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

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.