ikeLike many instructors, Janani Umamaheswar occasionally checks Rate My Professors to monitor her course reviews. The site offers a loose barometer of how you are doing as a teacher, especially early in a career in academia. Since users post anonymously, including criticisms and rants, the site can also become a fount of anxiety.
When negative reviews do appear, any professor might speculate: How often are people checking my page? Could this reflect poorly on my future employment? And in particular, who posted the criticism? They might run down the mental list of students who received low grades or did not get a requested extension or rarely spoke in class. They might wonder if a user is even a former student or if they ever took their class at all. After all, the anonymous nature of Rate My Professors means there is no surefire way to verify or screen people who write reviews.
Until 2019, most comments under Umamaheswar’s profile on the site had been positive. Or at least constructive. She had been on a tenure track for four years at her previous university. But that winter, Umamaheswar, then an assistant professor in sociology at Southern Connecticut State University, began noticing strange remarks: “Textbook only discusses crimes of the poor. I get discriminated against all semester. I felt like I was in Germany in the 1930s with my grandparents,” read one, with a class rating of “awful” and a score of one out of five. More comments followed into early 2020: “This is the worst professor I’ve ever had.”
Some reviews on her profile seemed particularly off-kilter: One claimed that Umamaheswar had been dishonest about going to school in Canada. (She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Toronto.) Another alleged that Umamaheswar had a “tyrannical authoritarian ideology” and accused her of “discrimination against students with prior substance abuse histories.” (She had no idea what this referred to, and as a woman of color, she made intentional efforts to make her classrooms feel safe and inclusive.)
Umamaheswar showed the posts to her husband, Alex Sinha, who at the time was a law professor at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where they both lived. He suggested she contact Rate My Professors to remove them.
They assumed the company complied. But a short time later, comments in the same tone resurfaced under a new class code. Umamaheswar reached out to Rate My Professors again. Weeks passed. More posts emerged. An earlier one read: “Emailed me a bribe offering a grade boost if I did her a favor of attending a meeting she was hosting. I did not respond because accepting a bribe is illegal.”
Umamaheswar and Sinha could not figure out who might be posting them. Umamaheswar had obviously never bribed any students. Someone was inventing specific defamatory accusations about her behavior. But who?
One day, Umamaheswar opened a report from her web hosting company, which logged the IP addresses that had visited her professional website. It was a lightly trafficked portfolio with her CV and academic papers. Visitors might stop by once and maybe return weeks later. But one local address began showing up, repeatedly, at all hours of the day, into the night, again the next morning. Sometimes, the same IP showed up in over two dozen hits an hour. She and her husband wondered: could it be the same user from Rate My Professors?
Sinha then checked his personal website and grew even more alarmed. The same IP address had also been visiting his pages frequently, lingering on his résumé and published writing.
Then, in December, police from Southern Connecticut State University contacted Umamaheswar’s department. The chair called Umamaheswar to inform her that a student had filed a police report against her and two other professors on campus.
The report noted that she contacted police “regarding a possible hacking of her personal laptop computer which she stated was perpetrated by three faculty members of the Sociology Department,” including Umamaheswar. The student had taken classes with each of the three professors and also accused them “of using students in the class to follow her around and look at her papers which has made her extremely uncomfortable and feel unsafe.” The police report also referred to the student by name. Here, we’ll just refer to her as S.
Umamaheswar remembered S., the mild and unobtrusive student, a young white woman, from one of her classes. When a police investigator contacted Umamaheswar, she told them about the mysterious Rate My Professors posts.
It turned out S. had also emailed accusations about Umamaheswar to Southern Connecticut State school officials. As far as she knew, the complaint had gone up to the president of the school and to the Title IX office, which handles discrimination and harassment complaints, including sexual harassment and misconduct. In one message to administration on February 9th, 2020, S. wrote: “I genuinely believe Dr. Umamaheswar is a danger to other students as she was to me.” The letter continued: “She is a pathological liar and capable of twisting words to get what she wants.”
The accusations, like the Rate My Professors posts, were baseless. But they blindsided Umamaheswar anyway. As the news sunk in, Umamaheswar and Sinha learned that the other two accused professors from Southern Connecticut had separately filed police reports against S. for harassment. Umamaheswar decided against doing so herself. She was, after all, a professor who studied the law, social inequality, and incarceration. To her, this was probably someone struggling with mental health issues, and Umamaheswar knew how the legal system might treat her. Instead of seeking punishment, she just hoped the situation would just go away.
Southern Connecticut State administrators from four separate university offices investigated the allegations and harassment claims involving all of the professors, as did the police department. After two trying months, they dismissed S.’s claims about Umamaheswar, deeming them “factually incorrect, disparaging” and “legally actionable.” A relief.
School administrators sent S. a cease and desist letter and banned her from the university. “Should you decide to violate either of these directives, you will subject yourself to arrest and prosecution,” the assistant dean of students wrote in a letter to S. on February 9th, 2020. Shortly after, law enforcement arrested S. for harassment. She was later released, awaiting a court date.
At first, law enforcement seemed concerned about S.’s behavior. Police issued alerts about S. and offered to relocate professors to an area of the school that had more security and locked doors. At one point, officers offered to install a panic button inside of Umamaheswar’s office. This did little to soothe Sinha’s worries about his wife and their children’s safety. As police seemed to take the situation more seriously, it made him even more cautious. He installed a security camera at home.
A month later, the pandemic shut down college campuses, and classes shifted online. S. seemed to quiet, too. A year passed. Umamaheswar accepted a job as an assistant professor at George Mason University, and the family moved to Virginia. Sinha would continue to teach remotely, later commuting to teach at Hofstra University on Long Island. For the next year, they did not hear of any other letters or harassing emails from S. As far as they knew, they were moving past it all.
One afternoon in March of 2022, the couple was at home in Virginia when Umamaheswar received a text from a former colleague who was now teaching sociology at Vassar College. The professor had noticed a strange, hidden comment on her Twitter account. When she clicked through, she saw a name she’d heard about before — when her colleagues at Southern Connecticut State were being harassed two years earlier.
S. was back.
tudentsStudents are historically the most vulnerable populations at risk of being stalked on college campuses. In one study across eight universities in the southwest, 17 percent of students reported being stalked since enrolling in college, with women, transgender or gender-nonconforming and sexual minority students more likely to be victims. The students reported being targeted by strangers, acquaintances, friends, former partners, other classmates, and non-students.
A college campus can be a first grasp of adulthood for many, the place where they learn who they are in the world or experiment with relationships, romance, and drugs or alcohol. It can also be a place with clear power imbalances. Many college protective measures have arisen in response to inappropriate relationships between students and teachers. In some cases, professors have become harassers.
There are extreme examples. In her 2019 memoir, Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, Donna Freitas detailed her two-year ordeal of being stalked by her professor, who showed up unsolicited to her apartment and wrote her a stream of letters and emails. And at the University of Central Florida, a professor was arrested after sending a student over 800 messages a day, including one that read: “You should be happy that someone likes you this much to stalk you.”
But today, a cadre of academics is now aiming to strengthen the much smaller body of research that exists around faculty who experience stalking and abuse. Victoria O’Meara, a post-doctoral research fellow at Royal Roads University, has been interviewing scholars in the US and Canada for a study on online abuse of faculty. She told me there has been “an increasingly organized attack on academia,” and scholars have told her their universities remain ill-equipped to respond to it or support faculty, let alone to protect them.
Concerns about professors being stalked or harmed on campuses are evolving and becoming more amorphous with online threats, but they are not new: In 2002, three nursing professors at the University of Arizona were killed by a student who had harassed and stalked them for a year. Four years later, a student at Loyola University spent a year making harassing phone calls to a professor before attempting to burn down his house. A University of Southern California psychology professor was stabbed to death on campus in 2016 by a student, despite warnings to police and university administrators of threats made by the same person over a year prior. And in 2022, at the University of Arizona, an expelled student shot a professor, killing him. In the months before the murder, various faculty members had reported a history of threats, harassment, and abuse by the student to the university and police.
Over the last two decades, US colleges and universities have emphasized policies to protect students. But some within academia are now calling on institutions to do more to defend professors and other staff, who are also commonly targeted. Today’s academics have become public figures online and in the media in a climate of rising political polarization, racism and misogyny, and attacks on intellectualism.
In the digital age, many threats to faculty and staff do not just come from those affiliated with campuses. They can come from individuals anywhere around the world, making harassers harder to track down or punish. Scholars now appear regularly in the press, maintain their own personal webpages, post regularly on social media, and are encouraged to write for broader audiences — these are now the expectations of a job once largely confined to their campus and field.
The Professor Watchlist, launched in 2016, has grown to include the names of more than nearly 1,000 scholars to its original roster of 200 and includes Angela Davis, Ibram X. Kendi, and Noam Chomsky. The site regularly posts photos and information about those deemed as radical professors “advancing leftists propaganda in the classroom.” In recent years, as attacks on critical race theory, Black history, and books or courses addressing gender identity have exploded across the country, many educators are feeling even more under scrutiny and at risk for extremist threats.
Even for less famous academics, like Umamaheswar and Sinha, the very substance of their work already made them potential targets in this political climate. Umamaheswar’s publications included research into “policing and racial (in)justice in the media.” Sinha’s publications included titles on “racial discrimination in the United States.” The two of them had co-authored a paper together on wrongful imprisonment. Both come from South Asian backgrounds, and it was not lost on either of them that S. is white. Based on their own knowledge of the criminal justice system, it would not have been implausible for law enforcement to not take her behavior to be a serious threat in the first place.
A 2009 study on student stalking of faculty in the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning found that questions of whether professors are at risk of being stalked by their students had received little attention. Yet the 52 faculty members interviewed for the study reported 87 concerning incidents, ranging from repeated unwanted messages, following them around, obsessively watching them, sexually coercive behavior toward the faculty member, endangerment, threats, and attempts to harm or even kill them.
Some academics interviewed for the study made comments like: a “student would have to injure me to be taken off campus… someone has to get hurt before something is done.” Another added: “There is a tendency to immediately take the student’s side over the professor…[the] professor has no rights in this process.” Other faculty members failed to report the incidents at all, and some described feelings of embarrassment, helplessness, and a personal responsibility for the student’s behavior.
“Made me question what I was doing to promote this,” one faculty member told researchers. “What would make them think they could do this to me?”
The account had started posting in October of 2021. Seven months of tweets.
inhaSinha had never met or taught S. He had never been employed on the same campus as his wife. Now, they resided over six hours away from S. As much as she was a harasser, she was also a stranger. Sinha wondered if he needed to look more closely into the Twitter account to better understand her.
The couple discussed the tweet on their drive to a park where they often took walks. From the passenger seat, Umamaheswar looked up the Twitter account in question. She gasped.
It took a moment to process: thousands of tweets had been posted under the S.’s name. Most were racist, sexual, vulgar, and violent. Little of the ranting made sense. The user tweeted at all hours, sometimes nearly a hundred times a day. And the tweets seemed to focus solely on three people: Umamaheswar, Sinha, and the former colleague who alerted them to the account, the Vassar professor Catherine Tan.
Tan, like Sinha, had never taught or met S. and did not know her personally. But Tan had published papers with Umamaheswar. The user behind this account had linked Tan back to her, likely through this academic work and their benign social media interactions. Anyone Umamaheswar collaborated with professionally or even interacted with online had become a potential target.
The Twitter account with S.’s name featured an image of a white woman’s face, which was recognizable to Umamaheswar as the same person she once taught. The tweets frequently denigrated Umamaheswar, Sinha, and Tan for being Asian: “Fat Indian bitch,” read one tweet, referencing Umamaheswar by her first name in another tweet that day. “Squinty eyed retard with a cucktonut husband,” read another, referencing Sinha. “I like that alex is probably abusive to her,” read one tweet. “And all she has is Catherine to call her awesome. Live in hell bitch.”
Another read: “I have super detailed deaths I like to think about them experiencing.”
When Umamaheswar and Sinha returned home from the park that day, Sinha told himself he needed to monitor this account closely. Screenshot everything. Head off any potential threats of danger. Umamaheswar did not want to keep looking at the comments. But logging on at home, Sinha studied them. He had to take a moment to collect himself.
The graphic nature and racist sentiments sent a wave of fear and anger through Sinha’s body. In the last year, a white man had murdered six Asian women in three Atlanta area spas, and anti-Asian hate crimes had increased by over 300 percent. “There was this moment of ‘wow, this has been happening all this time?’” Sinha said. “We moved to another state. We’ve been living our lives. We’ve been raising our kids.” Yet all the while, in the background, this person had been obsessing about them daily, writing hateful lies and threats.
The account had started posting in October of 2021. Seven months of tweets. Sinha went to work capturing the images as Umamaheswar began writing letters to her current administration, as well as to Vassar on behalf of Tan, alerting them to her history with S.
As Sinha began cataloging the online comments, he felt compelled to read every single one. And the tweets just kept coming. Almost every week, except for the periods when S. was suspended by Twitter before restarting under a new account. At least 40,000 tweets and counting, Sinha said. Some referred to him as a “dirty Indian hacker.” And: “Probably called a dirty terrorist as a kid and lived up to it.”
One tweet from April 16th, 2022, read: “Yo someone literally has to get rid of this faggot alex. Who the fuck cares if he’s got a brothel of Asian women ready to suck his dick.”
A month later, a post with an image of grisly murder in Game of Thrones and the words: “A crown for a king. Don’t we all just want to say goodbye to Alex.”
And: “I would like for these professors to die.”
A dark realization came over Sinha: “She calls for people to murder us. She says that she wants me raped,” Sinha told me. “She would pay money to watch us bleed to death.”
The tweets continued:
“I wanna be put in a situation where they’re hanging off the side of a cliff about to fall to their deaths begging for mercy and I can step on their hands and say me first and then watch them fall to their deaths.”
“I want them to suffer.”
nIn 2011, citing the alarmingly high rates of rape on campuses, the Obama administration began calling for colleges and universities to investigate accusations of assault with greater urgency and rigor. Two years later, Obama signed the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which strengthened civil rights under Title IX, the federal law enacted in 1972 to prohibit gender-based discrimination in educational institutions and programs. This move required institutions to use more stringent methods to investigate and make judgments and offered more guidelines for believing and supporting those who make allegations of rape, assault, or sexual harassment.
Under the Trump administration, some of these policies were rolled back and changed, allowing accused individuals to receive more due process protections. Many universities have historically mishandled student allegations of rape and sexual misconduct on campus, and Title IX laws became a crucial tool in curbing discrimination and harassment against students and employees based on sex. But there have also been cases in which the federal law has been manipulated and weaponized against those on campuses who are from marginalized and vulnerable groups, including faculty.
The saga of S. is far from an anomaly. Professor and journalist Sarah Viren detailed the false sexual harassment accusations against herself and her wife filed with the Title IX Office at Arizona State University. In a follow-up podcast, Viren delved into interviews with other academics who reached out to her after she shared her story, including that of a Mexican American professor who was accused of sleeping with students and another professor up for tenure who was accused of harassment by a student she had never met.
In one glaring example, at least 20 people, many of them academics from various states and schools, said they were harassed, threatened, called racial slurs, and stalked by an individual who apparently has also threatened to throw acid, chop off hands, murder, and mutilate some of them. “We know that being openly queer, not white, a woman, among many other social positions can set one up for excess surveillance, for questioning,” tweeted one of the academics who said she was stalked, Shantel Buggs, an assistant professor at Florida State University, whose research centers on culture, race and racism, gender, and work inequity in academia.
Sociologist Victor Ray, an associate professor at the University of Iowa, tweeted about his experience and said he was stalked by the same individual. This person “has harassed me and my family—including death threats and lying about my background—for years,” Ray wrote. “When I didn’t respond to threats, they targeted my family.”
He added: “They target marginalized scholars because marginalization makes support more difficult and isolates their targets. I’m talking about this now because ignoring it hasn’t worked. They are committed to violent harassment like it is their full-time job.”
Title IX, a well-intentioned Obama-era policy to protect students, has had unintended side effects. It has empowered victims of harassment and sexual violence but has also weakened due process. “An accusation against someone the systems we all live within already disadvantages,” wrote Buggs, “can be ruinous.”
inhaSinha became obsessive. Not a week went by without him routinely checking tweets at night and again as soon as he woke up. “It has just become part of the rhythm of my day,” he told me. “I’ll be waiting at the bus stop for my kids to get off the bus, and I’ll be like, ‘Okay, let me take out my phone and take screenshots.’ Or I’m at the airport waiting for my flight or at a restaurant waiting to pick up my food.”
He captured the images for legal reasons and also so his wife would not have to read them. “On one level, it has become so ordinary, just part of my day, to read her outrageous, racist views. But at the same time, it never stops being outrageous,” he said. Sinha pulled back from using social media himself. He rarely tweeted anymore.
Though S. had never acted on any of her outlandish threats, Sinha had no idea what she was capable of. What if the online trail led her to act on the threats? Sinha told himself he had a family to protect. “If I didn’t see it, and I didn’t prepare, and something happened,” Sinha told me, “I would never forgive myself.”
At one point, Sinha read a tweet that suggested their S. had been watching him and his wife in a public place. The comments described seeing them in a specific spot where the couple often took walks together.
Over and over, Sinha, Umamaheswar, and Tan filed complaints with Twitter for online abuse. At first, according to Sinha, the company responded that S. had not violated Twitter policies. Tan’s husband was especially persistent in filing complaints. One of S.’s accounts would get banned, but then another under a new handle popped up in its place. The pattern repeated.
The tweets kept coming, sometimes trickling over to other professors online. Sinha took a screenshot of a tweet from S. on November 9th, 2022 — this time made to an Asian American assistant professor of sociology who was then at the University of Chicago and who Tan follows on Twitter. It read: “Hey can you stop stalking and sexually harassing me on Twitter.”
A similar tweet from the same account showed up on the page of an Asian American astrophysicist, who Tan also follows on Twitter: “Hey l’ve noticed your being really abusive to women you’ve never met online. I don’t know what happened to you growing up that made you think this is ok to do along with everything else you’ve done. I looked into reporting you.”
Tan felt obligated to reach out to her Twitter mutual contacts and warn them about S., now seemingly hunting for other Asian American academics connected to her.
Recently, Sinha co-authored a paper with a colleague from another university. “When we were wrapping up the article, and we had been accepted for publication, we wanted to share the news on Twitter,” he said. Sinha texted the professor. He felt duty bound to warn him. “There’s a chance she’s going to engage in some hostile way.” Any colleague, collaborator, or friend that entered Sinha’s orbit risked being targeted by S.
Sinha continued to capture more of the tweets:
“Reporting Asians for sexual harassment is a new hobby of mine.”
“They’re just racist Asian supremacists who stand with anyone and anything that even looks somewhat Asian and they don’t like white women and will abuse white women in the name of Asian nationalism.”
“Someone needs to man the fuck up and tell these Asians to step down and stop abusing white women to assert their dominance they don’t have in the real world.”
“If anyone thinks I wouldn’t beat the living shit out of this Asian chick until it was hospitalized and I was arrested for assault well then you’re delusional.”
Sinha noticed the violence in the tweets had escalated. This time, their S. was making explicit threats to contact Sinha, Umamaheswar, and Tan’s universities. Southern Connecticut State University officials and police had already dealt with S. before, and there were receipts to prove it. Strangely, S. had even posted on social media an email she had received from Detective William S. Rivera from Southern Connecticut State University Police, along with his phone number.
But officials at Sinha, Umamaheswar, and Tan’s new institutions did not have a long history or record of all the issues they had dealt with in the past. The burden of evidence — to alert new or prospective employers or to warn colleagues and social media friends about their potential stalker — would fall on them for as long as S. is allowed to keep stalking and harassing.
“I don’t want to upset my employer,” said Sinha, who does not yet have tenure. In an environment where academic positions are scarce and competitive, he can’t help but wonder how the whiff of an accusation or the presence of a stalker might tip the scales in a job interview or performance process. It makes Sinha anxious. “This has been hanging around my neck now for a while,” he said. Sinha knows he has to be proactive from now on. “I should get out in front of it.”
At this point, the tweets were coming by the minute, this time from the account @janedoepow:
”I want to report them to their schools for online sexual abuse and harassment. I’m thinking about emailing the schools.”
“And when they get confronted by their employers they’re going to get so anxious and start making up excuses to try to cover their asses and we’ll all see the kind of person they are.”
“Time to start praying the universities view your work as more important than addressing a sexual harassment accusations report.”
”Vassars going to get an email.”
”GMU will get an email…”
Sinha told his wife. He also alerted Tan. All three of them would need to notify their department chairs and administrations at Hofstra, George Mason, and Vassar about S. and any potential false allegations that may be headed their way.
tIt turned out Twitter was not the only place where S. was writing. Comments extended to Instagram and Facebook, where some of S.’s friends supported her online, commenting or liking her posts.
On February 23rd, 2020, S. wrote on Facebook: “I filed a report that I was being harassed, stalked, defamed and studied by my professor and all I got was a joke of an investigation and this stupid legal warning.” She continued: “The university is gaslighting me. Most of the officials I dealt with did NOT follow proper Title IX policy procedure throughout the process and has consequently made my experience much worse.”
S. also posted the cease and desist letter that had been sent to her.
She received a response to the post from a graduate student at Rutgers University School of Social Work who specializes in violence against women and children and founded a Students Against Sexual Violence club on her campus: “I work for an organization called Know Your IX. We do work around Title IX and I’ve gone through the Title IX process at my school as well. I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this treatment from your school.”
One Twitter post showed a screenshot of a conversation with someone who appeared to be a friend of S.’s and seemed concerned: “I don’t know if I’m being too blunt but I promise I’m saying this out of love and concern and not meanness. I think your mind is playing tricks on you…And it’s not like I think you’re crazy because when I spend time with you you’re totally normal and you’re you. But specifically this ordeal seems crazy. It worries me… I honestly don’t see what you’re talking about. All I see is mundane posts.”
By November 2022, just as Sinha had predicted after monitoring her tweet storm, S.’s letters arrived at the Title IX offices of Vassar and George Mason, though Sinha’s campus, Hofstra, did not receive anything, as far as he knows.
Ever since Tan warned Vassar about S. earlier that spring, school officials had blocked her email in the system. Still, Tan had reached out to her department head and the campus investigator again: “You might get something from her in the next couple of days. Be on the lookout for it.”
S. managed to circumvent Vassar’s digital barriers using the online form on the school’s Title IX page. Tan, who received a copy of the email, explained: “She wrote this long letter accusing me of sexually harassing her, forcing her to be a lesbian.” S. signed with her full name.
A similar email also arrived at the Title IX office of George Mason University: “My name is [S.] and I’m not a student nor have I ever been one at George Mason. I’m writing to you today regarding one of your employees, Janani Umamaheswar of criminology, at the university and their sexually harassing behavior towards me online on twitter.” The letter continued: “She has called me a lesbian, and has recommended that I have sexual relationships with women.”
So far, the Title IX offices, departments, and administrators at Tan, Umamaheswar, and Sinha’s schools have been responsive and understanding about their experiences with their harassment. But all three professors also know the potential threats reach beyond their campuses. The internet has amplified so much of this behavior, making it easier for someone to become a stalker and easier for anyone to be stalked.
orFor Catherine Tan, this experience of being, in a sense, a collateral victim of a cyberstalker who started out obsessed with someone else went from irritating to infuriating. Sometimes, the racial taunting especially hits a nerve. “I’m Vietnamese. I was born in the US,” Tan told me. “Growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, at that time, American culture wasn’t as welcoming.” Some of S.’s comments would claim Tan “wants to be white.” Tan told me she does not want to be white, but she did struggle to embrace her Asian American identity in her younger years. Dealing with such comments over and over, even in adulthood, was at times depleting.
But it was S.’s letter to Vassar that crossed a line. By November 9th, 2022, Tan was fed up. She felt like she needed to make it known. Now, S. was again publicly replying to Tan’s tweets, calling her “a basic bitch” who “hacks and steals passwords [to] check out girls.”
Tan was done allowing a platform that had enabled her harassment to keep getting away with it. She decided to try to take control herself. Tan began to type. “I have a stalker,” Tan tweeted. “Recently, she contacted my employer in effort to get me fired. She is racist, and has begun contacting ASIAN ACADEMICS connected w/ me on this platform. So, if that is you, there’s a chance she will send a similar letter to your employer. If this happens…please contact me immediately and I will put you in touch with my investigator.”
Tan continued: “This has been going on for almost a year. I have NEVER met this harasser. I have NEVER engaged with this harasser. This is my first time publicly acknowledging this person.”
Tan’s tweet was shared 4,350 times and received more than 15,000 likes. She received messages from other users and academics who had stories about their own stalkers.
Even after S. appeared in her timeline, Tan refused to be scared away from speaking out online or depicting her life or work in public. She still posts regularly: Photos from dinners with friends or of her horseback riding. Tweets about her syllabus, her outfits, her husband, class prepping, grading. “I did it. 50 papers graded across 13 days.”
“I’m not going to stop tweeting. I’m not going to adjust my life for this,” Tan told me. “I have my book coming out at the end of this year. I don’t want this person to be in the back of my head. And most of the time, she isn’t.” But now and then, Tan learns about the latest threat, post, or racial slur, and it upsets her all over again.
Tan went into academia expecting to be challenged at times by her grading, research, or even by her own colleagues. “When you publish or you become more public, you’re always going to encounter haters, people who are ready to discredit you, people who are ready to undermine your legitimacy,” Tan said. “That’s true for everybody, but especially for scholars of color.”
Academia can be a place where it can feel, on some campuses, that Asian Americans are overrepresented. The Supreme Court recently struck down race-based admissions on college campuses. The two cases at the center of the decision argued that racial preferences have unfairly disadvantaged certain groups, using Asian Americans as plaintiffs and pawns, claiming affirmative action discriminated specifically against Asian Americans. Yet some universities, like one where Tan previously worked, enroll a student body made up of predominantly people of color, while the faculty is still overwhelmingly white.
Sometimes, for other professors of color, it can feel like: “We only belong here because we were given special admission, some sort of affirmative action,” as Tan explained. “It’s definitely hard. And the people who will really ruin you won’t be the stalkers. They’re going to be your peers.”
This can also make harassment more intimidating to report. If you don’t feel supported on the ground level, you can feel even more vulnerable at the top institutional level.
When it comes to S., Tan said, “there’s the uncertainty of what’s gonna happen next because we know that she is confrontational. We know that she’s not afraid to take action. It’s not just a Twitter diary,” she said. “Is she capable of violence?”
By winter, Sinha had submitted a complaint about S. to the FBI via an online portal. He also tried calling the FBI. He did not hear back. Sinha, Umamaheswar, and Tan also filed police reports in their local jurisdictions. “The local police here will take a complaint from us, but they won’t go over there to arrest,” Sinha explained. The Southern Connecticut State University Police Department had previously arrested S. She was later released, and the harassment did not stop. “I’m a lawyer. I know the flaws in the system quite well,” Sinha said. “Even for me, it’s been eye-opening.”
Tan asked the Poughkeepsie Police Department in New York if they might reach out to the Hamden Police Department in Connecticut, where S. lives, for assistance. But she said Poughkeepsie police declined. Sinha reached out to the New York Division of Human Rights as a hate crime resource. Since Tan and Sinha both live or work in New York, they wanted assistance filing hate crime complaints with New York State Police.
“We’re all in different states,” Tan told me. “It’s not easy to arrest somebody. Unless she tries to physically harm us, there’s not much we can do.”
Every state has different laws, Sinha said. “It depends on where you are and where the perpetrator is.” As a lawyer, Sinha believes there is no question that S. is breaking various laws: defamation, aggravated harassment, disorderly conduct, stalking, hate crime motivations. Some of these charges could rise to the level of felonies.
Yet even with all of Sinha’s knowledge, efforts, documentation, and research, he has been stonewalled. “If I can’t get some traction here,” he said, “I don’t know who could.” It’s extraordinary how indifferent police have been, he added. “It’s a real struggle. You just need commitment from the law enforcement side, and you need a very clear and easy-to-prove violation.”
“We have enough experience with her to know that this is probably not the end of the problem,” Sinha told me. It turned out he was right.
I have taught journalism in academia for over a decade and have watched threats to teachers grow worse over time. In 2015, I became concerned about a student who professed having a crush on me, despite knowing I am married, and who told a colleague about his sexual feelings toward me. I reported my concerns about the inappropriate comments to my school. His behavior escalated. He already had a criminal record, including charges of sexual violence, and he talked about killing people and writing a book about it. Frightened students reported his conduct as well. His reading responses also turned dark, discussing rape and describing ideas of criminal activity, along with a lack of empathy toward murder and disaster victims.
My department, program directors, and our humanities dean supported and backed me when I raised worries. But when other officials got involved, including the school police, the counseling center, and a campus dean, I was made to feel like I was being an alarmist. My own self-doubt crept in at first, and I found myself asking: Had I been too nice to this person? To make him falsely assume there was some romantic connection?
“I don’t find him scary,” one campus official working on the case said. Instead, I was informed we would make a plan to help this individual graduate.
My teaching assistant and I endured and kept up instruction. Though he was not allowed to attend class in person, I spent those weeks checking door locks and plotting how I might handle an attack on my class — an agonizing mental exercise for a journalist who has also covered the immediate aftermath of college massacres, such as the one that killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007.
My assistant for the course, a graduate student in the MFA program, also struggled, and the experience, among others, helped her realize she did not want to seek full-time employment in a university system again. “There were about two weeks where I couldn’t sleep,” she told me recently. “I would have really bad nightmares. I was worried about the students, but also for myself and for you.” She kept thinking: What if something terrible happened? And it could have been prevented, she said, if we just had “support from the people power.” Neither of us realized at the time that, as employees, we also could have reported the situation on our own to the Title IX office.
Instead, to avoid the risk of the student showing up unannounced, we moved our class of around 50 undergraduates to a secret, unlisted location. But much of this prevention was happening on the ground, and it was spearheaded by my program directors, not from the powers above.
Once the school year ended and the student graduated, my worries about his behavior dissipated but never fully went away. In the online world, other professors have not been able to move past their own harassment so easily. “Deans and chairs are often unaware at all of how online abuse is actually affecting their faculty,” Victoria O’Meara told me. “A lot of the attacks — while they may graduate to things like emails or even, in a horrible instance, people showing up on campus — they often start on social media.”
She explained that dealing with harassment on campuses so far has often relied on policing and a more punitive model. Less attention, O’Meara said, is directed toward the well-being and mental health of the targets of the abuse, the faculty and staff. This, she added, is an area where universities and colleges can step up.
It could begin with having more conversations among faculty members about stalking and harassment and institutions putting in place stronger digital protections for all employees. Resources might also involve paying for services like DeleteMe, which scrub the web of their private information, like home addresses, and providing more training for staff on online abuse, especially at a time when funding agencies are increasingly asking researchers to do more public engagement.
Accessibility to academics online, she added, has only heightened their visibility and vulnerability. Professors use Twitter, now known as X, and Facebook to collaborate and connect with researchers in their field. Some also use TikTok or Instagram to promote their research.
“It’s not really possible anymore to be an active member of your research community without being on social media,” O’Meara said. Yet existing workplace harassment policies have yet to figure out how to prevent or protect faculty and staff from abuse, she explained, especially if the culprit is not someone under the authority of the institution. This reality leaves those of us who teach feeling pretty helpless, vulnerable, and always at risk of being threatened or harassed with little recourse available.
“A lot of the people we talk to,” she said, “have their hands in the air.”
yBy March, S.’s harassment campaign was ramping up yet again. She was back to replying directly to Tan in Twitter posts, calling her a “disgusting criminal” who enjoys “abusing women.”
On March 10th, Tan screenshotted S. in this tweet: “Hey @TwitterSupport @TwitterSafety I have gone through a year of being harassed by this woman on multiple accounts. She also harasses my friends and colleagues. She filed a false report w/ my employer. We have a case open with the police. Please do something.”
Tan added screenshots and another tweet: “I don’t know this woman. I have never met this woman. I do not understand her fixation on me. She clearly needs mental health help. @TwitterSupport @TwitterSafety.”
Shortly after, Sinha, Umamaheswar, and Tan realized that S. may have been banned from Twitter. So far, despite strains on support and content moderation ever since Elon Musk took over the platform and cut staff, the account has yet to reemerge under a new handle.
“We have enough experience with her to know that this is probably not the end of the problem,” Sinha told me. It turned out he was right.
(S. did not return request for comment.)
A few weeks later, Sinha discovered S.’s incessant posts about the three of them had moved over to another platform: Instagram. The same style of comments continued, in multiple posts a day, along with photos and videos that S. posted of herself. “The story about autistic Asians gang banging white girls to show their dominance as a race,” her Instagram profile read. And later this: “I was once a Quinnipiac student, Lexi is hacking their things and raping students.” Sinha said that S. often referred to him as Lexi, her nickname for Alex, possibly in an attempt to emasculate him.
Sinha tried to take screenshots when he could, but this time, he noticed S. would delete her comments a few hours after posting. “She’s still obsessed, and it’s not going away.”
In April, New York State Police responded to Sinha, and an investigator asked to meet. He took an Uber to the police station in between his classes at Hofstra. Sinha showed him the digital trail he had amassed over two years. He explained there seemed to be a racial motive connected to stalking charges, which could also classify as a hate crime. The investigator appeared to take it seriously.
There is “always this possibility that it’s going to get worse,” Sinha said. He knows pushing legal charges, talking to the media, all of this might trigger S. further. But they don’t know what else to do at this point. “It continues to evolve, but it never goes away.”
Sinha continued monitoring S. and noticed that while still posting regularly about himself, his wife, and Tan, she had also recently become fixated on at least three other professors, two of whom are connected to Tan via social media.
One of those professors is Asian American. The other is an Egyptian American woman who has been the target of S.’s racist attacks. (S. posted a photo of the professor on Instagram, calling the professor a “sexual abuser,” and followed it with a photo of an ape, writing, “don’t they look alike?”) S. also posted about reporting this same professor to the Title IX department of her employer, Boston University. S. also claimed she filed complaints about another professor to Michigan State University.
On a recent evening, Sinha screenshotted multiple posts from S. on Instagram.
One read: “Bye bitch get fired you abusive piece of shit,” with a photo of S. blowing a kiss.
And more death threats:
“I’d go off so hard on these people if I had the chance I’d get arrested for fucking murder or something.”
Again, the posts disappeared. It looked like S. was posting and deleting herself. Sinha fell asleep, as he does every night, the echoes of S.’s comments still in his subconscious.
I’d probably nail one of you guys in the face if I ever met you in public and then get arrested for assault.
I’d much rather go to prison than be civil with any of you. I’d so much rather see you people dead than anywhere else.
The next morning, he would rise again, locked in this eternal social media nightmare. He would click Instagram and find new posts about him, his wife, and the other professors that S. is now targeting. “I just got off the phone with Boston university,” she wrote recently, posting a selfie. “What a stressful process justice is.”