sexual harassment

Why I Protected My Abuser in My #MeToo Story

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/07/2018 - 5:00pm in


When the dust settles, it's most often the victim's actions that are discussed, dissected, and critiqued. Not the perpetrator's.

Downfall of USC's President: the Problem of Administrative Epistemology

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 14/06/2018 - 4:01am in

It's a good time to take stock of renewed scandal at USC. One month into the new round, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has announced a "Title IX directed, systemic investigation into the University of Southern California’s (USC) handling of reports of sexual harassment against former employee Dr. George Tyndall."   Opportunistic though it may be (see Catherine Lhamon's comment), the new DOE investigation points again to a structural management problem at the University.

I'm going to bracket the profound gender trouble that propels the kind of abuse at issue and look at the role of an ongoing epistemic crisis in administrative practice.

On May 16th, the Los Angeles Times broke the story of a coverup of an allegedly predatory campus gynecologist, Dr. George Tyndall, with this headline: "A USC doctor was accused of bad behavior with young women for years.  The university continued letting him treat students."   The investigation dug back decades: "the complaints began in the 1990s, when co-workers alleged he was improperly photographing students' genitals." "Some of the most serious allegations against Tyndall involve claims of inappropriate remarks about patients' bodies and his use of fingers at the start of pelvic exams."  The story stayed on The Times front page most days of the month since, as more details emerged, as 20 former students sued USC, as 400 former patients called a complaint hot line, and as the LAPD opened a criminal investigation.  The case has audible echoes of that of convicted Michigan State abuser Dr. Larry Nassar.  (Tyndall denies all charges and defends his practice.)

USC president C.L Max Nikias lasted ten days after the story broke.  He was pushed out in part because his administration, in 2016, had arranged a private payout and retirement for Tyndall instead of a full investigation.  The case was concealed in spite of Nikias having affirmed that

Bringing unacceptable behavior out of the shadows and into the light is the first step in eradicating it.  Change is imperative. And we stand united on this front.

It's a good principle, but it isn't one Nikias actually followed.

My bleak mood about this case reflected first to how little protection such statements have afforded Tyndall's alleged victims over 27 years.  I grew up with USC--my father had two SC degrees, and many friends and children of friends have attended, including two generations of women who could have been Tyndall's patients.  I was thrilled when USC recommitted to central Los Angeles in the early 1990s and built programs reflecting a commitment to addressing systematically the country's sociocultural condition. Many of the most interesting scholars in the study of culture and society worked there--until they got fed up and left.  I know firsthand that USC overflows with intelligence.  I feel badly for how the scandal and its non-resolution is affecting thousands of dedicated faculty and staff, particularly the whistleblowers and reformers who had been trying to fix things from the inside.

But what needs to be fixed at USC? And who would will be doing the fixing?

The changes so far are preliminaries.  The USC Board of Trustees has

  • removed an apparent enabler (Max Nikias).
  • changed board leadership (mall magnate Rick Caruso has replaced gas magnate John Mork, who was close to Nikias). 
  • hired an elite L.A. law firm to conduct an outside investigation (LA.'s O’Melveny & Myers). 

These things needed to happen, but they aren't reform. They're housekeeping. The University will also need to

  • cooperate fully with the LAPD criminal investigation and Department of Education inquiry  (and not try to overshadow them with the O'Melveny inquiry).
  • support all of the potential victims who may come forward rather than trying to set a cap or limit on victims or worse, try to discredit them.

These things seem possible and even likely.

Then there's two other things that aren't yet in the wind. USC will need to

  • change its administrative culture.
  • refocus the elite university mission.

The last pair of changes are nearly impossible for universities like USC.  I'm going to talk about one of these--changing administrative culture.

***The most interesting commentary has been addressing this issue.  One of the LA Times articles suggested that repeated complaints from clinic nurses were not acted on by supervisors, who nonetheless may have passed them up the chain, only to have them ignored higher up--until the Tyndall story went public, when the higher ups chopped off some heads further down.

In a piece called "Why do colleges keep failing to prevent abuse," the former president of the University of Puget Sound, Susan Resneck Pierce, wrote that presidents must create a wholesale institutional expectation to be informed of inappropriate behavior.

In cases where presidents know about misbehavior but don’t act, she said, fears of bad publicity often drive inaction. But she noted that in many cases, “The cover-up creates more negative publicity than actually acting on an original allegation would have done.”

Pierce thus asks administrators to prefer the truth--no matter how ugly-- to the carefully cultivated image of an enlightened and efficient university that they have devoted their careers to building.  The first feature of a better management culture is to define risk management as cultivating the truth rather than concealing it.

How would that happen?  As USC professor Tania Modeleski asked, "Will there be any meaningful change as long as powerful men overlook the harm done to students and instead privately attempt to shore up the current power structure?"

There is a well-known alternative to management as marketing controlled from the top: open deliberation grounded in shared governance. The prominent USC education professor William Tierney spelled it out (in a piece that should be read in full):

President Nikias relied on a small circle of confidants and, as his troubles rose, the circle grew smaller. The university's Board of Trustees, mostly captains of industry, seemed awed by his fundraising ability. . . .  

The Academic Senate sat passively by as problems unfolded. When The Times uncovered alleged misconduct on the part of medical school dean Dr. Carmen Puliafito, Nikias declined to accept individual responsibility. He ordered an independent investigation, but the report was provided only to executive committee of the Board of Trustees. The Academic Senate registered no public complaint. . . 

A dramatic increase in non-tenured professors at USC has made the faculty hesitant to confront the administration, lest their jobs be put at risk. The result is fewer checks and balances on the office of president. In 2015, the trustees gave Nikias a $1.5-million bonus. The Academic Senate registered no public protest at such an outlandish handout. . . .

This is the tragedy at USC: Instead of cultivating an environment of reflection and reasoned debate, the university sprinted toward growth. Those of us who disagreed with the president were first ignored and then banished. We were viewed as a distraction from the school's goal of ever-greater international prominence. And the trustees and the faculty essentially acquiesced.

To repair the storm damage at USC, we need a Board of Trustees that provides consistent oversight and does not see itself as the handmaiden to the president. We need an Academic Senate that ensures that the faculty is an equal partner in decision-making. We need a president who can set a world record in running a marathon without forgetting what winning the race truly means. And we need the entire academic community to recognize how important a climate of thoughtful, reasoned dialogue is for our university. 

Of course I agree completely. Universities are by definition the natural homes of an "environment of reflection and reasoned debate."  And yet, in practice, they mostly aren't.  Senior managers have the power to ignore faculty input, and when it offers ideas they don't like, they often do.  This is particularly uncomfortable when the faculty member is right--as Tierney, a nationally renowned expert on higher ed, most likely was.

More generally, USC leaders seem in practice not to respect the insight and knowledge of frontline workers.  They no doubt do in the abstract, but not when someone higher up has other concerns.

This disregard included the clinic employees who over decades complained about Tyndall's behavior time and again.  I've heard many tenured USC faculty members say the same thing--expertise and experience don't count when they contradict the official ethos.  Management there seems to have operated through an epistemic authority that they deny to the rest of the university.

Decades ago, feminist epistemologists analyzed the way that prevailing professional practices systematically ignored knowledge specific to womens' standpoint and experience, and/or kept women from having critical mass in discussions, and/or rejected their cognitive capabilities or practices as not worth taking as seriously as their own. (A good online introduction is here; and see Epistemic Injustice.)  On its face, a textbook example would be the repeated sidelining of the USC clinic's nurses' concerns about Tyndall's gynecological practice.  Critical ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, and other disciplines have made similar arguments: epistemic privilege generates epistemic injustice, which manifests itself as, among other things, epistemic disrespect toward positions that aren't part of the official program.  This occurs even where the authority in question expresses personal regard for the individuals who are being ignored.

Epistemic disrespect nearly cost Nikias his job before, in 2017, in the wake of an investigation captured in The Times July headline, "An overdose, a young companion, drug-fueled parties: The secret life of a USC med school dean."  In that case, Nikias moved the dean in question, Carmen Puliafito, out of his executive position while hanging on to his services and also not exposing his apparently criminal conduct to donors. "After he stepped down as dean, USC kept Puliafito on the medical school faculty, and he continues [as of July 2017] to accept new patients at campus eye clinics."  The Times discovered that Puliafito's colleagues had complained about drunkenness and verbal abuse, but had never gotten any relief.

In that case, Nikias was found to be engaged in active avoidance of the facts. He was aware that the Times was investigating Puliafito by March 2016, because the paper repeatedly contacted him about it.

It remains unclear when top USC officials first learned about the allegations involving Puliafito. But The Times made repeated inquiries over the last 15 months about Puliafito, in some cases describing information reporters had gathered about the dean. USC's leaders never responded to the inquiries. Numerous phone calls were not returned, emails went unanswered and a letter seeking an interview with USC President C.L. Max Nikias to discuss Puliafito was returned to The Times by courier, unopened. 

The USC president had to be hunted down by the press--several times--before he admitted serious wrongdoing (see a "timeline of his troubled tenure").

Puliafito has been back in the news recently, trying to hang on to his medical license by blaming his former prostitute-girlfriend for seducing and addicting him.  In the process, a former vice dean of the medical school testified that he'd informed USC Provost Michael Quick about rumors that "Puliafito was partying in hotels with people of 'questionable reputation'" in early 2016.

It appears that Nikias displayed willful blindness towards Puliafito's conduct and at least condoned a coverup, even as the story was being rooted out with enormous time and effort by reporters. It may emerge that he did the same with Tyndall.

Nikias's conduct is not categorically different from Tyndall's, who--best case scenario--offended even if he did not actually abuse many of his thousands of patients, and who never thought "oh, this isn't going over well" and stopped with the sexualized remarks or sexual-seeming manipulations--or was made to stop.  The alleged offenses consist of abusing usually very young women in their most vulnerable moment under cover of professional authority and in the name of individual care.  This involves a deep negation of consent that, in tandem with the sexualization of medical treatment, compromises the personhood of the victim and of her agency. It  is the opposite of what universities stand for. And yet in spite of the longstanding seriousness of staff concerns, senior managers, in The Times' account, acted only when one of the clinic's nurses, who had become impatient with the clinic management's inaction, reported Tyndall to the campus rape crisis center.

These appear to be examples of epistemic privilege enabling wrongdoing and a subsequent coverup.

***We should also recognize that epistemic privilege puts self-governance at risk. Higher education has largely governed itself for a century and a half, partly on the theoretical grounds that professional  skills can be developed and monitored only by other professionals.  Higher ed has fought off direct federal control of colleges and universities of the type now wreaking havoc in Great Britain, using a self-regulation system of accreditation and related mechanisms.  As Heather Steffen reminded our research group this week, the tradition of self-regulation enabled universities to fend off the effort to apply No Child Left Behind-type learning assessment to colleges in the wake of the Spellings Report.

Nearly all of us support the general principle, but the self-regulation has actually to take place.  At USC it did not. Nikias and Quick had a medical school dean with substance-abuse problems who neither took corrective action himself nor received correction from other administrators.  They did not remove (or help) him until exposure forced their hand.  The same thing allegedly occurred with Tyndall.  In failing to fix their own problems, Nikias et al. not only eroded USC's reputation--they also eroded the justification for academic freedom for all universities, which is the integrity of the self-governance procedures of learned societies.

Finally, what about the reform potential of Rick Caruso and the USC Board of Trustees?

We have some evidence that the Board still lacks interest in shared governance or in Tierney's "environment of reflection." On May 18th, the Times reported that USC had acknowledged receiving 200 complaints about Tyndall going back to the early 2000s.   On May 21st, 6 former USC students sued the University, alleging that Tyndall had "sexually victimized them under the pretext of medical care and that USC failed to address complaints from clinic staff about the doctor's behavior."  On May 22nd, the Board of Trustees received a letter from 200 faculty calling on Nikias to resign. USC faculty also launched a change.org petition entitled, "Remove President Nikias: Protect USC Student Safety."  That day, the response of the then-Chair of the USC Board of Trustees was to express "full confidence in President Nikias’ leadership, ethics, and values.

The next day, on May 23rd,  the L.A. Times reported that 300 women had called a USC hotline with a complaint about their treatment by Dr. Tyndall.  The Times also ran the story they had seen formal complaints about Tyndall dating from 1991 and 1995 (he started work at USC in 1989).  On May 25th, as Tyndall defended his practice in a letter to The Times, the paper reported that the number of legal filings against USC  had risen to 21. At a press conference about one of them, attorney Gloria Allred remarked, "this is only the beginning."  Nikias's announcement that he would resign came that same day.

In short, the USC Board backed Nikias against the faculty but dumped him 3 days later when they saw potential liability on the scale of Penn State via Sandusky or Michigan State via Nassar.

This isn't a shocking thing.  The actions of Boards of Trustees express truth as grounded in legal authority rather than educational expertise.  In this sense, Boards are by definition embodiments of epistemic privilege.  USC's Board has fired Nikias, but that may only maintain the epistemological inequality that caused the problem in the first place. If it's all Nikias's fault, then USC leadership can sustain their implicit model of management in which self-governance remains the property of senior officials.

Unfortunately, the Puliafito and Tyndall cases show that self-governance and top-down governance are at odds  Self-governance depends on the intelligence of the entire community, starting with people working with students and patients in the trenches. The kind of decisional oligarchy favored by most universities today guarantees epistemic privilege, and epistemic disrespect, and the inevitable blindness and error.

William Tierney is right to call for real shared governance in a "climate of thoughtful, reasoned dialogue." But that's not going to happen without a sustained battle for the kind of epistemic justice that universities are better at imagining for others than for themselves.

What we talk about when we talk about sex in the academy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 14/05/2018 - 9:46am in

I have a piece in The Chronicle Review about a genre that has annoyed me for some time:

Every few years an essay appears that treats the question of sexual harassment in the academy as an occasion to muse on the murky boundaries of teaching and sex. While a staple of the genre is the self-serving apologia for an older male harasser, the authors are not always old or male. And though some defend sex between students and professors, many do not. These latter writers have something finer, more Greek, in mind. They seek not a congress of bodies but a union of souls. Eros is their muse, knowledge their desire. What the rest of us don’t see — with our roving harassment patrols and simpleminded faith in rules and regulators — is the erotic charge of education, how two particles of mind can be accelerated to something hotter. In our quest to stop the sex, we risk losing the sexiness. Against the discourse of black and white, these writers plea for complexity: not so that professors can sleep with their students but so that we can speak openly and honestly about the ambiguities of teaching, about how the most chaste pedagogy can generate a spark that looks and feels like — maybe is — sexual attraction.

I call this genre The Erotic Professor.

The latest addition is Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran’s “The Erotics of Mentorship,” which recently appeared in the Boston Review. Like many practitioners of the genre, Figlerowicz and Ramachandran are professors of literature. (You’ll never find a professor of chemistry or demography among the authors of such pieces.) Also like many practitioners, they have a high estimation of the academy’s sexiness. “There are perhaps no places more vulnerable to the intertwining of work and romance,” they tell us, “than colleges and universities.” That belief, of course, reflects the happenstance of their being in the academy rather than any empirical comparison of the academy to other workplaces. The office romance is a ubiquitous feature of the culture, after all, its settings as various as a bar (Cheers), a detective agency (Moonlighting), a paper company (The Office), and an insurance firm (The Apartment).

One of the conventions of the genre, in fact, is for the erotic professor to imagine what her students must be feeling by reference to what she once felt, and then to state that feeling as if it were a universal law (“intellectual magnetism, a notoriously protean force, often shades into erotic attraction”), scarcely noticing that when she had that feeling, she was a student on her way to becoming a professor. What about the student on her way to becoming an HR rep? Or an accountant?

The question never arises because the real shadow talk of the erotic professor is not sex but class.

You can read more here.

 

Concordia Philosophy Faculty Response to Sexual Harassment Allegations

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 05/04/2018 - 2:48am in

Last month it was reported that several students had accused a professor of philosophy at Concordia University of sexual harassment. Faculty in the university’s Department of Philosophy have now issued a statement in response to the allegations.

In the letter, the faculty write that they “take seriously the allegations,” and, though unable to discuss specifics of the case, they affirm an “ongoing commitment to a zero tolerance approach to misconduct and inappropriate behaviour” and “call upon the administration to investigate any allegations.”

They also endorse Concordia’s recent policy initiative, “The Consensual Romantic or Sexual Relationship Guidelines,” which draws attention to the problematic “unequal institutional power inherent in [an instructor-student] relationship.” The faculty add:

Our purpose, the education of students, is fundamentally undermined and disrupted by instructor-student sexual relations, and is even more deeply undermined by sexual harassment, violence, and abuses of power that exploit the vulnerability of our students. The Guideline “strongly discourages all instructors from commencing or continuing any consensual romantic or sexual relationship with a student.” We agree. Students are not for dating.

The letter is reproduced in whole, below:

The “demand of our Graduate Philosophy Student Association” refers to this statement.

The post Concordia Philosophy Faculty Response to Sexual Harassment Allegations appeared first on Daily Nous.

Students Allege Sexual Harassment by Concordia Philosophy Professor

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 20/03/2018 - 3:14am in

Several students at Concordia University have accused a professor in its Department of Philosophy of sexual harassment.  One of the students has accused the university of “systemic failings of its sexual violence and sexual harassment policies,” filed a civil rights complaint against the school that includes a  request that the accused professor “face sanctions for his alleged behaviour,” and is suing for CA$60,000 (approximately $45,000) in damages.

The CBC reports:

“Alya” [not the student’s real name] was a Concordia undergraduate student in 2009 when she began receiving emails from her professor, asking her to party with him at bars. In the emails, obtained by CBC News, she told him she doesn’t drink. In one email, she reminded him of that fact.

“I could always slip some vodka into your pop when you weren’t looking!!!!!!!” he responded.

She deflected his advances in her responses, but he persisted. He began one email by writing “Hi [Alya], hug and kiss.”

In May 2009, another student filed a formal complaint about the same professor and Alya agreed to testify on that student’s behalf, reporting her experience dealing with him.

The stress of testifying, in addition to an end-of-semester illness, made it difficult to finish three of her final assignments. “I just didn’t want to go to class anymore,” she said. “I didn’t want to be around the department.” 

She wrote an email to the chair of her department, philosophy, asking for an extension to finish her assignments. The chair responded, calling her reason—the anxiety and stress associated with reporting the professor’s behaviour—“insufficient.” He also asked she not tell other members of the department about the ongoing harassment case. 

“It really made me realize what I was dealing with, in terms of who the chair and the department was out to serve, and it wasn’t me,” she said…

She went on to fail two of the courses, causing a permanent blemish on her academic record. She left Concordia and transferred to York University at significant personal expense.

Five years after the alleged harassment, Alya approached Concordia again, hoping to file a complaint about how she was treated. She said when she approached the university, she was shuffled from department to department, “like a ball in a pinball machine.”

First, she contacted the new chair of the philosophy department, who forwarded her emails to the school’s Office of Rights and Responsibilities.  She was told it was too late for her to file a complaint and was told to call the ombudsman or the dean. She contacted the ombudsman and received no response. Disheartened, she gave up.

But then, in 2017, she met another student who was enrolled at Concordia’s philosophy department. That woman told Alya she had recently been harassed by the same professor.

Alya said she was appalled the professor was still working at the university, and decided to file a human rights complaint, naming the school.

“It really indicated to me there is still a culture of inappropriate behaviour being tolerated in the department from the same person, almost 10 years later, and it disgusted me,” she said.

She said she met with officials from the school’s administration, who agreed to remove the failed classes from her academic record and instead mark them as incomplete. But by then, Alya had already been rejected for graduate programs, a fact she blames on those failed classes.

The CBC’s article is here.

The post Students Allege Sexual Harassment by Concordia Philosophy Professor appeared first on Daily Nous.

Conspiracy Theorist Alex Jones Accused of Sexual Harassment, Racism and Anti-Semitism by Former Employees

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 03/03/2018 - 5:30am in

I found this clip from the David Pakman Show, reporting that Alex Jones, the main man behind the conspiracy internet show, Infowars, has been accused of being a racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist perv by two former members of staff. One of these is a Black woman, Ashley Beckford, who claims that Jones and other members of senior management leered at her, made comments about her colour, called her ‘coon’ and that she was not given the same terms and conditions as the other members of staff, who weren’t Black. She also claims that she was being groomed for some kind of sexual relationship with Jones, who often appeared shirtless around her.

The other person suing Jones is Rob Jacobson, a Jewish guy, who had worked for Jones for 13 years before he was sacked. He claims that Jones regularly humiliated him because of his Jewish heritage, referring to him as ‘that Jewish individual’ or ‘the resident Jew’, and on occasion pronouncing his name ‘Yakobson’, presumably his attempt to imitate a Yiddish pronunciation.

Pakman, who is himself Jewish, makes fun of Jones, asking rhetorically how anybody could be surprised at these accusations, knowing what a sane individual Jones is. Behind him there’s a video playing of Jones ranting and banging the table like a foam-flecked Hitler on speed. He also jokes about how Jones’ behaviour must have been cause by the ‘male vitality pills’ he tries to flog on his wretched show. There is some good news for Jones, though. His audience are so paranoid and obsessed that everything’s a conspiracy, that they’ll believe this one is too.

His producer here goes on to raise the reasonable point that its doubtful how far these accusations can be trusted. Jacobson was working for him for 13 years before he was sacked, or released, and has only now come forward with these allegations. It might be a case of disgruntled employees trying to hit back at the employer who sacked them.

having said that, Black American women do suffer more from sexual harassment than White Americans, according to an article I read in Counterpunch. There’s a perception that Black women are ‘easy’, and so some White guys harass and sexually assault them, which they would not dare to do to a woman of their own colour.

The section of the video reporting this latest development with Jones and Infowars is relatively short. Most of the video is David Pakman promoting a self-help book. I realise he needs the money from sponsorship, but it is still irritating. Here’s the video:

Professors Dating Students, Professors Harassing Students

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 01/03/2018 - 2:12am in

“As for the fact of being a lecturer in bed with undergraduates in particular, there was no possibility of avoiding the charge that this was an abuse of my position.”

Those are the words of Ted Honderich, now 85 years old and emeritus professor of philosophy of mind and logic at University College London. They were published in 2001 in his memoir, Philosopher: a Kind of Lifeand refer to a time in the mid 1960s, when he was in his 30s.

He continues:

But it was not easy to make clear sense of the charge. It was not as if my partners were reluctant, which they were not. They were not seduced, or hardly more seduced than me. To use a term not then current, there was no harassment worth the name. Nor did they act from the promise or anticipation of academic favours, or fear of reprisal if they declined my casual invitations. If they were impressed by me in my position, which very likely they were, I did in fact possess the attributes in question. Being impressed was not in itself being a victim. Evidently I was breaking a tacit undertaking to Sir John Fulton [a university administrator] and to others of his mind. But was the conventional view of the weight of this obligation correct? Why was there no explicit rule? It did not escape me either that I was not alone in my ways. There were others than our Abelard who were not burdened by their tacit undertaking.

So I would have said in setting out to defend myself. In fact, in these buoyant times, I did not reflect a lot on my actions and my moral standing, or suffer guilt, partly because of the optimistic feeling that if I worked at a defence, a confident one might be constructed. I was never called on to provide one. (pp.128-29)

This passage and related ones were brought to my attention by Joshua Habgood-Coote (Bristol), who discussed them on Twitter. (It is unclear whether these students were ones Honderich had any supervisory role over.)

I’ve reproduced the passage here not to provide an occasion for excoriating Honderich. It isn’t obvious today that it is wrong for professors to have consensual romantic or sexual relations with students at their university over whom they have no supervisory role, and it is not clear to what extent such a judgment was seriously entertained 55 or so years ago. Further, even if one thinks Honderich acted wrongly by engaging in those relations, whether and how he should be blamed or otherwise held responsible for them today is another matter. (To be clear, it’s not that I’m endorsing relativism here; I am, however, saying that judgments about how to react to these kinds of cases are complicated by uncertainty and social and temporal distance.) I would add that Honderich’s personal life was widely discussed in reviews following the book’s publication, and we needn’t rehash all of that here. (Though I would recommend reading this excellent review by Catherine Wilson.)

The circulation of these passages, rather, presents an opportunity to discuss some of the disputes over romantic or sexual relations between professors and students. I’ll raise just two here: (1) arguments over blanket policies that some schools have adopted banning any such relationships, and (2) arguments concerning the treatment of philosophers who’ve engaged in such relationships.

(1) Blanket Relationship Bans

One consideration relevant to relationship bans arises in another passage of Honderich’s book that was part of the Twitter discussion:

Feminism had begun, with books and marches, but it did not include the charge of harassment by teachers. Harassment there certainly was, once by me in at least one mind. A young woman of good family told me of her sad marriage to an Indian gentleman, I sympathized too much, and did get an idea in my head. Something was said to Richard [Wollheim, then chair of the department] of this, and he found her another tutor. It was a good lesson of a kind. It preserved me from an undergraduate or two with the invigorating idea of an extra-curricular connection with their tutor. (p.189)

That’s one worry about professor-student relationships. Even if we suppose that there are some that are consensual and otherwise unproblematic—“successful”—we need to look at the ongoing context in which such relationships might come about. An ongoing context that produces some successful relationships probably involves a greater number of relationship attempts. Some of these attempts fail, and it is likely that some of these attempts will involve sexual harassment. So a context in which such attempts are not discouraged is one which may lead to more sexual harassment (this sounds plausible but is ultimately an empirical question so if you know of work on this feel free to share it). If that is so, it should be taken into account in reasoning about whether to have such policies.

Now in this latter case the student Honderich admits harassing is one he has institutional authority over. Can we at least agree that professors have very strong reasons not to attempt relationships with their own students? Whether such relationships would involve a power imbalance that undermines the possibility of consent, I don’t know; I think the diversity of actual cases means that this is hard to generalize about that. However, such relationships clearly violate widely-accepted and well-justified norms regarding conflict of interest, and there is no sufficiently compelling reason in these cases to override these norms. Many universities now have policies that prohibit such relationships (or, in cases in which the lines of institutional authority are less clear, policies that require disclosure of the relationship to the relevant administrators).

On the other side of the debate over blanket bans are the goods of romantic or sexual relationships and sexual liberty. Last year, philosopher Neil McArthur (Manitoba) published an article, “Relationships between university professors and students: Should they be banned?” in Ethics and Education, arguing against bans of professor-student relationships (also discussed in this Times Higher Ed piece). McArthur acknowledges  that “romances between faculty and students are minefields, both emotionally and ethically, and they should be approached with the utmost care and trepidation.” However, “such matters are far too complex for the blunt tool provided by outright prohibitions, and that such prohibitions cannot be justified” (p.138).

On whether such relationships are likely to be nonconsensual, McArthur looks at some empirical work:

In Glaser and Thorpe’s (1986, 49) survey of 464 former graduate students, all female, about their sexual involvement with professors, nearly all reported that they ‘felt no coercion or exploitation whatsoever.’ Bellas and Gossett (540) similarly found that, among those in their smaller survey, ‘none of the students felt coerced to initiate or to sustain their relationships … students believed that they entered into them freely—their relationships were, at least in their own minds, consensual.’ We must consider, too, that it is by no means always the professor who initiates romantic contact. Skeen and Nielsen (1983, 39) reported that in only three of the twenty-five cases they studied was the sexual interaction initiated by the professor. (p.136)

(See below for a criticism of McArthur’s intepretation and use of some of this data.)

Part of McArthur’s argument against blanket bans is that enforcing them well would be problematic and difficult. For example, interestingly, he claims that such bans would make the aforementioned conflicts of interest harder to detect and avoid. He writes:

Supporters of relationship bans will say that such relationships often create conflicts of interest, such as cases where a student is involved with his or her supervisor. This is certainly true, and these conflicts must be dealt with. However, they can be easily addressed non-punitively, such as by transferring supervisory responsibility to another faculty member. But banning relationships outright actually works against, not in favour of, this important goal. If we are to prevent conflicts of interest, it is crucial that the conflicts be reported as they arise, so that they may be managed. The threat of punitive action for consensual sex makes it impossible for professors to disclose a relationship that creates a conflict, and so these relationships, when they develop, will be kept secret. It is only by removing the threat of punishment that universities can ensure they know about, and can thus eliminate, conflicts of interest. (p.134)

This seems to assume that compliance with a policy that bans professor-student relationships will be low, and that compliance with a policy that merely requires their disclosure will be quite high. Without these assumptions in place, it could be that the overall reduction in the number of student-professor relationships brought about by the ban is so significant that, while it still results in some such relationships remaining undisclosed, there are fewer such undisclosed relationships with the ban in place than without it. Are those assumptions about uneven compliance warranted? I doubt we can make an informed judgment about that at this time, but in general, when comparing policies, we should guard against just helping ourselves to empirically unsubstantiated assumptions of differential levels of compliance.

That said, I think McArthur is smart to draw our attention to what the potential costs of certain versions of blanket bans would be, especially since they would be administered by imperfect human beings.

Along those lines we might ask about the “right to sexual intimacy” or to “sexual activity in private” that McArthur thinks is threatened by a blanket ban. How much of a threat is it, really?

We should note that such bans amount to saying to professors: “Given your position, you cannot attempt to exercise your ‘right to sexual intimacy’ with the small number of particular people who are currently students at your school. However, you may (a) exercise your ‘right to sexual intimacy’ during this time with any of the billions of other adults in the world who consent to it, (b) wait a little while until the particular people who are currently students at your school are no longer students at your school and then exercise your ‘right to sexual intimacy’ with any of them who consent to it, or (c) abandon your position in the school and be free right now to exercise your ‘right to sexual intimacy’ with any of them who consent to it.”

Framed this way, such blanket bans seem like less of an incursion on people’s rights to sexual intimacy—especially at schools in well-populated areas. It should be acknowledged, though, that people at more remote schools may indeed be more negatively affected by them. (See, also, this previous post: “Are Bans on Faculty-Student Sex Unjust to Students?“)

After Times Higher Ed wrote about McArthur’s article, it published a response piece by five philosophers from the University of Guelph: Maya J. GoldenbergKaren HouleMonique DeveauxKaryn L. Freedman, and Patricia Sheridan. In it, they argue that McArthur’s evidence does not support his conclusions about whether student-professor relationships are generally consensual:

He cites a 1986 study of 464 female psychologists, claiming that it shows that “nearly all” of those who had sexual involvement with their professors during graduate training “felt no coercion or exploitation whatsoever”. But a closer look points to an altogether different conclusion. In fact, 10 per cent of these women reported feeling coerced at the time, and 30 per cent said that they later came to feel that there was coercion. More alarming still, 71 per cent of all of those who had experienced sexual advances by educators (some of whom had rejected those advances) felt that they were coercive to some degree. Lastly, only women who completed their doctorates were surveyed—a crucial limitation (acknowledged by the study’s authors) given that many impacted by sexual harassment abandon their studies.

The authors also believe that McArthur overlooks the impact of such relationships “on the learning community as a whole”:

As highlighted by a growing body of research, “available” (usually male) faculty members advertise that fact in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in order to cast a wide net. In so doing, they hijack the learning spaces for their own purposes. In philosophy, for instance, they might let it be known in seminars and classes that they are single or party to an “open” marriage, using the example of polygamy when talking about natural rights; even arguing in favour of extramarital affairs as their illustration of utilitarian reasoning. They may be doing it unconsciously, but it in effect sexualises the learning space for everyone. 

Those who, quite reasonably, feel uncomfortable about a sexualized work environment, may find that their best option is to reduce their participation in it, or leave academia altogether:

Some will be unsuspectingly flattered by an academic who takes a keen personal interest in their work. Discovering that their bodies, not their intellect, ignited that attention will be, at best, embarrassing, and may discourage them from continuing their studies in this field. Other students who sense that their professor’s interest is not merely professional will be hampered by deep uncertainty and insecurity. And how, in either case, can the students deflect the professor’s interest without damaging the professional opportunity that comes from their support—or potentially hurting their academic futures by offending him? So they avoid the department when he is around, stay away from talks and reading groups and abstain from social gatherings where he is likely to be present. In short, they lose their footing in the intellectual and social community. 

I appreciate these concerns. I think, though, that we could usefully distinguish between an environment in which consensual professor-student relations are allowed and an environment which is “sexualized.” Some people might meet at church, for instance, and then go on to develop a romantic relationship. Is church thereby a sexualized environment? (Okay, maybe some people will think that’s a bad example, but you get the idea.)

What this distinction amounts to in practice, or in regards to policy considerations, I’m not quite sure. I think we have good reasons to favor policy approaches which expand rather than contract opportunities and options, other things equal, so I’m inclined to oppose a blanket ban. But there’s no doubt that a learning environment that’s tolerant of lecherous behavior, innuendo-filled lesson plans, and sexualized interactions and events is one that effectively reduces acceptable opportunities of the kind it is supposed to provide for a significant number of the very people it is supposed to serve. So what to do?

Here’s one possible approach: take steps to keep your school from being the kind of place that needs a blanket ban. Such steps would likely include: professors cultivating in themselves a disinclination for relationships with students, schools and units holding meetings aimed at explaining the various reasons not to engage in such relationships, strictly enforced disclosure policies, and colleagues being willing to speak to each other about problematic behavior (including that which is disguised in the veneer of plausible deniability). Advice on how to take these steps, and what other steps to take, are welcome.

The steps would probably also include the explicit acknowledgment that if the less formal mechanisms of conscience, discouragement, norms, and criticism fail—that is, fail to keep an environment in which attempts at such relationships, while technically allowed, are rare, from becoming problematically sexualized—a ban, if it would not be counterproductive, would be worth trying.

I  imagine that some people believe, correctly, that their institutions are ones in which these less formal methods have already failed. I wonder if that is true of most colleges and universities. In any event, it will be interesting to see if the bans being tried at various institutions yield the desired results.

At the departmental level, concerning graduate students, I think there are reasons to be less permissive. It’s a relatively small community, so individual relationships will likely have more of an effect on its culture and what work and life feel like in it. Additionally, the lines of power at that level are harder to disentangle—a professor may not have an explicit supervisory role over the person they’re dating, but will have some kind of relationship with whoever does; a professor may not participate in departmental decisions that concern only the individual they’re dating, but in general decisions and policy matters that may affect the graduate students as a whole—so the risks of conflict of interest seem significant. A ban on relationships between professors and graduate students in their department seems reasonable.

I’ve thrown my view into the mix here as one to consider alongside the rest. I welcome hearing from others as to what alternatives to consider, or as to how I’ve gone wrong in my thinking on this.

(2) How To Treat Those Who Have Harassed

In his discussion on Twitter, Dr. Habgood-Coote disapprovingly notes that Ted Honderich was the subject of conference honoring his work in 2016 at the Royal Institute of Philosophy (of which he had previously been Chair of the Council and Executive Committee) and that the conference led to this book, published just this month.

(For what it’s worth, in an interview (scroll down to #4 on this page), Honderich says, “I’ve been prudent with regard to undergraduates for decades. All those affairs were in my flaming and possibly more rational youth.”)

More generally, there are questions about the extent to which a person’s having harassed people should affect how they (and their work) are treated by others in the profession. We have discussed some of these issues before, for example, in “Banning the Guilty,” “Should You Continue To Teach The Work of Sexual Harassers?“, “Hiring and ‘Unofficial’ Information,” “Disbelief, Inaction, and the Persistence of Harassment and Assault,” and “When, If Ever, Do Scandals Belong On A Scholar’s Wikipedia Page?“.

Further discussion of the issue is welcome, but I ask that commenters refrain from making accusations of harassment or related misconduct here. Also, please recall the comments policy.


Felix Schramm, “Spatial Intersection”

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