didn’t understand that the conduct they were experiencing potentially falls within these policies or the student discipline code. Adjunct faculty members may be less familiar with where to seek assistance or how to navigate the various administrative processes. They also may be on different schedules than administrators, or are unfamiliar with the location of the offices that can help them. Heightened awareness is key, and those contact points should be highlighted in adjunct faculty onboarding. 

Some administrators themselves may not understand that Title IX, sexual misconduct, or gender-based harassment policies may apply to contrapower harassment situations. This perception may be based on the different type of relationship at the heart of the harassment. I recently received a question about whether the sexual misconduct hearing process could be applied in a faculty as complainant, student as respondent situation, or in a senior versus junior faculty scenario? The inquirer noted that when two students are involved in a hearing process, both eventually will be leaving the college, but in contrast, they were concerned that difficulties could arise after two parties engage in a hearing process and then both remain at the same school, or even the same department. On small campuses, that concern could be amplified. 

So the current Title IX regulatory scheme, which we know is expected to change in 2024, requires a hearing for gender-based harassment incidents, regardless of whether the parties both may be able to remain members of the community over the long term. I liken this situation to one of the core principles of collective bargaining. Parties must continue to conduct themselves in a manner which anticipates that parties will have an ongoing relationship, so demonstrations of mutual respect at some level will benefit everyone involved. 

Salko: Well, Janet, aside from the Title IX forum, are there other ways that schools can respond to complaints and support faculty? 

Faulkner: First, and this seems basic, it’s key to increase awareness and recognition that this behavior has consequences and won’t be tolerated. This recognition includes everyone in the academic and student conduct roles. Providing training on how to manage contrapower harassment could be included in effective teaching orientations and refreshers. We always suggest training as an option. With contrapower harassment, anyone from faculty members to deans to public safety or student conduct officials may not realize that contrapower harassing behavior takes place or can be addressed under college policies. Sadly, many faculty shared anecdotally that they did not feel supported when they reported student harassment to others in their reporting line. 

One of the lasting effects of contrapower harassment is faculty members’ distrust of their own superiors when they ask the professor to turn their head or disregard the student’s intimidation. This not only decreases professors’ interest in staying in academia, but erodes the academic standards which supposedly are the reasons students attend in the first place. In another example, after a female professor experienced repeated sexually aggressive exchanges with a student, she locked her office door and requested a campus police escort to her car. The student was eventually transferred to another class mid semester, but the professor remained afraid of running into the student in the community. The professor’s dean still tried to arrange a meeting between the student and the professor, without even notifying the faculty member. That faculty member felt blindsided. 

Other examples of responses faculty received when they reported contrapower harassing behavior included, “Just model the demeanor you’re expecting, without emotion.” The superior agreed that the tone was violent, but since they couldn’t assess the severity, they told the professor to proceed as they currently were doing, and not to pass judgment, but just to take steps to make everyone feel safe. Schools have said they can’t make a student apologize because the school doesn’t have a policy where a student can be removed from class if they don’t apologize. They say student-teacher relationships aren’t built on that type of intimacy. Instead, they tell the professor to tell the student, “Just don’t repeat the error,” and they often tell faculty members, “Don’t focus on your own feelings.” When the supervisors don’t provide support, faculty have reported that peer mentoring and support was critical to self-evaluating their own performance in the classroom. 

Salko: Because not all incidents would necessarily implicate Title IX roles and the office that handles them, should, Janet, a school have a separate policy addressing this type of misbehavior or would this be folded into a more general student misconduct policy? 

Faulkner: Yes, this may not always be a situation for the Title IX office. Some other university policies, procedures, or offices may be of service in a contrapower harassment situation. For example, for colleges with a public safety office, colleges can make clear that those offices are resources for faculty and staff, as well as for students. I’ve always been fortunate to work in organizations where public safety offices or internal police departments work together with other departments on campus proactively, to provide resources and support when potential safety issues arose. Where a student is the alleged perpetrator, student conduct policies and procedures and codes of conduct also may apply. Intimate relationship policies also apply. If faculty members don’t feel comfortable pursuing disciplinary action, they may want to raise the issue with an internal threat assessment or behavior intervention team to have this situation evaluated by those trained to review this type of behavior. 

Like we discussed earlier though, faculty members need to know that these teams exist and who to contact. If a school develops a new policy to address contrapower harassment, it could include students and faculty in the development process, and again, schools can increase awareness of available options. Practically, this can be accomplished by including examples of contrapower harassment in trainings. A range of unique examples should be included. Relevant offices also could include an outreach to academic offices, whether a provost or a department chair. 

In one way, for an institution to show support for a faculty member, it seems very basic. Follow the established procedures for grading and other academic complaints. Students sometimes threaten to, or even go over the head of the faculty member. A chair or dean may override a faculty member’s decision on a grade or ask a faculty member to disregard students’ behavior, even if the behavior violates rules the professor had in the syllabus. In my own experience, it is really rare for another individual to ask a faculty member to change a grade, but when a senior faculty member suggests that a faculty member suspend their rules or look the other way, the faculty member rightly feels the school has sided with the student. 

Salko: Yeah, I can certainly understand that. So, obviously, in the classroom or even outside the classroom, this can have an effect, but how else does the student engaging in contrapower harassment affect faculty or even other students? 

Faulkner: Well, in terms of the faculty, there are clear psychological impacts on them, such as stress, physical impacts, and they start to question their own adequacy and how to present material. They fear for their personal safety. Their grading practices are called into question. Faculty sometimes adjust and change the learning environment and make changes to formal classroom management. That impacts other students as well. It also impacts the faculty member’s impression of their role as a faculty member. 

In terms of the students, one professor noted that students withdrew from participation in the class because the expectation had been set that the student bully would answer. So why should they bother engaging? Another professor felt the class was threatened by student bullies escalating combativeness, interpreting their nonverbal behavior as intimidation. In one extreme case, the students reported to the professor they felt intimidated by the student bully, citing shifting extremes between domineering small group activities to total nonparticipation. While impacted peers frequently don’t openly confront a student bully, they may lend support to a targeted professor. 

In one instance, the entire class condemned the actions of the student bully, referring to them as an ass, lending their support to the targeted professor after a student bully stormed out of the classroom. And another professor, who was pregnant at the time, described a male student jumping in between her and an aggressive student. 

Salko: Janet, we often warn institutions that they should be careful of any retaliation claims. And so, I can see, listening to you talk, a situation that involves contrapower harassment ending badly for the professor even when they do report the behavior. An example you mentioned earlier, there might be no action taken against the student, right? And the professor then is left feeling retaliated against by the college or the university, or the student turns around after a professor makes a complaint about their behavior and says, “The professor’s complaint is actually retaliation,” say, for complaining about the student’s grade. So, do you have any advice on what institutions should do to address concerns of retaliation if a harassed professor does end up bringing a formal complaint? 

Faulkner: Well, first, I do want to confirm that faculty do worry about even more serious behavior from the student in retaliation for putting the school on notice about the student’s conduct or filing a complaint. So, for this reason, faculty members may be reluctant to report situations where students engage in potentially harassing behavior. They worry this might demonstrate weakness or failure to maintain control of their class, or even that they invited the misconduct. They might be concerned that their appointments will not be renewed if they’re contingent or contract faculty. They also may be hesitant to report behavior on the part of their subordinates or students out of worry they may be perceived as weak. Meanwhile, students who engage in contrapower harassment often use the threat of complaint while interacting with a faculty member. 

So, some basic steps include placing a student on notice that retaliation, whether more severe conduct or adverse communications, is prohibited and will have consequences. Depending on the type of behavior that’s alleged, public safety or local law enforcement can be enlisted as a resource. A student can’t always be removed from the class, but options for alternative providers of instruction could be helpful, though not to the point of passing the harasser. The trick is to place the student on specific notice against retaliation, while also making clear at the outset that allegations are just that, allegations which have not been proven and conclusions have not been drawn. Again, some of the evidence gathered on contrapower harassment to date reflects that schools may not want to move swiftly to take action against a student. It’s critical for schools to communicate to faculty members that they have their back. 

Salko: Thank you. So, my final question to you is what if the student just says in response to the professor or even to a superior, “This is just my behavior or my personality?” What does the institution or the professor do then? 

Faulkner: Well, that does happen. Professors report that students challenge attendance or grading policies, and then when the professors try and enforce their policy, students say, “Just deal with it.” They also express in confrontational ways that they’re entitled to high grades simply for completing coursework, but a student does not have the right to engage in behavior or exercise their “personality,” in ways which violate the student or university code of conduct. A faculty member or employee would not have the option of relying on such explanation if the situation was reversed. This is particularly true where the conduct which is reported in contrapower harassment situations often involves frightening physical threats, which potentially could violate criminal law. 

Schools can and should support the professor by supporting their right to implement, enforce grading standards, attendance policies, cellphone or cheating prohibitions, etc. Senior members of the academic unit should make clear to students that they can’t form shop or go over the professor’s head. They need to resist the urge to make decisions based on the idea that the student is a customer. 

Salko: OK. That’s a good final point. And so, I think we will end there, but Janet, this has been really such a great discussion about a topic that I was not particularly aware of. So, I want to thank you for your time and for sharing your information and the research you’ve gathered, and also all of your tips with us. It’s really well appreciated. 

Faulkner: Well, thank you so much for having me. This has been a great opportunity to shed some light on distressing situations which professors are confronted with, and hopefully some ideas to provide support. 

Host: From United Educators insurance, this is the Prevention and Protection Podcast. For additional episodes and other risk management resources, please visit our website at


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