The Issues Behind the Gossip


The other day, a graduate student in philosophy posted her account of an affair she has had with an older, prominent philosopher who works in her area (but was not a professor at her institution). She also claimed that the philosopher, who has a long-term partner, has had more than one such relation, particularly with younger women philosophers who admire him. She also claimed that the philosopher in question was dishonest about the nature of the relationships he was involved in. I decided not to link to this story for a couple of reasons, the main one being that while affairs and hypocrisy make for good gossip, they do not necessarily make for news about the profession of philosophy. (There was also the matter that while the student wrote anonymously—a reasonable choice—she left little doubt about the identity of the prominent philosopher in question.)

While I initially thought of the story as private gossip about an individual’s bad behavior (with the common lesson, watch out for lying jerks), other philosophers shared with me their thoughts that the story indeed raises issues about the profession worth pointing out. So perhaps we should discuss those issues. The issues. Not the people. If you care to discuss this, let’s do so as if it were a hypothetical involving two main characters, AGS (anonymous grad student) and POMP (prominent older male philosopher), with the facts largely described as above. What, if any, lessons does the story of AGS and POMP have for us as members of the profession?

(Please note: comments are moderated, and since I teach this morning, they may be slow to appear. Please be patient.)

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prefer to be anonymous
prefer to be anonymous
7 years ago

The main problem with gossip is that it results in epistemic inequality – I don’t know how this problem can be solved, or what we should do to mitigate this situation.
For instance, some people and some departments have a bad reputation in terms of climate for women. Some of this gossip has recently come to light in the media and on blogs. But these reputations were known for years before to some people, but not to others. It seems to me that people who are undergrads or grad students at smaller departments, or in non-ango-saxon departments are at an epistemic disadvantage, because their mentors can’t warn them about possible risks.
For example, I recently spoke to someone who had an on campus interview (this was several years ago) in a department with a climate of harassment of women. People in her department warned her about the climate issues. She got several offers and she could use this inside information to decline the offer of the problematic department – it was the main reason for declining their otherwise attractive offer.
However, what if you don’t have this information? I’ve heard some people say, “We all know who the predators are”, and “I’m not surprised about [recent case about a prominent philosopher who was involved with an undergraduate] – he’s known to do such things”. But such knowledge isn’t universal.
I was deciding about going to grad school and first thought about applying with department x, where professor A was working on a field that I was interested in. However, I ultimately ended up in department y, with professor B. It turns out in the meantime that professor A dated several graduate students. I have since learned this from someone who is in department x, and whenever I think about it, I feel a sense of immense relief that I did not end up with this guy as my advisor. I cannot imagine I would have ever dated him, but I still think it would be a valid reason for a prospective grad student not to apply to that person’s department, as it is a bit unsettling to spend a lot of alone time with someone who considers his students as a dating pool.Report

kenmarable
kenmarable
Reply to  prefer to be anonymous
7 years ago

In other circles (especially in reference to serial sexual harassers), I have seen this refered to as the Missing Stair problem.

Like a missing step in a staircase, people often adapt to and avoid the problem, and there is often a general sense in a community that people just seem to be aware of it. So rarely do people take the time to clearly warn newcomers. Plus, it usually is easier (in the short term at least) for people to just avoid it than to directly try to fix the problem. Unfortunately, you wind up with everyone trying to jump over a missing step every time they use the stairs and an occasional newcomer not seeing and falling through.

There are several blog posts out there that explain it better, but it seems to capture some of what you are saying.Report

(Different) Anon Grad Student
(Different) Anon Grad Student
7 years ago

There appears to be a sort of trend: older, male philosophers preying on younger, female philosophers or students. And I think it’s really easy for this story to get placed within that narrative. However, is this case really a part of the trend?

In the McGinn case, for instance, the issue wasn’t just the sexual harassment. It was also that he had significant power over her (institutionally). He was an advisor and a self-styled mentor. Sexual harassment is obviously egregious; the case was made even more so due to their non-sexual relationship. We have a clear principle, one that some philosophers feel okay to violate: don’t sleep with students, don’t ask your students to sleep with you, etc. That’s certainly a problem for the profession, apparently more so than other academic fields.

Does the case of AGS and POMP fit that mold? He had no institutional power over her, though arguably his status as a prominent philosopher could affect her future if things went south. The account didn’t indicate that he was a self-styled mentor. POMP’s main transgression is that he carried on an affair under the pretense that he was single (thus lying to AGS), and then that his relationship was an open one (thus lying to AGS, apparently, even more). Obviously, this is a clear violation of some principle: don’t enter into sexual relations with anyone under false pretenses. That POMP and AGS are philosophers might be a peripheral issue; this is a case of a man lying to a woman in order to have sex with her. Still undoubtably wrong, but not a problem unique to philosophy.

Now, there’s a serious chance I’m wrong about all of this. If someone can point to what I’m missing, I’d appreciate it.Report

Richard
Richard
Reply to  (Different) Anon Grad Student
7 years ago

(Different) Anonymous Grad Student said: “That POMP and AGS are philosophers might be a peripheral issue; this is a case of a man lying to a woman in order to have sex with her. Still undoubtably wrong, but not a problem unique to philosophy.”

Surely, (Different) Anonymous Grad Student, you are right that this is not a problem unique to philosophy. But to figure out whether the fact that they are philosophers is a peripheral issue to the discussion, we need a better account of what the discussion is to be about. If the discussion is one about how POMP’s actions were wrong, it would indeed seem that the fact that they are both philosophers is peripheral. But there do seem to be a large number of discussions to which the fact that they are both philosophers is indeed relevant.

For instance, it seems relevant to discussions about how philosophers ought to comport themselves in professional settings—they met at a conference, as I recall. It seems relevant to discussions about what our responsibilities (or rights) are when we see situations like this arise—as 9:00AM Anonymous points out. It would also seem relevant to discussions about how philosophers—and perhaps moral philosophers in particular—are uniquely hypocritical in situations like these.

I don’t know if we, as a group, want to have any of those conversations, but they do seem like conversations we could have and that might be useful.Report

Another AGS
Another AGS
7 years ago

OK, I’ll bite: I think that there is a danger that we will read ‘lessons’ into these issues that are simply not there, for example, like the ‘lesson’ that there is something particularly wrong with philosophy in this particular respect. But anyone who’s worked in pretty much any other industry knows that these men exist virtually everywhere; that is part and parcel of living under this stupid patriarchy. Any time there is a male-dominated hierarchy in our society, women experience sexual control and manipulation. And that is a despicable fact, but it is not a fact about philosophy. The relevant fact is that we are such a hierarchy, but we knew that before POMP came along; perhaps the story is only useful to us as a reminder of *that*.

I also do not think it is anyone’s business to moralize about POMP’s sexual preferences. References to the ‘type’ of person he is attracted to are almost certainly irrelevant, unless we think we know a lot more about his psychology than we actually do.

Finally, I am strongly against calling POMP a ‘sexual predator’ (as one prominent person has done). Quibbling about literal meanings aside, we clearly associate that term with people whose fundamental aim is to completely ignore the agency of their targets. Telling one lie in order to persuade someone to have a sexual relationship with you is certainly a way of undermining their own decision-making to some degree, but surely not to the degree that the actions of ‘sexual predators’ typically do. Let’s try to keep this one in perspective.Report

Jennifer Frey
7 years ago

There are plenty of lessons here for young women in most professions but I’m not sure there’s anything beyond that. Nothing that happened here could possibly be regulated away neatly. As I understand the situation, AGS was not being supervised by POMP and their relationship was consensual (no, he did not tell her everything about himself right away, but eventually the truth came out and she left the relationship in light of it; many, many failed relationships take this exact form). If there was evidence that POMP retaliated professionally, or granting professional favors to sexual partners, that is a different story. But if I understand the situation, that isn’t what is happening here.

Perhaps the suggestions is that POMPs should never be able to express any romantic interest in AGS in their sub-field, or that no professors can ever have sexual contact with graduate students in their own academic discipline. I’m not sure of the wisdom of this. Some POMPS have had positive, committed relationships with some AGS. It certainly doesn’t seem intrinsically bad.

Given that it works out sometimes, perhaps the worry is about predatory patterns of behavior. Then the questions are: How do we spell out the difference, and can we spell it out in a way that we allows us to generate rules or policies that take on the relevant level of generality?

Whatever one thinks, I don’t think it should matter at all whether the POMP works in moral theory or specifically writes about gender issues. Anyone can be a hypocrite, and it’s a huge distraction to think that the POMPS professional field matters to the debate.Report

Anon too please
Anon too please
7 years ago

Here is one thing to consider about such behavior in an academic context: the behavior of an individual like this is born by *all* female students connected to a philosopher who acts in these ways. These students risk the suspicion that POMP’s support and decision to mentor them doesn’t reflect any philosophical promise, but is rather due to a possible sexual relationship between them. For those who haven’t had such relationships, and who didn’t know that their adviser has such a reputation when they began to work with him, there might be legitimate fears of this. How do we support those students? How do we judge those students when they apply for a job either with or without a letter from their adviser? If they chose not to ask him to write for them, (how) should they explain this?Report

anonymous
anonymous
7 years ago

To my mind, the ethical lapses that AGS describes are clearly professional as well as personal: I think it is extraordinarily difficult for a sexual relationship between a senior scholar (especially a luminary who is still very active and influential and organizes many large projects, conferences, and edited volumes) and a graduate student in the same field to not be highly coercive. But that question is not my main focus here. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that some of the behavior described was professionally unethical.

So, I think that POMP’s behavior was professionally unethical. Before POMP’s name was circulating widely, I was 99% sure I knew who POMP was. However, there was absolutely no way that I was going to divulge his name (and I still won’t). Several factors play(ed) a small role in this decision: the chance that I am wrong, fear of reprisal, and concern about what would happen if everyone went public with things they were 99% sure about. While concern for the well-being of the AGS and POMP’s wife/long-term partner were/are of significant concern, even these issues were not the only things stopping me.

No, a main reason why I would never consider publicly naming POMP is because doing so seems entirely sordid, meddlesome and gossipy. Yet as I noted at the outset, I think that POMP’s behavior was professionally unethical. I also think that, insofar as his professional breaches are closely intertwined with personal matters, POMP has given up any legitimate claim to privacy about the latter. And while there are clearly structural issues at work, it is hard to think that naming and shaming isn’t some part of the solution to the problem of the abuse of power by people like POMP, especially when the offenses in question cannot be dealt with using standard institutional mechanisms.

I am left with the conclusion that there is something about how we draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate public commentary—between providing important public information or taking a stand against unethical behavior, on the one hand, and being an unprofessional blabbermouth, on the other—that is contributing to this dynamic.

These are not new concerns. Many people, including many people in philosophy, have been working hard to address them for several years. These concerns are also connected to other systemic issues, such as the relative dearth of women at the upper ranks of academia in philosophy and related fields. But given that the problem persists, it seems like a good moment to raise the issue again: is there a way to reach consensus on whether behavior like POMP’s is professionally unethical (as I think it is)? If there is persistent uncertainty or disagreement on this score, might publicizing the behavior—as opposed to, say, trying to create formal rules against it— be the most appropriate course of action? And if that is the case, might it be time to re-think how our current categories of gossip and meddling on the one hand, and news and information on the other, are affecting what gets said publicly?Report

Yao
Yao
7 years ago

I am not sure if we could comfortably talk about the “lessons” of this particular story before we determine whether it is true or fictitious (or more important, whether the way it is been narrated and received is appropriate). Sure, similar stories happen, perhaps frequently, and we should act to prevent and condemn sexual predation in our profession. But this particular story is written anonymously, with so many detailed identifying information of the alleged scoundrel, to the effect that everyone in the profession is, as you said, “left without doubt” about his identity. (Well, probably not everyone is left without doubt, and you are right to call for restraint on gossiping. But the truth is, people can’t help speculating, and those who are speculated would find it extremely awkward and difficult to protect their reputation from being unjustifiably damaged.)
Now I don’t have problem with anonymity as such (authors sometimes do need to protect themselves). But anonymously damaging one’s reputation is another matter. My sense is that, if the author really feels the need to go anonymous, then either withdraw all the identifying information before publishing, or name the alleged scoundrel directly (such that the person named would have to, and know how to, respond, rather than be left in an embarrassing practical limbo).
As to the readers. Encountering pieces like this one, I don’t think we should simply assume that the story is true. Not even assume that the author is indeed a female graduate student. Maybe it is just someone who is fantasizing a romance with a famous philosopher, or maybe someone who hates some philosopher(s) for other reasons and comes up with the idea of writing a eye-drawing defamatory piece. Who knows? I think we should give whoever we are speculating upon reading the story the benefit of doubt, unless and until the author calls out his name directly (and in that case the author may also have to reveal her/his own identity). Before that, any talk of drawing “lessons” from this particular story (with the assumption that this story is true) is unjustified. Not to mention commending the author as “very brave”, as Jender did at FP. To me this commendation is deeply unsettling, and may indeed reveal something wrong in our profession (this may be one “lesson” we could draw).Report

anonymous
anonymous
Reply to  Yao
7 years ago

There are obvious reasons why we should not require victims of sexual predators to reveal their identity even if they choose to publicly accuse someone of something. Yes, this case might not amount to that–it might not be a case of sexually predatory behavior. But I think it’s pretty clear that the reasons we have for not requiring victims of sexual predators to reveal their identities in order to accuse sexual predators of things probably extend to this case, even if it’s not technically a case of sexually predatory behavior.Report

Male Grad Student
Male Grad Student
Reply to  Yao
7 years ago

If we were seated in a comfortable chair at a table with all of the other commentators, gathered to discuss an issue of mutual concern, and I was aiming to learn something from the conversation, and you made your comment, here’s what I’d say: Stop being concerned for the harrassers and start being concerned for the victims. If you think you don’t know half a dozen people that this has happened to, it’s because they don’t trust you enough to tell you. This is happening all the time, and it’s people like you who are keeping us from making progress in addressing these issues, because you’re always wanting us to question whether it’s happening. IT’S HAPPENING.

[This comment was edited slightly for tone. An attempt to contact the commentator failed owing to a fake email address. If the commentator objects to the edit, feel free to write to me.]Report

protectinglisbeth
Reply to  Yao
7 years ago

Jender knows who I am.Report

protectinglisbeth
Reply to  Yao
7 years ago

I am not actually that anonymous anymore. Many philosophers now know who I am, including some commentators on this thread. Jender knows who I am. Moreover, there is a legal case wherein many of the things I say in my blog posts (and a whole lot more) will be going on my affidavit. I will be liable to perjury if I am lying. I have now named him in the protectinglisbeth blog. The person I am talking about has been asked by several reporters to comment, and if I am lying, he SHOULD say to the reporters that my allegations are false or exaggerated.Report

jtlevy2014
jtlevy2014
7 years ago

I take it that the unfamiliar ground here has to do with a POMP who is a serial predatory philanderer with young women (GS or otherwise) who are *not at his own university*, meaning that familiar intra-institutional codes of ethics and conduct don’t come into play. (And neither does, perhaps, the idea “I don’t want to recommend to my students that they attend his university and study with him,” if we really firmly believed that he avoids his own students; at least, let’s stipulate that that’s not at stake here.) But the following considerations seem to me to shift things decisively toward “professional news.”

What’s being described isn’t only serial affairs/ infidelity/ deceit toward both spouse and extramarital partners. *That* wouldn’t be a matter of professional concern. It’s also the deliberate use of professional position to enable all of that, in two ways. One is the use of professional stature within the relationships: the POMP trades precisely on being a POMP. (It’s not that he’s so good looking that strangers in hotels inevitably throw themselves at him.) Insofar as he’s trading on a particular kind of professional reputation, his professional reputation is precisely a legitimate object of criticism, which should make it harder for him to use it that way in the future.

The other is the use of the economy of academic travel to make it possible. The POMP accepts invitations from far and wide, other universities pay his airfare and honoraria, and the universities introduce him to audiences (including female GSs) as a distinguished honored guest. The constant subsidized travel is a key enabling condition of the kind of behavior being described, and the official introduction to institutional audiences is a further enabling condition.

I don’t think we need to reach a professional consensus on whether a clear deontic rule of professional conduct has been violated in order for members of the profession to reasonably conclude that they don’t want to be part of that web of enabling conditions. We each, severally, have a moral interest in not wanting to raise and spend scarce institutional resources to fly in a guest who views the trip as a chance to make advances on students for and to whom we have responsibility. That’s not a matter of punishment or sanction; it’s letting other members of the profession make ethically more responsible choices about what *we* do.Report

Anonymous Young Female Philosopher
Anonymous Young Female Philosopher
Reply to  jtlevy2014
7 years ago

jtlevy2014:

You have hit the nail on the head. The thing that makes this a matter of professional concern, and the reason that it was morally permissible (even required?) for AGS to write this piece, is that POMP is using precisely his professional reputation and means to support his predatory sexual relationships*. I also agree with ‘prefer to be anonymous’ that, since our institutions seem to be failing at keeping these predators from harming students, it is good for women to be warned about potential abuses of power from certain POMPs.

*I do not agree that POMP’s behavior is not predatory, as ‘Another AGS’ states, though I am open to being corrected. Here are the tentative reasons why ‘predator’ might be the right word if the account is correct, which I think it probably is.
1). POMP is purposely looking for women who are inexperienced and likely to be easy to control.
2). POMP is using academic situations to build up to romantic ones, seemingly on purpose. It is not as if he is genuinely looking for intellectual conversation and then romance arises; rather the intellectual conversations are an excuse to get the women alone. It seems like he is using the lure of getting to speak with a prominent, and I will admit, smart philosopher to get women to spend time alone with him.
3). POMP is lying, a lot, and this is coercion. Lying about the number of sexual partners one has had in order to not have to use a condom? That seems like coercion and diminishing agency to me.Report

justinrweinberg
7 years ago

I let this comment (from “Another Young Female Philosopher”) through but I would like to ask future commentators to refrain from too much speculation on the intentions of the parties.Report

Michaela
Michaela
7 years ago

You think that Yao’s comment here is totally fine (in which s/he speculates about the motives about the author, as well as essentially claiming that we should assume that she is lying, not just about the story, but also about her identity), but that it is not okay to assume that POMP is intentionally using his academic status/academic situations to build up romantic ones? Also, Yao’s comment sure sounds like it does explicitly what you asked people not to do in this thread–discuss the people rather than the issue. Indeed, it tries to discredit the anonymous author of this article.Report

KateNorlock
KateNorlock
7 years ago

My first thought upon reading the published post was not that the graduate student’s relationship with the professor was ‘consensual’ or that the post was ‘gossip.’ I am surprised to learn that these are the terms others are associating with this story. My first thought was that it was gutsy and brave of her to recount an experience of a pattern of deception and manipulation, in which someone with a prestige-halo arranged what the author believed her options to be. The conduct described is oppressive whether or not it’s harassment. I admire her for writing that the man’s stature and expertise in justice is compatible with grossly unjust behavior. I cannot pull apart the author’s account of her own experience from her account of the intertwined experiences of the younger and sexually inexperienced woman also deceived.

I’m often discouraged by the persistence of prestige-halos in our field. This post points out that prestige makes such recklessly disregarding conduct even more possible. One can do things when a “hero” that one could not easily otherwise do. I’m grateful to this graduate student for writing so eloquently about what that prestige halo is resting upon and enabling. It is a problematic culture that takes reputations to be primary and to be indicative of someone’s goodness all the way down.

I hope more tenured philosophers join me in supporting the graduate student’s efforts to make her story known, if only for the sake of other students, elsewhere, with less “consensual” experiences.Report

anonymous
anonymous
Reply to  KateNorlock
7 years ago

I also found the “gossip” locution worrisome, and it took me a bit to figure out why. I agree with Kate here, but I also think that “gossip” carries a implication of “likely to be false”, whereas “news” carries an implication of “we should take this testimony seriously”. I think that is part of what upset me to begin with about the way this is being discussed (both here and originally on fb).Report

KateNorlock
KateNorlock
Reply to  anonymous
7 years ago

And ‘gossip’ carries an implication of pleasure, of titillating “how fun to share”-ness. It connotes something you want, and not in a good way. It trivializes.Report

justinrweinberg
Reply to  anonymous
7 years ago

By making a distinction between news and gossip, I did not mean to suggest that the latter is likely to be false. I appreciate you pointing out that possible interpretation.Report

jtlevy2014
jtlevy2014
Reply to  anonymous
7 years ago

Hm. I think that the gossip/ not gossip line has more to do with a judgement about professional relevance than with a judgment about likely truth. “POMP lives a John Updike-novel-like life of serial affairs with suburban neighbors” would seem to me gossip even if supported by incontrovertible evidence.Report

justinrweinberg
7 years ago

Thanks for pointing that out, Michaela. I took Yao to be just reminding us about the nature of the evidence for the case that spurred this discussion, but there is indeed quite a bit of speculation in that comment, too. As I said, let’s try to avoid that, and take the facts of this hypothetical (“hypothetical”?) as largely given.Report

Jennifer Frey
7 years ago

Just to be clear: I am not denying that POMP lied to AGS and that his behavior is deplorable. Its clear that he was not upfront about what she was getting into. I’m saying it was consensual to the extent that it was neither harassment nor assault, which are easier to make policy about. And I was hoping for a conversation about policy.Report

Stacey Goguen
7 years ago

I would like to point out a concern when we look at two comments side by side.

Comment #1: “the behavior of an individual like this is born by *all* female students connected to a philosopher who acts in these ways. These students risk the suspicion that POMP’s support and decision to mentor them doesn’t reflect any philosophical promise, but is rather due to a possible sexual relationship between them.” (Anon too please)

Comment #2: “I also do not think it is anyone’s business to moralize about POMP’s sexual preferences. References to the ‘type’ of person he is attracted to are almost certainly irrelevant, unless we think we know a lot more about his psychology than we actually do.” (Another AGS)

My concern: If we think the type of fallout described in comment #1 is one that we, as a profession, have a duty to minimize through professional standards and norms for mentors, then it looks like maybe we *should* moralize about people’s sexual choices–even if we want to, as exhibited by comment #2, leave people’s “preferences” to the realm of amoral, private, innate desire that in no way is informed by things that can be moralized about, like social ideals and/or power dynamics. (I am skeptical of that, but am willing to bracket it.)

If we accept that there is real psychological fallout for a POMP’s mentees, should that POMP be found to have engaged in romantic or sexual relationships with younger women and junior scholars, then I don’t see how we, as members of this profession, can justify silent acceptance of any POMP’s choice to engage in these types of relationships.
Though, this might also require the premise that POMPs are capable of not acting on their sexual preferences, and that doing so would not necessarily inhibit their ability to flourish as human beings. That might be a controversial premise.Report

anonymous
anonymous
7 years ago

Two unrelated points:
First, I entirely agree with Kate Norlock. I hope that many other senior philosophers are courageous enough to take the sort of public stand that she has taken. I also think it is telling that so many people (like me) are choosing to discuss this issue anonymously.

Second, I want to point out one thing that I think has not received sufficient attention: according to AGS’s account, POMP did not merely lie to her. By telling her that he had been sexually inactive for several years, such that she didn’t need to worry about protection, when in fact he had been sleeping with many different people, he *lied to her in a way that risked her life.* (Of course, maybe he had been tested recently for STDs and didn’t want to tell her this, but this seems highly unlikely. I proceed on the assumption that he didn’t.)
Intentionally lying to someone to get them to do what you want them to do in a way that risks their life is a very, very bad thing to do. But it seems to fall under the category of “personal” rather than “professional.” And the crux of the conversation here so far seems to be that the issues at stake are only our business if they are professional. I am not sure we should accept this. Suppose that, over drinks at a philosophy conference, POMP had persuaded AGS to sit still while he threw a knife so that it landed in the wall right next to her head by lying to her and telling her that he was a professional knife-thrower. I think that many more people would think it justifiable to publicly out POMP and exclude him from conferences and other projects than think it justifiable to do these things based on the behavior that AGS reports. But as far as I can see, the two actions are equally immoral. The only difference is that the knife- throwing is (I would guess?) illegal. All of this is to my mind somewhat beside the point in this particular case, because POMP’s behavior was also professionally unethical. But insofar as this is a discussion about broader issues, I want to suggest that it might take role morality too far to say that everything that falls into the “personal and does not violate the law or institutional policy” should be seen as irrelevant by POMP’s colleagues in the profession.Report

Jennifer Frey
7 years ago

In response to Stacey: Who counts as being mentored and when does a POMP count as a mentor? Does any POMP in my field automatically count as a mentor to me? I wouldn’t have thought so. I agree that there should be norms for mentors. The trouble is whether we can say that the POMP was a mentor to AGS, or any of the other women he was involved with. It’s not obvious. As I understand the case, we are not talking about a student/advisor/mentoring relationship. We are talking about a POMP who likes young women in his professional spheres, broadly construed. That’s broad and nebulous and that’s why this raises very tricky questions about policy. He seems never to prey on students (at least not while they are students).

Does anyone think that POMPS just can’t or shouldn’t have romantic relationships with young women in the same academic discipline (or related disciplines)?
Report

FE Durkin
FE Durkin
7 years ago

I remember the good old days when we used to be told that what went on in the bedrooms of consenting adults was not anyone’s business.Report

KateNorlock
KateNorlock
Reply to  FE Durkin
7 years ago

I remember those good old days too. Sadly, those days operated greatly to the benefit of unethical individuals. Many crummy things can be done to people constrained to keep silent because they had consented to what went on in the bedroom.

The publication in question really has very little to do with what went on in the bedroom, of course, and is primarily about an individual’s behavior out of bed.Report

Christy Mag Uidhir
7 years ago

That an older man reciprocated the sexual and romantic interest of an attractive, younger adult female with whom he shared a broad professional but no institutional affiliation doesn’t strike me as problematic in the least. Moreover, I think its insulting and potentially harmful to force the issue into the larger context of the sexual assault & sexual harassment currently plaguing professional philosophy. It also detracts from a far more important issue:

Deliberately deceiving another person about what any reasonable person would consider a pro-tanto defeater for sexual consent isn’t merely the indiscretionary sine qua non of the serial philanderer, it’s fucking morally repugnant and sufficient to constitute sexual fraud, which I take to be a subspecies of rape.

Those considering this primarily a matter of professional ethics look no better than those dismissing it as just puritanical gossip mongering about the sexual dalliances of people we may or may not know or admire.Report

Jerry Dworkin
Jerry Dworkin
7 years ago

Those interested in the ethical issues involved in deception and sexual consent might like to look at this paper by Tom Dougherty.

http://philpapers.org/archive/DOUSLA-2.pdfReport

KateNorlock
KateNorlock
Reply to  Jerry Dworkin
7 years ago

Jerry Dworkin, thank you for sharing the link to this paper. It is helpful.Report

Carla Fehr
Carla Fehr
7 years ago

Kate Norlock wrote this:
“I hope more tenured philosophers join me in supporting the graduate student’s efforts to make her story known, if only for the sake of other students, elsewhere, with less “consensual” experiences.”

I will join her. I am grateful that the student was able to muster the courage to share her story. I don’t know who this student is, but I read and think about her words with respect.Report

Jennifer Frey
7 years ago

Christy: I take it that this thread is not about pronouncing who “looks better” than others in terms of how they label this, but to try to have a dialogue and to digest it.

You make some provocative claims. You want to call the sexual acts that constituted this relationship “a subspecies of rape,” but in this, you seem to want to be more Catholic than the Pope (for instance, not even the victim seems to suggest that she was assaulted or raped repeatedly; there are many ways to be wronged in the bedroom, her complaint is that he lied about his other relationships, and thus treated without her proper autonomy and dignity). And everyone agrees that this is very wrong, and that it diminished her agency. But there are degrees of that, and I would myself would not call this assault. Of course, it is all too common in human life that we don’t really know who are romantic partners are, even after years of marriage (think of how Betty felt when she finally learned the truth about Don Draper). Do you really want to say that Don was doing anything close to raping or assaulting Betty all those years of marriage? He was engaged in fraud, absolutely, but I’m uncomfortable calling him a rapist. If there is something you suggest that I read or look at to change my mind, I’d like to hear about it. Perhaps this is a chance for some of us in the profession to think more clearly about these issues.

I also find it interesting that what you seem to have no problem with–POMP going after younger women in his field as a matter of course–the author does. She writes:

“At the end of the day, I am but a mere graduate student; he is a big-shot Ivy League professor. At the end of the day, nothing will happen. At the end of the day, powerful men will reciprocate sexual and romantic gestures from pretty young women, so long as there are no legal repercussions. At the end of the day, this wrong that I speak of is the norm.”

And also:

“I tell this story because, no matter how he dresses it up, the facts remain: He is an old man, occupying a powerful place in academia, who has a penchant for young, inexperienced women.”

It’s actually a bit difficult to parse these statements, but she seems to be suggesting that the academy should not allow this sort of conduct. What sort of legal repercussions she has in mind here she does not say. Why it matters so much that he’s old and she’s young and inexperienced she also doesn’t say. Maybe she thinks its obvious. Or maybe she forgot to add ‘deceiving’ next to ‘old’ and ‘powerful.’

As for why this might have seemed like gossip: the author provides information that strikes some of us as gossipy, such as: relating details of private conversations with an eye to making someone Prof. X look generally like a jerk well beyond the bedroom or in relation to her, relating private details of other sexual partnerships (such as what kind of lingerie they wear and in what city), etc. If the article were missing these and other asides, surely it would have seemed less in the realm of gossip. It also would have helped had the author been more clear about her intentions in writing, more specific about what she wants to be done or what she thinks the transgression was. As is stands, the straightforward read is that she is angry that she was lied to repeatedly and that POMP will not be held accountable for his deceit because there is no policy against a POMP lying to an AGS about his sex life in order to convince her to sleep with him. That anger is righteous and understandable. But our question is, what do we make of that wrong from a legal/policy standpoint? Should that be a criminal act? Because if it isn’t a criminal act and if we think there are prudential reasons against making it a matter of professional misconduct, then it looks like a private dispute that we shouldn’t be weighing in on at all. This is the crux of Justin’s concerns, and it is a sign of maturity and sensitivity to the issues here that he has those concerns. Perhaps it isn’t gossip, in which case this can be readily explained without moralizing or casting aspersions on those of us for whom that wasn’t immediately obvious.Report

justinrweinberg
7 years ago

I’d like to thank those who have participated in the discussion for their comments. I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far. Looking over the comments, there seem to be a number of issues raised. I’ve collated some of them below in the hopes that doing so would be helpful for those interested in continuing the conversation here.

Does it matter that the POMP had no institutional power over AGS?
This POMP had no institutional power over AGS. ((Different) Anon Grad Student 9:09am) and was not a mentor to AGS. (Jennifer Frey 3:01pm)

Does it matter that the POMP works in the same subfield as AGS?
The POMP is “very active and influential and organizes many large projects, conferences, and edited volumes” and thus may have some power over AGS (anonymous 10:26am). Is anyone defending the idea that “POMPS just can’t or shouldn’t have romantic relationships with young women in the same academic discipline (or related disciplines)?” (Jennifer Frey 9:49am, 3:01pm)

Is there anything that can be done in terms of policy or professional practice?
(Jennifer Frey 9:49am, 9:38am)

What should we do about the fact that our actions put the POMP in the position to engage in bad behavior?
“The deliberate use of professional position to enable… serial affairs/ infidelity/ deceit toward both spouse and extramarital partners.” “The POMP trades precisely on being a POMP… Insofar as he’s trading on a particular kind of professional reputation, his professional reputation is precisely a legitimate object of criticism.” (jtlevy2014 11:50am)
“The use of the economy of academic travel to make [serial affairs/infidelity.deceit toward both spouse and extramarital partners] possible.” “We each, severally, have a moral interest in not wanting to raise and spend scarce institutional resources to fly in a guest who views the trip as a chance to make advances on students for and to whom we have responsibility.” (jtlevy2014 11:50am)

How does professional reputation affect accountability?
The extent to which “prestige-halos” protect wrong-doers. (KateNorlock 12:55pm)

What is our business?
To what extent should the profession “moralize about people’s sexual choices”? (Stacey Goguen 1:59pm)

Is “gossip” like this helpful or harmful?
“The main problem with gossip is that it results in epistemic inequality – I don’t know how this problem can be solved, or what we should do to mitigate this situation.” (prefer to be anonymous 9:00am). “The Missing Stair problem” (kenmarable 4:17pm).Report

anonymous prof
anonymous prof
7 years ago

I too am concerned about Christy’s liberal definition of ‘rape’. By this standard, I have been raped by at least two women. I have never considered myself to be a victim of rape. Perhaps I am wrong about this. But it strikes me that to conceive of myself in this way is harmful to victims of what is more narrowly viewed as rape. We can all agree that behavior of a certain sort is wrong and note similarities between wrong actions that fall under different kinds, but similarity and analogy are not identity and I worry that the dissimilarities among the cases at issue are large enough to warrant caution in adopting the more liberal definition.

Also, I think that we are all aware that men, when they are trying to sleep with women, will emphasize whatever characteristics they possess that they think the woman will be attracted to. In this context, philosophical ability is a characteristic that it is reasonable to think that the women POMP is after will find attractive. So it will be used, in the form of one-on-one philosophical conversations and in other ways as well. Is this significantly different than an athlete using his physical prowess or a wealthy man using his money to attract women that are inclined to find these characteristics attractive? I’m not sure that this is a professional issue just because POMPs philosophical ability is tied to the profession in which both POMP and AGS belong. I’m not making any absolute pronouncements and am open to being convinced otherwise. These are delicate issues.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
7 years ago

Thank you all for having this conversation. I am troubled by the behavior of POMPous people, and while I hope we are *all* troubled by it I am also not happy with using the term ‘rape’ here. And while it may not be a well regarded view in this particular conversation, in talking with others I find that many of us do not think the term ‘courage’ is right here either.

There needs to be space to hold POMPous behavior in ill-regard without going in for some of the framing commitments that people here seem to be relying on. I am worried that such a space is being crowded out by more extreme (and, frankly, rather obscene) ways of thinking about the issue.

Finally, I’d like to echo Jennifer Frey’s call that there be more conversation about policy and professional practice concerns here.Report

Yet Another Anonymous
Yet Another Anonymous
7 years ago

As we are discussing a fictional case (see original article), I propose that we eliminate the heteronormativity that has been assumed so far in the discussion. So, this question:
“Is anyone defending the idea that ‘POMPS just can’t or shouldn’t have romantic relationships with young women in the same academic discipline (or related disciplines)?’ ”

should rather be “Is anyone defending the idea that “POMPS just can’t or shouldn’t have romantic relationships with young academics in the same academic discipline (or related disciplines)?’ ”

Both for the sake of male victims, and so that it doesn’t sound as if there couldn’t be any female POMPS!!Report

Yet Another Anonymous
Yet Another Anonymous
Reply to  Yet Another Anonymous
7 years ago

…they would have to be called POPS (gender neutral), of course…Report

Stacey Goguen
Reply to  Yet Another Anonymous
7 years ago

Yes, we could make all of this gender neutral, though doing so obscures some of the specific power dynamics in play between older/more senior men and younger/more junior women.

Whether we want to focus on any and all combinations of genders in this specific instance depends on what our goals for the conversation are, right? Since YAA above suggested the change, it would be nice to hear more from them why the two goals they briefly mention–“Both for the sake of male victims, and so that it doesn’t sound as if there couldn’t be any female POMPS!!”–should be of specific concern in this discussion.

For instance, in contrast I acknowledge that of course women POPs are capable of engaging in inappropriate behavior, but again, focusing on the broader category of POPs obscures some of specific power dynamics and cultural norms in play for POMPs. With POMPs targeting younger/more junior women, their heterosexual behavior is less likely to be viewed as sketchy, in contrast to a POMP targeting young men. Similarly, gender norms make their behavior less likely to be viewed as sketchy, when opposed to a women targeting young men or women. I therefore find the hypothetical of POMPs targeting women a specific pattern that is worthy of its own attention.

Other combinations deserve their own attention, too. There are specific moral concerns when men are the more junior targets (e.g., some people won’t ever believe that they were coerced by an older woman), or when the relationships are not hetereosexual (e.g., the more junior party might not want their sexual orientation to be public knowledge.)

So yes, we have been focusing on a specific gender and orientation for much of this conversation. But it’s not necessarily the case that this is a careless assumption that we should generalize away from. In fact, there may be important reasons NOT to immediately abstract away gender and sexual orientation. But again, it depends on what we think this conversation should be focusing on.Report

Yet Another Anonymous
Yet Another Anonymous
Reply to  Stacey Goguen
7 years ago

These are very good points and I agree that we should not generalize away from specific power relations that might be tied to gender and sexual orientation, if this is indeed the case. I do not have a set opinion whether it is worth it to further pursue the discussion in a gender neutral way or not. If anything, I’m happy we considered it at least once, and that we made some interesting points explicit like you did in your post.Report

anonymous
anonymous
7 years ago

I am persuaded that at least in the short term, informal social sanctioning is an appropriate response to POMP and others like him. (This isn’t to deny that changing formal rules and institutions and deeper structural change are part of the story, too.) What I want to know is: what exactly would appropriate informal sanction for people like POMP look like, on the part of differently situated people (e.g. senior scholars, junior scholars, people who run colloquia and conferences)? Should he not be invited to conferences, etc. as Jtlevy2014 proposes? Is the sanction eternal, or for a set amount of time (i.e. is there a way to think about proportionality here)? Part of what I am struggling with is that I think that POMP’s work is really important. Is there a way to sanction someone without the added cost (to everyone) of squashing their ability to discuss and develop their ideas? Or maybe the issue just isn’t going to come up enough for this to be a consideration?Report

Christy Mag Uidhir
7 years ago

Just a few things:

One needn’t share my views on what constitutes rape to find something seriously morally wrong with deliberately deceiving another person about what any reasonable person would consider a defeater (deal breaker) for sexual consent (See the article to which Jerry Dworkin linked for a defense of just such a view). As such, one needn’t share my views on what constitutes rape to think that seeing this case as primarily about professional matters (professional ethics, climate in the profession) suggests (if not also facilitates) seeing a serious moral wrong as something other than a serious moral wrong.

Likewise, one needn’t share my views on what constitutes rape to be critical of the tendency to see rape as essentially involving violent and severe physical and psychological trauma so often associated with its seemingly most salient instances–especially when precisely this sort of mistake looks in part responsible for the utterly abysmal criminal reporting, investigation, and prosecution of rape for which such salience markers are typically absent. We might all agree that rape concerns non-consensual sex (absent consent where consent ought be present); however, there are a variety of ways in which consent can be rendered absent, many of which get dismissed out of hand when one assumes rape to involve absent consent via either forcible coercion (physical harm or the threat thereof) or the effective disablement of the capacity to consent simpliciter (being drugged or otherwise severely cognitively impaired). Ultimately, that one hesitates to use the word “rape” to describe cases involving other means by which consent is made absent is not so much the problem as is one taking such hesitation to license some further claim downplaying or dismissing the moral seriousness of such.Report

KateNorlock
KateNorlock
7 years ago

Justin, thanks for the digest, which is helpful for thinking more clearly. In light of it, I realize better than I did before how much the resistance of some to discussing the post may be due to worry that any policy or legalistic action may serve badly as response. I agree, actually, and didn’t appreciate sooner that the overcompensating response to leave things in bedrooms may stem from that justifiable concern.

I was operating on the assumption that, as Jenny Saul says so well in her paper, “Stop Thinking So Much About Sexual Harassment,” public support for risky speech and informal means of assisting others may at times be preferable to “excessive focus on whether or not formal charges …are possible or appropriate.”Report

A Different AGS
A Different AGS
7 years ago

Weighing in on some of the questions:

-Does it matter that the POMP had no institutional power over AGS?
The phrasing of this question requires a quite limited reading of ‘institutional power.’ A POMP may not have power over a GS as a faculty member at that GS’s university, but maintain power over them as a professional philosopher. A POMP who specializes in my area of study may well (and many do) have more power over me than a professor who works in my department but in a completely different subfield where our professional circles do not overlap, or where they are not well-known, or not well-connected. There is a power dynamic here, and it matters.

-Is there anything that can be done in terms of policy or professional practice?
Yes. We can collectively, as a profession recognize that our personal practice is intertwined with our professional practice. We can stop tolerating POMPs who behave badly. Stop inviting them to our departments to give talks. Stop inviting them to our conferences. Stop putting your students or fellow students as risk. For those who are in a position to do so, if you see something, say something. I’m not saying shun or confront any one you hear a rumor about—but I am saying that I am really, really, really, tired of failing to take account of professional merit beyond that which is obviously intellectual merit, and I am tired of the systematic failure to create an environment in which women are allowed to flourish.

-[Are discussions] like this helpful or harmful?
I think discussions like this are helpful even if it means that some people will know about problems and others won’t. The more people who can be warned about a serious risk to themselves the better, it seems to me.

And I want to follow up on the issue of predation: Seeking out young students (by emailing them, inviting them to your hotel, taking them to concerts) under the guise of professional interests (to talk philosophy, after meeting at a conference, where one is a POP in the GS’s area of study), while cultivating a sense of unique intimacy in the relationship (e.g., by telling them that they are special or that there is something you will only share with them), and repeatedly deceiving them, fits a very predatory pattern. I think even if the object of this attention in any given case is not themselves victimized, that pattern is in itself a problem (because letting behavior that fits that pattern go on suggests that you will tolerate predatory behavior) and poses very serious issues for the communities in which it occurs.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
7 years ago

On the question of whether “gossip” like this is harmful or helpful:

There is something deeply disturbing about people who talk about provisionally ‘sanctioning’, or who tolerate naming, the alleged (yes, merely alleged, and merely by one person) perpetrator here without considering the utterly devastating harm that this has on the accused’s reputation.

I’m not saying that that harm trumps other harms. In certain cases, it could be that the immense harm done to the reputation of the accused — damage to the person’s private and public reputation in perpetuity — is justified in light of some utterly extraordinary circumstances. I get the impression that many people think, for some bizarre reason, that this damage is on a par with or much less than having someone one’s hero break up with one. But this is ridiculous to the point of utter callousness. If your hero breaks up with you after having deceived you (supposing we believe this from hearing one side of this story), you’ll have a tough month or two but you can get over it. But you can never, ever free your name and reputation from the stain of an extremely public accusation like this.

If people for some reason disagree with common sense on this point, fine. Let’s have a constructive conversation about the best way to weigh the harms against the benefits of prevention. But some people seem to think that the reputation of an accused person is not even worth considering. I very much hope we have not already descended to the level where this must be taken seriously.

[This comment has been edited. Owing to a fake email address, edits were not approved by the comment’s author.]Report

AGS
AGS
7 years ago

Missing here to this point is any discussion of the female desire involved. The woman involved apparently wanted to sleep with him only because he was a POMP. Should we be training young women to modify their desires so that they do not respond to halo effects?Report

Eric
Eric
7 years ago

In the spirit of the original post here at Daily Nous and also to better determine what precisely is at issue in sexual relations between POMPs and AGSs, perhaps it would be useful to pose a few cases for discussion. In all of these let’s assume that–as in the original post by Anonymous–the AGS is not POMP’s student, advisee, etc. They are members of different universities who meet at a conference.

Case 1: POMP is known for his sexual involvements with graduate students of AGS’s type. However, all of POMP’s past involvements with these women have been more or less amicable after the end of the affair and POMP has a demonstrated record not only of non-retaliation but of assisting his former lovers in their careers (whether by writing letters of reference, inviting them to participate on panels, including their work in edited collections, or what have you). For the sake of the case, I am going to call this behavior A. Is POMP nevertheless morally blameworthy if he sleeps with this new AGS since there is always the possibility that his future behavior toward his ex-lovers might change (behavior B)? In other words, does the possibility of behavior B weigh more in our determinations of what POMP’s conduct should be than the demonstrated history of behavior A?

Case 2: POMP meets AGS at a conference. AGS demonstrates substantial knowledge of and insight about POMP’s work but nevertheless is, at the moment, determined not to work in either POMP’s narrower subfield or main field of moral and political philosophy. This is important information for POMP since he makes it a habit never to get involved with anyone in his subfield because of the awkwardness that could result. On the basis of their mutual attraction, they have sex. Does POMP nevertheless still commit a morally blameworthy act in sleeping with AGS since there is always the possibility that she might change her mind about her area of specialization in the future?Report

Enzo Rossi
7 years ago

Part of what this is bringing out is that the extreme power wielded by a few POMPs can tend to create very nasty situations. Is it good for the profession that a few senior people have this much power? For instance, why do letters of reference (as opposed to writing samples) count so much for hiring/promotion purposes? There is at least a prima facie reason to weaken power structures that put people in moral danger. I’m not trying to excuse the agency of bad POMPs. I’m saying that we need to look at structures too. There are lots of good POMPs and their existence serves many good purposes for the profession, but I’m unsure about the final balance. High levels of inequality and arbitrary power don’t bring out the best in people.Report

Barbara
Barbara
7 years ago

In reply to AGS above, I think we faculty have—at the very least—a responsibility to help our students understand how great it is to be mentored by a professor who places the student’s welfare before their own; to encourage our students to enter into relationships which necessarily exclude anything of a sexual nature entering into it, because this makes room for so many other good things to happen.

As a female academic I have had the great good luck to have had such disinterested male mentors, people who were really looking out for my interests. I can testify they have been incredibly important, enduring forces in shaping my life and work. This is bedrock stuff.

Whereas sexual affairs of the kind considered here often result in the woman (usually it is a female) not only suffering issues of self-esteem in addition to other professional blowback, but also leaving the field. (It would be interesting to see figures on this, if possible.) I have witnessed the latter in at least 2 cases in the last decade, talented women who left graduate school in philosophy after an affair with a senior male professor in their department.

In relation to students in their AOS, the senior academic is essentially in loco parentis. When this is converted into a sexual affair when student is of the opposite sex—or of the same sex in cases where this is of interest—has, most of the time, a very bad fallout for the student. But our academic culture has normalised such exploitative behaviour of faculty toward their “students”, when that hair’s breadth distinction is satisfied, that they are not the person’s “own” graduate student.

So yes, I do think male faculty who sleep with young female acolytes in their AOS should be discouraged from doing so. That they require a lack of equality in their sexual partnerships—sleeping with young acolytes is like shooting fish in a barrel, no?— is a result of their own lack of self-esteem and is a bad sign on many fronts.

And yes, I am concerned that competitively awarded grants are given to star philosophers who use their travel to facilitate these kinds of affairs. Many others who may have applied for the same grant but did not get it would have used for the purpose it was meant: WORK.Report

AGS
AGS
Reply to  Barbara
7 years ago

I think this evades the question. You are still assuming that it is the man who wants the sex and the younger woman who goes along with it for attention or out of vanity or childishness. My question was: why are we assuming that younger women’s own erotic desire is not triggered by the relationship with an older, intellectually impressive male? Why is it that “a professor who places the student’s welfare before their own” means not responding to her sexually. I understand if we are talking about encounters initiated by the man (especially aggressive, unwelcome ones like those described above). But is this really the only scenario we can imagine? As a young female academic, did you never feel desire for an older man?

Do you think all the young men that Foucault slept with were harmed by this relationship? Isn’t sleeping with her, far the least harmful influence Heidegger had on Arendt?Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
7 years ago

“In relation to students in their AOS, the senior academic is essentially in loco parentis.”

Huh? Are you just saying that female students are like children, or male students, too?

Let me get this straight. Suppose you’re a freelance writer on politics (or sports, or movies, or whatever). You’re widely enough read that you have a number of fans. A fan introduces him/herself and expresses a romantic interest. If you have an affair with the person, are you thereby acting immorally? Of course not.

Now, what if the fan mentions being interested in doing some writing him/herself? Does *that* make it immoral, because it’s conceivable that the person might at some possible future point ask you for a letter of recommendation, and whatever would you do then?

Obviously not. You can avoid impropriety in such a case by simply declining to write a letter of recommendation on the grounds that you are no longer a disinterested party. This should be understood, but if needed it could be clarified in advance of the affair that, if you become involved, it would be inappropriate for you to write a letter of recommendation for the person.

Have you overlooked this obvious possibility? Why are you so keen to portray adult women as helpless children in the university context, and unrelated academics in their AOS as their quasi-parents, rather than autonomous agents who can have their own wishes and make their own decisions?Report

Stacey Goguen
Reply to  Anonymous
7 years ago

I’m not sure why you think a writer and their fan is a comparable sort of relation to a POMP and a junior scholar in their AoS though I’d guess maybe it’s because you think the essential relation is one of popular person and not-well-known fan? But another very reasonably intuition is that the essential relation between a POP and a junior scholar is that of two people working in the same industry, where one of them has a lot of clout.

I’m also unsure why you’re reading keeness “to portray adult women as helpless children” into people’s comments. That seems like a reasonable interpretation only if you’ve already determined that such power dynamics do not objectively exist, or that they can be safely avoided by merely ignoring them and acting like they’re not there. I have the hunch that you hold a bunch of premises that would make these reasonable implications, but since you have not laid out those premises, your comment come offs sounding dogmatic and uncharitable–which is probably not what you going for.

To address the content of your claim, to claim that someone has power over a junior scholar is not necessarily to portray that scholar as a helpless child. It’s to acknowledge that reputations can be of a sufficient degree to grant people the ability to make significant interventions in another person’s career (aka power), for good or bad.

This point was emphasized by another commenter who implored us to consider the damage an accusation of impropriety can do to a person’s career. It seems like a lot of us disagree about who has what degree of power in our field, but the fact that people do at times wield enough power to affect the careers, livelihoods, and well-being of others is granted by almost all.

So, unless you would also chide that commenter for treating POMPs like they are helpless children, I don’t think your objection to Barbara’s comment stands. At the very least, you could extend to her a similar amount of charity as I have extended to you, considering that your comment probably came off to me as weird sounding as hers did to you.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Stacey Goguen
7 years ago

Thanks for your response, Stacey.

My reason for saying that Barbara wanted us to treat female graduate students as helpless children was a passage her comment, which I quoted at the beginning of my comment. She said that any senior male professor working in such a woman’s AOS (whether or not at the same school) must thereby be deemed ‘in loco parentis’ ( = in the capacity of a parent) to her. This only makes sense if we think of such women as being children — and not just the children of their supervisors, but even of established male professors halfway across the world who happen to work in their AOS. And by portraying such women as vulnerable and not having power in such relationships, she is portraying them not only as children but as helpless children. So you see, what I said follows from her apparent assumptions, not my own.

As for whether, by the same token, male senior professors are helpless children, that does not follow from Barbara’s account: she says that they’re playing the role as the parents. And as for me, of course, I’m not saying that *anyone* here is a child. That’s what I reject! Hence, it’s Barbara’s account that’s at issue, and it follows from her account that women in graduate programs should be treated as helpless children and that senior male professors should not.

Anyway, to the substance of your post.

1) You say, “But another very reasonably intuition is that the essential relation between a POP and a junior scholar is that of two people working in the same industry, where one of them has a lot of clout.” OK, that sounds fine with me. Let’s suppose that I work in some industry. I find myself attracted to someone with a lot of clout. I attend an international event and introduce myself to this person. I pass along my contact information and express interest in meeting. Later, he or she tells me that he or she is coming to my city and invites me to see him or her at the hotel. I accept gladly, and along the way (or perhaps earlier) I mention that I hope to have a good career in that industry. The person makes clear that he or she is romantically and or sexually interested in me, but that becoming involved with him or her won’t increase my chances of getting ahead in the business (such a thing would be very tawdry). I fully agree, and am slightly offended that it was even suggested, but am glad that the air is cleared. I continue to express interest in the person. We become romantically and/or sexually involved, and the person never writes me a letter of recommendation or helps me get ahead in some other way. I simply continue to admire him or her for being a leader in my field.

Now, do you think that the powerful person in my story is acting wrongly by getting involved with me? If so, then why? I must confess I really don’t understand it. To say that this person should be a ‘parent’ to me and therefore shouldn’t be involved with me seems ridiculous. But I’d love it if you could show me what you think I’m not getting. Please, go ahead!

2) On the relative power of the man and the woman in the case under discussion: let’s look at the facts.

a) Both parties had the power to break the heart of the other, so those cancel out.

b) The man was a famous hero of the woman, and the man found the woman attractive for other reasons: her personality, ideas, good looks, whatever else. Perhaps this might make the woman in this case fall for the man more than he had fallen for her (though not necessarily). If this is so, then being dumped could be emotionally tougher on the woman than would have been for the man if he had been dumped. But this difference is negligible in the long run. As it allegedly happened, he dumped her after being deceptive. So count her in for a couple of months of heartache that he didn’t have to go through.

c) Conceivably, he could have tried to use his power to hold back her career. I don’t know why he would have, but that’s a source of power. I’m not aware of any cases in which this has happened (though there must be one or two). Presumably, this would involve badmouthing her to some search committee that is considering hiring her, or maybe a couple of search committees. This could, if done, count against her abilities to succeed in a few job competitions. Had he done that, and he didn’t, that should be factored in as well. It has the potential of harming her career prospects.

d) Now, let’s look at the absolutely massive nuclear bomb that she had in her arsenal and chose to detonate. By publishing an accusation of sexual impropriety against him, she utterly destroyed his private and public reputation for life and beyond. There’s no taking that back. We’ve seen recently how such accusations, even though contested and unsubstantiated, can lead to a powerful professor’s being fired from his current position and barred from a position he had already been offered elsewhere. No corroboration is needed: the mere word of the woman accusing him is sufficient to stain him forever and probably end his career for good. And, predictably, she and her story are being applauded.

Can there be any doubt that, in these situations, the woman has more power? What’s the counter-argument, please? This is extraordinary.Report

Jeb
Jeb
7 years ago

Would you be able to look at this guy’s letters of recommendation in the same way after this?Report

Concerned
Concerned
7 years ago

I am a woman. I am a feminist. I am worried about sexual predators and POMPs who abuse their power and coerce AGSs. I think philosophy is in a particularly bad shape in this regard. I think we should do everything we can to protect students and create safe, fair, environments (and to this point I think Enzo Rossi is absolutely right about having to look at structures).

We should be talking about whether it is okay for POMPs in general to have affairs with GSs, but please do not take it for granted that all that AGS said is true.

I am worried because I know at least three affair cases with POMPs where it was the GS who seduced and most actively made the affair happen. In these cases the POMPs were clear about the nature of the relationship, its limits, etc. When the relationship ended, the GSs were very upset. But, being reasonable and responsible people, they accepted it was a fair situation and did not set out to destroy the POMP. I think we should be discouraging these kinds of interactions because they are potentially dangerous to all parties involved, and may create unfairness in the profession, but when they happen, we must not simply assume that it was the POMP who maliciously used power to get someone into bed. Many people are attracted by power and status; let’s not be unfair when so much is at stake.

Also, let’s not become Big Brothers in a way that will end up damaging GSs. If POMPs refuse to be, say, in a restaurant alone with a GS for fear of people believing they are in a sexual relationship, this is bad. If men and women in the profession cannot be alone with each other for fear of scandal, this can only hurt the profession; women, especially, since POMPs are mostly men. Policing is not good. Assuming that because two people are in a restaurant (or wherever, for that matter) surely there must a sexual relationship between them is wrong.

Finally, I think we should be talking about when is it okay to make public a private relationship and what is the best way to do it. When there is no coercion involved, I’m hesitant about supporting going pubic with private matters. I think there should be a discipline-wide way of dealing with these issues without destroying a person’s reputation before we are certain that he/she is guilty. In past cases in philosophy there have been witnesses, emails as evidence, etc. Let’s be careful. If there is a professional investigation, or a trial, fine, but no gossip please.

[I deleted some parts of this comment before posting it here; the author was not contacted owing to a fake e-mail address.]Report

anon
anon
7 years ago

It seems to me that there’s a legitimate worry that intimate personal or sexual relationships between POMPs and AGSs could lead to unfairness (e.g. resulting in biased letters of recommendation, potentially undeserved professional distinctions/opportunities, etc). But surely the right response is to condemn *that kind of unfairness*, e.g. with a norm against writing letters of recommendation for people you are or were involved with, rather than to condemn the relationships themselves.Report

enzorossi
Reply to  anon
7 years ago

Perhaps, but I think it’s helpful to distinguish between (i) the question of when to attribute blame to individuals, and (ii) the question of which norms and institutions are more or less conducive to blameworthy behaviour. I’m more interested in (ii), hence my point about structures and moral danger above. To put the point in a different way, I agree with you that it’s *possible* to have POMP-AGS relationships that don’t lead to breaches of fairness, but experience tells us that those relationships are morally risky. It’s *possible* to drive at 150mph and not have an accident, but experience tells us that it’s risky.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  enzorossi
7 years ago

So, enzorossi, you would rule out romantic relationships because experience tells us that those relationships are morally risky.

1) What experience is this, exactly? In your case of the person driving at 150mph, we have quantifiable empirical evidence that this is risky. Have you done similar research, or can you point to any, that says that when someone is involved with a prominent figure from a completely different university, moral badness results? Could you direct us to that evidence? Or is this in fact a non-empirical claim on the basis of your expectations?

2) More important, there are many non-romantic and non-sexual relationships that could have the same effect. For instance, friendship. For another instance, friendly acquaintanceship (as one might share with someone in a pleasant conversation at a philosophy conference). For another, family relationships. Would you rule out all such relations among philosophers?

[This comment was edited.]Report

enzorossi
Reply to  enzorossi
7 years ago

So, Anonymous:

1) Anyone who knows anything about academia can tell you many stories of the ill effects of such relationships. Some such stories are posted above. More generally, it’s amply documented that power imbalances make for morally iffy situations. I’ve seen empirical research showing that some 70% of people in such relationship later report feeling exploited.

2) I haven’t said that any amount of moral risk rules out any relationship. Look at it this way: would it be a major sacrifice/freedom curtailment for POMPs to stop using their position to sleep with AGSs? If not then perhaps the risk isn’t worth it.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  enzorossi
7 years ago

To enzorossi:

1) You say, ” I’ve seen empirical research showing that some 70% of people in such relationship later report feeling exploited.” If you really know of any research that shows that 70% of people *who were involved with powerful people who were NOT their supervisors, etc.* later reported feeling exploited, I’d love to see it. Could you provide a reference, please?

Also: what percentage of powerful people feel exploited after these relationships? You seem to be forgetting that half. For instance, I know someone who had a successful career in business. After he retired from the business, many people he thought had been his great friends were no longer as friendly. He felt used, because they had been attracted to him for his power and the opportunities that power brought him. Do you think that, if it generally happens that powerful businesspeople feel regrets, that there’s something immoral in itself about non-powerful businesspeople becoming friends with them?

2) You say, “Look at it this way: would it be a major sacrifice/freedom curtailment for POMPs to stop using their position to sleep with AGSs? If not then perhaps the risk isn’t worth it.”

What a biased way of looking at it! You seem unable to see this as anything but an argument offered by powerful people to ‘use their position’ to ‘sleep with’ powerless grad students. How unfair!

Why have you forgotten the freedom taken away from the grad students?
How do you go from the fact that A has a position and wants to sleep with B to A is *using* his or her position to sleep with B? The first is commonplace: the second is reprehensible. Can you not see the distinction?
And why is this suddenly about just sex, and not romance?

Let’s ask your question in an unbiased way, for starters: “Would it be a major sacrifice/freedom curtailment for everyone involved if grad students were prohibited from any romantic or sexual involvement with any prominent professor in their field, from anywhere, and vice versa?”

Or, by the same token, would it be a major sacrifice/freedom curtailment for everyone involved if friendships between such people were prohibited?

The answers to these questions might depend on what you mean by ‘major’. Obviously, they are curtailments of freedom and autonomy. Consider this: suppose that you fall deeply in love, or even in lust, for that matter. And I come along and tell you that, for some reason, you may not have a relationship with this person. I ask you whether it’s a major sacrifice or freedom curtailment: after all, you can love or sleep with anyone else you want, aside from the people I indicate (which still leaves billions of people). Would you think then that it isn’t a major curtailment of your freedom? Or what if you are already in a relationship with this person, and that I say you’re to be permitted to continue the relationship but that no similar relationships are permitted, so that the rest of us will take a dim view of you and your partner being together. Does that sound good to you? No major sacrifice (it’s only the person you love!)?Report

enzorossi
Reply to  enzorossi
7 years ago

Anonymous, sorry if I’m a bit terse but I’m pressed for time.

The research I had in mind was summarised in a report by the UK’s University & College Union. It must be somewhere on their website. Many people here will have seen it.

I think we can agree that pretending to be friends with someone to advance one’s business is not a commendable thing.

As for your more general point, I suppose we disagree on a trade off: I think it’s worth trading off some freedom in order to minimise some risks, and you don’t. Perhaps if some POMP was in love *and* really thought that they were going to be able to develop a fair and egalitarian relationship with an AGS then it would be fine, but that sort of thing is near-impossible to predict reliably, so I would err on the side of caution. Pre-existing relationships also seem a rare occurrence.

Why do I keep presenting this from the point of view of the POMP’s decision? Because those with more power should bear more responsibility.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  enzorossi
7 years ago

Thanks, enzorossi.

I’m glad that you agree it would also be bad for a less senior person in business to form a friendship for the sake of personal advancement. The parallel, of course, is that it would be wrong for a less senior person in philosophy to form a relationship for a similar reason. And yet you don’t seem to consider this possibility in your cynicism regarding relationships between more senior and less senior people. Yes, there are possibilities (as so often) of one side exploiting the other, and quite often (though of course not always) it will be the more established person who is exploited. But it needn’t follow from that that all relationships between more and less senior people are exploitative. And if you were to apply the same reasoning that you have in this case, you would have to say that no senior business person could rightly befriend someone more junior. I think this is dubious, and repeat my question whether you accept that apparent implication of your view.

As for your point about the senior philosopher’s intentions (romantic or sexual): I’m glad you seem to agree that if the senior philosopher were genuinely interested in a longer-term, committed, monogamous relationship, that would be OK. And I certainly agree that it would be wrong for either party to either relationship to willfully deceive the other person about this (by pretending to be interested in romance when one only wants sex or access to power, say). But I don’t see anything wrong with two consenting adults agreeing openly to a purely sexual encounter. Do you? I’m not a fan of one-night stands, and never have been; but I don’t think it’s right to make others’ choices in that regard a moral issue. If two people decide that’s what they want to do, then who are we to tell them it’s wrong? We’ve all heard of famous celebrities, male and female, who enjoy having brief encounters with their fans, and the fans who are forever glad to have done so. I really don’t see the problem with this if there’s full information on both sides.

You say that a senior male professor has all sorts of obligations that a more junior woman doesn’t have, because (you reiterate) he has the power. But I think I’ve shown that that claim is dubious, if not false. It may be that a completely unknown, and indeed anonymous, woman is able to destroy a prominent philosopher’s philosophical career through nothing more than her public accusation. Are you really saying that a senior male professor has not only an equal but a far *greater* source of power over the woman than this? You’re really going to have to back that up, I’m afraid. It really seems extremely implausible.

[This comment had been slightly edited.]Report

enzorossi
Reply to  enzorossi
7 years ago

Anonymous (with apologies for my haste):

– A POMP and an AGS mutually consent to a one-night stand at a conference. Six months later their paths cross again at another conference. The POMP wants to repeat the experience, the AGS declines. Uh-oh, awkward. Now imagine the reverse. See the point?

– Sure, people with less power can exploit those with more by deceitfully initiating pseudo-romantic/friendly relationships. Not sure what this has to do with the case at hand. Also, feeling sorry for a downside of privilege ranks low in my priorities. So when a senior businessperson befriends a junior one s/he is aware of the risk, and knows that in the end the other person is the one with more to lose. A responsible person should take this into account when deciding to take a personal interaction to the next level. I didn’t say this should always be impermissible. I said that we’re kidding ourselves if we think that there are no moral risks here. And if there are risks then we should think about whether they’re worth it, and whether it’s worth legislating (not literally!) against them.

– Who has the power? It remains to be seen whether any anonymous AGS can successfully destroy the career of a POMP with an anonymous blog post. I doubt it. The closest example would be the Miami case, which isn’t close at all. Meanwhile people keep being hired on the basis of letters from POMPs.

– When I talked about love I said nothing about monogamy. Please don’t attribute puritanical views to me.Report

Barbara
Barbara
7 years ago

Thanks to all of the above for commenting on my post. What I meant by using the phrase “in loco parentis” to describe (the ideal) relationship between POMPs and students in the same AOS was not at all that the student is a helpless child—although being a young person it is just a plain fact that s/he will be inexperienced in these matters, and because of this s/he may not be in a position to understand the serious risks to her or himself of embarking on such an affair. I meant by the phrase in loco parentis the idea that the responsibility of a professor toward the student is essentially a paternal (or maternal) one, in which the student’s intellectual and even personal welfare comes before their own self-interest —- certainly it ought to come before their own sexual gratification.

So Anonymous, what you may not be getting about what is wrong with these kinds of affairs—and please let me know where I go wrong!—is that the relationship is REALLY not good for you, because it is deeply, inherently unequal, and in a really bad way; and because of the risk you are taking with your professional future.

First, know this: Women who have affairs with their professors end up leaving the field. They may even marry their professor, but, as I said, they leave. (I said I knew of 2 in my own university in the last decade, but in fact I know of more.)

Anyway, back to you. Look at the language being used here: the POMP is a hero; she admires and respects his mind, his ideas etc. You are in graduate school not to embed yourself in an inferior position in existing power structures, but to take a step back from all that; to develop your OWN autonomy, intellectually and personally—if these can be separated; to train yourself to recognise a good idea when you see it, regardless of whether it is attached to somebody famous or not. And to have your own ideas. This is really hard to begin with, but it is much harder if you have let adulation of someone’s ideas be grounds for your sleeping with the person. Putting it simply, you are acting against your own autonomy.

Many young people fall in love with their professors, for reasons which are very complicated. In the case of many young women, they may feel it is the only way to get close to the person’s ideas; that sexual intimacy enables you to have the conversation with the professor you really want to have, that is, without worrying about looking stupid or anything like that, because you are his sexual partner. And in a sense they are right, because in many cases the POMP will have an established, visible camaraderie with his male students, and it has been made clear to you that as a female you don’t fit in.

What I want to tell you is, you can have the conversation you want to have anyway. Without bringing your own body into it. And it is going to be a much better conversation! And of course you will avoid professional blowback. Many of your male professors are decent people who want to be a mentor to you without being their own sexual gratification into it.

Maybe you feel that what I say here underestimates your own agency as a person, or doesn’t really speak to you. I don’t mean to do that at all. It is just that I have seen quite a lot of this over the years, so I am offering my own experience.

So speaking from that experience, you really are risking your professional future by having the affair, and in all kinds of ways. People will say, not that you did it yourself but that he turned you into a great philosopher, as the person implies above in the case even of Hannah Arendt—so even she is not immune from this! They will say lots of other things too, and maybe you don’t think this is so bad, except that this take on you by others gets factored into people’s decisions to invite you to speak at conferences, to contribute to volumes, to hire you and so on. That is, they won’t because they judge you not to have “done it on your own.”

Got to go. Good luck navigating this treacherous world we live in!Report

Interested Grad Student
Interested Grad Student
Reply to  Barbara
7 years ago

Terminological point: I think what you wish to say is that the senior faculty member has fiduciary responsibilities to the student, not that the senior faculty member stands in loco parentis to the student. The latter expression does usually imply a lack of full adult responsibility.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Barbara
7 years ago

Thanks, Barbara. Look, I don’t doubt that SOME “Women who have affairs with their professors end up leaving the field.” (you forgot the ‘some’). But that isn’t what’s under discussion here. We’re discussing whether it’s wrong for professors to have relationships with students who are *not* their own students.

You offer some prudential considerations against students doing that: perhaps the student, in holding the professor to be a hero, will not develop his or her own ideas. That could be useful advice. Then again, though, this is a general problem for hero worshippers altogether, even if they never meet their heros (or if they idolize a professor at school and never have a romantic relationship). Oh, and it’s *not* a problem for PhD students who don’t idolize the professor-from-another-university. Oh, and in the alleged case that prompted this discussion, the student claimed that she became disillusioned with her hero in a way that might not have happened if she hadn’t had her alleged affair with him.

So in the end, when it comes to the case we are discussing (students being involved with professors who are *not* their professors), what you offer is some prudential advice that could be good for them to think about, depending on their attitudes toward him, their own work, their philosophical maturity, and so on. I grant that you offer some food for thought about whether it’s a good romance to pursue, but I can’t see any basis for a moral condemnation of such professors here (and again, I’m not talking about this particular professor in the alleged case: I’m talking about the mere practice of dating or having sex with someone who’s a student in a different department and expresses an interest in you).Report

justinrweinberg
7 years ago

It is clear from the thread so far that different commentators have different views about the veracity of the original account. That is to be expected. Please keep in mind, though, that that is not our topic. Please avoid commenting on the veracity of the original account in any future comments here. Thank you. Moderating this thread has been a bit of a challenge, and I know that not everyone has been happy with my decisions, but, given the sensitive and sensational nature of the topic, I think we have done alright.

UPDATE: Please also refrain from calling upon me to re-moderate the comments which have made it through. I understand I have not done a perfect job here, but if you are seeking perfection you probably will not find it in the comment thread of a blog.Report

ericjohnsondebaufre
ericjohnsondebaufre
7 years ago

Thanks for doing the work of moderation. I too would really like to see more conversation about the ethics of POMP-AGS relations in the abstract; and this was the reason behind my posing of cases that have nothing to do with original account.Report

Barbara
Barbara
7 years ago

Anonymous: indeed I did forget the “some”, thanks! (Though in my direct experience it is pretty much an “all”.)

Anyway, my answer to your question is, given the harms these relationships do to the student—harms the POMP is usually in a position to know a lot about, in contrast to the student, who knows little if nothing about it—on the whole, yes, 99% of the time it is wrong for the POMP to enter into a sexual relationship with the student if s/he is in your AOS. That’s my call. The POMP needs to get a life and look for ego or sexual gratification beyond his or her circle of adoring but very vulnerable students.

I guess there are cases where the age difference is very small, and maybe this mitigates the harmful effects. But the classic situation in which a professor near the end of his/her career (and this part is crucial I think) accepts the sexual overtures of young students who throw themselves at him? Wrong. (And by the way, these people make nightmare colleagues, when they are men, and you are a woman. But that’s another story.)Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Barbara
7 years ago

Well, Barbara, I understand that this is ‘your call’, but I cannot agree that it is a fair one.

You seem to have made up your mind in a very prejudiced way against these professors: you somehow prejudge that they are looking “for ego or sexual gratification” and need to “get a life.” You preface this with the caveat about the student being in the professor’s AOS. But obviously, if what all (or 99%) of the professors who might have encounters with PhD students are after is mere gratification from “his or her circle of adoring… students”, then that should be a constant whether or not they share the professor’s AOS.

In other words, it’s pretty obvious to me at least that fully consensual relationships between PhD students and respected professors in non-supervisory roles is disturbing to you for some other reason, and that this business about the AOS is a post hoc rationalization. It just doesn’t make sense as it stands.

One more thing: while you claim that you aren’t presenting female PhD students as helpless children, I find that hard to square with what you have said this time around: these relationships, you say, ‘harm’ the student even though I have argued against that; the students ‘know little or nothing about’ what is good for their philosophical development; and such students are ‘very vulnerable’. These are not things one would say about people one takes to be competent, autonomous adults, which is clearly (to me) what PhD students are.

Just to clarify: I am not a professor, let alone a prominent or old one. I’m just leery of this move to infantalize women in the discipline and moralize the relationships they and professors might choose. You might find that ‘icky’ or disturbing, but it’s like homosexuality: our personal reactions to certain voluntary practices among adults should not be taken as grounds for prohibiting or moralizing against them.Report

Barbara
Barbara
7 years ago

Thanks for your spirited reply! I really am speaking not on the basis of any disturbing episode in my own life but from what I have observed directly happening to others, in my own long professional life as a female academic. That I have seen so little in the way of constructive/ consensual relationships between POMPS and their (in my expanded sense of the word) students, may just be an accident of my own situation. That’s of course true.

And sorry, but I do see young students—men and women—as vulnerable. It is a sign of my age perhaps, or perhaps it is a sign of my experience as a spectator of many disastrous relationships of this kind over the years.

I would hate anything I ever said to be taken as infantilizing women (or anti-gay for that matter). PhD students are anything but infantile, in fact they offer incredible insights, not just into their field of study but into the world we live in, insight that I learn from every single day. But the understanding of risk is something that comes late to all of us. Later than intellectual ability to be sure.

Do you know anybody in their fifties or sixties who does not wish to undo mistakes they made when they were young? I don’t.Report

Previous AGS
Previous AGS
7 years ago

Anonymous’s tone sounds too dismissive. I think this is worth some careful consideration, and if anyone is moved to take it up controlled study. One can be vulnerable and harmed while being fully responsible. Maybe any adult woman who is voluntarily engaged in a patriarchal and unbalanced relationship meets that. I had one of those relationships with a moderately older POMP, and didn’t finish my degree, and I think the two are connected, however, the circumstances that lead me to say that are really complicated. The relationship harmed me in some respects and helped me in others not least of which was the intrinsic satisfaction of having a close relationship with another philosopher. However, when there’s an age and power imbalance that comes with it, there’s something inherently undermining to one’s confidence, motivation, and sense of self, about being on intimate terms with someone who is much better than you at what you identify with, especially if they at all fail to kindly and generously care about your development (which is hard to do when you’re, say, fighting, or when you’re struggling with procrastination and they can only relate from a professor’s point of view, etc).Report

Anony
Anony
7 years ago

I’m troubled by the assertion that the POMP is the individual actually being harmed – or, as anonymous puts it, potentially “destroyed” – by an AGS telling her story. Such an assertion covers over the history of women in academic philosophy. I have neither the energy nor inclination to address that history in its entirety here. However, I will note that the number of men who have been edged out of philosophy departments on the basis of anonymous online discussions of their romantic behavior is zero.

It appears that a department or university would have no grounds to remove the POMP. Moreover, as is easily demonstrated in the most cursory examination of discussions surrounding the case, there is no consensus as to how we should evaluate the POMP’s behavior. In short, one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that anonymous online allegations of a POMP’s philandering can destroy a POMP’s career.

Another concern I have with this discussion is that folks have gotten hung up on the question of whether it is ever acceptable for a professor and graduate student to enter into a romantic relationship.This frame ignores other issues — for example, lying and preying upon inexperienced women. These allegations are troubling in their own right, but even more so given the problem of women in philosophy. Perhaps this is one of the negative outcomes of attempting to discuss this issue generally rather than examining the case at hand.

[This comment was edited.]Report

Philip Kremer
7 years ago

Eric asks us to consider a case where, “all of POMP’s past involvements with these women have been more or less amicable after the end of the affair and POMP has a demonstrated record not only of non-retaliation but of assisting his former lovers in their careers (whether by writing letters of reference, inviting them to participate on panels, including their work in edited collections, or what have you).” If POMP is writing letters of reference for ex-lovers, inviting them to participate on panels, including their work in edited collections, or what have you, then POMP is in a clear conflict of interest. POMP’s best course of action, post-involvement, is to remain professionally neutral. Moreover, if POMP is asked to evaluate a ex-lover’s file for, say, a tenure case, then the only professionally ethical course of action is to decline, perhaps citing a “conflict of interest” (with no more details than that).Report

Zeke
Zeke
7 years ago

Here is a glaring example of one of the harms that can come to a student as a result of having an affair with a POMP. If he writes her a letter of recommendation, he (and she) are in violation of most conflict of interest guidelines. If he declines to write her a letter, she has to rely on others for letters, and in this case, if he is her supervisor, the lack of a letter from him will count against her. Not to mention the fact that the list of people willing to write letters for any candidate is usually short to begin with.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Zeke
7 years ago

Right, Zeke. And there are many other moral and prudential reasons against students having affairs *with their supervisors*. But I think we established that this is not the topic at hand.Report

Philip Kremer
Reply to  Anonymous
7 years ago

People tend to get letters, not only from their supervisors and committee members, but from senior philosophers with whom they have established professional and intellectual connections. Indeed, such letters often count for a lot.Report

Discomfited
Discomfited
7 years ago

Hello all–I was anonymous at 11:14, April 29th. I’ve picked a moniker so as to help with scorekeeping the rest of the conversation. Once again, thank you all for taking part in this discussion. It is very much helping me sort out some of my own thinking about these issues, and I am glad to see that others are similarly concerned.

I take for granted we can all agree that the power differentials involved in POMP/AGS relationships are important to consider when deciding how to assess a particular POMP/AGS case. Granting this, it would seem that any consideration for or against a general proscription against POMP/AGS relationships should include a discussion of these differentials and the social and interpersonal systems in which they come to be and flourish. Toward the end of spelling out some of those differentials, we must certainly look at asymmetries in professional power and influence that the members of a POMP/AGS relationships operate under. For this reason we all no doubt need to worry about, among other things, letter writing and the various ways that AGSs can be advantaged or disadvantaged by someone who is POMPous. And on an interpersonal level POMP/AGS relationships are problematic in all sorts of ways. I’m glad to see people are raising some of these issues and I hope it’s helping us all get a better sense of what’s going on here and what we ought to do about it.

That having been said, let us also bear in mind that AGSs are hardly powerless in today’s professional setting, so that any intelligible position on asymmetric power relations that favor the POMPous over AGSs will also consider the capacities that AGSs have to, for instance, anonymously smear a POMP in a forum where lack of moderation permits outright speculation and the dissemination of widespread gossip. There is no coming back from that. Particularly when shielded by anonymity and the appearance of a Righteous Cause of Gender Injustice, there are all manner of social and technological mechanisms that permit AGSs the ability to ruin the professional careers of the POMPous.

It is difficult to look back on the press that American philosophers have been getting in the last year or two and not notice this trend. Without disputing any of the details about any of these cases, and most importantly without disputing whether this general trend is for the good, it remains a sociological fact that AGSs wield great power when they make anonymous accusations of sexual impropriety. And let me say, without rancor, that I am myself particularly troubled when I see that prominent philosophers, some of them involved in projects that are directed at politically reorganizing the profession, are coming out in uncritical praise and support of this kind of thing.

I am glad to see that we are having a conversation about the various problems that POMP/AGS relationships bring in their train. I hope my contribution to that conversation can be put to good use by the rest of the participants.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
7 years ago

[Editorial note: many of the recently submitted comments are repeating points made earlier, and so I have not published them. Unless someone has anything exceptionally important and new to say, I am happy to declare this thread done. As the commentator notes below, discussion of these issues is taking place elsewhere. I suspect that at the particular site mentioned the discussion is not moderated.]

Readers of this blog may be interested to know that this conversation is continuing here:

http://philosophymetablog.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-pompatus-of-love.html#comment-formReport