An Open Letter of Support (guest post)


The following guest post* is an open letter from John Greco (St. Louis University), Don Howard and Michael Rea (University of Notre Dame), Jonathan Kvanvig (Baylor University), and Mark Murphy (Georgetown University).


 An Open Letter of Support

What follows is a statement of support for people in our profession who are suffering various trials either as victims of harassment or as supporters of victims.  We who are signing this statement are under no illusions about the magnitude of this particular act of support.  It is a very small thing to do, and we recognize that the moral sentiments and concern we voice here are shared by many in our profession—indeed, that they are so much a part of common decency that many will wonder why we would compose an open letter in order to express them. But we have good reason to think that our making this sort of public statement would, from the perspective of victims and many of their supporters, be better than our silently believing the things that we affirm here.

Two weeks ago, the philosophy graduate students at Northwestern University published an open letter to the philosophical community regarding practical and ethical concerns raised by a professor litigating against an alleged graduate student victim. A week later, an undergraduate student was sued as well.  Now, there are two female faculty members, at two different philosophy departments, named in legal action regarding their responses to student complaints of Title IX violations.

For those within our discipline who have been subject to sexual misconduct, witnessing these events unfold is surely painful. For those concerned for the protection of victims and the responsibilities of faculty to respond to misconduct, it is a source of genuine concern. Given that we will not be able to treat women justly until harassment and assault are no longer tolerated among us, they may be wondering whether we can create a culture in which those who have been victimized, or those with professional responsibilities to respond to allegations of discrimination, are able to safely come forward without fear of retaliation or of being subject to undue public scrutiny. We share these concerns.

We are thankful to those who have spent a significant amount of their time and energy making philosophy a more inclusive space, as well as to those who are working to support victims. However, we recognize that if the progress they have made is not to be lost, rights to report concerns of sexual misconduct and retaliation must be protected, and that protecting these rights has to be a community effort.

As things currently stand, there are very substantial professional and personal risks associated with addressing sexual misconduct either informally or through formal university channels—including, as we have now seen, the risk of being sued for defamation. Moreover, these risks accrue not only to victims but to those who try to support them in seeking to have their grievances addressed. Unsurprisingly, many victims have felt as if they have no recourse, many who might otherwise have supported them have remained silent; and the culture of silence understandably contributes to the impression that there are really very few within our profession who are much concerned either about the prevalence of sexual misconduct within our discipline or about the risks associated with seeking to have it addressed.

We write, therefore, to say publicly that these developments are lamentable, to voice our support of rights to report concerns of misconduct, and to ask the philosophical community to join with us in supporting both the victims of sexual misconduct who have the courage to file a formal report, and the faculty who provide them with support.

John Greco, St. Louis University
Don Howard, University of Notre Dame
Jonathan Kvanvig, Baylor University
Mark Murphy, Georgetown University
Michael Rea, University of Notre Dame

UPDATE: The following are names of persons who have explicitly asked to be added as signatories of this letter.

Mitchell Aboulafia, Manhattan College
Michael Bergmann, Purdue University
Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, Gallaudet University
Ingo Brigandt, University of Alberta
Ross Cameron, University of Virginia
Mason Cash, University of Central Florida
Aron Edidin, New College of Florida
Simon Evnine, University of Miami
Filippo Ferrari, University of Aberdeen
Kristina Gehrman, University of Tennessee Knoxville
Cody Gilmore, University of California Davis
Heidi Howkins Lockwood, Southern Connecticut State University
Catherine Hundleby, University of Windsor
Catherine Kemp, John Jay College, CUNY
Ole Koksvik, University of Bergen
Trenton Merricks, University of Virginia
Axel Mueller, Northwestern University
Mark Nelson, Westmont College
John Protevi, LSU
Susan Schneider, University of Connecticut
John Schwenkler, FSU
Matthew Silverstein, NYU Abu Dhabi
David Sobel, Syracuse University
Janet D. Stemwedel, San José State University
Eleonore Stump, St. Louis University
Candace Vogler, University of Chicago
Matt Weiner, University of Vermont   

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Matt Weiner
6 years ago

I will sign onto this too.

Matt Weiner
University of VermontReport

Anon Female Grad Student
Anon Female Grad Student
6 years ago

Note: the problems in philosophy are bullying and other misconduct, to which sexual harassment is one form; I wish that this letter (and thank you for it) used the language of bullying, intimidation, and harassment, that of a hostile environment writ large.Report

Another Female Grad
Another Female Grad
6 years ago

Thank you so much for your public support of victims. From my point of view, it is incredibly encouraging. Thank you.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

Does this website have a policy of blocking certain people from giving the “thumbs up” to individual comments? I used to be able to give the “thumbs up” but now I can no longer do so. Thank you in advance.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Like Professors Greco, Howard, Kvanvig, Murphy, and Rea I consider their sentiments and concern a part of common decency; I lament that what they say needs saying. But given the current state of the discipline, none of us can take it for granted that our fellow philosophers affirm they say here. Many of us simply have no idea the extent to which we have the support of our colleagues. For us, this sort of statement means more than we can say.

I am very grateful not only for the support that this letter conveys but also for its having been made public.Report

Heidi Howkins Lockwood
Heidi Howkins Lockwood
6 years ago

Wow – thank you. I can’t tell you how much this letter means to me, to know that the handful of “usual suspects” are not the only ones with the courage to speak out in support of those who are trying to introduce the notion of accountability and 20th-century workplace norms to the profession. Though I know there are many others who feel the same way, you’re the first philosophers outside the circle of those who have been working on the issues to have the courage to publicly speak up.

I strongly support this statement, and urge others to do the same; there is strength in numbers.Report

Aware
Aware
6 years ago

I note that each of the signatories is either a Christian* or a faculty member at a Christian university. I take this point to be noteworthy because I have often heard Christians described as insensitive to gender issues, supportive of patriarchal norms, or even misogynistic. This is clearly true of some Christians, as it is true of some non-Christians. But true Christians abhor injustice and, in my view, the Christians who signed this letter have made it clear that they abhor everything about sexual assault. I consider this letter an example of what Christianity is supposed to be.

*I know that at least four of the five signatories is a Christian, but I am not sure whether each of them is.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

I have the same question.Report

Supporter
Supporter
6 years ago

Thank you for this wonderful post.Report

Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

The authors write, in admirable humility, that this open letter is a small gesture. To the contrary, I think it is huge gesture, and I’m personally grateful to those who took the time to compose this thoughtful statement of concern. One reason that I think it is huge is that its not so obvious to me that these sentiments are widely shared in our profession.Report

Jan Dowell
Jan Dowell
6 years ago

I echo Jennifer’s sentiment; this is a very important gesture for precisely the reason she gives. Thank you.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Thank you so very much for writing this– and to Matt above for adding his name! I’m with Jennifer. This is a huge gesture.Report

Mark Nelson
Mark Nelson
6 years ago

Than you for this excellent statement. May I add my signature as well?Report

Jan Dowell
Jan Dowell
6 years ago

Adding a bit to what Jennifer says: The reason why statements like this one are so important is that they help set the tone for our profession. Harassers do what they do expecting to get away with it, because they read our profession’s atmosphere as one that looks the other way. It would be an important preventative measure if a number of well-established men made it clear that they won’t.
In my own experience, a small number of bad actors among the male grad students can really poison a department’s atmosphere, making it difficult for some female students to take full advantage of their educational opportunities. Often, such bad actors greatly admire the male faculty. I’m convinced that making it clear that disrespectful treatment doesn’t make you a playa’, it makes you deeply uncool, would really go a long way towards making things better.Report

Carla Fehr
Carla Fehr
6 years ago

John Greco (St. Louis University), Don Howard and Michael Rea (University of Notre Dame), Jonathan Kvanvig (Baylor University), and Mark Murphy (Georgetown University), thank you for writing and publishing this letter of support.Report

Filippo Ferrari
Filippo Ferrari
6 years ago

I would like to be added as well!

Filippo Ferrari (University of Aberdeen)Report

David Sobel
David Sobel
6 years ago

If signatures can be added, I would ask to add mine.Report

Catherine Hundleby
6 years ago

I would like to add my signature as well.
Catherine Hundleby (University of Windsor)Report

Candace Vogler
Candace Vogler
6 years ago

Thank you. I, too, would like to sign this letter.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

Thank you for your response. The button has reappeared for me, so the problem seems to be solved now.Report

Ole Koksvik
6 years ago

I, too, emphatically sign on. May I suggest that a list of additional signatories be added to the op, like we saw with e.g. the September statement.Report

Ned Markosian
6 years ago

Great letter. Thank you for posting this, John, Don, Jonathan, Mark, and Michael (and Justin)!Report

Janet D. Stemwedel
6 years ago

I would like to add my signature as well.

Janet D. Stemwedel (San José State University)Report

Mark Lance
Mark Lance
6 years ago

I’ll just add my endorsement of this wonderful letter.Report

Kristina Gehrman
Kristina Gehrman
6 years ago

I too would like to add my signature to this letter. Three cheers for the instigators!Report

Anon Grad
Anon Grad
6 years ago

A sincere thank you to the authors of this letter, and to everyone “signing on” publicly. It really does mean a lot, for the reasons that Heidi Lockwood, Jennifer Frey, and Jan Dowell mention above. From a grad student perspective, it is also really good to know that we are not lost at sea — that there are people in the profession willing and able to support and guide us, should we need it.Report

Ross Cameron
Ross Cameron
6 years ago

I would also like to register my support for everything said in this excellent letter. (And would also like to add my signature, if names are to be added.)Report

Tom Senor
Tom Senor
6 years ago

Very well stated, folks. You’ve certainly got my support.Report

Matthew H. Kramer
Matthew H. Kramer
6 years ago

I’m happy to endorse the content of the open letter of support.Report

Matty
Matty
6 years ago

I would like to sign as well: Matthew Silverstein (NYU Abu Dhabi).Report

Aron Edidin
Aron Edidin
6 years ago

Thanks to the authors. Add my signature to the list.Report

Catherine Kemp
Catherine Kemp
6 years ago

Retaliation, whether formal or informal, actual or threatened, against victims of harassment of all kinds as well as against those who try to help is the single greatest obstacle to real change in the culture of the discipline. Sign me up, with the addition that we shouldn’t lose sight of the informal while we focus on the formal.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
6 years ago

Signed.
John Protevi (LSU)Report

Cody Gilmore
Cody Gilmore
6 years ago

Thanks for the excellent letter. I sign.Report

Jan Dowell
Jan Dowell
6 years ago

As some evidence for claim that senior men offering support for victims of harassment has a positive effect greater than that of grad students and female faculty offering the same support, I point to the differences between the comments on this post from those on Jennifer Lackey’s or that of the Northwestern grad students.
Gentlemen who haven’t yet spoken up, eyes are on you.Report

Patience
Patience
6 years ago

Perhaps some men and women, realizing they do not know the relevant facts about the cases, have decided to withhold judgment and not publicly take sides until it can be determined by the appropriate people whether defamation probably or probably not occurred.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

I’m noticing that now that I’m on another computer, the “thumbs up” is gone again. Waiting a few seconds does not correct the problem.Report

Captain Sensible
Captain Sensible
6 years ago

Dumb question. Isn’t it the case that the “Northwestern Professor” is well within his rights to sue people for defamation?Report

John Schwenkler
6 years ago

Signed, John Schwenkler (FSU)Report

Eleonore Stump
Eleonore Stump
6 years ago

I would like to sign the letter.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

I’m just so encouraged to see how many philosophers are making the effort to ask to have their names added to this list. The fact that something so small is encouraging to me is rather striking, but since it is, I want to say thank you!Report

Catherine Kemp
Catherine Kemp
6 years ago

Not a “dumb question” but a rhetorical one, really. Suggesting that defamation plaintiffs’ rights are on the line when a group condemns someone for exercising them is a great way to shift the ‘ooh-ugly’ burden away from the actor and on to the group–or the victim(s). Nothing about this expression of support suggests any derogation of someone’s rights to file defamation claims. The support is expressly moral and offered to victims and people otherwise engaging in protected activity whose lives can be buried in perfectly legitimate litigation. It’s okay to condemn a culture that fosters retaliation and actors who exercise legal rights in ways that contribute to that culture. It’s moral condemnation, it’s social opprobrium–it’s not depriving someone of his (or her) rights. The call for indemnification made elsewhere *assumes* the robust and vigorously asserted rights of defamation plaintiffs (for example), and tries to shift the inevitable costs away from victims to institutions and/or support groups.Report

Mitchell Aboulafia
6 years ago

Thank you for doing this! Please add my name to the letter. It’s very important that we speak out. Here I speak as someone who experienced retaliation at a university for trying to protect graduate students and junior colleagues. In the face of the silence of so many, to know that you are not alone and that people care, helps you survive.Report

Simon Evnine
Simon Evnine
6 years ago

Please add my name too. University of Miami.Report

Teresa Blankmeyer Burke
Teresa Blankmeyer Burke
6 years ago

This is a wonderful letter! Thank you so much for it.
Please add my name to the letter. (Gallaudet University)Report

Mike DePaul
Mike DePaul
6 years ago

I certainly share the sentiments you so nicely express. But at the same time, people can be falsely accused and they can be defamed. If someone is, should they have no recourse? Taking legal action does have the advantages of occurring somewhat out in the open and being governed by various rules. Perhaps it is for these reasons better than the more traditional forms of retaliation. If, as a faculty member, you learn of purported sexual harassment, you will have stumbled into a risky situation. There are epistemic risks. You often must form an opinion about what happened on the basis of insufficient and typically contradictory evidence–there will always be the other side of the story after all. You obviously risk getting things wrong. Some action seems to be required. You risk harming someone, by omission or commission, especially if you did get things wrong. And now we see that depending on what you do, you risk various consequences including even legal action. You might be sued for defamation. I believe that you, or your institution, can also be sued if you knew, or were in a position to know, and did nothing. This fact can really put you in a bind if a victim comes to you, but requests that you not tell anyone, which is not at all uncommon. There’s no avoiding these various risks. Things obviously will not change for the better unless more of us are willing to act in the face of the risks. In the overall scheme of things, we are very privileged and do not risk much compared to others who take action to confront evils, including the victims of harassment who come forward. But we do risk something, so more of us need to exercise a little courage as well. Thanks for voicing your support of those who have. I’d like to offer my support to them as well.Report

Adam Omelianchuk
Adam Omelianchuk
6 years ago

That fixed it for me! Back to voting up Prof. Frey’s posts 🙂Report

Ingo Brigandt
6 years ago

Thanks for doing this! I am happy to be added to the signatories.
Ingo Brigandt, University of AlbertaReport

Mason Cash
Mason Cash
6 years ago

Well done. An important message. Please also add me to the list of signatories.
Mason Cash, University of Central Florida.Report

Axel Mueller
Axel Mueller
6 years ago

Please add me to the signatories.Report

Mason Cash
Mason Cash
6 years ago

agree, Paul, that there are risks in reporting based on insufficient evidence.

But you don’t need to have all the facts before filing a report. You *can’t* know all the facts. IMHO, filing a report, detailing what you *do* know initiates a process that gathers more facts than you personally are able to gather.

You are professionally obliged to report what you do know; even though you don’t know all sides and all the details about what actually happened, because it’s important that such an investigation take place. (IMHO, a victim who asks you to promise not to tell anyone might need to be told that you cannot make that promise; you are professionally and morally obliged to report such misconduct and it would be irresponsible to not report it.)

The investigation enables what happened to be better known, by those with the authority and ability to do something to (a) support victims, and (b) ensure it stops happening, and doesn’t happen again, and/or (c) clarify the situation and clear up misunderstandings that might have appeared to be sexual misconduct or other breaches of professional responsibilities.

The risks in not reporting what you do know, are far greater, for everyone involved, than any small risk incurred by reporting what you do know. Further, it’s not defamation if you only report the facts. Defamation applies to unsupported claims.Report

Trenton Merricks
Trenton Merricks
6 years ago

I would like to sign the letter, so please add me. Thanks.Report

Michael Bergmann
Michael Bergmann
6 years ago

Please add my name to the letter.
(Mike DePaul is surely right that it is very difficult to avoid risk in reporting sexual misconduct and in supporting those who make such reports. And the best way to reduce such risks may involve improvements in the law and/or university policies. But it is indeed lamentable—and worth saying so—that there is sexual misconduct in our profession and that the risks associated with seeking to have it addressed are so high. Victims of such misconduct and those who speak on their behalf deserve our support.)Report

Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

Justin, that didn’t work for me. I use google chrome.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

Hi Mike (DePaul, I mean)–it’s been pointed out elsewhere, and I’m not sure if you’ve seen those discussions, that if someone were found to be responsible for sexual misconduct on the basis of a defamatory statement they would have recourse open to them by way of legal action against their university (given that if you have sufficient evidence to prove that testimony is defamatory in a court of law, you would have sufficient evidence for the university as well, and thus evidence that the university failed to investigate properly). It’s true that if someone were to be defamed and the university properly adjudicated the matter the individual defamed may have no legal recourse against the individual who defamed them outside of filing a defamation suit against them, but it’s also true that bringing a knowingly false complaint is something which students can generally be expelled for, that the costs of bringing even genuine complaints are extremely high regardless of whether or not being sued is a potential consequence, that it’s also possible that people may falsely believe they have been defamed when they haven’t been, and that current situation is one in which there are far more cases that go unreported than there are cases of false reports.

But, I agree with much of what you say, and appreciate both the thoughtful comments here and the signatories publicly acknowledging what they believe.Report

Amber Carlson
Amber Carlson
6 years ago

Many thanks to the author and signatories!Report

Susa Schneider
6 years ago

I’d like to be sign as well,if possible. Thank you for doing this.Report

JDRox
JDRox
6 years ago

Hmm. I don’t think any sort of sexism or power dynamics are at work here. The concerns about those other two posts were focused on the fact that the principles defended in those posts entailed

P: It is wrong for an innocent (but falsely accused) person p to sue a guilty person g who has falsely accused (perhaps knowingly) p.

Since nothing in this post entails P, there is nothing to object to. It is obviously grievously wrong for a guilty person g to sue an innocent person p who has accused g of doing something they in fact did.Report