I am sure most of you will be much more surprised by this story than I am (unfortunately).
A female in my lab (an extremely hard worker, and bright to boot) was called down to my advisor's office where he asked her if she would like to attend one of the larger conferences given in our particular corner of science. One might think this would be a good thing but of course he managed to take a potentially positive event and turn it into a horrible, vile train wreck. He "generously" offered to pay for her stay in a dorm in the area (A whole $49 per night. He won't kick in the extra $8 for a hotel she located) but then refused to pay for her attendance (Not more than $200. To put it into perspective when he goes to conferences it is nothing but the best.). He suggested that she pay the attendance fee, and then refused to reimburse her for travel (He once had me attend a conference then, when I submitted my travel expenses, refused to pay the $54 because he had agreed to pay only for flights which, ironically, cost $90 and were available online for 10 minutes). When she balked at paying he said, "That's just a haircut and a pair of shoes to you." Am I crazy or does that seem a bit untoward for a professor to be saying to a female graduate student (Who is by no means profligate in her personal spending, not that it should matter)? It would be excusable if he had not treated other female students in the same fashion.
Go to the Deans you say! Write a letter to the editor of the student paper! Contact your local congressperson! All sound great, in theory. The reality of graduate school is that the professor (especially a tenured professor) holds ALL of the cards. If you disagree with what may be obviously immoral, unethical, or downright illegal behavior there is really little recourse. Should you decide to go to someone you have flushed your time spent in school down the drain. If you have invested 4 years of your life in a program with the end "just" around the corner you learn to grin and bare much more than you should. The reality is that there are no options. There is no recourse. You are owned, branded, even controlled by your advisor and unless you are willing to throw it all away (No, you can't go to someone and realistically expect to stay in the group) you must persevere.
There is a certain learned helplessness to it all. Graduate school places you in a situation in which there is a great deal you can do absolutely nothing about. I know, you were about to say that describes life in general and you are correct, to a point. If someone hates a job they can often start looking for a similar position elsewhere. That is not possible in the later years of graduate school. You simply must acquiesce to the whims of the professor (Academics like to describe themselves as something that reminds me of the “Benevolent Dictator” described in Plato’s “Republic”. They see themselves as the educated elite, unconcerned with the trappings of physical pleasure, able to see the true world instead of the shadows on the cave wall, and certainly capable of making decisions for the “masses”. Of course those decisions quite often reflect what's best for the advisor, not the student. I would also say their success in this practice is something similar to Plato’s students at his academy.). A graduate student eventually “learns” that they can have no impact on his or her advisor’s decision and quite often slumps into a depression, convinced of their own inability to effect change in their own life. This mode of thought can have disastrous consequences and even the most optimistic students (me included) can fall into the trap.