Sexual Harassment in Philosophy, Part 2 (guest post by Janice Dowell and David Sobel)

The following is a guest post* by Janice Dowell and David Sobel, professors of philosophy at Syracuse University, with help from several other philosophers. It is the second in a two-part series on sexual harassment in philosophy. Part 1 is here.

Like the first installment, this one was also published at PEA Soup.

Professors Dowell and Sobel have included some prefatory remarks for this post:

Below is the second installment in our two-part series on sexual harassment in academia. In this installment, we discuss proposals for what individual philosophers and departments can do to prevent harassment and support victims. Some of these proposals will likely be controversial. The ongoing discussion of this topic is important; we hope people will carefully consider our proposals and the rationale offered for them. And while proposals for change frequently come with the risk of creating new problems, we hope people keep in mind that the status quo has very serious costs.

Before those who disagree publicly express their dissent, I very much hope they will keep two considerations in mind: 

(i) Whether the proposals advocated by the signatories to the statement below are warranted depends very much on what’s known about the rates of harassment and retaliation in academia and their impact on victims. Anyone who is unfamiliar with these facts will find it difficult to reasonably assess these proposals. So, we hope that anyone not yet familiar with the empirical data will first read our initial post.

(ii) Survivors and those who advise them will be following public discussions. As we know from private discussions, many who have been harassed have experienced and often continue to experience a good deal of pain. I hope those engaged in public discussions of the proposals below will be mindful of that by choosing their words in a way that does not have the effect of discouraging survivors from coming forward. When they come forward, they provide an important service to our profession, often at considerable cost to themselves. We need them and we need their service to fix this problem. And they need and deserve our support. 

With that in mind, we hope also that critical responses are accompanied by alternative proposals for addressing the problem. We owe this to survivors.

If you would like to add your name in support of the document below we ask you to post your name, rank, and academic affiliation in the comments section of the PEA Soup post. We will then add your name to the document.

—Jan & Dave


Barbara Kruger, untitled (“Look and Listen”)

Second of a Two-Part Series on Sexual Harassment in Philosophy
by Janice Dowell and David Sobel

The #MeToo movement has raised awareness of both the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault and their debilitating impact on victims. Addressing the problem in academia, however, raises special challenges. Tenure can afford perpetrators strong protections. And even where universities are in a position to act against one of its own employees, they are relatively powerless to act against those who harass on their campus, but work elsewhere. Moreover, professional standing and power, together with the very real threat of retaliation, give victims and witnesses strong incentives to keep silent, as well as perpetrators’ friends and colleagues incentives to protect and support them. Nonetheless, there are actions that individuals and departments can take to help protect victims and potential victims from bearing the full and very significant cost of harassment and assault.

First, individuals can support victims by acting in ways that make coming forward easier. There are many ways to do this. One simple way is by being mindful that, when harassment is discussed in professional settings, there is a good chance that a party to the conversation is a victim, knows a victim, or will later advise a victim. Avoid minimizing allegations against someone when you have no specific information about the case. Otherwise you risk conveying to victims and their would-be supporters that your default response will be to doubt their complaints.

A second way to support victims is by expressing sympathy and condemning harassment when it is discussed in professional settings. This may seem unnecessary, as sympathy and condemnation are too obviously warranted to require expression. But this is clearly not obvious to everyone; if it were, harassment wouldn’t be the fairly pervasive and tolerated problem that it is. To a victim, a failure to express sympathy can easily be interpreted as indifference or knee-jerk doubt. Open condemnation of harassment suggests to victims that you are aware of their suffering, that it is safe to talk to you, and that you would support them should they choose to come forward. This can be enormously empowering for survivors.

Third, be alert to the problem, so you can act to protect potential victims. Perpetrators of harassment can and do professionally retaliate against their victims. Indeed, they frequently target those against whom it would be easy for them to retaliate, such as people they write letters for. But even whispered doubts about a job candidate by a non-letter writer can have a negative impact. This often makes simply discussing a problem, let alone lodging a complaint, quite risky.  By being someone who is clearly safe to talk to,[1] you can increase your awareness of who the bad actors are.

Fourth, do what you can to protect potential victims from those reasonably suspected of being bad actors. This is more difficult than the above suggestions, since it requires assessing what counts as evidence sufficient for such suspicion and this, in turn, raises the question of what sort of evidence is sufficient for which types of action.

We begin with our proposed policies and follow with the sorts of evidence we’ll argue are sufficient for implementing them. Withholding opportunities to give talks, as well as to place papers in invited volumes, can be an effective tool in fighting harassment. First, withholding speaking invitations helps keep perpetrators out of contact with possible victims. Second, in academia, prestige is the coin of the realm, giving perpetrators the power and access to potential victims that they need to operate without consequence. Depriving perpetrators of professional opportunities undercuts their ability to find and retaliate against victims. As editors of invited volumes, we might decline to include any paper by those we have sufficient evidence to believe a predator. As authors, we might similarly refuse to participate in volumes which include work by such individuals. Finally, broadcasting a departmental policy of not extending talk or conference invitations to individuals a department has sufficient grounds for thinking a bad actor can help rig the payoffs against harassment everywhere. Departments might circulate a list of possible speakers to their members before any invitations are issued. In that way, a department might internally pool its information about individuals, to determine whether collectively it has evidence it deems sufficient to take a candidate off its list of possible invitees.

Before turning to a discussion of sufficient evidence, two points are important to underscore. First, opportunities to give talks, as well as to place papers in invited volumes, are professional goods no one is entitled to. Widely accepted professional practice already confers on departments and volume editors extensive latitude in determining to whom invitations will be extended. (For example, it is widely regarded as permissible for a department to decline to issue invitations to those unwilling to engage with graduate students or to those who are non-responsive to criticisms of their work.) These together make withholding such professional privileges, when sufficient evidence suggests doing so would serve as a tool to protect students and fight harassment, permissible. Second, because we are currently discussing cases where there is evidence sufficient to justify withholding some sorts of invitations but not sufficient, perhaps, to justify public accusation or other action, it is important that departments or individuals that decide to adopt any of the policies recommended here take steps to ensure that exclusions remain confidential matters. This is to protect complainants, as well as suspected bad actors. In the case of department policies, we recommend that information about individuals on a possible speakers list be communicated directly just to the faculty member in charge of issuing invitations. To be clear: We do NOT advocate that such discussions take place in department meetings.

Implementing such policies requires clear rules for what counts as evidence sufficient for acting on them. Spelling out such rules precisely is no doubt complicated. Here we list two sorts of evidence we think should be generally recognized as sufficient to warrant their implementation.

Easy cases involve first-personal experience. Tougher cases involve sorting through testimony. To head off possible sources of controversy about when testimonial evidence should suffice to warrant action, first a reminder. There are two types of individuals who have stakes in the actions suggested below: There are those who would be identified as possible bad actors and those who are victims or possible victims. Discussions of harassment frequently focus on the former. And there should be some focus on the former. Being incorrectly identified as a possible bad actor and deprived of the opportunities just mentioned would be bad for the person so identified. This means our evidential standards should be reasonably high. Having said that, though, we equally need to recognize the very serious consequences of harassment on victims.[2] Not acting may have very significant costs.

First, compelling first-personal testimony from someone you know to be highly reliable is certainly sufficient to warrant taking someone off a possible speaker or volume participant list. Second-personal testimony from multiple, independent, and highly reliable sources is also sufficient. For example, if you know three or more highly reliable individuals who report that they have direct, independent, reliable, first-personal testimony concerning the same individual, you clearly have sufficient grounds for withholding professional invitations.[3]

Two considerations further support this. First, the incidence of false accusations for harassment and assault are quite low.[4] This is not surprising. Harassment and assault are underreported crimes partly because the possibility of retaliation makes reporting quite risky, particularly when a victim shares a profession with her assailant. But false accusations also open accusers to retaliation. The cost/benefit calculation in both cases favors silence. We should expect that those who come forward at great cost to themselves are very likely telling the truth.

Moreover, the evidential standard of ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ while appropriate in criminal cases or other contexts in which individuals may stand to lose their rights or freedom, are inappropriate here. Outside of such contexts, we justly place the right persons have to be free from sexual harassment and assault ahead of the mere interest persons have in professional opportunities to which they are not entitled. Thus, given the base rates of the respective harmful actions and the discrepancy in the stakes and rights involved in the cases under discussion here, we think a policy of the sort outlined above makes good sense.

In sum, we can do a good deal to decrease harassment and support victims in our profession. We can vocalize our support for victims. We can broadcast that we are sympathetic to victims of harassment and generally treat such allegations as credible and serious. We can encourage our departments to institute a policy of not bringing to campus anyone department members collectively have good grounds for thinking a bad actor. And we can refuse to include in volumes or participate in volumes which include those who we have good grounds for thinking a bad actor. Although there may be costs to those who choose to fight harassment in any of these ways, the costs of not doing so for victims and potential victims are much greater.

Original Signatories:

1. Jan Dowell, Professor, Syracuse University

2. David Sobel, Irwin and Marjorie Guttag Professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy, Syracuse University

3. Stephen Darwall, Andrew Downey Orrick Professor of Philosophy, Yale University; John Dewey Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

4. Elizabeth Anderson, John Dewey Distinguished University Professor, John Rawls Collegiate Professor, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

5. Brian Weatherson, Marshall M. Weinberg Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

6. Russ Shafer-Landau, Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

7. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, Morehead Cain Alumni Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

8. Kate Abramson, Associate Professor, University of Indiana-Bloomington

9. Douglas Portmore, Professor, Arizona State University

10. Ray Briggs, Professor, Stanford University

11. Branden Fitelson, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Northeastern University

12. Kenny Easwaran, Associate Professor, Texas A&M University

13. Mark Schroeder, Professor, University of Southern California

14. Valerie Tiberius, Paul W. Frenzel Chair in Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota

15. Tad Schmaltz, Professor and Chair, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

16. Philip Pettit, L.S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics and Human Values, Princeton University

17. David McNaughton, Professor Emeritus, Keele and Florida State University; Honorary Professor, University of Edinburgh

18. Jessica Collins, Associate Professor, Columbia University

19. Sanford C. Goldberg, Professor, Northwestern University

20. David Brink, Distinguished Professor, University of California-San Diego

21. Sara Protasi, Assistant Professor, University of Puget Sound

22. Terence Cuneo, Marsh Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy, University of Vermont

23. Dan Korman, Professor, University of California-Santa Barbara

24. Jonathan Quong, Professor of Philosophy and Law, University of Southern California

25. Justin D’Arms, Professor, Ohio State University

26. Fabrizio Cariani, Associate Professor, Northwestern University

27. Shen-yi Liao, Assistant Professor, University of Puget Sound

28. David Braun, Professor, Patrick and Edna A. Romanell Chair in Philosophy, University at Buffalo

29. Robin Jeshion, Professor, University of Southern California

30. Michael G. Titelbaum, Professor and Chair, University of Wisconsin-Madison

31. Andy Egan, Professor, Rutgers University

32. Janet Levin, Professor, University of Southern California

33. Larry Shapiro, Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

34. Ned Markosian, Professor, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

35. Shieva Kleinschmidt, Associate Professor, University of Southern California

36. Joshua Schechter, Associate Professor, Brown University

37. Ralph Wedgwood, Professor, University of Southern California

38. Luca Ferrero, Professor, University of California-Riverside

39. Andrews Reath, Professor, University of California-Riverside

40. Elizabeth Brake, Professor, Rice University

41. Kate Manne, Associate Professor, Cornell University

42. Desiree Melton, Professor of Philosophy, Associate Chair, Liberal Arts

43. Gary Watson, Provost Professor Emeritus of Law and Philosophy, University of Southern California

44. Susanna Schellenberg, Professor, Rutgers University

45. Ruth Chang, Chair and Professor of Jurisprudence, Oxford University

46. Ariela Tubert, Professor, University of Puget Sound

47. Justin Tiehen, Professor, University of Puget Sound

48. Mark van Roojen, Professor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

49. Rachana Kamtekar, Professor, Cornell University

50. Amy Kind, Russell K. Pitzer Professor of Philosophy; Director, The Gould Center for Humanistic Studies, Claremont McKenna College

51. Sergio Tenenbaum, Professor, University of Toronto

52. Helen Frowe, Professor, Stockholm University

53. Hille Paakkunainen, Associate Professor, Syracuse University

54. Alan Sidelle, Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

55. Dale Dorsey, Professor and Chair, University of Kansas

56. Sally Haslanger, Ford Professor of Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

57. Joshua Spencer, Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

58. Scott Sturgeon, Professor, University of Birmingham

59. Michelle Kosch, Professor, Cornell University

60. Maya Eddon, Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

61. Christopher Meacham, Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

62. Kai von Fintel, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

63. Elisabeth Camp, Professor, Rutgers University

64. Matthew McGrath, Professor, Rutgers University

65. Jennifer Lackey, Wayne and Elizabeth Jones Professor, Northwestern University

66. Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, Associate Professor, University of British Columbia

67. Carrie Jenkins, Professor, Canada Research Chair, University of British Columbia

68. Baron Reed, Professor, Northwestern University

69. Rebecca Kukla, Professor and Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University

70. Jennifer Nagel, Professor, University of Toronto

71. Lynne Tirrell, Associate Professor, University of Connecticut-Storrs

72. Dorit Bar-on, Professor, University of Connecticut-Storrs

73. Keith Simmons, Professor, University of Connecticut-Storrs

74. Sarah Moss, Associate Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

75. Eric Swanson, Associate Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

76. Mitzi Lee, Associate Professor, University of Colorado-Boulder

77. Michael Nelson, Associate Professor, University of California-Riverside

78. Stephen Yablo, David Skinner W. Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

79. Lawrence Blum, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts (Race, Education, and Moral Philosophy), University of Massachusetts-Boston

80. Elliot Sober, Hans Reichenbach Professor & William F. Vilas Research Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

81. Selim Berker, Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civic Polity, Harvard University

82. Jennifer McKitrick, Professor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

83. Asta, Professor, San Francisco State University

84. Lori Gruen, William Griffin Professor, Wesleyan University

85. Audrey Yap, Associate Professor, University of Victoria

86. Samantha Brennan, Professor, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Guelph

87. Karen Jones, Associate Professor, University of Melbourne

88. Jeff Speaks, Professor, University of Notre Dame

89. Katherine Jenkins, Assistant Professor, University of Nottingham

90. Claire Horisk, Associate Professor, University of Missouri-Columbia

91. Nicholas Southwood, Associate Professor; ARC Future Fellow; Director, Centre for Moral, Social and Political Theory; Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University

92. Justin Weinberg, Associate Professor, University of South Carolina

To add your name in support of the document below, post your name, rank, and academic affiliation in the comments section of the PEA Soup post. We will then add your name to the document.

[1] It is important to determine if you are a mandatory reporter of sexual harassment or sexual assault under Title IX and/or the Clery Act. Many who are do not realize this fact. If you are: 1) Find out what office you must report complaints to and get training from that office, 2) Let those who may confide in you know that you are a mandatory reporter, 3) Assure complainants that this does not bind them to any action; they will be asked whether they want to pursue a complaint by the relevant office.

[2] Just focusing on health effects, these range from short-term inability to concentrate to long-term insomnia, depression, anxiety, and ptsd. These, or the threat of retaliation, may necessitate university, subfield, or career changes.
For further information, see the first post in this series.

[3] To underscore: We are opposed to the creation of or reliance on anonymously crowd-sourced, public accusations.

[4] While there are challenges to obtaining reliable data, research suggests the level of false reporting of sexual assault is between 2% and 10%. “False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases,” by David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa, and Ashley M. Cote in Violence Against Women 16(12) 1318–1334. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, since records began in 1989, in the US there are only 52 cases where men convicted of sexual assault were exonerated because it turned out they were falsely accused. By way of comparison, in the same period, there are 790 cases in which people were exonerated for murder.