First there was Anita Hill, in 1991, a professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Now, there's Christine Blasey Ford, a clinical psychology professor at Palo Alto University.

Both women accused conservative Supreme Court justice nominees of sexual impropriety. Anita Hill's allegations were aimed at Clarence Thomas, who went on to become a justice. Ford has accused current nominee Brett Kavanaugh, whose confirmation hearing is continuing, and she has been invited to testify.

Is there something about professors that would make them more likely to speak out, even in the face of tremendous pushback and criticism?

Here's what several top female academics from our region had to say.

"It certainly takes a lot of courage for anybody to do that," said Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. "One of the advantages of being a professor is, if you speak up, there are few to no repercussions regarding your job. So you have that safety, especially if you're a tenured professor."

She added that even if professors weren't tenured, a lot of colleges likely would support their speaking out. Ford has the advantage of speaking up during the #MeToo movement and when college campuses are focused on better handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault cases.

Finney also cited "a strong sense of self-efficacy" that most professors have.

"You don't get into these positions unless you've been really pushed in a lot of ways," Finney said, especially on the road to tenure, when professors must be open to lots of challenges and criticism.

Julie E. Wollman, president of Widener University
Ed Hille / Staff Photographer
Julie E. Wollman, president of Widener University

Julie E. Wollman, president of Widener University and a Harvard graduate who majored in English and American literature and language, said professors tell their students to stand up and speak out, and feel compelled to model that behavior.

"Because we work with young people, we recognize we're role models," Wollman said. "On university campuses, we're telling our students, you need to stand up for what you think is right. We teach advocacy. We teach communication. We teach responsibility for making a difference. …We have a responsibility to speak up and speak out and advocate and try and improve our world."

Academia by its nature trains Ph.D. candidates "to challenge the claims of those who came before them, no matter how high in regard those claims are held," notes Marcia Morgan, associate professor of philosophy at Muhlenberg College.

"You're being asked and challenged to construct your own argument that by definition in some way must challenge the arguments that have come before you," she said.

Both women, she added, entered academia when women faced challenges — and women continue to face challenges. Morgan pointed out that her field, philosophy, continues to be dominated by men.

"Historically, women in the professoriate have had to be self-directed and fight harder to gain admission, and I think they're particularly attuned to the risks that come with that," she said, "but also, when they achieve it, they are aware of how important it is to continue to address the problems of inequity and harassment. There's a kind of obligation that comes with being a professor because of the history."

JoAnne A. Epps, Temple University provost and law professor, said college campuses, which trumpet academic freedom and free speech, are safer spaces, and academics might feel more free to speak out, even in the face of national scrutiny.

"When you're in the private sector, you can get fired in a minute," she said. "I can imagine a professor would feel safer than an employee in another employment setting."