Professor of Philosophy Resigns over Sexual Misconduct (rejected post)

Unknown-1My field (philosophy) is not known for the kinds of data frauds and retractions we’ve discussed on this blog, but scandals revolving around sexual harassment by male faculty are not rare, though I can’t think of another with a senior faculty resigning, at least not in recent times. This article is from 

A Few Words on the McGinn Imbroglio from the philosophy smoker blog (June 4, 2013)

As I guess we [in philosophy] all know, Colin McGinn has chosen to resign from the University of Miami rather than allow the University to proceed with an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct involving a research assistant. The article at the Chronicle of Higher Ed is here (paywalled); Sally Haslanger has posted a PDF of the whole thing here. Discussion at NewApps hereherehere, and here; discussion at Feminist Philosophers here; discussion at Leiter here and here.

Briefly, what seems to have happened is this: McGinn had a Research Assistant who was a female graduate student. Last spring, the RA started feeling uncomfortable with McGinn. Then, last April, McGinn allegedly started sending her sexually explicit email messages, including one in which, according to the RA’s boyfriend and two unnamed faculty members, “McGinn wrote that he had been thinking about the student while masturbating.”* Wowza.

The RA then contacted the Office of Equality Administration. According to CHE, “after the university’s Office of Equality Administration and the vice provost for faculty affairs conducted an investigation, Mr. McGinn was given the option of agreeing to resign or having an investigation into the allegations against him continue in a public setting, several of the philosopher’s colleagues said.”

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of this. On one obvious interpretation, there’s a clearly implied threat: if you don’t resign, we’re going to publicly drag your name through the mud. And I’m not sure how normal the prospect of a “public” investigation is in this kind of circumstance. For example, if I recall correctly, the Oregon case from a couple of years ago involved an investigation that was supposed to have been kept private, and was made public only in violation of the University’s procedures. But procedures vary from institution to institution, and I don’t have any expertise here. I don’t really have any idea whether this is unusual or not, although my suspicion is that it is at least a little unusual.

It therefore seems reasonable to worry about whether the procedures Miami followed here were respectful of McGinn’s right to due process. But it’s worth emphasizing that the CHE article is not very clear about precisely what happened—for example, Leiter says that McGinn had legal representation and was acting on his lawyer’s advice, but the CHE doesn’t mention it. It is also worth emphasizing that the account in the CHE comes from unnamed “colleagues,” not McGinn or his representatives or any official source at the University. And this comment at Feminist Philosophers, the veracity of which I am not in a position to verify, makes the meeting seem at least a little less troubling. On that account, it was more like, we’ve got some pretty compelling, well-documented evidence of misconduct, which we are duty-bound to pursue; but we’d like to give you the opportunity to resign now and save us both a big headache.

Harrassment occurs between professors, and not just between professors and students, but without the obvious professor-student taboo, it is not taken especially seriously, in my experience. Naturally philosophers, being philosophers, some of them, will engage in deep philosophical discussion of the philosophical nature and justification of the infractions and even how it might have grown out of a legitimate philosophical research on the topic of the evolutionary development of the hand, in relation to its physical functions.

Additionally—and here I want to emphasize that I don’t know what happened, I haven’t seen the emails, and I don’t have any special insight into the matter—my other suspicion is that the allegations are at least somewhat likely to be at least a little true. Again, I don’t know anything, but my evidence for this suspicion is how the University has behaved. It seems to me—and it could be that I am being very naive and trusting and totally wrong about this—that if it really is just a “he-said/she-said” type deal, the allegations don’t go anywhere. It seems to me that if an RA accuses her supervisor of sending her sexually inappropriate emails and then cannot produce the emails, or the emails don’t say what she said they say, the allegations don’t go anywhere. Particularly, it seems unlikely that the university would ask the single most prominent scholar in a given department to resign like that in the absence of pretty solid corroborating evidence. But that’s not dispositive, and I haven’t seen the emails, and I don’t know what really happened.

The CHE (Chronical of Higher education) article also contains this noteworthy passage:

Advocates of Mr. McGinn, however, say that the correspondence may have been misinterpreted when taken out of context.  

Edward Erwin, a supporter of Mr. McGinn who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Miami, said Mr. McGinn was working on a book about human evolution and the hand. Part of the reason Mr. McGinn was sending messages that could be interpreted as sexually explicit, Mr. Erwin said, was probably because of communication about that research.

I’m reading between the lines here, but this explanation—that the discussion of masturbation was an innocent byproduct of research related to human evolution and the hand—makes sense only if McGinn’s idea is that masturbation played some non-negligible role in the evolution of the human hand. Now, I’m not a biologist and I’m not competent to evaluate that idea, so I’m not going to tell you how stupid I think it sounds. It doesn’t matter how stupid I think this idea is. And I don’t really want to speculate about the plausibility of genuinely research-related emails, even on this topic, being misinterpreted in the manner described in the CHE article. I don’t want to speculate about how someone might misinterpret a research-related message that innocently discusses the role masturbation played in the evolution of the human hand as saying that he, McGinn, “had been thinking about the student while masturbating.” Or how this alleged misinterpretation might come to be shared by what seems to be at least four different readers, including the RA, her boyfriend, and the two unnamed faculty members. The fact that all this seems totally preposterous is of no interest to anyone whatsoever; I haven’t seen the emails and I don’t know what they say. For all I know, this preposterous thing is exactly what happened. All I really want to say about this passage is, with friends like this who needs friends?

Professor Erwin goes on:

“There was some sexual talk, banter, puns, and jokes made between the two,”  Mr. Erwin said. “The written records, I believe, show that this was an entirely consensual relationship.”

No, no. That is not how it works. It is remarkable how profoundly this misunderstands the student/professor relationship. A professor’s relationships with his or her students are not “entirely consensual” like that. Student/professor relationships inherently have a highly unequal balance of power. That includes students in one’s undergraduate and graduate classes, obviously, but it also includes teaching- and research assistants; academic advisees; people whose thesis or dissertation committees one sits on; exam proctors; everyone. Everyone. Anything a student says or writes to a professor has to be seen in that light. Suppose the professor engages in sexual banter and the student banters back. Maybe that’s because she consented and wanted to banter, but maybe it’s because the power differential inherent in the relationship placed her in a position of duress, in which she felt like she had to banter or face unpleasant consequences. If the return banter was performed unwillingly or under duress, there is no reason to think that the written records will reveal it.

But the larger point—and on a certain level this is so obvious that it is not worth saying, but on another level it clearly needs to be emphasized—is that when you are dealing with other people, it is not all about you. It is also about the other person. You have to be careful with other people. You have to go out of your way to ensure that they feel comfortable and respected. This is your responsibility if you want to go into the world and deal with the other people there, and it is especially your responsibility if you are a prominent scholar in a highly-respected research university who oversees graduate students who do work for your academic department.

And so it seems to me that there’s no scenario in which McGinn is blameless, even if Professor Erwin’s story is literally the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The student was a research assistant working for McGinn’s department, and he was a prominent scholar serving as her supervisor. He had a responsibility in that capacity to ensure that she felt comfortable and respected. Obviously, given the sexual nature of the research topic, a certain level of sexual content is to be expected, and an RA for such a research topic needs to either be comfortable with that content or ask to be reassigned. (And the researcher needs to make it clear that it is okay to ask to be reassigned.) But Professor Erwin’s remarks make clear that McGinn’s conduct with this RA went beyond mere discussion of the research material and into “sexual talk, banter, puns, and jokes.” This sexual stuff seems to have made the RA deeply and extremely uncomfortable, and it had a similar effect on her boyfriend and several other faculty members. And McGinn seems to have kept it up for kind of a long time.

You can’t do that. It therefore seems to me that the best-case scenario for McGinn is that his behavior warrants disciplinary action, and from there the possibilities only get worse.

–Mr. Zero

*All quotes are from the CHE article.

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2 thoughts on “Professor of Philosophy Resigns over Sexual Misconduct (rejected post)

  1. rv

    “That is not how it works” indeed. I’m amazed at how many of the “old boys” simply don’t get it.

    I’ve been to a conference where the all-male leadership were handing out “joke” awards. One of them made light of the number of women in a particular group, calling it the “harem award”. Everyone was already in a politely-laughing mood, laughing at their other lame jokes, and just laughed along with this one too (including the recipients).

    The power structure within academia seems to shield some men from ever having to grow up or get a clue, despite being 60-80 years old.

    • rv: I wonder if academia is worse than outside academia. The cloistering and the tendency to glorify “the great (male) thinker”in a field like philosophy, I think, adds to it. I don’t know anything about this case except what I’ve read. McGinn keeps a blog featuring his protestations against the unfairness of the university. He claims it was a consensual and non-sexual relationship and the only thing the university had against him was not revealing it (while he was in a professor-student relationship with her).

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