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Professor of Feel-osophy: Harassment in the Academy

March 16, 2010

A recent post on one of the most popular blogs in professional philosophy, Leiter Reports, suggested that prospective graduate students consider several factors in addition to the scholarly output of faculty when deciding what graduate school to attend.  Among important intangibles like the general internal cooperation of the faculty, Leiter suggested the following consideration:

The Sexual Predator Faculty: Are women treated as young philosophers and aspiring professionals, or do faculty regularly view them as a potential source for dates and sexual liasons? It’s a bit shocking to realize that this is still a live issue in some departments, but, sadly, it is. Are faculty-student sexual relations common in the department? What happens when the relations end? Are there repeated cases of sexual harassment complaints against faculty in the department? Do they ever result in discipline? I suppose it is possible this could be an issue for male students, but all the reports I’ve gotten over the years have been from women victimized by male faculty.

This is an incredibly important point that’s too often left un-discussed, except perhaps among a department’s women behind closed doors.  Anecdotally, I can report knowing at least one such faculty member at each institution I’ve been affiliated with, with behaviors ranging from outright sexual advances, to leering during seminars, to scheduling advisory meetings with women students outside the department in isolated locations, to ditching advisees once they rebuff such advances.  Graduate students and junior faculty are particularly vulnerable to such harassment, since they have more to lose by speaking up—and let’s be honest, speaking up is, all too often, a totally losing proposition.  Even at institutions like my current one, with an office dedicated to investigating such claims, the most protection that can be offered victims is that vague assurance that retribution by the accused is not allowed.  And when we think about what making such a claim involves—stating publicly that a person with the power to totally derail your career (by bad-mouthing you to potential employers, keeping you from publishing in journals where he [or she, but usually he] has clout, or seeing to it that you aren’t invited to important conferences) did something illegal looks just as risky and no-win as reporting rape often is.

In that respect, I’m sympathetic to Leiter’s attempt to shift the point of action to the prevention of one’s being subjected to known harassers, rather than treating such incidents as isolated phenomena that one must respond to after-the-fact.  Still, I am really concerned that this way of thinking about it also puts the onus on young women to protect themselves from harassment, rather than on departments, or on Professional Philosophy at large, to punish and prevent it.  Over at Feminist Philosophers, there was a great discussion in the comments about what ought to be done beyond just mentioning this as a problem.  For one thing, it’s significant that Brian Leiter, the author of Leiter reports, is responsible for The Philosophical Gourmet, which produces (a controversial but) widely-read and respected ranking of Philosophy Departments—how does this important consideration affect those “scholarly” evaluations?  Commenter extendedlp writes:

was just thinking: if sexual predators are a reason to avoid a department (and they are), then aren’t they a strike against the department? isn’t a department w such people less-good than one with? ….and so, shouldn’t that be factored in to their ranking?

And zenmind importantly points out:

Most institutions presumably have a sexual harassment grievance board, and there is no reason that the Philosophical Gourmet couldn’t ask departments to report instances in which a grievance led to the departure of a faculty member. (Although of course the fact that only 8 out of 56 (a mere 14%) of the Advisory Board of the Philosophical Gourmet are women might be an obstacle to this sort of reform.)

Better include police reports along with sexual harassment reports, since I know of at least two institutions (one in Leiter’s top 10, another in Leiter’s top 40) at which a recent sexual harassment claim against a member of the philosophy department (recent = in the past 5 years) was elevated to the status of sexual assault and therefore referred to the police.

And continues later,

…It is precisely *because* the gourmet report is a “ranking of scholarly reputation” that it should: (1) not overlook a factor which clearly affects the quality of the program for both female and male students, and (2) explicitly ask its evaluators and the institutions themselves to include such factors into the ranking. As Leiter explains at philosophicalgourmet.com/reportdesc.asp, evaluators are asked to rate programs solely in terms of “faculty quality.” In addition to the quality of philosophical work, the talent, and the range of areas covered by faculty, evaluators are invited to take into account “considerations like the status (full-time, part-time) of the faculty; the age of the faculty (as a somewhat tenuous guide to prospective availability, not quality); and the quality of training the faculty provide, to the extent you have information about this.” The lists provided to evaluators indicate which faculty are part-time and which are over 70. Would it really be such a stretch for Leiter to explicitly invite evaluators to consider, say, “the quality of the mentoring faculty provide, including appropriateness of interaction and willingness to provide equitable advice to all students, regardless of gender, race, or orientation (to the extent that you have information about this)”? Surely this is not more or less “scholarly” than the existing instructions.

Other commenters helpfully note that Leiter Reports could easily post separate statistics ranking departments’ general track record with gender-, race-, and identity-related issues: How many women are tenured?  How many women PhD candidates finish the program as compared with men students?  Does the department regularly hire, tenure, and invite scholars of color, scholars who are LGBTQ persons, etc?

There was also a related discussion of whether it is ever appropriate to name names when discussing these matters, either in our corner of the feminist blogosphere or publicly in general.  My general inclination is not to do so—but less out of concern for the harasser than for the victim(s), who would likely face the same danger of retribution that reporting generally carries.  And this danger remains acute even in cases of anonymous internet commenting because women constitute such a small minority of academic philosophy: it would not be difficult for a harasser to guess who spoke up, or even to retaliate against all the women over whose careers he exerts control.  In this case, as in others, it seems to me that institutional changes are necessary—and explicit changes to Leiter’s ranking system would be a good place to start.

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