Allison sighed, and immediately regretted it. The professor who chaired the committee peered at her over his spectacles. “Are you ready, Miss, um…”
“Yes, sir,” Allison cut him off. They’d worked together, ostensibly, on her master’s thesis for nearly two years. He couldn’t remember her last name? Well, that was all about to end. Today she’d defend, successfully if the thesis gods were with her, and then she’d walk out of the department and off the campus a free woman. Yes, Allison was ready.
“All right,” the professor continued. “You will have twenty minutes to present a summary of your research. Dr. Wright, Dr. Tejara, and I will then ask you questions. Your answers to those questions will determine the results of your defense.”
Allison made eye contact with each member of the committee as the professor mentioned their names. Dr. Wright responded with such an oily, smarmy smile, Allison hoped her shudder was invisible. She knew his reputation in the department and the university as one of those professors, the ones young women would warn each other about. Stories about his favorite tactic were rife. He would show up as a “reader” for a thesis defense committee, a service for which professors were given some meagre additional compensation. He would then torpedo a student’s research by raising questions about methodology that were far above and beyond the expertise of any other professors. Usually, these questions were only tangentially related to the student’s research. Dr. Wright would fluster the student, challenge her inability to respond, and then call a break in the proceedings, using that break to gain a private moment with female students, offering them a way out of their predicament: sex with him in exchange for a pass on their thesis defense. Once or twice, if the campus grapevine was accurate (and in Allison’s experience it usually was), Dr. Wright did not wait until the break was over to gather his first rewards from panicked, vulnerable students.
Seeing him on her panel, Allison steeled herself. If Dr. Wright tried his usual MO with her, she knew her chair would be no help. But Dr. Tejara, the only female full professor in the department, also had a reputation: she’d filed a harassment complaint against Dr. Wright herself. The university had so bungled the investigation, nothing came of it. But Dr. Tejara stayed in the department, kept her head up, and never took any BS from Dr. Wright. The grapevine held that he was terrified of Dr. Tejara. Allison believed it. Dr. Tejara was the kind of woman who would terrify the machismo out of any bully. Tough, smart, funny, and so well-known in the field, she spoke on talk shows whenever their topic touched her published research.
Allison straightened her spine. She had survived the summer of ending her relationship, telling her family about her decision, buying an old rat trap of a house, and moving in with a roommate, no less. She would survive this defense. Let Dr. Wright do what he could. She had nothing to lose.