Some modest proposals in the wake of Colin McGinn's exit from University of Miami.

More than you could possibly want to read about this case has been posted by the folks you should already be reading to stay up on happenings in the world of academic philosophy: Leiter (here and here), New APPS (here, here, here, and here), Feminist Philosophers (here), The Philosophy Smoker (here).

At issue is whether it is (always) wrong for a professor to send email to his graduate student research associate mentioning that he was thinking about her while masturbating.

I take it as a mark of how deeply messed up the moral compass of professional philosophy is that there are commenters at some of the blogs linked above who seem willing to go to the mat to argue that there may be conditions in which it is acceptable to email your RA you that were thinking about her during your hand-job. Because personal interactions are hard, y'all! And power-gradients in graduate programs that are at once educational environments and workplaces are really very insignificant compared to what the flesh wants! Or something.

Since, apparently, treating graduate students as colleagues in training rather than wank-fodder is very complicated and confusing for people who are purportedly very smart indeed, I'd like to propose ways to make life easier:

1. Let's make it an official rule that professors should NEVER email students, staff, colleagues, supervisors, program officers, et al. ANYTHING mentioning their masturbatory activities or the thoughts that pass through their heads during such activities. I would have thought this is just common sense, but apparently it isn't, so make it a bright line. If you're not able to follow the explicit rule, you probably don't have the chops to handle the more subtly challenging duties of the professoriate.

Anyone who wants to hear about what you're thinking while you're masturbating is either treating you within a therapeutic relationship or someone with whom you're in a position to share a pillow. Just take as given that no one else wants to know.

2. Don't try to date your (department's) students. I don't care if your institution doesn't explicitly forbid it (and honestly, I expect philosophy professors to recognize the difference between "it's not against the rules" and "it's ethical and prudent"). JUST DON'T. It's a risky call, especially for the student. (I have read letters of recommendation for applicants to academic jobs written by the thesis-supervisor-who-dated-the-applicant-until-they-broke-up. In a crowded job market, it's not a good look.)

What about love? If it's real, it will keep until the student is no longer a student. What, you say it's the student pestering you for a relationship? Say no! You can say no to other unreasonable requests from students, can't you? If not, again, maybe the professoriate is not for you.

Really, this should be enough.

And, for the record, having been on the receiving end of unwelcome behavior in philosophy (among other professional communities), I do not for a minute believe that such incidents are a matter of social ineptness or inability to read cues. Rather, a more plausible hypothesis (and one that usually has a great deal of contextual evidence supporting it in particular cases) is that the people dishing out such behavior simply don't care how it makes the targets of the behavior feel -- or worse, that they're intentionally trying to make their targets feel uncomfortable and powerless.

Spending too much time trying to find the possible world in which jerk behavior is OK simply gives the jerks in this world cover to keep operating. We should cut that out.

21 responses so far

  • A. Postdoc says:

    I'm personally amazed that it seems like the harasser was actually disciplined. At my current school, harassment is the norm and it is never punished at all. Often, the victims end up leaving the school with no recourse.

    I'm not fully up to date on the story, and will read more, but prima facie, the student and the school deserve congrats for actually getting this jerk out of academia.

  • Jonathan Kaplan says:

    Well said, Janet! Well said!

    Like defenses of the supposed moral permissible of e.g. torture under some circumstances, if your defense of the possible moral permissibility of terrible behavior demands a series of utterly implausible scenarios, I think we can just say "NO -- the vanishingly remote possible that you might be forced to violate the rule to prevent an alien invasion doesn't in fact count against its being a hard and fast rule!" It just makes you look bad for thinking of that, and thinking it might count against the rule. Sheesh.

  • chall says:

    Great post Janet!

    "Anyone who wants to hear about what you're thinking while you're masturbating is either treating you within a therapeutic relationship or someone with whom you're in a position to share a pillow. Just take as given that no one else wants to know"

    THIS. Anyone who hasn't lived in a cave (like a hermit philosopher) or on top of a pillar in the middle of the forest (same hermit philosopher) must know that this is something you just don't do. Apart from flirting or in therapy.

    In a professional situation between a professor and a student? I can't even understand how that is even an issue. Regardless of the gender of the person, it's not something appropriate to talk about in that setting.

    It's just another one of these "I just wanted to be friends with my students" talk .... you are their MENTOR and their TEACHER and their PROFESSOR. Not their 'friend'. They depend on you and need your approval for their grades and what not so how much of a 'friend' can they be anyway?

  • Lisa McLeod says:

    See? this is not rocket science. Why, why does anyone think that they *don't* have control over their libido but *do* have control over their ability to be fair, honest, and impartial despite having *whatever* kind of love/physical relationship with their student?

    WHY???

    Did you ever know that you're my hero?

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      Lisa, you express the cognitive dissonance of it so clearly, I'm going to have to link people to your comment, repeatedly, until they get it.

      (Also, you are the wind beneath my wings.)

  • Julian Frost says:

    At issue is whether it is (always) wrong for a professor to send email to his graduate student research associate mentioning that he was thinking about her while masturbating.

    O.o
    I'm sorry, but that is LUDICROUS. Making sexual advances to subordinates (and the RA is a subordinate and what he did was a sexual advance) is inappropriate. I'm gobsmacked that anyone would argue otherwise. Making sexual advances to a student should be grounds for disciplinary action. The relationship between a professor and a student is even closer than that of a normal worker and supervisor.
    I also think that it should be illegal for a professor to date a student until said student is no longer a student. This should not be up for discussion.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    w t f

    What is wrong with people?

    I cannot even imagine what a defense of this behavior would be.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      Sadly, I've been reading the comments on the case elsewhere, so I don't have to imagine. I've been paraphrasing and tweeting some representative defenses. Perhaps I'll have to Storify them.

  • Jafafa Hots says:

    "I cannot even imagine what a defense of this behavior would be."

    What, you mean "it got hard" isn't enough?!?

    (new here, that was sarcasm)

  • becca says:

    "professors should NEVER email students, staff, colleagues, supervisors, program officers, et al. ANYTHING mentioning their masturbatory activities or the thoughts that pass through their heads during such activities. "

    Wait, you don't think about Socrates while enjoying self time? AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A PHILOSOPHER!!!!

    In seriousness, +1 to what Pinko Punko said.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    I see your new post on this- dark. None more dark are the recesses of the thoughts of some people- or minimally their blind spots.

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    I am a friend and a colleague of a female faculty that was harassed by another male faculty. A grievance was filed and the grievance committee found the grievance to be justified, requesting the university administration, including the dean of the school, the provost of the university and the chairman of the department to take steps to correct the damage done. None of these administrators has done one thing to alleviate the wrong. My colleague has sue the dean, the provost the chairman and the harassing faculty, who meanwhile has moved to another university to become a chairman there. The suit is now 5 year old, the university has done everything in its legal power to delay, postpone and reject any legal proceedings, while continuing to argue that the case has no merit. My colleague has spent over $130,00 on her legal fees alone, not to mention the complete destruction of her academic career. Considering the above, I can only praise the university of Miami in forcing the harassing professor out. I wish all academic institutions would act similarly.

  • Philip Kremer says:

    Rule 1 is blindingly obvious.

    Rule 2 is probably right if it means, "Don't make a habit of looking to your department's students as a dating pool, and do not go around hitting on them." I would suggest the same thing of any situation in which there are institutional power differentials. To tenured faculty, I would suggest, "Don't make a habit of looking to your department's untenured faculty members as a dating pool, and do not go around hitting on them." To tenure-track faculty, I would suggest, "Don't make a habit of looking to your department's adjunct faculty members as a dating pool, and do not go around hitting on them." To deans I would suggest, "Don't make a habit of looking to your university's rank-and-file professors as a dating pool, and do not go around hitting on them." Some of these power differentials are, after all, as great as the power differential between a professor and a student: a tenured professor can do immense damage, and can provide substantial unfair advantages, to an untenured professor. In some departments, tenure decisions are made among all or many of the tenured faculty: a tenured professor in a nondisclosed relationship with an untenured professor wields tremendous power over her partner.

    That said, I would never suggest that it's generally wrong for a tenured professor to date an untenured professor, even in the same department. If such a relationship arises, I would suggest that completeness openness and disclosure should be both the community standard and university policy. The tenured faculty member should recuse herself from all decision affecting the untenured faculty member with whom she is or has been in an intimate relationship, so as to avoid even any appearance of conflict of interest, as well as to inhibit abuse of authority. Similarly, I would never suggest that it's generally wrong for a tenure-track professor to date an adjunct or part-time professor: the standard and policy should invite openness and disclosure, so as to avoid conflict of interest and inhibit abuse. Finally, I would never suggest that it's generally wrong for a professor to date a student: the same standards and policies of openness and full disclosure should apply.

    Maybe I'm influenced by the fact that eight of the faculty members in my department are in longstanding marriages where the relationship started when one was a professor and the other a student in the same or a cognate department. Everyone is open about everything, and the relevant people recuse themselves from decisions or discussions involving their partners, in cases where a power differential continues to exist (e.g., tenured and untenured faculty). I might also be influenced by my own university's policy concerning consenting relations among adults. Our Sexual Harassment Office's Guide for Students states, "University policy does not prohibit sexual relations between consenting adults. However, if you form any kind of intimate personal relationship with someone who teaches you or otherwise makes academic decisions affecting you, that teacher has a conflict of interest. She or he should disclose the conflict of interest to their academic supervisor — usually the Chair of the department or the Dean of the faculty — and should ensure that your work is graded by a colleague." (http://www.utoronto.ca/sho/guides/guide_conflict.html) In general, U of T policy treats consensual sexual relationships as a source of a potential conflict of interest, just as it treats familial relationships: these relationships must be disclosed if one party is in a position of academic/financial/supervisory authority over another, so that appropriate arrangements can be made.

  • Liz Swan says:

    Great post. The first words out of the Dept Chair's mouth at my PhD institution (Univ of South Carolina) were, "Don't date your students." I remember being taken aback at his frankness and even being disappointed that he didn't have something more inspiring to say to us. Now I see the wisdom of his advice to us professional-philosophers-in-training...!!

  • Elle says:

    I take issue with the idea that sexual harassment is the result of people being clueless or socially awkward, characteristics which may or may not be more common among philosophy professors. I've been on the receiving end of both harmless romantic/sexual overtures and sexual harassment in this profession. The difference is enormous. Persons in the former category are well-meaning and easy to set right by explaining that what they're doing is not a good idea, and no professional or friendly relations are harmed in the process. Harassers are doing it on purpose to gain leverage or get something from you; it is not a comfortable situation and there is no way to simply explain that what they're doing is wrong. They know it's wrong; that's why they're doing it!

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      Elle, I very much agree.

      To a large extent, I think the value that clearly delineated rules (or even widely acknowledged social norms) could play in a case like this is to remove any plausibility for the harasser trying to plead ignorance.

  • Elle says:

    I agree: having the rules set as you outlined above makes everything quite simple, and it's actually much better for anyone who fears stepping over a line due to social inexperience or ineptitude.

  • Ima says:

    I was so disheartened to read comments in other places defending McGinn. Are people really that disconnected with reality? After reading these posts I'm starting to feel a lot better - it's clear there are colleagues in academia who really DO understand... I am a faculty member (have been for 10 years) and I think it is shameful that McGinn and his supporters seem absolutely clueless or outright defiant about how few options the graduate student had (real or perceived).

    The bottom line is that academia is a professional setting -- professors and students aren't peers since there is a power differential. When there is a power differential, the one in power has the responsibility to take a great deal of care and make sure that no ethical or professional boundaries are crossed. If someone doesn't understand that making sexual comments constitutes crossing boundaries, he/she isn't as intelligent as he/she professes to be.

    It really isn't difficult to seek peer/personal relationships outside of the student population. If the person in power and the student are both consenting adults and want a personal relationship, develop it AFTER the student has graduated or is no longer in any way supervised by the person in power. It really is THAT simple. And yet, there are so many people out there making excuses (very LAME excuses) for McGinn... ugh.

  • Marcus says:

    "At issue is whether it is (always) wrong for a professor to send email to his graduate student research associate mentioning that he was thinking about her while masturbating."

    This is a highly irresponsible post. You should look to see what McGinn actually said. 10 minutes of looking at his blog has lead me to believe that this was far from the case. You don't cover this at all.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      @ Marcus:

      Really? "I had a handjob imagining you giving me a handjob" is totally appropriate to email to one's graduate research assistant?

      I have spent more than 10 minutes reading McGinn's blog, and I think a conclusion that fits better with the facts in evidence is that the dude really needs to step back from the keyboard.

  • Virginia Reader says:

    Unfortunately the unwanted advances are not always made by a professor to a student. On two occasions I was approached by female students -- and not in the simple "an A for a lay" form. I would rather not give details. In one case there was attempted sexually oriented blackmail on the part of the young woman, who also claimed to have intimate relations with two other profs, one of them the dean.

    Because of the normal perception of power balances, it is sometimes difficult for the faculty member to escape with a whole skin. I have no sympathy for McGinn; committing to paper descriptions of masturbation with a student, colleague, or spouse is pretty stupid in the first place.

    Despite my nom-de-Web, I'm male and straight.

Leave a Reply