Whose Problem Is It? (Guest Post by Heidi Lockwood)

Heidi Lockwood is associate professor of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University, where she focuses on questions in logic, metaphysics, and epistemology. She also works on issues in the philosophy profession, particularly regarding the treatment of women (see this post for example). She kindly authored the following guest post* on the issue of whose responsibility it is to address some of the problems the profession is currently grappling with. Comments welcome.

A true story: Philosophy Professor X, who taught at University Y, engaged in unwanted sexual contact with Student A. After learning that Professor X had also allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct with Students B and C and possibly D, Student A decided to file a formal complaint, in the interest of protecting future students and doing the right thing and justice and all that lofty stuff. University Y found Professor X guilty of sexual misconduct, and, for various non-transparent but predictable reasons, decided to quietly offer Professor X a non-disclosure agreement and an attractive voluntary severance package. Professor X got by with a little help from his academic friends, and rode his golden parachute to University Z, where he met Student E, with whom he had non-consensual sex.

Professor X, in other words, is a serial sexual predator and rapist who has managed to adversely impact the academic careers (and likely much more) of at least four students (and likely many more). His behavior, arguably, has been sanctioned by higher education.

But who, we might wonder, is “higher education”? His academic friends? The University Y administrators who gave him the golden parachute? The University Z administrators who failed to investigate his reasons for departure from Y? The students who didn’t file grievances? The untold number of ostrich-colleagues who were dimly aware of the problem but figured it’s none of their business? The APA or other organizations in the discipline? The Department of Education?

Professor X’s serial predation is not unusual behavior on college campuses. Most (90-95%) of the sexual assaults on campus are committed by just 4-6% of the rapists, who commit an average of 5-7 rapes each (see, e.g., Lisak’s 2002 study of more than 1800 college students). Serial sexual offenders are a pressing problem. But who should be responsible for addressing it? Here are a few of the answers I’ve seen bouncing around in both the open airways and shadowy underbelly of the cloud, where folks are tweeting, messaging, and blogging about the question:

Not the Universities:
The fact that most universities have an abyssmal track record at dealing with sexual assault and misconduct – though not a new phenomenon – has been in the headlines almost every week for the past six months in the U.S. Last week, for example, the Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight released the results of an investigation showing that, despite the fact that 67 universities are currently the subject of Title IX investigations, more than 40% of universities in the U.S. have not conducted a single sexual misconduct investigation in five years; 21% fail to provide Title IX-mandated training to faculty and staff; and 31% provide no training for students. And earlier this week, the New York Times published a front-page article about a typical but particularly graphic university investigative failure. These and many other stories provide a compelling argument for the thought that universities are simply not equipped to shoulder the burden for rectifying the situation alone.

Of course, there are those who disagree. At a Q&A with Department of Education Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catharine Lhamon at Dartmouth’s Summit on Sexual Assault earlier this week, attendees argued that campus judicial systems are not designed to address misconduct as serious as sexual assault. Faculty and staff tribunals, after all, often do not have the disposition or experience required to conduct effective and safe investigations – and universities often have compelling business reasons to keep an offense quiet, particularly in cases in which the offender is an athletic or academic asset. Lhamon disagreed, insisting that addressing sexual assault on campus is “fundamental to the role of education.” University police and universities are responsible for creating an environment safe enough for teaching and learning. They don’t have any problem dealing with theft, plagiarism, hacking, or any other crime in the panoply of human offenses. Why should they balk at being asked to respond to sexual assault?

Not the APA:
The American Philosophical Association has taken some laudable steps to address issues in the profession, forming the Committee on the Status of Women and a climate assessment team who will conduct by-invitation site visits. More recently, they have also responded to a petition launched by Eleonore Stump and Helen De Cruz calling on the APA Board of Officers to issue “a code of conduct and a statement of professional ethics for the academic discipline of philosophy.” However, as several philosophers pointed out in this July 15 IHE article – and as the APA Board of Officers themselves would, I think, concur – the APA does not have the resources or the legal standing to adjudicate what some Board of Officers members describe as “disputes between individual members.”

More generally, disciplinary organizations are arguably not the ideal vehicles for inter-university prevention and enforcement of sexual misconduct issues. Many problems, after all, fall outside a particular academic field. Which discipline would be responsible for the prevention of the sexual assault of one undergraduate student by another, or the misconduct of a perpetrator who does research in interdisciplinary areas and moves from one discipline to another?

Not the ostriches:
As one colleague complained to me earlier this month, “I’m sympathetic to the issues, but it’s not my problem! I can’t maintain a world-class research program and give the issues my full attention. I’m a philosopher, not a counselor or civil rights activist or public servant.”

I don’t agree that issues in philosophy are not philosophers’ issues – but I do agree that it’s not appropriate to rely on activists and volunteers to fix the problem. The problems we’re dealing with, after all, are serious. An untrained activist or amateur investigator can do more harm than good. And, as the suit filed against a faculty advocate for a complainant last month reminded all of us who (continue to) provide support for victims, attempting to redress wrongs can have serious consequences.

So, if the problem of sexual misconduct on college campuses – and particularly the problem of serial predators who move from campus to campus – is not ideally addressed by individual universities, disciplinary organizations, or faculty members, whose problem is it?

I’m curious to hear what readers think.

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