In my first few weeks majoring in systems science and industrial engineering (SSIE) at Binghamton University, my professor looked me over and told me I’d be better at sucking lollipops than I’d be at coding.
It was my junior year and I had just switched majors from computer science to SSIE in the Watson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. I’d heard rumors about an esteemed member of faculty who was going to be teaching a couple of my courses. It was common knowledge among SSIE students that he has an online persona under an alias where he posts pictures of naked girls’ selfies at clubs with celebrities like Paris Hilton. I confirmed these rumors when I easily found the notorious accounts. Fine, he has a valid pastime outside of BU, but the simplicity in which students could access these accounts and his clear comfort with naked women gave me a queasy feeling. My classmates and I joked about it, but never dared mentioned anything to faculty.
I walked into his office in the beginning of the semester to introduce myself as a new face in the SSIE 2018 cohort. His first words to me were, as I entered the room, “Wow! You’re so short I can barely see you.”
He asked me why I was here, and I told him writing code was fun and fulfilling. “A girl like you,” he said, “should not think that coding is fun. A girl like you should think licking an ice cream cone is fun. How’s that? Want to lick an ice cream cone for me?”
He gestured toward the cup of Charms Blow Pops at the corner of the desk. “Or maybe sucking on a lollipop would be fun for you,” he said. “You’d be better at that than you are at coding. You don’t belong here, Chloe. You shouldn’t even try to be in [the] Watson [school].”
I walked out of the meeting and cried in the newly remodeled bathroom stall on the third floor of the Engineering Building.
When I was a freshman, I thought going to BU was the best choice I’d ever made. It was a haven of intelligent faculty and comrades with whom I’d have discussions, ask questions and seek challenges. That’s what a university should be. It should provide promise and opportunity to its students, who pay a lot of money in turn for an education that will propel them into a stable career and successful adulthood.
I wish I could say that my blind faith in our education system could have continued throughout my undergraduate career. I wish I could say that my blind faith was substantiated, eventually, by a prosperous first year as a graduate. I can only say the opposite, that BU challenged me in all the wrong ways. Four years later, I still worry that my professor was right when he proclaimed that I “don’t belong here.” I worry that I will disappoint employers, should I get hired for a full-time job.
What I was subjected to only scratches the surface of the sexism that permeates academic infrastructure. I am also aware that as a white woman, I have certain privileges that others don’t. It pains me to imagine the desperation other students with fewer luxuries or support systems must feel as they encounter adversity from the real world and their own school, should this behavior of faculty fail to change.
The University is an institution that is above all of this. The problem is not inherent in our University. However, it is incumbent upon administration to be cognizant of these issues when they occur. It is my plea for others to not turn a blind eye to sexism within universities and realize it can exist in all corners. Pay attention to the snarky comments by teaching assistants or grade discrepancies between males and females; these can be signs of a deeper issue.
It is just as imperative for students to voice their concerns as it is for staff to listen to them, believe them and provide adequate help. I regret not having spoken up when I was in school, but I hope this will inspire current students and alumni alike to speak up in uncomfortable situations, even if speaking up can be just as uncomfortable. Everyone could use additional support. Everyone should have someone tell them, “You belong here, and it is okay to make mistakes. Try again until you succeed.”
Chloe Rehfield, ‘18, is a BU alumna and was a Pipe Dream staff writer from 2014 to 2018.