The pervy professors: Academics and their Universities must do better on sexual harassment

Common knowledge of abuses weakens the extent to which graduate students feel secure in their ‘home’ institution. Trust vanishes when harassers remain in their jobs

Share
Related Topics

Several weeks ago I suggested that the resignation of one of Britain’s most highly regarded philosophers, Colin McGinn, must prompt reflection on the experiences of women in philosophy, and the humanities more widely. A thoughtful article in the New York Times, discussions on blogs, and a letters of support from concerned philosophers, and members of Miami university suggests this is beginning. However, when The Sunday Times’ coverage of the story included the thought that McGinn’s resignation “has also exposed an apparent culture gap between a brilliant but slightly otherworldly British thinker and an American academic community gripped by political correctness and nervous of any form of sexual scandal” it is plain we have a long way to go.

It widely held that sexual harassment is an insidious and largely unchallenged presence in academia, usually because administrators and powerful faculty members are often reluctant to directly tackle instances of improper behavior.

Sexual harassment is deplorable. A single instance can drive a woman from her subject and ruin her life more generally. Harassment intensifies the vulnerabilities that all graduate students in the humanities face because of their reliance a few supervisors and pastoral faculty. It is frightening to make a complaint when your future career rests on the anonymous references of several individuals. Although most institutions have harassment policies and procedures in place (of differing degrees of clarity and efficacy) the risk of reputational suicide is incredibly hard to mitigate, and accounts for many a tragic departure. “Nervousness” about harassment is wholly justified because it is so damaging.

The response to McGinn’s resignation has shown that harassment is problematic in a second significant sense. Common knowledge of abuses weakens the extent to which graduate students feel secure in their ‘home’ institution. Trust vanishes when harassers remain in their jobs amidst a silent faculty. 

Graduate students are habitually isolated and uncertain (a consequence of hours alone with a thesis draft) so it is vital that departments avoid actively alienating them. Students are sensitive to the discrepancies between harassment policies, the ‘right words’ intoned by Professors or administrators, and visible actions. 

After all, the first thing students want to know in a new department is whether the people they must rely on for explicit academic guidance, often exclusively and for years, are ‘any good’. Students quickly become acquainted with character portraits and rumors. At this stage, trust is often replaced by cynicism. When ‘everyone knows’ that someone has behaved inappropriately but keeps their position, or remains undisciplined, a department appears less safe and supportive – even if most people are supportive. The effects of this cannot be underestimated. Over time a creeping weariness contributes to women leaving the profession, and bolsters the reluctance of other women to enter in the first place.

Sadly, many persist in arguing that it is impossible to address the problem in ways that retain the ‘informality’ of productive working relationships. These arguments rest on lazy or hasty foundations. As an administrator friend of mine observed, other disciplines with increased intimacy and thus much greater risks of erotic transferences, such as psychotherapy or medicine, have clear guidelines in place to address harassment. More importantly, those in these roles explicitly attend to the risks generated by the vulnerabilities they encounter, and openly discuss these risks to foster a culture in which abuses and harassment do not spread or erode trust. Cultures like this are not widespread in the humanities. 

The McGinn case helps us see that academic cultures get distorted in other ways. Well-intentioned contributions within disciplines philosophy can foster environments that are not conducive to women (and many men). For example, civility and politeness are often abandoned in favour of ‘rigor’ and ‘clarity’. Admittedly, there are blurred lines between rudeness and respectful attempts to understand someone’s ideas, but academic institutions need to cultivate courteous seminar interactions. We can be clear and polite. 

Hostile seminar cultures exacerbate the feelings of insecurity that flow from unaddressed harassment. If members of the ‘rigor and clarity’ brigade have influence within an academic department it is hard to see how cultures can change. Belligerent or plain aggressive behavior is justified in terms of ‘informality’ or conceptions of what ‘good thinking’ requires. In speaking of his conduct, for example, McGinn emphasized that he was “a philosopher trying to teach a budding philosopher important logical distinctions.” Many think that some ideas justify ‘forceful’ modes of presentation.

Bad influences mean that seminars intimidate many even though they are ‘penetrating’ sites of intellectual combat for those (predominantly men) who enjoy such things. When students lose confidence in their own abilities, they also lose confidence in those who should foster them. If they are part of an underrepresented and historically disenfranchised sector of an academic discipline – as women in philosophy are – the effects of these problems ramify more widely. 

We must do better. No logical distinctions are so important that students can be allowed to feel intimidated whilst learning them. We have to reject lazy appeals to ‘informality’ to justify hostile seminars. Real informality is structured by implicit, ethical, conventions. Ideally, people talk sequentially, listen to each other, remain sensitive to when an argument should be pushed or relinquished, can see a small matter in the context of a wider life, and so on. Genuinely inspiring interactions occur between people who are willing to regard each other as equals, if only for a time, and who work together to maintain that valuable and all too easily compromised commodity: trust.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links