Professors’ peril: Getting stalked by students
On college and university campuses around the country, students have descended. Professors, be scared. Some of those students might be stalkers.
And male professors should be just as scared as female professors.
In most cases of stalking, women are the target. In general surveys, 7-8% of women report being stalked whereas only 2% of men report being victims. But on college campuses in Indiana, male professors are stalked at about the same rate as the females.
Dr. Robin Morgan, a clinical psychologist and a professor at Indiana University, has discovered that professors, in general, face a higher than average risk of being stalked.
“It doesn’t occur to every faculty member, but it does occur,” said Morgan in a phone interview, who studied stalking of professors at the University of Indiana, and is currently collecting data from professors nationwide.
In fact, in responses to surveys sent in 2007 to Indiana University professors on seven different campuses, a third of the 934 who responded reported being stalked over the course of their teaching careers. Morgan had expected the rate to be much lower, closer to the 5-6 percent which is the national average. (Of course, it must be noted that those who have been stalked are more likely to respond to surveys like this.)
What does “being stalked” mean? And why are professors so vulnerable to it?
In her paper published in The Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Morgan writes:
Stalking involves repeated and persistent unwanted communications and contacts that create fear in the target. Stalking differs from harassment in that harassment is annoying while stalking leads to fear, feeling threatened, or intimidated (Purcell, Pathé, & Mullen, 2004). A standard list of stalking behaviors might include: abusive/excessive telephone calls, letters, or emails to the person’s home/work; trespassing, following or threatening the target or the target’s friends/relatives, obsessively observing the target from a distance, driving by the person’s home, school, or work, and vandalizing the person’s property. Many of these activities can be seemingly innocuous in the beginning, but progress into a pattern of activities that introduces terror into the lives of victims.
In a phone interview, Morgan said student stalking behavior involved the following:
- invasion of professors’ personal space;
- leaving unwanted gifts or messages;
- sending lots of e-mails (We’re not talking about your normal persistent gunner student. Morgan says professors received 200-300 e-mails from these students);
- endangering faculty members’ lives; and/or
- the faculty member feeling scared or intimidated.
The lowest level of stalking was at Indiana University’s main campus in Indianapolis. Stalking occurred at higher levels in smaller cities where the “university is the city,” like Bloomington.
In the wider population, stalking is usually experienced most by women. But in the academic setting, men are almost as vulnerable to stalking as women: 54% of professorial victims were female and 46% were male. “The rates of stalking were almost even,” said Morgan. “And with no previous sexual relationship, unlike the stalking that tends to occur in the general population.”
Morgan says there are three types of stalkers:
- Category 1: “The depressed stalker.” Emotionally unstable, struggling students.
- Category 2: “The delusional stalker.” Interested in a romantic, sexual relationship with the professor.
- Category 3: “The nuisance stalker.” The stalkers are angry and seek to manipulate and intimidate.
The delusional stalkers are the most numerous. “These stalkers think, ‘This faculty member really cares about me, wants to be in a relationship with me,’” said Morgan. In one case, a student found out a professor had a son who liked drumming and sent a $500 drum set to the son.
Much of the stalking occurs online. Students looked at faculty websites and social networking profiles, researching who their professors were married to or in relationships with. The “nuisance stalkers” often use online professor rating sites to help spread nasty rumors.
“The professors didn’t know how to handle it and felt very alone,” said Morgan. “There’s a tendency at universities to take the student’s side. Many of the professors felt they had no rights in the process.”
Once professors experience stalking, they tend to be much more careful about the information available about them online.
“I would caution professors to be very careful about releasing data,” said Morgan. “Don’t post photos of children, phone numbers, or personal e-mail addresses.”
Unfortunately, it appears that stalking works for ambitious students. Of the professors stalked, 40% said they subsequently gave the student a higher grade than they deserved.