Do the Tenured Speak Up Enough?


Tenure is, in part, designed to protect one from retaliation. It’s the tenured that can make the culture of silence (and shame) within a profession disappear….  Obviously they need help from their employers (universities and grant agencies), but it does make a difference. 

What is so distressing about professional philosophy, is that too much of the hard work in changing our norms and practices has fallen on some of the most junior and vulnerable in our profession (when these are not actively undermined or shunned for breaking the culture of silence) or on a relatively small group of change-agents.

Yes, there is a lot more support of victims and far wider public recognition of our profession’s problems than there was, say, a decade ago. (I hope that’s true; there is also a lot more public vilification too, so I may be too optimistic.) During all the scandals that have come to light during the last few years, some of our senior colleagues were instrumental in aiding victims; behind the scenes there is a lot more effort to prevent serial harassers from speaking at conferences and workshops. But too many of our profession’s big shots continue to show indifference or, worse, cover for philosophically talented peers about which there are plenty of “open secrets.”

That’s Eric Schliesser, writing at Digressions & Impressions about how the sexual harassment scandal concerning Geoff Marcy is being handled by the astrophysics community in which Marcy is a central figure, particularly by senior, tenured members of that community, and how it seems to differ from what happens in the philosophy profession.

manuela-viera-gallo_paloma-vocera_megaphone-pigeon_pentagon_collabcubed

(Sculpture by Manuela Viera-Gallo)

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Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
5 years ago

I thin Eric’s post is great. Two things to note: First, of course, he’s right that tenure can make a significant difference but that it’s protection is not absolute. Someone, might for example, assist a victim and then be sued for doing so (of course, I think this is all the more reason to think that there is a broad responsibility — the burden of risk should not fall on a small number of people to right wrongs that have arisen, in part, out of a collective culture, and when if it didn’t, perhaps those risks would be lessened). Second, it’s notable that in this case at Berkeley, the administrator who reached an agreement with Marcy on behalf of the university about what procedure he would be sanctioned through if it happened again rather than pursuing sanctions now is also a philosopher.Report

adjunct
adjunct
5 years ago

Maybe it’s telling that the only comment so far is from a graduate student.Report

Cheyney Ryan
Cheyney Ryan
5 years ago

I am not sure philosophy is any worse than other fields in this regard, still the passivity of tenured on this issue deserves reflection. When I was in the U of Oregon philosophy department there were two significant sexual harassment issues, one in the 1990s, the other more recently. In both cases some of the complaints came to me first, as dept affirmative action director. In the first case, it was faculty from other departments that brought them to my attention; in the second, students directly. In both cases, it immediately became evident that many other phil faculty knew about the complaints but had said nothing about them–in some cases, for years. I found this astonishing, and am still unsure how to explain it, beyond that faculty–it included both male and female faculty–basically didn’t care what happened to female students. (None of these incidents involved faculty of any achievement.) Based on my experience, Katheryn Pogin is right that tenure does not protect you against all retaliation. Initially, with me, it was rather benign; I was no longer appointed to committees I didn’t want to be on anyway. But retaliation in the more recent case was substantial, due I think to its achieving some notoriety in the philosophy blogosphere. Both the adm and the phil dept head issued public statements attacking me personally for advancing the complaints–a blatant violation of federal anti-retaliation laws. This was legally resolved by my position being transferred to the law school, a reasonable but still painful outcome that eventually led to my leaving the university. If people report complaints to a professor, they are generally obligated to pass them along, so the choice is between fear of retaliation vs. ignoring one’s legal/moral obligations; things would be better if people were clearer about this. Obviously, retaliation requires isolating professors, so the more people speaking out the better.Report

Jan Dowell
Jan Dowell
5 years ago

I dearly wish I knew the answer to why more tenured faculty don’t speak up. Perhaps some of those who don’t could explain why they don’t here–anonymously, of course.Report

Tom
Tom
5 years ago

I just finished watching The Wire and can’t help but feel it’s relevant here. All in the game.Report

Sophie
Sophie
Reply to  Tom
5 years ago

What do you mean, Tom?Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
5 years ago

I think this is one of the main reasons tenure is important. But I am not sure how many tenured people are reflective about this fact. There’s not a general, discipline-wide culture that reminds us that tenure is a responsibility. There should be. Tenure isn’t the only relevant status, too—full professors also, I think, have more responsibilities in this regard than do associates.

Of course, tenure is only one kind of protection, as Justin points out. One can be stifled or intimidated by influential members, or general features, of an academic community too. Certainly one reason fewer people don’t speak up is that, even when one is tenured, one pays social and professional costs for doing so. This is part of why the protections in question also need to be backed up by strong intuitional academic freedom cultures and policies.Report