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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