Feminist Philosophers

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Leiter on sexual predators March 13, 2010

Filed under: sexual harassment,women in philosophy — Jender @ 7:44 am

Reader LP calls our attention to a recent post from Leiter on choosing which grad school offer to accept. He rightly suggests talking to current students about the sorts of things nobody puts up on their website– like absentee faculty, nasty faculty, and sexual predators.

The Sexual Predator Faculty: Are women treated as young philosophers and aspiring professionals, or do faculty regularly view them as a potential source for dates and sexual liasons? It’s a bit shocking to realize that this is still a live issue in some departments, but, sadly, it is. Are faculty-student sexual relations common in the department? What happens when the relations end? Are there repeated cases of sexual harassment complaints against faculty in the department? Do they ever result in discipline? I suppose it is possible this could be an issue for male students, but all the reports I’ve gotten over the years have been from women victimized by male faculty.

It’s excellent for Leiter to be calling attention to this issue.


27 Responses to “Leiter on sexual predators”

  1. extendedlp Says:

    i think it’s excellent he’s bringing this up–legitimizing this sort of discussion.

    i turned down a phd offer for this reason. whenever i asked faculty in other departments about department x, they’d say ‘yes yes, x is very good. they have philosophers a, b, and c, who are all very good.’ -but then i asked several recent phds who were in or had contact with department x, and they all said approximately the same thing: ‘a b and c have no time for grad students–well, but a and c will have plenty of time for your breasts.’

    department x holds a very nice spot in the leiter report rankings, btw.

  2. PhD2B Says:

    I have just moved to a new philosophy department (as a phd student), and was shocked when just last night someone told me to expect one of the faculty here to come on to me at some point. The comment was made very casually, and the person seemed surprised when I reacted strongly that this was inappropriate.

  3. extendedlp Says:

    was just thinking: if sexual predators are a reason to avoid a department (and they are), then aren’t they a strike against the department? isn’t a department w such people less-good than one with? ….and so, shouldn’t that be factored in to their ranking?

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I agree. It’s terrific that Leiter calls attention to this issue. It is worth adding that female faculty too often are treated as a potential source for dates and sexual liasons by their male colleagues. But the harassment doesn’t end in the department. It’s quite common for men to treat women as a potential source for dates and sex at philosophy conferences. Women may even be approached by a man with a direct proposal. This is a very uncomfortable situation to be in. If she accept the proposal, this may hurt her reputation as a professional philosopher. If she turns down the invitation, this too may hurt her career. I have been in that situation myself. Within the last 2 years I have turned down two invitations to have sex and/or a romance, and the men involved apparently felt terribly rejected because they stopped inviting me to their conferences (which they used to invite me to). I think this is a real problem in the profession, and one that we really cannot speak openly about for obvious reasons.

  5. Introvertica Says:

    This is a serious problem. I do not want to inadvertently recommend to my undergraduate students a place where sexual predators operate, undeterred.

    The only way to deal with this, imo, is for those in the know to name the places where sexual predation is a serious problem.

  6. Jender Says:

    You’re right. But I’d like to ask people to refrain (for the moment at least– we’re consulting) from naming names. This is because once names (even of places) get mentioned people may start getting vindictive and trying to track down the namers.

  7. jj Says:

    I think there are very serious legal issues here. In the UK, if I’m remembering a recent case correctly, you can get in a lot of trouble for criticizing chiropractics.

    One added complication is that we couldn’t guarantee accuracy; we know student evaluation can be sites for revenge, and it’s possible this would too.

    Leiter recommends asking the students at a place, but I’d worry about accuracy there also, though in the other direction. I would have thought that if a grad student were known to have told a prospective student that the place has some serious predators, their career could suddenly die. Lots of faculty do not believe students on topics like these.

  8. wn Says:

    There are a lot of reasons why graduate students may not inform prospective students about such a problem in their own department. Students want their program to have a good reputation to outsiders because they have the impression that their career prospects hinge almost entirely on the reputation of their department. So there is pressure not to mention anything that makes one’s department look badly to outsiders. And anyone who says something risks being alientated by faculty at their own department, others in the profession, and also other students who may fear that they will be alientated for associating with someone who gives up this sort of information.

  9. jj Says:

    Anonymous: I am very sorry to hear about what you’ve had to experience. It is unconscionable on their part.

  10. anonymous Says:

    Here’s another variation in some departments: old coots who openly date young women in their undergraduate classes and then trot them around the department like trophies, expecting other faculty members (especially female faculty) to do favors for the students — writing references, treating them well in their classes, awarding them financial perks in the department (student jobs, scholarships, etc.) . Essentially, the female faculty are pressured to make the pay-off in quid pro quo sexual harassment between male colleagues and young female undergraduates. If the female faculty members refuse to participate, they risk retaliation when it comes time for tenure and promotion. If they complain to administrators, they risk retaliation in the form of relentless campaigns to destroy their professional reputations. A brutal environment I have experienced first-hand…

  11. Anon Says:

    I don’t think it is easy to name names. But there is another way for female prospectives to evaluate a phd department. Find out if female students work in the areas for which the department is best-known, and find out how successful its female phds have been in the field. If the students getting the best/great jobs are disproportionately male, the department is probably not a good place for women. Look at the numbers and ignore the BS–talk is cheap and data tells no lies. Also, check to see if there are any tenured female faculty, and if there are, whether they are central figures in the department or whether they are marginalized. Talk to the current female graduate students to see if they feel respected and supported.

    A department where women are supported and respected (where this is proven by the support they give and hence to a significant extent by the jobs their students get), especially one with powerful female faculty, is not likely to be a department that tolerates sexual predators.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    Naming names seems like a bad idea, not just because of retaliation. Essentially, these are accusations of sexual harassment. Like jj points out, there are legal issues here. If sexual harassment did occur, wouldn’t it be better to follow the university or state procedures to have it investigated? After all, that’s what they’re there for. Since we’re using the phrase ‘sexual predator’, think about pederasty as a comparison: Megan’s law (whatever we might think about it) is about informing people about convicted offenders; no one thinks of telling others such and such is a predator _instead_ of pursuing legal action (and this would be slander whether they’re acquitted or not pursued at all).

    Now, maybe I’m naive, and there’s no realistic chance of any of these people ever getting disciplined, much less receiving punishment serious enough to make them change their ways. But, if that’s the case, it needs to be made known and acknowledged by the schools involved (e.g. “we’ve had 50 accusations of sexual harassment last year, none of which resulted in any action”) instead of there being a huge unacknowledged discrepancy between policy and reality.

    Anyway, these are just thoughts, I don’t know what the best thing to do is and I’m not in the unfortunate position of having to decide whether to accuse someone of sexual harassment. But there should be an ethically sound way to deal with this problem, and regardless of how it may be perceived by various people involved or uninvolved, I think whistle-blowing is admirable, especially in light of the professional risks. I’d love to hear more of others’ thoughts about it.

  13. zenmind Says:

    I’m glad Leiter is calling attention to the issue, but in response I’d like to issue a call to Leiter (and others) to do more than merely mention the problem.

    In particular, I echo extendedlp’s sentiment that a department’s track record in dealing with issues of sexual harassment and predatory behavior should figure into the Leiter report rankings. Most institutions presumably have a sexual harassment grievance board, and there is no reason that the Philosophical Gourmet couldn’t ask departments to report instances in which a grievance led to the departure of a faculty member. (Although of course the fact that only 8 out of 56 (a mere 14%) of the Advisory Board of the Philosophical Gourmet are women might be an obstacle to this sort of reform.)

    Better include police reports along with sexual harassment reports, since I know of at least two institutions (one in Leiter’s top 10, another in Leiter’s top 40) at which a recent sexual harassment claim against a member of the philosophy department (recent = in the past 5 years) was elevated to the status of sexual assault and therefore referred to the police.

    As a recent PhD who actively participated in hosting prospective students at my grad institution, I can attest to the fact that Wn is absolutely correct in saying that there is enormous pressure on students who are involved in the recruitment process to present their home institutions in a positive light. I excused myself from this responsibility after a sexual harassment claim was filed against a member of the philosophy department, primarily because I felt it would be ingenuous to withhold information about the controversy from female students hoping to work with one of the faculty members who had demonstrated their inability to provide adequate support for graduate students.

    And, since anonymous has draw attention to the fact that this problem extends far beyond grad school, I’ll add to the pile of first-person data: the institution I am teaching at now is the *only* institution at which I haven’t experienced sexual harassment or assault. Like anonymous, I recently had to cope with an entirely inappropriate and unsolicited “invitation” (groping is actually the more appropriate description) from a senior colleague who attended a workshop at my grad institution and had a bit too much to drink. (Because I was the only participant who hadn’t been drinking and had a car, my advisor asked me to make sure he made it back to his hotel.) It would be naive to think that my rejection has not had (and will not continue to have) negative ramifications.

    Of the faculty members who have created obstacles in my career (“obstacle” = either explicit sexual harassment which involved touching and openly amorous emails, or outright sexual assault), two occupied posts at institutions in the Leiter top 10, and the third occupies a post at an institution in the Leiter top 30. I have not filed grievances against any of the three. (For readers wondering why: please ask the administration at your institution for stats on the consequences of reporting.)

    Of the faculty members who have created obstacles in the career of other female philosophers I have advised or been friends with, two are at top-ranked institutions in the U.K.

    Although I recognize that there are legal problems and delicate issues related to the privacy of the victims, I refuse to believe that there is nothing that can be done about the problem. Even my female friends who work on Wall Street report better working conditions.

    Surely incorporating an assessment of sexual harassment training/policies/incidents into the Leiter report would be a small step in the right direction.

  14. Heather Says:

    Another group to look at is the male grad students themselves. We currently have issues in our department having to do with the behavior of the grad students not the faculty and it presents its own issues when deciding whether to deal with in a formal way.

  15. anon for now Says:

    Just after completing my Ph.D., a group of upcoming women grad students got together, compared notes and then filed a group hostile environment claim against the department for years of sexual disadvantaging, sexual harassment including quid pro quo trading of grades for sex. I was invited to join and did. We won. The statistics of how few women completed the degree program and personal stories and testimony by some men faculty as well were enough to convince the Affirmative Action office and from that point forward, there has always been a full professor female feminist philosopher on staff. I don’t know if it fixed the problem but the department has been graduating women Ph.D.s since. This is something that can be done as a group which minimizes the retaliation threat. Furthermore, in the U.S., retaliation itself is a violation of the law and that is also some protection.

  16. Karen Says:

    Including information about a department’s track record in hiring and tenuring female faculty members and mentoring female PhD students on the Leiter report would presumably be very helpful for potential applicants, for applicants weighing multiple offers, and for faculty members advising students about where to apply and where to go.

    Here’s a proposal that has the potential to sidestep the legal issues that count against using allegations of sexual harassment as a gauge of the climate in a department:

    Instead of targeting (“naming and shaming”) departments on the grounds of a poor track record, Leiter could highlight departments that do well or exceptionally well on the relevant measures. Here are some of the figures that could be relevant:

    1. Proportion of female to male TT and tenured faculty members in the department.
    2. Proportion of female to male faculty members hired TT past ten-fifteen years.
    3. Proportion of female to male TT hires who ended up receiving tenure (This figure will not distinguish between faculty members who went up for tenure and were denied and faculty members who for whatever reason left before coming up for tenure. But I should think that the figure will be informative all the same, since a hostile environment would be one reason to leave a department (and perhaps even the field) before coming up for tenure, while a nurturing department might make people stay despite other misgivings (low salary, etc).
    4. Proportion of female to male entry-level PhD students in the past five years (here, more recent numbers would presumably be more interesting for prospective students)
    5. Proportion of female to male students admitted in the last fifteen years who completed the program.
    6. Proportion of female to male students who received a TT offer within, say, three years of completing a degree.

    The last figure would say something about the department’s ability to supervise and promote their female graduate students.

    Based on how departments do on these measures, they could be listed as “excellent”, “good” or “fair”. Then people could be left to draw their own conclusions about unranked departments. One worry about using allegations about sexual predation as a gauge of a hostile environment is that the presence of one lascivious faculty member need not be a good indicator of the general climate in a department (though ignored allegations of impropriety would be). So maybe departments could receive demerit points for retaining faculty members after proven charges of misconduct. The measures I have proposed would not help identify same-sex sexual predation, though, but maybe we shouldn’t attempt to solve all problems in one go.

  17. Matt Says:

    A few quick thoughts:
    1) The gourmet report is a ranking of scholarly reputation. One of its virtues is that it doesn’t try to mix in several factors in a way where the weighting is unclear or questionable. Explicitly trying to include some of the factors above into the ranking would make it less useful in that sense.

    2) The information mentioned by Karen above sounds like it would be extremely useful to have, and not just for female students. (At least some male students, after all, also don’t want to work in departments were harassment and discrimination are tolerated, after all.) But, there’s no obvious reason why it needs to be or should be Leiter that gathers it. (My impression is that the gourmet report is a huge amount of work for him as-is.) If people are willing to do the work to gather in information, it will be used, I’m sure.

    3) I would be extremely hesitant to “name names” of anyone or any case I didn’t know first-hand. Not only (or even primarily) because it is potentially a tort, but more so because in second or third-hand stories details often get mixed up or changed, and as this is serious, I wouldn’t post anything I didn’t know first hand.

    4) It seems completely reasonable to me that individuals filling out the gourmet report survey might take this, and some of the other factors mentioned by Leiter, into consideration when ranking departments. If I knew that a department seemed, say, to have a top political philosopher, but that this philosopher hadn’t actually taught in the department regularly for several years (a real case), I’d rank it lower than I might otherwise had. Or, if I knew that a faculty member was not a real option to work with for female students (at least), I’d rank it lower than I otherwise would as well. Obviously, this sort of thing will only have an impact if many of those filling out the survey know of the information and make use of it, but it seems to me to be the appropriate step that those who do have the information could take within the workings of the gourmet report itself.

  18. Karen Says:


    I agree that the “gender index” shouldn’t be factored into the general rankings; it would probably be more helpful to keep them separate. I do think it would be useful to have this kind of information available on the Leiter site, though, since — like it or not– that’s the site students are likely to consult before they make their decision.

  19. zenmind Says:

    A few quick responses to Matt’s quick thoughts:

    In response to thoughts (1) and (2):

    It is precisely *because* the gourmet report is a “ranking of scholarly reputation” that it should: (1) not overlook a factor which clearly affects the quality of the program for both female and male students, and (2) explicitly ask its evaluators and the institutions themselves to include such factors into the ranking. As Leiter explains at philosophicalgourmet.com/reportdesc.asp, evaluators are asked to rate programs solely in terms of “faculty quality.” In addition to the quality of philosophical work, the talent, and the range of areas covered by faculty, evaluators are invited to take into account “considerations like the status (full-time, part-time) of the faculty; the age of the faculty (as a somewhat tenuous guide to prospective availability, not quality); and the quality of training the faculty provide, to the extent you have information about this.” The lists provided to evaluators indicate which faculty are part-time and which are over 70. Would it really be such a stretch for Leiter to explicitly invite evaluators to consider, say, “the quality of the mentoring faculty provide, including appropriateness of interaction and willingness to provide equitable advice to all students, regardless of gender, race, or orientation (to the extent that you have information about this)”? Surely this is not more or less “scholarly” than the existing instructions.

    With respect to the workload involved, I’m assuming that Leiter asks each of the institutions being evaluated in a given year to provide him with the list of faculty, including the list of those over 70 years of age. This data is presumably voluntarily supplied by the department chairs or administrators at each institution. I can’t imagine that it would be that much more work to ask institutions to voluntarily provide a report of the number of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault claims filed against members of the department in the previous seven years, with an indication of whether any of the claims led to disciplinary action, contraction renegotiations, or the departure of the faculty member in question. (No names or identifying information should be given, of course.)

    In response to thought (3):

    I don’t think name should ever be posted, even when the information is “first hand.” The motivating factor here should not be egos or personal vendettas, but rather clear and decisive efforts to bring about institutional change and an improvement in the working environment for both women and men.

    I agree with Karen, by the way, that it might also be helpful to have gender-related information available in a separate area on the philosophical gourmet web site. Such gender-related info might include the number of female faculty members, the placement record for female vs male PhDs (no names – data only), tenure decisions for women vs men (no names), and data on the number of gender-related grievances filed against members of the department over some significant period (I’d recommend 7-10 years — again, no names or identifying info). Given that such grievances are filed at a huge cost to those who make the allegations, I don’t think there is any reason to fear the possibility of frivolous claims; in fact, I think grievances are likely to be under-reported at most institutions.

    Now *this* sort of info is most likely too much to ask of Leiter. But there is no reason it couldn’t be assembled by SWIP or WTFPH, with a link to the data from Leiter’s web site.

  20. Matt Says:

    Zenmind- I think most of what you say is included in my #4- that insofar as people have information about the actual availability of faculty, it should be included in their rankings. What I think is a worse idea is making a ranking that explicitly includes various factors and then ways them in an ad-hoc way to give a single score. That’s what’s done w/ the US News rankings, for example, and helps turn them into nonsense. But, if evaluators have knowledge about the actual availability of faculty members (where someone being a person no one can reasonably work with makes them “unavailable”), this seems to directly relate to “faculty quality” in a way that, say, years it takes to graduate, type of jobs received by female students, percentage of female students, etc. do not. While that information is important and useful, the idea I was objecting to was that it should _directly_ be incorporated into the rankings as some seemed to suggest. Insofar as you don’t want to do that, I think we agree.

    I suppose no one but Brian Leiter can decide whether he has too much work to do to add to his rankings, and I can’t see that he has any obligation to do more than he has. I do know it’s a lot of work, much more than most people would be willing to do. So, it seems plausible to me that others should do this work.

    As for naming names, my point about “first hand” info was only that if people who have been harmed want to name the people who have harmed them, and feel confident doing so, I don’t have a serious problem with that, at least not if they’re willing to do so publicly. (Encouraging people do to so anonymously leaves a lot of room for abuse open, so I’d hesitate to encourage that.) But publishing second-hand reports is potentially more problematic.

  21. zenmind Says:


    I think we agree about the fact that the data regarding sexual predation and other gender-related issues should (ideally) be available in some form that is not merged with all the other data.

    Where I think we differ is whether Leiter should also include in his instructions to evaluators an invitation to explicitly incorporate gender-related issues into their “faculty quality” assessments. (Since faculty quality is, as far as I can tell, the primary base of the rankings, such an invitation would effectively mean that gender-related issues would be directly incorporated into the rankings.) Although I would hope that evaluators currently take such factors into account — as you point out, a person being someone no one (or no woman) can reasonably work with makes them “unavailable” — I think it is naive to expect that all evaluators are sensitive to the issues. For Leiter to include language in his instructions that underscores the importance of sensitivity to gender, race, orientation and other factors would be a call to all evaluators (and, hopefully, all philosophers) to give such considerations the weight they are due.

    Whether Leiter has an obligation to do this is an entirely different — and interesting — issue. In issuing a call to Leiter to do more than merely mention the problem in TAR in the context of prospective student visits (thereby deflecting the responsibility to the grad students and/or faculty who host those visits), I did not mean to imply that he has an obligation or duty to do more. After all, everything he has done thus far in formulating and perpetuating the gourmet report is prima facie superogatory. I think there *is* an argument to the effect that, now that he has created the institution we call the Leiter report, he has an obligation to ensure (to the best of his ability) that the report is socially responsible and does not contribute to existing systems of privilege and subordination. To the extent that the Leiter report wields a certain kind of power and influence, this is an obligation that should not be taken lightly. But I won’t pursue this argument here.

    Lest it be overlooked, please note that my previous posts were not merely a call to Leiter to amend the instructions to evaluators and possibly request data related to sexual predation from the institutions being evaluated in a given year, but also a call to SWIP (or Sally Haslanger’s newly formed WTFPH) — and, more broadly, tenured faculty at all institutions — to take steps towards collecting and making data related to sexual predation and other gender issues publicly available.

  22. Jender Says:

    One concern I’d have is that rankers don’t often really have the relevant knowledge about these issues. I have talked to people involved in ranking feminist philosophy, for example, who were unaware of e.g. legal findings of sex discrimination in departments they were ranking. (I mention that it’s feminist philosophy rankers as these are people more likely than others to be up on these issues, and to have the right connections to know about them.)

    Now, I also think this is the case with quality– and that it’s a general epistemic problem with Leiter’s rankings. But somehow it seems especially (or at least differently) worrying to have a department wrongly get a clean bill of health on these issues, and to have the authority of the Leiter report behind that.

  23. gg Says:

    As a good looking man, I’m always getting hit on by female staff and students, they just can’t help it, they are only human after all!

    Asking someone out for a drink etc hardly makes someone a ‘sexual preditor.’ I must say I find all this rather amusing, which is my motivation for posting, all I can think about your motives are that you are so keen to find fault anywhere you can, that you waste your time on crap like this. There are plently of real (tangible) things going on in the world that are discriminatory towards women and cause a lot more harm than being chatted up. Why can’t you focus on something like that?

    Straw man anyone?

  24. Kieran Says:

    I have to say, I’m impressed with this blog — twenty two comments on a topic of this kind is quite a long way to go before attracting an amateur troll. I should make it clear that I say this as a good looking man.

  25. Monkey Says:


  26. [...] than on departments, or on Professional Philosophy at large, to punish and prevent it.  Over at Feminist Philosophers, there was a great discussion in the comments about what ought to be done beyond just mentioning [...]

  27. [...] to have some access to some of the clusters of discussions.  Of course, that’s what makes a recent  account of a woman getting cut out because she turned down sexual advances so very [...]

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