On March 3, what has by now become a routine story broke: UNC Charlotte professor of history Robert McEachnie has been accused of sexual misconduct in a federal lawsuit filed against him, UNC Charlotte, and the UNC System. Two anonymous victims have come forward, one of them alleged that McEachnie manipulated her while initiating an inappropriate relationship with her during a university trip to Israel in 2017 and the other stating that McEachnie groped her during the same trip.
UNC Charlotte policy does not prohibit relationships between students and professors, though it is stated to be “improper.”
According to the lawsuit, McEachnie allegedly pressured, and in one case threatened, the victims into staying silent. Though both students made previous complaints regarding the misconduct (the first in 2017, the second in 2019), the UNC Charlotte Department of History dragged its feet — the first complaint was “not even given a cursory investigation” until the next victim came forward in 2019, according to the lawsuit.
This is a regrettably common tale on campus. Abuse of power by professors is part and parcel of the university experience. The UNC System is no different – from UNC Chapel Hill’s four-year legal battle to conceal 15 sexual assault records from the Daily Tar Heel to UNC Greensboro’s recent sexual assault scandal involving an adjunct professor, our state’s higher educational institutions have time and time again revealed an ugly power dynamic at play between employees and students. McEachnie is not an outlier — UNC Charlotte, like its sister institutions and like all North American colleges, has its whisper networks, has its rumors, and above all has students and employees who are still too scared or too jaded to come forward.
And it’s no wonder. The reason why this is a routine story is because we have come to expect the typical response from universities. First comes the initial silencing: When the first victim came forward in 2017, the department head apparently did not fulfil his duty of reporting the complaint to his superiors. Then there are the attempts to “rehabilitate” the offender: According to the Charlotte Observer, McEachnie was demoted, banned from taking students on study abroad trips, and ordered to commence “mandatory training” for his abuses. And now, with legal action and media scrutiny underway, UNC Charlotte still doesn’t have anything to say to the victims. According to spokesperson Buffie Stephens, the university will respond in court.
This kind of response is exactly why marginalized students become so disillusioned with their universities. Here we are, not a year into the tenure of the first woman chancellor at UNC Charlotte, and our campus is still struggling with sexual harassment.
Drafting broad diversity statements and land acknowledgements while hosting gender equity panels can all be good window dressing, but within an institution molded by white supremacy, capitalism, and misogyny, that ultimately signifies nothing. UNC Charlotte, like every other UNC System university, and indeed like every university in the United States, cannot make a credible commitment to protecting its students from abuse so long as it performs, rather than lives by, social justice.
What does that look like? For one, it doesn’t look like “mandatory training.” What can be done to stop sexual harassment is a problem that cannot be reasoned away by administrators, attorneys, and definitely not some of these professors. Students have already begun to re-imagine the power dynamics that come with the college degree: the culture of casual racism and misogyny, the abundance of privilege inherent in most departments, and the factors — money, fear, trauma, and so on — that prevent students from speaking out about injustice. What university officials and other powerful individuals need to do is listen and act — and do it right the first time.
We don’t have to wait until the next victim to come forward to listen to survivors. We don’t have to wait for the next movement or the next hashtag to abolish the ancient oppressive systems so crudely hidden within our campuses. We can fix it right now. If we couldn’t do it the first time, then why not make this the last time?
Nikolai Mather is a senior studying political science and international studies at UNC Charlotte.
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