Not Legally Actionable, But…

Not Legally Actionable, But…


A tenure-track woman professor at a private U.S. university writes:

In light of a situation that recently came up in my department, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the following question… I’m honestly at a loss for how to deal with this, and I’d love to hear some (sensible) thoughts of others on the issue.

The issue is this: Take it as a given that there are what we might call “bad actors” in our discipline. Assume further that not all of the bad actors are engaging in behaviors that rise to the level of legally actionable, but that nevertheless are behaviors that most in the discipline agree are (on balance) harmful for colleagues and students. Finally, assume that our knowledge of many of their behaviors is by definition partial, incomplete, or otherwise inconclusive.

If these assumptions are in place, how ought we to think about the morality of social sanctions (since we’ve already ruled out legal sanction)? Many of these situations are “he said, she said”, and of course hearsay can be a problematic source of evidence. On the other hand, the very nature of many of the alleged offenses is such that asking for “proof” of bad behavior is either a kind of category mistake (i.e., the proof is simply in the victim’s accounting, since most people don’t walk around wearing wires!), or exhibits profound naivete about the powerful motivations that victims have for remaining anonymous (and thus self-consciously undercutting their own testimony), or for not speaking out at all.

Our discipline has had several high-profile cases of bad behavior recently, but I suspect that there are far more cases of bad behavior that don’t reach the threshold of legally actionable. So the question is: What are the options for dealing with a situation where we are committed to protecting our students and colleagues from alleged bad actors, but (1) have only testimonial evidence at our disposal, (2) aren’t inclined to turn into any kind of morality police, and (3) definitely don’t want to get ourselves sued?

I am open to a discussion of these matters. A few preliminaries, though. While people are welcome to discuss the judicial outcomes of well-known cases, I would prefer they not speculate about unsettled or unproven allegations related to these cases. When writing about an actual case, consider whether, instead, your point would be just as (or more) effectively made by replacing it with a hypothetical case. Please do not make new accusations of specific people’s “bad behavior” in the comments. 

Readers may wish to take a look at this related thread from August, 2014, “Hiring and Unofficial Information.”

(Also, comments may be slow to appear today. Please be patient. Thanks.)

(image: detail of “Ohh…Alright” by Roy Lichtenstein)

Lichtenstein Ohh Alright detail 2

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Jan
Jan
5 years ago

Could the OP give a few examples of the kind of behavior she has in mind (harmful, but not illegal)? That would help me think about the question.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
5 years ago

There have recently been a number of these types of incidents at my institution (i.e. bad actors whose bad actions are not legally actionable). Not knowing what to do myself, I was referred to this article by Jennifer Saul that I found extremely useful: Jennifer Saul, “Stop Thinking So Much about ‘Sexual Harassment'”, Journal of Applied Philosophy 31 (2014): 307-321. This essay addresses the exact question of what to do about bad actors when no legal actions are available. What I found most useful was Saul’s insight that since a lot of “bad” behaviors are very subtle, our response to these “bad actors” can be just as subtle. Saul calls these “microbehaviors or microagressions,” which “include making eye contact with men but not women, not noticing the quality of an idea until it’s expressed by a man, not calling on women, and so on” (p. 313). These types of microbehaviors can be met with other types of microbehaviors that signal disapproval with an individual’s actions. In Saul’s words:

“Non-explicit expressions of disapproval are one of the most interesting avenues to pursue. As we saw above, microbehaviours can do a great deal to create an unwelcoming environment for those we should be welcoming. Importantly, though, they can also create an unwelcoming environment for behaviours of the sort we’d like to stamp out.This is something that Chris Bennett calls attention to in his paper ‘Varieties of Retributive Experience’. There he describes in detail the way that human beings can powerfully signal disapproval by a kind of social withdrawal — not greeting, not making eye contact,and so on — noting the transformative effect this can have on wrongdoers as they realise why their friends and colleagues are withdrawing.” (p. 316)Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Anonymous
5 years ago

Well, the problem with these strategies (or, “microbehaviors” if you must) is they aren’t specific enough. How will bystanders, or the offender, know the reasons for the ostracism? Shunning someone with no explanation of the reasons for the shunning strikes me as rather cruel.

I’m not entirely sure what the question is, but I am quite open about my specific experiences. I’ve never shared them on the What is it Like blog, but I do share them in conversations at conferences and other events. Usually it comes up in general discussion of harrasment, but I’m also happy to insert stories about my experiences when the conversation is focused on the (famous) philosophers in question.

Once you have tenure, name and shame.Report

Original Query
Original Query
5 years ago

Jan, I’m the one who submitted the original query to Justin.

The types of behaviors that I have in mind are primarily those that involve a tenured professor serially pursuing romantic relationships with those significantly less powerful than him or her — and by “serially,” I mean an identifiable pattern of behavior. This is meant to rule out long-term committed relationships, though of course one worry is that it’s impossible to know ahead of time whether a relationship of the questionably harmful sort might actually turn out to be a relationship of the long-term monogamous sort. Still, even given that there are “gray area” cases, it seems to me that there are nonetheless clearly identifiable cases where senior professors are widely known to pursue graduate students (or even undergraduate students!) one after the other.

It also now strikes me that I was ambiguous in my original post as to the nature of my question. I think there are two separable issues here:
(1) Given that certain types of bad behavior are not legally actionable but nevertheless warrant some kind of social (or even professional) sanction, is there any widely agreed upon standard of what such behavior would be? This is the “morality police” worry; one person’s questionable behavior might well be an essential feature of another’s romantic life. For example, my inclination is to think that if a faculty member has a romantic interest in a graduate student, then waiting until the student is no longer enrolled in the program to become romantically involved is an acceptable cost in order to avoid the many problematic situations that arise from permitting faculty members to become romantically involved with students. But I also realize that many consider this position to be unrealistic at best, and sanctimonious moralizing at worst. So the question remains: What counts as “beyond the pale” with respect to bad behavior?
(2) Assuming that we can settle on an answer to (1), what standard of evidence ought to be used in determining whether someone has behaved badly so as to warrant some kind of sanction? This is the “partial evidence” worry — perhaps we don’t want to, for example, boycott conferences or “blacklist” people simply on the basis of hearsay regarding a single instance of bad judgment. (Everyone makes mistakes and does stupid things, after all!) But on the other hand, it does seem that hearsay from multiple anonymous accusers carries significant weight, once we understand that the kind of “proof” often demanded in these circumstances is simply not available (for a variety of reasons that I mention in my original query). A sharper way of framing this worry: Demanding certainty before taking sanctioning action will always have the practical effect of not sanctioning at all, given the very nature of the behavior in question. If, for example, there are multiple independent-but-anonymous accounts (thus falling into the category of “hearsay”) that someone has pursued sexual relationships with graduate students in a wide variety of departments and contexts, and has written letters of recommendation for some of these students, then (because of the anonymity of the students and the confidentiality of recommendation letters) it will be very difficult to obtain certainty as to whether this person is in fact guilty of bad behavior, and thus whether s/he warrants social or professional sanction.Report

Ted
Ted
Reply to  Original Query
5 years ago

Thanks for the clarification of the original question, OQ.

In response to question (1) — “what counts as ‘beyond the pale’ with respect to bad behavior?” — there is a straightforward response for those of us who work at universities in the US. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. §1681 et seq., prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities. Any behavior — sexual or otherwise — that has the effect of restricting a student’s educational opportunities is not merely bad behavior, but in fact legally actionable. So, for example, if I am a male grad student at a US program and a female grad student is the subject of romantic interest from a (non-bisexual) faculty member who is giving her access to educational opportunities (e.g., research funds, conference invitations, etc.) that are not also made available to me, I have grounds for a Title IX complaint and potentially a Title IX suit, depending on the severity of the harm to my career. And I take it that it would be near-impossible for a faculty member who is romantically interested in a student to not, e.g., show preference by offering to edit her work, spending extra time in office hours, and so forth. In other words, prohibiting relationships between faculty (or lab supervisors, or persons in positions of power) and grad students in the same program is not mere “sanctimonious moralizing.” It’s required, by law, and, I would argue, by common sense.

In response to question (2) — “what standard of evidence ought to be used in determining whether someone has behaved so badly as to warrant some kind of sanction?” — the answer again is straightforward. Title IX requires that cases are evaluated using the “preponderance of evidence”, aka the “more likely than not”, standard. If it’s more likely than not (greater than 50% chance) that the behavior occurred, then, according to the Dear Colleague Letter of 2011 *and* recent case law, the behavior must be sanctioned.

Now, all this promulgating about the requirements of Title IX doesn’t answer what I take to be your real question, which is: what the hell are we philosophers supposed to do in cases in which, say, we have a known problem, an “open secret” a la Geoff Marcy, in which we have some indirect “knowledge” (using the more likely than not bar for knowledge), but no material evidence because, say, the victims have accepted a quid pro quo benefit, and are afraid to speak up because they feel they’ll face professional eyebrow-raising if they do so? We can’t just run to Justin and say “hey, Justin, there’s this creep who has been harassing students in my department” because Justin will naturally want to see the sort of “proof” that he would need to defend himself against a libel charge. And we can’t typically turn to our colleagues, who are enablers or at least — what did Heidi Howkins Lockwood call them a couple of years ago? “ostriches”? — who are in denial, acting like bystanders, doing the “it’s not my job” thing. They’re part of the problem. What are our options? Most of us realize that if we actually want to try to protect students from harm, the only option is to go underground, to develop a vigilante whisper network in which we wait and watch and try to identify students who might be at risk, and quietly, very cautiously (because you never know what that sycophant student might say to the perp), warn the student(s) at risk.

Obviously this sort of vigilantism is reprehensible, at best.

So what are the alternatives?

Well, one obvious alternative would be for those who have information to get off their duffs and actually DO something about the behavior. I recognize that there can be very complex reasons for victims or persons with evidence not coming forward. They might, for example, be embroiled in a law suit that requires that they not divulge what they know. Or they might be fighting to piece their lives back together. So I’m not suggesting that the onus should be put on victims. But there are many, many others who have Knowledge — not just in the “little k” more-likely-than-not sense, but also in the “big K” sense, with emails and other damning evidence. Eric Schleisser put out a Call for Big Shots to step forward and take a stand about two weeks ago. The response was a deafening nada. Silence. Why? Well, I can only speculate here. One reason might be that many of the Big Shots have skeletons in their own closet that they are afraid will come out if they dare to criticize the behavior of another Big Shot Bro. Another is that some of the Big Shots — especially the feminist Big Shots, who have a warehouse of Knowledge — are amazingly preoccupied with protecting their own arses, determined to avoid a law suit at all costs. And yet another is that some of the perps are so cunning that they’ve managed to blackmail those with Knowledge via inverse quid pro quo threats.

I know this isn’t helpful in the sense that it doesn’t provide a solution, per se — but at least it helps explain a little bit of the apathy? And of course explanations are the first step.

One thing that think might be a step in the right direction is if the discipline were to start putting pressure on those with Knowledge to come forward, with an indemnified Ombud (and for fuck’s sake not the APA Ombud, who is a wonderful person but who is also justifiably skittish of a lawsuit) to look for patterns in the allegations that might help identify the (many) serial predators among us.Report

Janet D. Stemwedel
Janet D. Stemwedel
Reply to  Ted
5 years ago

Can you explain why you regard sharing information about bad actors with those likely to be targeted by them as reprehensible?Report

Crimlaw
Crimlaw
Reply to  Ted
5 years ago

Ted writes: ” In other words, prohibiting relationships between faculty (or lab supervisors, or persons in positions of power) and grad students in the same program is not mere “sanctimonious moralizing.” It’s required, by law…”

Some Universities prohibit such relationships. Many do not. Do you really think that the Universities that do not prohibit such relationships are thereby in violation of the law? Can you provide any citation of statute or even advisory statement that supports this claim?

Similarly, I doubt very much that the example given in the first paragraph of a violation of Title IX really is such an example.Report

Zara
Zara
Reply to  Ted
5 years ago

“So, for example, if I am a male grad student at a US program and a female grad student is the subject of romantic interest from a (non-bisexual) faculty member who is giving her access to educational opportunities (e.g., research funds, conference invitations, etc.) that are not also made available to me, I have grounds for a Title IX complaint and potentially a Title IX suit, depending on the severity of the harm to my career.” OK, I’m with you so far, at least provisionally. But then, you continue, “And I take it that it would be near-impossible for a faculty member who is romantically interested in a student to not, e.g., show preference by offering to edit her work, spending extra time in office hours, and so forth.” Near impossible? I know many faculty-student relationships where, in fact, this did NOT happen for a number of reasons, for example: they were in totally different subdisciplines; it would have been a total relationship buzzkill to thus mix business and pleasure; neither partner wanted this kind of relationship because it emphasized something they were trying to de-emphasize, i.e., differences in age or professional position. This is simply a false empirical claim. “In other words, prohibiting relationships between faculty … and grad students in the same program is … required, by law …” This strikes me as highly implausible: if it were required by law, then many more universities would have explicit policies against it.Report

GradStudent
GradStudent
Reply to  Original Query
5 years ago

I think if you take it that there are people who have been harmed, one thing to do (if you’re able) is to start by talking to them and asking if there’s something that they would find helpful and supportive.Report

NCBD
NCBD
5 years ago

This description seems to suggest the question is not about microaggressions such as not making eye contact with some people, but behavior that is thought by many people to be seriously socially unacceptable, even though not illegal. I often distinguish “ethics” from “law” for my students with examples like this. Social sanctions are the only appropriate response to some bad behavior.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

So it seems that the OP wants some guidelines that will help us in deciding who and who doesn’t merit some sort of organized public sanction when the offensive avtions in question fall short of criminal behavior.

I think this is a misconceived project. There shouldn’t be this kind of organized sanctioning of this type of behavior.

I say that not because I don’t think such behavior is blameworthy, but because of worries about the potential costs associated with public sanctions. To minimize the chance of error, the standard of proof would have to be very high, and as the OP points out, in many cases it would be impossible to satisfy.

The less powerful have long had ways of passing along helpful information about the creeps and assholes of the world. Of course, knowledge is often imperfectly transmitted through these networks, but trying to pass along this information through some sort of public sanction system will lead to far bigger problems.Report

Young Professor
Young Professor
5 years ago

Professor Plum, we KNOW about the harms that harassment (sexual and otherwise) has caused many in our field. In fact, we seem to be getting a new law suit every few months which lays out the damage(s) done to the victims of it.

This makes me think two things (at least for now):
1.) This “long had ways of passing along helpful information about the creeps and asshole in the world” isn’t nearly as effective as you seem to think it is. People are being victimized in our profession all the time.

2.) Do you have any basis/evidence/etc. for thinking (or are you just speculating?) that a sanction system (public or not) would cause more harm and lead to bigger problems than the harms we KNOW are being cause in places like the Northwestern University, the University of Miami. etc?Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

I fail to understand how anyone could think that there could be such a thing as an appropriate sexual relationship between a teacher and a student. Period. That we would try to explain away some types of student/teacher sexual relationships (e.g., “because it led to a long-term relationship”) strikes me as ridiculous.

But there seems to be an important difference between faculty members that have sexual relationships with students and those who do things like not take suggestions by certain colleagues seriously because of race, gender, religious beliefs, etc.; not take mentoring duties to younger colleagues or students seriously for similar reasons; use offensive or hostile language in the hall, classroom, or in departmental meetings (“that’s gay,” “that’s retarded,” “stop complaining like a girl,” comments that disparage religious people, etc.).

I have my doubts about whether or not shunning these individuals will do any good. They may not recognize why they are being shunned or they may not care. But I also wonder why anything more needs to be done than whatever you would do in a non-academic situation when you encounter these people. Don’t befriend them, don’t invite them over to your house for dinner, find opportunities to express disapproval with their behavior directly, and then do what you can to help the people who are being slighted and otherwise provide them with support.Report

zara
zara
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

When someone’s opening remark is “I fail to understand how anyone could think that X”, my inclination is not to see that as evidence against X, but rather as evidence of the failure of someone’s imagination and ability to fully consider positions other than their own.Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  zara
5 years ago

Please, give me an argument for why you think it’s reasonable for faculty members to try to seduce students. And please provide that argument in your own name. That some faculty members seem to think that having sex with students is a perk of the position is disgusting. Perhaps it’s my “failure of…imagination and ability to fully consider positions other than [my] own,” that got me to that conclusion, or perhaps it’s just that I find the alternative positions to be reprehensible.Report

Crimlaw
Crimlaw
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

Many institutions allow faculty/student dating. Perhaps they should not do this because perhaps like you they should find it unimaginable that this should be permitted. I suspect the institutions that allow faculty/student dating think that permitting such dating is not the same as taking the position that “having sex with students is a perk of [a faculty] position” — if they think this are they mistaken?Report

Zara
Zara
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

“Please, give me an argument for why you think it’s reasonable for faculty members to try to seduce students.” Nothing I said implies or even implicates that I think it’s reasonable for faculty members to try to seduce students. I do think it’s reasonable for a faculty member and a student to find themselves attracted to one another, to find they have many things in common, to find that they love each others’ company and are excited to see each other, to fall for each other, and to pursue a relationship. This need not involve a faculty member seducing a student. Surely your imaginative powers extend to admitting that this is possible?Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
5 years ago

I don’t think the whisper network can be relied on for anything close to adequately warn members of the professional community about creeps. I know multiple people who have had bad experiences (ranging from uncomfortable, to harassment, to assault) with people for whom they only found out after the fact that this was part of a larger pattern of behavior. Granted, Professor Plum notes that this transmissions of knowledge is imperfect — but I don’t understand the basis for the claim that alternatives would be worse. I’m a grad student. And I know multiple people who have been severely harmed because they didn’t get this knowledge in time. How many more will I know by the time I’m tenured, should I ever get that far?

I don’t know that naming and shaming is the answer — but, not, say, inviting someone who you know will likely to be creepy with students to professional events where being able to interact with other philosophers in a professional manner seems like a start.Report

Junior Academic
Junior Academic
5 years ago

Assuming that the bad actors are predominantly male, why don’t you organise a women in philosophy dinner and invite all female grad students and faculty? This could create a better supportive network for potential victims.Report

GradStudent
GradStudent
Reply to  Junior Academic
5 years ago

I think this is a fine thing to do in addition to doing other things, but I just want to register why I think this should only be done in conjunction with something else: In my own experience, I’ve had a much easier time finding supportive male colleagues than female colleagues (no surprise there, there are just a lot more men than there are women in philosophy). There are fewer women than there are men, but also not all women are supportive of one another, and not all women want to be supportive of one another, and (in my own view) everyone, regardless of gender, is responsible for doing their part to create a healthy professional environment (not that women shouldn’t be able to have space like this, but that sometimes it unintentionally communicates, when done poorly, that this is a thing that only women need to think about).Report

DC
DC
5 years ago

One fascinating aspect of this question and the comments to it is that though the initial question very carefully (it seemed to me) was phrased to encompass all morally reprehensible behavior, the commenters seem to assume it’s solely about sex-based harassment. There seems to be this unchallenged assumption that sex-based bad behavior is somehow inherently worse than any other kind, but I could think of several plausible situations where a student or junior faculty member could legitimately find unwelcome sexual advances less harmful than say, nonsexual bullying. That’s not a defense of unwelcome sexual advances, but simply to point out that maybe we should take a more nuanced view of what reprehensible behavior is.

Title IX, for example, does not provide a remedy for a faculty member who steals credit, publicly belittles her advisee, mercilessly bullies his students, etc. etc.Report

GradStudent
GradStudent
Reply to  DC
5 years ago

I don’t think this is super fascinating, because the person who submitted the original query explicitly responded that what they’re thinking about involves serial pursuit of romantic or sexual relationships with students — but, that said, I think the substance of your point is really important for a number of reasons, including specifically addressing climate issues along gendered dimensions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told “Oh, so-and-so isn’t a creep, they’re just a jerk.” That people behave badly along other dimensions should never function as an excuse for bad behavior along this dimension, and yet, so often, it does. All of that kind of bullying behavior is concerning.Report

Enzo Rossi
5 years ago

Setting aside straightforwardly inappropriate behaviours, would it be easier and/or more desirable to try and sanction professors’ dating strategies or to try and change professional conventions so that professors don’t have *so* much arbitrary power over graduate students? For instance, must we rely so much on letters of reference and whispering campaigns on who’s “smart”? Must most journals continue to be only double-blind instead of triple-blind? And so on.Report

anon
anon
5 years ago

What if, when you heard that one of your colleagues was engaging in inappropriate behavior, you talked to the colleague and told him that what he is doing is wrong? You know, like grown-ups do.

If he is basically morally decent, his conscience will be moved by your pointing out his immoral actions, and he will stop. If he is not a basically decent person, the mere fact that he now knows others are ‘on to him’ might be enough to deter him from continuing the behavior.

(As a side benefit, if the allegations are untrue, actually talking to the person accused might help bring this to light.)Report

Anonymity Requested
Anonymity Requested
Reply to  anon
5 years ago

I’m surprised at the thumbs up votes because this sarcastic comment strikes me as really out of touch with human nature. The binary “either / or” here is silly because most predators do not believe themselves to be predators. In much the same way, most violent criminals believe that their actions are justified (psychopaths excepted). See the recent book “Virtuous Violence” (Cambridge) by Alan Fisk and Tage Rai.
In the case of philosophy department predators, here is a common psychological type for which your binary either/or would fail: the predator believes (by virtue of looks, career accomplishment, connections, etc.) that he is a gift to junior women. When confronted, he will angrily deny any wrong-doing. Moreover, he will claim that *he* is the victim of an organized campaign by those who find his stature (or masculinity or whatever) threatening. After being confronted (or “taken aside”), the predator decides that he needs to focus on women who are more “receptive” to his advances, women who will “appreciate” how amazing he believes himself to be; in practice, that means he moves on to a more vulnerable part of the population (say, he moves from targeting junior colleagues to graduate students, or from targeting graduate students to undergraduates).
Add in to the mix that the predator is tenured and you’ve got someone who won’t be dislodged without a lawsuit (and perhaps even not then).Report

anon
anon
Reply to  Anonymity Requested
5 years ago

I’m not sure I see why the character you describe calls into question the ‘either/or’ that I posed. Of course many people who engage in sexually inappropriate behavior do not think of themselves as doing something wrong. And that’s not just limited to sexually inappropriate behavior. Human beings in general aren’t very good at recognizing when their actions are immoral. And this is one reason why we need friends and colleagues who are willing to point out our moral failings to us. Nobody is happy when this happens, but most of us are at least *capable* of coming to see that the other person is right, and that we need to change our ways.

The person you describe, though, doesn’t seem to be like this. He seems to be completely unreceptive to the moral criticism of others. And that seems to be a paradigm case of a person who is ‘not morally decent’, and thus one who fits rather nicely into the binary I posed.

Of course, that many bad actors are likely to respond to criticism in just the way you describe. But I don’t think it’s right to assume, merely on the basis of allegations heard through the grapevine, that someone must be an egomaniacal predator who lacks a conscience. We can only find out whether this is the case by actually confronting him and seeing how he responds. If we do confront him, and he does react in the way you describe, then certainly different sorts of measures (like warning others about him behind his back, trying to remove him from positions he can abuse, etc.) would be warranted. But *after* someone talks to him, not before.Report

Anonymity Requested
Anonymity Requested
Reply to  anon
5 years ago

You write: “If he is not a basically decent person, the mere fact that he now knows others are ‘on to him’ might be enough to deter him from continuing the behavior.”

I take it that your “talk to the colleague, you know, like grown ups do” would not work for the psychological type I sketched.

I’ll cash out my point with a fictionalized example. Say I am an untenured professor in political science and I often cross paths with a full professor of philosophy who specializes in political philosophy. For some time now, he has been making advances on me; initially, I think the advances must mean nothing because he’s married. But, he continually shows up at my office, makes jokes filled with innuendo, suggests that I’d be lucky to work with him, and finally he asks me if I find him sexually attractive. I tell him that he is making me uncomfortable. He seems shocked and becomes defensive so I am forced to tell him to leave me alone.

Sometime later, I hear that he has been disparaging my professional work and this has me concerned because my tenure clock is ticking. He’ll surely be called on to comment on my work owing to the use of internal examiners (as well as outside ones). I turn to a more senior colleague in political science, one that I trust, and ask her about the predator over in philosophy. She says that she has long regarded him as a creep and has heard rumors, but nothing ever seems to come of it.

So, I meet with the Chair of the philosophy department and relate my story. Now, let us pretend that the Chair of the department does what you suggest and talks directly to the predator. The Chair takes the predator aside and says “Junior professor in political science says you were making advances on her.” The predator, of course, vehemently denies it and says that I am motivated by revenge because I know that he thinks my work is “shallow.”

The Chair then comes back to me and says, “Look, he denies your story” (but withholds the accusation of revenge) “so I’m afraid that this is a scenario of ‘he said / she said.’ There is nothing I can do. You could try talking to the Title IX coordinator, but I think they will come to the same conclusion.”

In his own mind, the predator has been “wronged” by my refusing his advances; and, he has been “doubly-wronged” because I talked to his Chair. Accordingly, he turns up the heat in his criticism of my work. And, he has decided that I wasn’t “smart enough” to recognize his “charms.” Accordingly, he moves on to a population that he thinks will worship him for the intellectual and masculine hero he believes himself to be: undergraduates. (This is also the population *least* likely to file a Title IX complaint against a professor.)

Thus, the “talk to the predator” strategy does not deter him. Instead, it leads him to adapt his strategies, to become slower in his advances, and to pick his targets more carefully. We may have crimped his style, but we certainly have not stopped him.

In fact, in this scenario, if there is anyone who is stopped, it is future complainants because the creep over in philosophy ensures plenty of blowback on anyone who rebuffs him.Report

anon
anon
Reply to  Anonymity Requested
5 years ago

1. I said that confronting a ‘non-morally decent person’ *might* deter him from future bad behaviors. I never said that it would in all cases. Still less did I claim that my ‘strategy’ would solve every problem associated with bad actors in departments. Obviously it will not.
2. It’s not clear to me that doing what you describe in this post will be of no help at all. Surely if you have filed an informal complaint about professor X with your department chair, then the chair would not choose professor X as an internal examiner for your tenure evaluation. (If so, then your chair needs to be reported to the dean.) That obviously doesn’t completely eliminate the problem, but it at least helps a little bit, right?
3. The case you describe doesn’t fit the topic of this thread in the first place. The thread is about cases where you’ve heard, but don’t know for sure, that someone is behaving poorly towards *others*, not a case where you are the target of the bad behavior yourself. Or, at least, that’s what I took it to be about, and that’s the kind of case I had in mind in my first post.
4. Despite that, it *still* seems to me that the course of action you describe your hypothetical self as taking in this post is exactly the course of action you should initially take. You should first tell the dude that you’re not interested, then, if he persists, report it to your or his superior (or both). If that doesn’t work (and I agree that it might well not), then you (and, hopefully, your supportive colleagues, as well) would and should pursue other possible solutions. What the appropriate further steps would be would depend a lot on the specifics of the case.

I’d be interested to know what you have in mind here. What do you think should be done in a case like this?Report

Anonymity Requested
Anonymity Requested
Reply to  Anonymity Requested
5 years ago

To anon:

Thank you for your post. I agree that you said it “might” deter a predator; what I have been arguing is that it probably won’t. In fact, I’ve gone further: I sketched a mentality and a scenario in order to show that your suggestion could very well backfire and bring blowback upon the complainant.

I grant that the case I described doesn’t fit the topic, but the department chair talking to the predator fits with what you advised, so I think it is a little unfair to say I’m off topic.

So, what do I think the questioner should do?

1. In all cases, take what you have heard to the Title IX officer. It doesn’t matter if it does not rise to the level of legally actionable since the Title IX officer may still be assisted by the information because it can establish a pattern. Predators often have a pattern (see Martha Nussbaum’s story in “Singing in the Fire: Stories of Women in Philosophy” about the predator she faced and his trick of always “forgetting” papers at home.) In turn, the Title IX coordinator (who will likely know more than the average faculty member) can combine the “not legally actionable” material with a single legally actionable event in order to make a compelling case.

2. Spread the word with people you trust through informal, non-documentable channels such as face-to-face communication, the phone, or Skype. Do not use e-mail. Plenty of predators already use this trick (McGinn being an exception), so why not use it against him? I’m not an attorney, but in order for the predator to sue you, he’d need some hard evidence. Quoting Cornell’s Legal Information Institute: “To win a defamation case, a plaintiff must show four things: 1) a false statement purporting to be fact; 2) publication or communication of that statement to a third person; 3) fault; and 4) damages, or some harm caused to the person or entity who is the subject of the statement.”

3. Generate alternate reasons why you tell students or junior faculty to avoid the predator. The field is wide open. Say the predator isn’t well prepared in the classroom, or doesn’t respond well to e-mail, or is difficult to work with, or is a hard grader, or is mean spirited, or has a personality style people don’t like. Whatever. Heck, we do this kind of pseudo-justifying all the time. “I couldn’t make your party because I had too many papers to grade” when the reality was “I don’t like you and didn’t want to go.” Do the same with the predator in relation to students and juniors that you advise.Report

Philster
Philster
5 years ago

There is a third option besides the unacceptable extremes of unexplained subtle withdrawal and public “naming and shaming.” I say these are unacceptable because the first is weak, as a tool for restraining people who seem to have poor impulse control in the first place. Plus, there is something intrinsically problematic about shunning or snubbing someone without confronting him or her about why it’s being done. I would not want to be in a department with someone who did that, no matter how well-intentioned, though of course it’s even worse to be in a department with a serial harasser. But the second option, public sanction, is way more unacceptable, because it is too much like the legal sanction for which we require proof: it is irreversible, extremely harmful, and likely to destroy. It is a gun, and you don’t pull the trigger without proof. Of course, some illiberal folks believe the proof requirement in criminal trials is too stringent; “when you know, you know,” they say, or “where there’s smoke there’s fire.” But IF you DO believe in proof before criminal conviction, publicly naming a “harasser” is not interestingly different. The accused is thereafter done, professionally destroyed, forever. Probably also vulnerable to permanent social exclusion. I’m not saying this punishment is excessive in many cases, just that it’s irreversible and harsh, and so needs proof.

The third option, I think, is social sanction that’s not quite public. And so much else we can do. Credit, help and offer to professionally support the victim. Reassure her you believe her and want to help her. Put the alleged offender on notice that he’s been accused, that you deplore this behavior and won’t stand for it, etc. Heck, there’s so much stuff in this middle zone, I wonder why everyone’s stuck between snubbing and “exposing.”Report

Crimlaw
Crimlaw
5 years ago

If someone is violating the law, perhaps if you have standing to do so file a legal complaint. The original question, as I understand it, presupposes that the law is not being violated. Is the person in question violating university policy though not the law? If so, report the violation. Quite a few universities have policies forbidding the kind of dating that the questioner asks about. Others do not, but have policies requiring disclosure and recusal. I assume from the clarification provided of the question that the “serial dating” described is not in violation of any university policy against dating students. My impression, perhaps mistaken, is that the questioner wishes her university had a policy forbidding faculty / student dating but that the university does not. If this is the case, my suggestion would be to follow the normal channels of governance at your university and attempt to get the policy changed.Report

Trinidad
Trinidad
5 years ago

When the OP talks of ‘bad actors engaging in behaviors that do not rise to the level of legally actionable, but that nevertheless are (on balance) harmful for colleagues and students’ it is clear that the main thing she has in mind (and the main thing others have thought to discuss) are bad actors engaging in behaviors that make the climate for women in philosophy poor. This focus is justified, but it is worth asking whether there are other kinds of bad behaviors of a similar status (not legally actionable but harmful) to consider. One reason to do this is that we can then compare our intuitions about appropriate social sanctions across these different kinds of cases and test them for moral consistency, making necessary adjustment by reflective equilibrium when necessary.

With this in mind here is a different kind of example to consider. Some senior staff are bad actors towards junior staff in ways that are not legally actionable, but that nevertheless are (on balance) harmful. For example, I have come across many cases of permanent or tenured staff getting adjuncts or casual staff to do work that is actually the responsibility of the permanent staff and not part of what the adjuncts/casuals are contracted to do. This is often done subtly by, for example, making it clear in conversation that if the adjuncts/casuals refuses to do the additional unpaid work then they may be disfavored in future teaching allocations. Sometimes it is even more subtle. For example, a permanent member of staff who is lecturing in a particular course may ask a casual tutor in that course to take one of her lectures while she is away at a conference. The lecturer may have grant funds available that could be used to pay the tutor but she prefers to keep those funds for other things and so ask the tutor to do it as an unpaid ‘guest lecture’, saying it is a great opportunity for the tutor to improve her teaching CV. In doing this the lecturer knows that even if the tutor is too busy to take on extra work she will feel pressure to say ‘yes’ because her prospects (future teaching contracts, recommendations etc.) are dependent on avoiding the disfavor of this staff member.

I know of several bad actors in the profession who engage in this kind of exploitation. What is the appropriate response? Is it the same as a bad actor who creates a bad climate by pursuing inappropriate romantic/sexual relationships yet avoids legal sanction? If we strongly suspect that someone is exploiting junior staff in this way but cannot prove it should we still engage in some kind of social sanction?Report

Original Query
Original Query
5 years ago

Many thanks, all, for these careful thoughts. I should clarify that, while the cases that I had in mind in my original question dealt with sexual misconduct & manipulation, I agree that these questions can be generalized to any kind of harmful behavior. I do think, however, that there are special harms that attend sexual manipulation that don’t necessarily attend other kinds of problematic behavior, though; it’s a much more personal, more intimate harm, on top of the normal harms that attend harassment. (By “normal harms”, I’m thinking here of retaliatory action: the possibility of future teaching contracts, letters of recommendation, and various other professional goods drying up if the problematic behavior is made public.)

With respect to the serial dating of the less powerful, my question does indeed assume that one’s university has no policy against such behavior. (Some institutions try to mitigate the problematic effects of this situation by stipulating that the student cannot be a direct advisee of the faculty member, or by requiring that the faculty member never mark the student’s work directly. But, as far as I know, not many universities prohibit such relationships full-stop.) My own intuitions are that there are plenty of fish in the sea, and that it’s not a massive burden to ask faculty members to find their romantic fulfillment elsewhere, but again, I worry that we’re turning into the morality police.

I should also say that, in the specific case that prompted my initial query, the issue is not so much internal to my department as external: What ought to be the standard that we use when inviting or sponsoring visiting scholars to come to campus? I know of at least one department who has adopted an informal policy of not inviting scholars to campus who have a “predatory” reputation, and while this has hurt them in some respects, they’re famous enough that they’re none the worse for the wear. But what if you’re at a department whose profile is appreciably raised by having a prominent (but predatory) scholar visit? (Or, even more complicatedly, if your department is divided about the standard of proof required to rule out a speaker? Or isn’t divided about the standard of proof, but simply puts higher credence in the word of the alleged predator than the word of the victims?) My intuition here is: There are lots of possible speakers that one could invite who not only lack predatory reputations, but actually have rather good reputations! Why waste an invitation on a reputedly predatory (if prominent) scholar when an obviously-not-predatory scholar is available? Here again, though, I’m sensitive to the worry that simply being accused of predatory behavior doesn’t thereby ensure that one is a predator. I’m sympathetic, but I also don’t think that these accusations come out of *nowhere*. Whatever the original behaviors were that gave rise to the accusations (and here I’m thinking of the serial misbehavior, not of a one-off accusation) themselves indicate problematic judgment at the very least. When there are so many other (morally and intellectually) good choices, why continue to give opportunities to scholars with predatory reputations?Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

Well, in the visiting speaker question, there are two cases: one in which you have reason to believe that predation *at the actual event* is a serious possibility, and one in which the idea is just that one oughtn’t to be recognizing people for their academic achievements if they also engage in disreputable extra-academic behaviour. I’m certainly sympathetic to taking the former into consideration, but much less so to the latter.

(But, on my view, this follows from a more general principle: I also don’t think we ought to withhold otherwise merited professional recognition from artists or actors or doctors or scientists or politicians simply because they’re bad people, even in cases where they’re very very bad people. My view is that if Jones comes up with the most brilliant breakthrough in cancer research in decades, you should vote to give her the Nobel Prize, even if she’s an avowed racist who beats up small children. If you think it’s likely that she’s going to punch a child or scream slurs at the ceremony, however, you’re justified in just sending her the medal in the mail.)Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

Except who you invite to give a department talk is not simply based on the person’s academic achievements. Nor should it be. People are invited because they are thought to be (or at least hoped to be) good philosophers *and* they are new in town, someone’s former advisor, working on the pet project of a powerful person, and so on. Decisions about who to invite to give a talk are not analogous to who to nominate to a national honor society!

There are cases and there are cases, and the OP’s cases seem to be changing from post to post.

While I think it is fine not to invite someone to give a talk because you think the person is a jerk, I do worry about a *department policy* of not inviting suspected predators. I would also be troubled by a departmental policy of not inviting suspected non-predatory jerks.

Having a department policy not to invite certain people based on rumors about their character is troubling for a couple reasons. First, there is just something a bit unseemly about a group of people getting together around a conference table and publicly and explicitly deciding not to invite someone based on unsubstantiated rumors.

Second, an official policy like this seems like it could easily lead to troubling consequences. If it is an official department policy, surely we need a list of the suspected predators; after all not everyone is in the loop and comittee memberships change from year to year. But then why not share the list with colleagues in another department who also wants to enact a similar policy? But then someone across the country also wants the list. In fact, he argues that the list should be posted to the APA’s website so that all philosophy departments have access to this important information. And so on.

Not every response to creeps and jerks should be formalized into an official department policy or social media campaign.Report

zara
zara
5 years ago

I agree with above comments that the question of informal sanctions for bad professional behavior is also an issue when it comes to matters not involving the climate for women in particular, in philosophy. There are a number of bad behaviors that, if I knew about them, would disincline me from supporting inviting someone to my department to give a talk: treating department administrative staff badly, treating teaching assistants badly, treating I.T. staff badly, etc., by, for example, bullying them into doing work beyond their normal duties or treating them as the help. Such behavior would also incline me to distance myself socially and professionally from the bad actors. Granted, a delicate and respectful word with the colleague in question might serve to correct someone who is well-intentioned but oblivious. But, if it doesn’t work or isn’t practicable, then I see nothing wrong with a social and professional distancing.

In response to Anon Grad Student: there’s a difference between a professional recognition and an invitation to give a talk. When my department invites a speaker, there are various hospitality duties, etc., imposed on my department’s members. Frankly, I don’t want to entertain someone who treats their teaching assistants badly, regardless of the excellence of their work.Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
Reply to  zara
5 years ago

There are hospitality duties that come with virtually everything, though. In almost every other kind of white-collar employment, people accept that occasional polite socialization with people who are objectionable for one reason or another is something that one just has to put up with. In the long run, the good involved in having these norms of civility and outweighs the (arguable) injustice involved in applying them to particular cases.Report

Zara
Zara
Reply to  Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

I really don’t care what burdens people accept in “almost every other kind of white-collar employment”. There are many trade-offs in taking on academic employment. On the positive side, I manage 75% of my own work time and 100% of my social calendar. I agree that norms of civility must be weighed when deciding how to manage my social calendar including when work-related socializing is involved. But I do not think that I am in any way subject to all the norms of other white-collar professions.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
5 years ago

The OP self-identifies as “tenure-track.” This puts her in a very vulnerable position that needs to be considered within the context of the specific culture of her department and institution. Will her attempts at unofficial sanctioning of her colleague rebound to leave her accused of a lack of collegiality? How serious is the perpetrator’s conduct and is it worth risking one’s own career to make a big deal out of it? Are there tenured members of the department who are better positioned to address the problem? Is there a risk of mentioning the issue to seemingly sympathetic tenured colleagues, who may ultimately decide they have no choice but to protect the (tenured) perpetrator whom they are stuck with for the foreseeable future rather than side with a dispensable “troublemaking” junior colleague? One would like to think one’s colleagues would do the right thing, but my own unfortunate experience is that the cowardice of others can transform one’s own courage into recklessness.Report

Juliette
5 years ago

Departmental atmosphere is very important, and it has made a big difference in our math department. This sexual harassment awareness event was organized by the Faculty of Science:

http://video.helsinki.fi/Arkisto/flash.php?id=20442

And it really helped to raise awareness in our department, and to create an atmosphere in which sexual harassment, microaggressions and so on are now really frowned upon. We are not perfect, but we are trying.Report