Another view on complaints about sexual harassment

Tony Judt is a respected historian who has quite fearlessly taken up some controversial causes.  He is now very ill, paralyzed from the neck down with ALS.  Not the sort of person one wants to attack, but I suppose it is condescending to refrain.  So here goes. 

Judt has an article in the NY Review of Books, part of which is repeated on the journal’s blog.  It gives one a different (from ours) perspective on sexual harassment, one from a senior scholar (born in 1948, first degree from Cambridge in 1969), and currently a director of an institute at NYU. 

It’s title is, “Girls! Girls! Girls!”  Consider that a warning:

On how he acquired his third wife:

In 1992 I was chairman of the History Department at New York University—where I was also the only unmarried straight male under sixty. A combustible blend: prominently displayed on the board outside my office was the location and phone number of the university’s Sexual Harassment Center. …  Shortly after I took office, a second-year graduate student came by. A former professional ballerina interested in Eastern Europe, she had been encouraged to work with me. I was not teaching that semester, so could have advised her to return another time. Instead, I invited her in. After a closed-door discussion of Hungarian economic reforms, I suggested a course of independent study—beginning the following evening at a local restaurant. A few sessions later, in a fit of bravado, I invited her to [a play].

….To say that the girl had irresistible eyes and that my intentions were…unclear would avail me nothing.

His views on current decorum:

Our successors—liberated from old-style constraints—have imposed new restrictions upon themselves. Since the 1970s, Americans assiduously avoid anything that might smack of harassment, even at the risk of forgoing promising friendships and the joys of flirtation. Like men of an earlier decade—though for very different reasons—they are preternaturally wary of missteps. I find this depressing. The Puritans had a sound theological basis for restricting their desires and those of others. But today’s conformists have no such story to tell.

His example of comic relief (yes, truly, he so describes it):

When I was Humanities dean at NYU, a promising young professor was accused of improper advances by a graduate student in his department. He had apparently followed her into a supply closet and declared his feelings. Confronted, the professor confessed all, begging me not to tell his wife. My sympathies were divided: the young man had behaved foolishly, but there was no question of intimidation nor had he offered to trade grades for favors. All the same, he was censured. Indeed, his career was ruined—the department later denied him tenure because no women would take his courses. Meanwhile, his “victim” was offered the usual counseling.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

It is well to know that if you get cornered in a supply closet and go to the chair or dean rather than the official office this is the sort of attitude you may encounter.  Don’t think that even if you are a professor, this is going to help your career at all.

I’ve quoted a sizable part of the piece on the blog, but there is more.  And there’s some discussion of this on the blog with a lot of good points being made, along with others  supporting him.

45 thoughts on “Another view on complaints about sexual harassment

  1. It seems that it’s a question of balancing the need to protect women (and men) against sexual harassment and the fact that there sometimes is an attraction between students and faculty members, which, as long as the teacher does not have the student in his or her classroom, is as legitimate as any other attraction. People have to meet somewhere. Better in the library than in a bar.

  2. Amos, I am less sure. I think that it isn’t just some attraction.

    I understand that psychiatrists are urged to never get involved with a former patient, and while that might be too extreme for philosophy professors, it does indicate a kind of vulnerability there can be in professional relationships where one has a big asymmetry in power and credentials.

    One thing such a relationship can do is it can take a woman into a professional setting without her having her own professional credentials. That’s not necessarily a good thing, and it can make finally trying to get those credentials highly problematic. E.g., if you get involved with someone in a department, how will you feel about submitting a thesis to his colleagues?

    I suspect I know a number of women whose careers have floundered because of this – that is, it’s why I think these brilliant high achievers changed into low achievers, but I don’t know that was it.

  3. Attractions are not rational, and the question is not whether it is wise for students to get involved with faculty members, but whether there should be rules against it, except in the case where the student is in the faculty member’s class or is being supervised by him or her, etc. People make unwise decisions all the time, and it’s not wise (to use the word again) to make rules against unwise decisions. As to how other faculty members will react, well, what if the brother or sister or cousin or best friend of one professor submits his or her thesis to another teacher? That is, you can’t make rules about every possible case of human partiality. Once again, there are asymmetries of power in so many human relationships: I agree with you that it is wiser to try to relate to people in a horizontal manner, that is, where there is no hierarchy of power, but once again, wisdom is learned by
    making mistakes or watching others make mistakes. I don’t know: if I had a daughter and she told me that she was wildly in love with an older faculty member, I’d say: fine, live out your love.

  4. The first time I read this, I was struck by his rationalization of his closet-going collegue. To Judt, there was “no question of intimidation” in a man who corners a woman in a closet to declare his feelings. My reaction was how could anyone think that would *not* be intimidating. And then I realized the chasm of perspective that was in play.

  5. YR, I completely agree.

    Amos, I’m not sure what to say; clearly, we disagree, but I’m not sure where there might be meeting ground.

  6. O, Amos, except I should say that I wasn’t necessarily thinking of rules of any formal sort, except perhaps for cases with clear professional conflicts of interest.

  7. “Attractions are not rational”

    This kind of thinking is exactly my problem with the homo economus conception of man. Attractions can be rational if they support your overall best interests. The goal of rationality isn’t to grovel and serve your appetites and emotions; it’s to put appetites and emotions in harmony with your overall being.

  8. I know of at least three cases where female philosophy professors married men who were students in their departments. (They are all well known professors.) I have no idea if these men were ever _their_ students, or just in the department at the time, but from their CVs and when they got married, it’s clear that they were almost certainly dating the male students while faculty in the dept. I’m curious if you see the same sort of worries in these cases. (I’m not trying to catch you in anything here at all- I can see arguments either way and don’t know for sure what I think of the matter. I’m simply curious as to what people think.) As for Judt, I started reading the piece a few days ago and couldn’t finish it, it was so bad in so many ways. As for the young professor, I have some sympathy for him if this was really a one-time thing and his career was really ruined, but it’s hard to know that from the story, or to take Judt as a faithful narrator here.

  9. Amos, you put `the question’ as `whether it is wise for students to get involved with faculty members‘. Notice who’s the subject and who’s the object in this construction.

    The feminist worry is over a slightly different question: whether it is just for faculty members to get involved with students. Or, more particularly, whether it is just for faculty members to use the power they hold over their students to extort romantic and sexual `favors’. Notice the way the subject and object have switched. The worry, in short, isn’t with students making mistakes; it’s with faculty abusing their power.

    Now, this might not be a problem, if it’s quite rare or even nonexistent. But, I take it, there’s quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. And in lieu of any better proposal, making and enforcing some sort of rule strikes me as a reasonable way of dealing with the problem.

    Ideally, this rule would prohibit all and only cases of faculty abusing their power in this specific way. That, of course, is impossible. For one thing, there’s a serious epistemic problem: it’s extraordinarily hard to tell, from the outside, whether any given teacher-student romantic or sexual relationship involves this sort of abuse of power. Unless you have a relatively easy and reliable way to solve this epistemic problem, a more-or-less comprehensive ban on teachers becoming romantically or sexually involved with their former students so long as both are affiliated with the school in question seems appropriate.

    There are numerous ways of challenging this line of thought. But do try to actually get clear on what the basic issue is first.

  10. Matt:

    In response to your question regarding whether there might be worries in the case of philosophy professors (male or female) engaging in consensual relationships which eventually lead to marriage with students (male or female, graduate or undergraduate), my firm opinion is yes.

    I, too, am aware of at least three cases in which female professors married men who were (graduate) students in their departments. It is not, I think, coincidental that two of these three relationships originated in the same department; some departments and programs are far more tolerant of so-called “fraternization” than others.

    I realize that I may be expressing a minority opinion here, so let me try to explain why I think such relationships can be potentially harmful not just to the individuals involved, but also to the program itself.

    First, as jj points out, the asymmetry in power which exists between faculty and students can create unwanted situations from which one or both parties may find it difficult to extricate themselves. I know of one (initially consensual) faculty-student relationships in which the student threatened to file a sexual harassment suit if the faculty member refused to write a recommendation, another consensual relationship in which the faculty member unintentionally lured the student into complacency by promising he’d use his connections on the job market, and a third in which the student’s options for classes were restricted because both she and her faculty-partner agreed that it was unwise in light of the ongoing relationship.

    Second, even consensual relationships can introduce some unpredictable and in some cases extremely complex and volatile emotions and thoughts into the already difficult task of doing good philosophy. I attended a philosophy alumni conference at one of the Leiter top-10 programs a few years ago, and was amazed at the range of reactions former students reported during a casual dinner conversation about the various inappropriate “flirtatious” advances from faculty members. They worried about whether refusing the advance would damage their career. They wondered whether the advances meant that their work was too feminine, or not worthy of esteem, thus leading the faculty member to think of them as a prospective date rather than a colleague. They chided themselves for being too frigid, too serious, unwilling to engage in what everyone else (i.e., all the men) seemed to think was a harmless game. They faulted themselves for not “seeing the problem coming”, for being so immersed in the philosophy that they had let down their guard. They wondered how much other faculty members knew about the latent attraction or blossoming relationship. And so on. Philosophy is challenging enough as it is. Can you imagine trying to produce your best work while carrying this additional baggage?

    Third — and most important — is the impact that relationships, even (or perhaps especially) consensual relationships, can have on other members of a department or program. I have advised at least two undergraduate students who were unwilling to take classes from a faculty member who was involved in a consensual relationship with another undergraduate student. One expressed the concern that the faculty member’s grading policies would be gender-biased, and the other expressed the worry that if something should happen to the relationship, he (a good friend of the other student) might somehow suffer the deflected wrath of the professor. Clearly these sorts of concerns are likely to be amplified when the student involved in the relationship is a graduate student, and other students in his/her class are worried about the possibility of bias in the job market. In extreme cases, the resentment can have a stultifying effect on the program in general.

    En fin, there is a _reason_ that the corporate world prohibits even consensual relationships between employers and employees. (Many companies go so far as to prohibit even relationships between coworkers — e.g., Boeing, Walmart — and most have strictures of some sort against supervisor-subordinate relationships.)

    There is a _reason_ that mental health professionals have a code of non-engagement when it comes to current or former clients.

    There is a _reason_ that it is considered scandalous for a secondary school teacher to engage in a consensual relationship with a student, even if that student is of age.

    Many of our students are just a year or two older than those secondary school students. And age is not a reliable guide to emotional maturity.

    So why should we think it is permissible to act on sexual impulses, when others in similar situations (in which there is an asymmetry of power) find it reasonable to curb their instincts and conceal their attraction?

  11. First off, just want to say, this man is atrocious and should be fired from whatever post he holds.

    Second, I wanted to thank zenmind for pointing out this particular problem:

    I attended a philosophy alumni conference at one of the Leiter top-10 programs a few years ago, and was amazed at the range of reactions former students reported during a casual dinner conversation about the various inappropriate “flirtatious” advances from faculty members. They worried about whether refusing the advance would damage their career. They wondered whether the advances meant that their work was too feminine, or not worthy of esteem, thus leading the faculty member to think of them as a prospective date rather than a colleague.

    My department is, I think, too much on the side of boundary-crossing. Though there are not, to my knowledge, and current relationships between faculty and students, there is a lot of flirtation, getting drunk together, etc.

    I’m quite sure (from talking with them) that at least some of the female grad students who participate in this sort of behavior have worries like the ones zenmind points out. And I, as a female grad student who doesn’t really participate in it (because I think it is really awful in many different ways, though I don’t think any of the parties involved are fully conscious of the implications of their actions), have to think about the flip side: these women are getting much more attention than me from male faculty members. true, most of it is the kind that i don’t want, but they also do benefit academically, at least in the short run, from the attention. It is hard enough to judge what people think about your work without having those people seriously cloud their own judgment by ‘partying’ with young female grad students.

    Then there’s the subtle pressure one feels to go out and get wasted with one’s professors, there’s the constant feeling of inadequacy that comes with being a philosophy graduate student. Add all these things together and it is a lose-lose situation for all the woman grad students– you’re screwed if you participate, because you have to constantly second-guess whether people think your work is genuinely good, and you’re screwed if you don’t, because you get ignored.

  12. Noumena: I think that I made it very clear that I found faculty members using their power to extort sexual favors from their students to be wrong and a conduct which should be subject to rules. What I don’t find to be wrong are consensual relationships between faculty members and students who are not in a class taught by said faculty member or not being supervised by said faculty member. Whether a relationship is consensual or not is determined by the two (or more) parties involved, in the case that both are over the age of legal consent.

  13. An interesting read, for sure. But on a lighter note, two things I find hilarious:

    1. The play he took her to was Oleanna.

    2. Amos said “it is wiser to try to relate to people in a horizontal manner.”

  14. Making rules forbidding all relationships between students and faculty because in some relationships there will be abuse is like forbidding people to drive because some people run red lights. There seems to be the idea in many posts that students are not mature enough to deal with life problems, such as the fact that they and teachers are sexual beings.
    University students are considered old enough in our society to serve in the military, to vote, to work, to drive, and I think that it is tremendously patronizing to assume that they cannot deal with life problems that arise in a university setting.
    When I was 18, I would have been extremely offended to hear my teachers or parents opine that I was not mature enough to know which sex partners were right for me. Maybe I didn’t know who was right for me at age 18, but I learned because I was given the freedom to experiment and to make mistakes. People, even students, even philosophy students, are more resilient, more capable of autonomy in dealing with life, more capable of learning quickly how to deal with problems, than many posts here suggest. By the way, I am not a university professor and when I was one, I never got involved with students. Far from sensing that I had some kind of incredible power over my students, I felt
    as if they saw me as an antiquated bureaucrat and maybe I was one.

  15. I’m inclined to agree with you, Amos. Although I also think that a department which has a culture of students and professors flirting and getting drunk together is going to create problems.

    I guess I think that professors, being in a position of relative power, have got to be very responsible in relationships with students. That’s vague, but I’m thinking things like not pursuing students, although if they pursue you, it might be ok to get involved; not dating students that one supervises, or who are in one’s classes; etc. etc.

    But I think relationships are so nuanced and complex that it’s not clear any hard and fast rules can be or should be drawn up.

  16. I agree with amos too. I actually think the culture of departments is more important to worry about than individual relationships. As I said, my department has a problem with dynamics between female grad students and younger male faculty members. I think this is the sort of thing we should be trying to rectify– though it’s hard to figure out how one could put a policy in place that would help– rather than punishing adults for getting involved in romantic relationships.

    People fall in love, and we shouldn’t have to choose between the person we love and our career. But, somehow, I wish we could get people to stop perpetuating a culture that doesn’t have anything to do with love, but rather has to do with bad power dynamics and faculty-student relations that are disturbing precisely because they have nothing to do with love, respect, or care.

  17. I wonder if we’re talking about a lot of quite different situations as though they were fairly uniform.

    I just looked back at our recent quote from Leiter and it’s interesting to view in this context (I’ve added numbers):

    The Sexual Predator Faculty: (1) Are women treated as young philosophers and aspiring professionals, or (2) 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.

    Leiter presents (1) and (2) as exclusive, and I’m afraid they often are. Without wanting yet to address how one might deal with this, I think the situation is highly discriminatory.

  18. Anon grad student must have posted while I was writing – I think she draws the sort of distinction I was looking for.

  19. I think anonymous grad student puts this nicely – the distinction between individual relationships and a culture of (2) captures my vague thoughts on the issue. And I certainly agree with you JJ that a culture of (2) is highly discriminatory. I guess I took Amos’ view – which I agree with – to be that the best way to deal with (2) isn’t necessarily to ‘legislate’ against all individual relationships. I’m not entirely sure how to deal with (2), whilst allowing for individual relationships – my vague gesturings at responsibility were intended to speak to that question. But if individual faculty members are not being responsible, then my suggestion is obviously a bit toothless.

  20. amos, despite your protestations to the contrary, you continue to appear to fail to understand what’s at issue. First, exploitative and unacceptable relationships can be consensual. For example, a student can consent to sex in exchange for an especially glowing recommendation (which needn’t come from the student’s advisor), yet it is just as unacceptable as sexual harassment (which typically would involve a distinctly involuntary or non-consensual element), if not worse. So the two possibilities you present in #12 are not mutually exclusive.

    In #15, you write:
    Making rules forbidding all relationships between students and faculty because in some relationships there will be abuse is like forbidding people to drive because some people run red lights. There seems to be the idea in many posts that students are not mature enough to deal with life problems, such as the fact that they and teachers are sexual beings.

    Second, the first quoted sentence involves an egregious disanalogy. The argument I sketched above included a premise that blanket rules were the best available solution to the problem of abusive relationships. But this is not the case with respect to people running red lights — education and straightforward enforcement of a clearly-stated rule seem to be sufficient to deal with the problem. In particular, there is no parallel to the epistemic problem I pointed out in my earlier comment — it’s usually easy to tell whether a car has run a red light, but very difficult to tell whether a relationship between student and teacher involves an abuse of power. As Monkey put it in #16, `relationships are … nuanced and complex’. By, where Monkey concludes that no `hard and fast rules can be or should be drawn up’, my claim is that the nuance and complexity implies that crude and simplistic rules are the only tools available for the job. If anyone has a realistic alternative to a blanket ban, I’d love to hear it.

    Third, with the second quoted sentence you slide back into defending the actions of students. As I pointed out before, this is a non sequitur. The problem is not with students making bad choices, it’s with teachers abusing their power.

    A few comments have suggest that the problem is a matter of `culture’, rather than individual relationships. In this respect, I’m an unrelenting individualist. The `culture’ of abuse of power is, as I see it, nothing more than a widespread problem of many individuals abusing their power, modeling for their peers that this sort of abuse of power is acceptable, and so on. The only way to address it is to stop the guilty individuals from continuing to abuse their power. How is this to be done? Casual public shaming and vague exhortations to be more responsible, I take it, are insufficient. I continue to believe that only a blanket ban, as blunt an instrument as this is, is liable to be effective. But again, if anyone has any better ideas, I’d love to hear them.

  21. Nice post, Noumena.

    It might be helpful for those who think that “legislating” against all individual relationships is not an option to review the last 20 years of arguments concerning the anti-fraternization policies which have become standard in the corporate world.

    The U.S. courts have repeatedly upheld a private employer’s right to enforce those anti-fraternization policies designed to prevent amorous relationships in circumstances in which there is a power asymmetry (as, say, in the case of a supervisor-subordinate relationship). So, for example, in Sarsha v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 3 F.3d 1035 (7th Cir. 2993), a supervisor was fired for dating a subordinate employee. In Rogers v. IBM Co. 500 F.Supp. 867 (W.D. Pa. (1980)), a manager was fired for a consensual relationship with a subordinate. In Patton v. J.C. Penney Co. 747 P.2d 854 (Or. 1986) an employee was discharged for dating a co-worker. And so on.

    A 1998 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management indicated that 55 percent of office romances result in marriage, but that 28 percent of these relationships result in complaints of favoritism of from coworkers, 24 percent in sexual harassment claims, and another 24 percent in the decreased productivity of the employees involved.

    And the corporate world is not alone in explicitly prohibiting consensual relationships between supervisors and subordinates (or even, in some cases, co-workers). Doctors don’t sleep with their patients. Military personnel are expressly forbidden to engage in relationships with others in their working unit. Mental health professionals don’t permit themselves to flirt with or enter into relationships with their current or former clients. “Legislating” against, or instituting policies that prohibit (consensual) amorous relationships between faculty and students has become the norm outside of academia.

    Why are we not taking a cue from institutions much bigger than those in academia? Surely if there was a way to solve the problem without instituting blanket anti-fraternization policies, the corporate world would have adopted it by now.

    Many universities *do*, by the way, already have a policy which expressly bans faculty-student relationships, even when the student is not currently an advisee or member of a class taught by the faculty member. With the frustratingly slow but nonetheless gradual increase in the number of universities requiring sexual harassment training, the actual import of these policies will hopefully become clearer in the years to come. (How many of you have read your University’s policy? Does your program require training in which instructional faculty and staff — including graduate students who work as TAs — are given a copy of the policy?)

    For those interested in a good discussion of the social and legal issues surrounding workplace relationships and the question of whether fraternization policies are a viable tool for handling the complex issue of romance in the workplace, I recommend Helena Amaral’s paper, available online at:

    Click to access Amaral_Fraternization.pdf

  22. I’ve been in places where faculty-student relationships are explicitly forbidden and in places where they are not forbidden but considered a subject for concern and regulation. In both places, such relationships happen. The latter sort of place , however, can have various mechanisms in place to protect students– a policy that any such relationship must be officially declared and that the faculty member will no longer be allowed to mark, supervise, etc. the student in question. At the former sort of place the relationships are kept secret and there are no such protections for the student. The latter seems better to me. (Forgive me if someone else already said this– I haven’t read everything!)

  23. I agree with your opinion that transparency is best in certain contexts, Jender. Helena Amaral’s paper (see link in #22) includes an appendix with an example of a “Love Stipulation” (an acknowledgement and agreement regarding an amorous workplace relationship). But note that it explicitly specifies that neither employee is (or has ever been) under the direct supervision of the other. The problem with, say, a relationship between a faculty member and graduate student in the same (philosophy) program is that it is unreasonable to think that the faculty member (or the mere fact of the relationship) has no weight in, say, job market considerations. In other words, I’m not convinced that transparency is the appropriate solution in this particular context.

    A friend of mine once remarked that the Chair of a department told her that being accepted into a graduate program in philosophy is “like being born into a family.” We are a small community, and departments have certainly been torn apart by interpersonal conflicts far less emotional than amorous meltdowns.

  24. Transparency certainly isn’t a full solution. But I worry quite a bit about the greater abuses that may occur if it’s being kept secret.

  25. Noumena: Universities seem to have gotten to be much hotter and sexier places than back when I taught or maybe philosophers are especially hot-blooded, because I can’t recall that sex between faculty and students in the lanuage department was that much of a problem, but if you’re looking for sin, you’ll surely find it. As for a student having consensual sex with a teacher in order to raise his or her grade (your example), that is wrong and should be punished, as should be sex between someone caught running a red light and a police officer or sex between a defendent and judge. Once again, back in my school days, if a failing student suddenly got an A from a teacher,
    the grapevine would begin to speculate on how or why he or she got an A, and perhaps the department head would have spoken with the teacher asking for an answer. As for your blanket ban, I’m all for banning blankets as long as there are sheets on the bed. Cheers. Amos

  26. Your challenge, Noumena, will indeed be hard to meet on your terms. Although you state that the problem is “with teachers abusing their power,” your claim is really about the “epistemic problem” of discovering “whether a relationship between student and teacher involves an abuse of power.”

    The disagreement is over whether the fact that such abuse can be difficult to discover calls for a blanket ban on teacher-student relationships. Amos, Monkey, and others might disagree with you–not because they are too dense or biased to comprehend the issue but, rather, because they believe there are reasonable grounds for disagreement.

    Analogies to teacher-student dynamics not involving sexuality might be more helpful. Teachers have been known to abuse their power, or possibly to have abused it, when utilizing students for research or writing. Teachers might abuse their power in non-sexually fraternizing with certain students, namely, by favoring those students and thus relatively disfavoring students who decline such opportunities (anonymous grad student suggests this scenario, though why it represents a special burden for women is unclear).

    Presumably, “a blanket ban, as blunt an instrument as this is,” on teacher-student activity not directly related to a student’s own (independent) academic work is “liable to be effective” in minimizing teacher abuse of power. Yet to insist on this goal as the test for a blanket ban begs the question of whether the cure is worse than, or at least an excessive course of treatment for, the disease.

  27. Men ask women out all the time (and vice versa, of course); women either accept or reject the advances all the time. When you paint this grad student as such a wilting violet that she needed the heavy hand of officialdom to help her reject unwanted advances, you do a disservice not only to strong women everywhere but also to women who really do need legal protection (whether from domestic violence in New York or from honor killings in Pakistan).

    It’s also wrong and unfair to use loaded words like “cornered” or “intimidated” in relation to the guy who asked her out. There’s no suggestion of any kind of violence or coercion.

    I’m male and dated a female professor in college. She hurt me and clearly used my inexperience. Sure, she was a scummy person, but no amount of legislation will protect young adults or anyone else from scummy people. Did she “harass” me? No, of course not. She never threatened my grades in any way. She went out and drank with students and told us interesting stories and got us interested in the field. I’d rather sleep with a scummy person who inspires me and then hurts me than with a scummy person who bores me and then hurts me (talk about adding insult to injury!). I’m now a happy grad student in a related field.

    Anonymous grad student’s comments are scary on so many levels.

    > First off, just want to say, this man is atrocious and should be fired from whatever post he holds.

    So she not only wants to legislate whom people sleep with, now she wants them fired if they even express opinions contrary to her puritanical positions. How is this any different from right-wingers wanting to fire gay teachers?

  28. When you paint this grad student as such a wilting violet that she needed the heavy hand of officialdom to help her reject unwanted advances, you do a disservice not only to strong women everywhere but also to women who really do need legal protection (whether from domestic violence in New York or from honor killings in Pakistan).

    This is thoroughly absurd. One sign of the absurdity is how much you have to deck the situation with B-movie-trailer copy in order to spin it in this direction. There was no suggestion that the graduate student was a “wilting violet” or that she “needed the heavy hand of officialdom to help her reject unwanted advances”; and another sign of absurdity is the suggestion that somehow advocating greater protections in cases of this sort is inconsistent with wanting legal protections against honor killings and domestic abuse — as if there were only so much legal safeguard to go around, and therefore it had to be distributed only to the most serious cases.

  29. My positions are not puritanical. I was partially joking about firing Judt, though I do think his essay is evidence that he hasn’t been doing a lot of critical thinking lately– which, I think, is a bad position for anyone working at a university to be in.

    If you go back and read my posts, you will see that I don’t believe that we should be making rules about who dates whom. What I think we should be doing is trying to be very conscious and thoughtful about the kind of culture we create in our departments. We are all, including me (and you) responsible for that. I was pointing out that there are ways in which being a female graduate student in my particular department is a disadvantage, and that faculty as well as students ought to be aware of it and try to do something about it. If you were to deny that, e.g., in my department, people don’t have an obligation to do something about a culture which disadvantages women, then you would, quite frankly, be denying that we have an obligation to create equality in opportunity for women and men in the academic world. I’m perfectly willing to condemn someone who denies this. I’m also perfectly willing to say that someone in an administrative role at a university who writes a public essay which is guilty of ignoring the fact that the kind of behavior he is supporting creates an unfair environment for women should not be in that administrative role. I don’t see any correlation between this position and the position of right-wingers who want to fire gay teachers. Are these gay teachers openly perpetuating a culture that is discriminatory and that disadvantages certain historically oppressed groups of people? If so, maybe they should be fired too. If not, then I’m confused about the analogy. Discrimination and oppression are not similar to sexual orientation.

    Your department might be different. But from what I’ve seen, a number of philosophy departments are similar to mine in this respect.

  30. Let’s remember there is a politeness rule here. That means, among other things, characterizing others’ perhaps egregious mistakes in respectful terms.

  31. I’m wondering whether it will help to try to summarize some points of agreement and disagreement. These are going to reflect my own interest here; please add or revise, if you think this is a reasonable idea at all.

    Agreement: (a) predatory and/or exploitative relations are not generally good. (b) it is possible that in situations where there are systematic asummetries of power, there can be genuine love relationships.

    Disagreement: (a) in a situation where there are systematic asummetries of power, should there be rules against relationship, or special regulations for such relationships? (b) do the asymmetries of power mean that perceptions and consent on the part of the less powerful are – or quite possibly are – clouded enough to reduce what we would consider genuine consent? (c) do the asymmetries of power mean that there are social pressures such that overt consent is given more often that the consenters otherwise choose? (d) do those asymmetries tend to create discriminatory situations?

    (Dis b-d) seem to capture reasons for some sort of rule or regulations, or at least something that mitigates a “whatever” environment. (b) & (c) are two examples where one worries that as a kind of institution, universities present situations where student’s choices are significantly constrained and (d) raises the issue of community damage.

    I might add that I am especially worried about dis-b. I do think there are all sorts of ways in which profs are set up as potentially admirable figures, in some ways a bit like the good parent or the good older sibling. It might not last long, but sometime one can get idealized for some time.

  32. anon “sr” philosopher – I’m perfectly fine with focusing on the epistemic problem section of my whole argument. If there were a relatively easy way to sort the abusive and non-abusive relationships then I would, ceteris paribus, prefer taking that way to blanket bans. However, unless I’ve overlooked something, no-one in this thread has made any claims concerning the epistemic problem — that it can be easily solved, for example. There doesn’t appear to be any disagreement on problematic nature of the epistemic problem, and thus no reasonable disagreement on it. Perhaps there’s reasonable disagreement on some other aspects of the issue, but apparently not on the epistemic problem.

    My problem with amos is the way s/he keeps on changing the subject, worrying about the different issue of naive or purportedly naive students making romantic mistakes. I pointed out an example of such a slide in #21.

    It’s true that teachers might abuse their power over their students in non-sexual, non-romantic ways. There are two relevant claims, one that’s important for me to defend, and one that’s less important. The first is that the sorts of abuses of power that I’ve been talking about are sufficiently pervasive to require some remedy; indeed, I need to defend the stronger claim that they’re sufficiently pervasive and harmful to require the strong remedy of a blanket ban, with all its undesirable side-effects. To paraphrase you, the claim is that the cure, as bad as it may be, is not worse than the disease. I take it that evidence can be mustered to support this, though I must admit that I don’t have a convenient link or citation. Perhaps Jender’s suggestion in #23 and the Amaral paper zenmind linked to in #22 offer a superior alternative to a blanket ban. I’ll have to think more about that.

    The second relevant claim is that other abuses power — as in your examples — are not as pervasive or harmful. Strictly speaking, I don’t need to defend this claim, since it’s not implied by my argument. But I do think it’s the case: I take it that non-sexual, non-romantic sorts of abuses of power are probably more pervasive, but also much milder and thus less harmful. For example, saddling a RA or TA with an unfair workload is quite common, but an extra five hours of work a week isn’t as egregious as extorting oral sex (say). I do suspect, though, that this will seem much less plausible to others.

  33. Noumena, Your comment made me realize that I might have put more of my attempt to clarify in terms of abuse of power. In a way, dis-b-d, raise the question of a systematic, institutionalized abuse.

    But there are at least other power-abuse problems. One is the person who with no sense of commitment acts entitled to sexual favors or other intrusive kinds of actions. Perhaps another is the person who employs power as an extra factor in establishing a relationship.

    If there are no rules against the first sort, which happens often enough, there are no protections for the students. But once those protections are in place, they can and probably will create a difficult situation for the faculty. Our affirmative action office claimed at one time that a number of cases filed were revenge cases; unfortunately, I have direct knowledge of two such revenge cases. But I think the lesson is that once outright abuse is prohibited, faculty need to be extraordinarily careful. Unfortunately, bad people can leave one without good options, and outright abusers are among the bad.

  34. Noumena–I would have thought that the pervasive sexual form of teacher abuse of power was sexual harassment that does not culminate in extorted sexual acts.

    One would expect the less dire form of sexual harassment to be much more pervasive because it does not depend on the participation of its victims. The perpetrator need only make aggressive or persistent sexual advances, or untoward sexual comments, or lewd gestures or maneuvers.

    Your argument would seem to rest not on the pervasiveness of teacher-extorted sex but, rather, on how dire teacher-extorted sex is when it does occur. But are the stakes in academia these days generally so high, and the options inside and outside so limited, that we are simply to imagine a mature person engaging in sex for the sake of securing a higher grade or a stronger recommendation, or even a tenure-track job? One might reasonably ask whether the unqualified victims are the persons indirectly disadvantaged by the subsequent favoritism shown to the direct victims.

    Perhaps there is nonetheless a good argument for a blanket ban on teacher-student relationships. Such an argument is more complicated and less obvious, though, than you seem to think.

  35. Thanks for the clarification, jj. I too am particularly worried about your (dis-b), but from the opposite direction.

    I’d argue that the only acceptable standard for evaluating a person’s consent (barring some sort of impairment) is to look at their actual stated position. I’m an adult. Overruling my stated opinion in order to protect me from actual or, worse, potential threats negates my moral agency and infantilizes me.

    As a non-white man I find this kind of infantilization highly objectionable (you know, the kind you see in B-movies or in centuries of colonization :-). I guess it puzzles me that some women don’t share this outrage at being “protected”—in effect from themselves.

    So I don’t see having a clear stance against harassment but leaving consensual sexual or non-sexual interaction alone as a “whatever” environment.

    In addition, stemming from your (b), two other areas of worry emerge. Given the nebulousness of unvoiced fears or opinions, any regulation of the kind you seek must necessarily be extremely broad. So: (a) How would one prevent abuse? What protections would innocent defendants have? (b) Notice also that everything in your dis-list applies equally to non-sexual interaction, so how far would such regulation eventually extend?

  36. The distinction between 1) and 2) upthread is important. A norm that prohibits faculty-student relationships within departments is one that seems more likely to ensure that female students aren’t viewed primarily as potential romantic partners. We could treat the department or other supervisory relationship as the unit which is analogous to a chain of command in the military or in an office.

    The linked article seems to recognize only two kinds of problems: trading consensual sex for grades and using a position of power to intimidate someone into having sex with you. Although those things are bad, it seems that a culture that presupposes that grad students are fair game for faculty is one that can have the effect of discouraging collaboration between female grad students & faculty.

    Men ask women out all the time (and vice versa, of course); women either accept or reject the advances all the time. When you paint this grad student as such a wilting violet that she needed the heavy hand of officialdom to help her reject unwanted advances

    The only one doing the painting here is you; moreover, the fact that people ask out other people all the time without then going to the dean (or to the supply closet) suggests that an alternate reading is not that she’s a wilting violet, but that there was something wrong about the situation such that she felt compelled to report it…

  37. Nemo, I don’t see dis(b-d) as about women alone, since men can be subject to the desires of gay or straight faculty. I also see it as much more pointing to an institutional fact than to anything about particular individuals.

    In fact, contract law recognizes the kind of thing I have in mind, when it talks about undue influence. Here’s a quote from an Australian source; I don’t know if our law is the same, but this gets at the concept I have in mind:

    Presumption in certain well-known relationships
    HPH 1190-1191

    There is a list of relationships where there is a presumption that undue influence has been exercised by the ascendant party. These relationships are ones where the dependent party has reposed confidence in the ascendant party and would expect the ascendant party to act in the dependent party’s interests. This is an essential characteristic of what is called a fiduciary relationship, that is, a relationship in which the fiduciary – the ascendant party – must act with the utmost good faith and must act, not in his or her own interests, but in the other party’s interests. The list includes (in order of appearance ascendant and dependent party):

    parent and child

    guardian and ward

    priest and sheep (ie one of a flock)

    solicitor and client

    doctor and patient

    The list does not include husband and wife nor does it include principal and agent, banker and customer or teacher and student. It may be possible to show that a particular relationship is in fact one of influence. In some relationships this will not be a very difficult task. For example, it is relatively easy to establish that a particular relationship of husband and wife is one of influence. But the courts will not start out making a presumption in relationships which are not in the list.

    In situations of dependence

    Apart from showing that there is deemed to be undue influence (because the relationship is in the list), it is always possible to show that there is in fact undue influence in a particular relationship, that is, that a person should not be bound by a contract or gift if it was procured in circumstances where there was unfair advantage taken by one party over the other.

    The Australian law does not include student-teachers in the cases where there is always a presumption of undue influence. I have heard people argue, however, that faculty have a fiduciary responsibility to their students. That is, we should act in their best interests, not ours.

  38. > Nemo, I don’t see dis(b-d) as about women alone, since
    > men can be subject to the desires of gay or straight faculty.

    Oh, I agree entirely. (Sorry, I should’ve made that more clear.)

    And of course I also agree with your agree-list. Even more, relationships between professors and their own students are definitely worrisome. I don’t agree that they should in themselves be considered evidence of wrong-doing, but having at least some sort of reporting requirement (faculty-members in such relationships being required to report them to the dean, for example) seems like a plausible compromise protecting the interests of all parties in question.

    However, most university regulations I’ve seen go further. They not only presume wrong-doing in these sorts of relationships but also ban relationships between faculty-members and students *not* under their supervision. As a student, I resent my university’s intrusion into my bedroom and I see this as the thin end of a rather large wedge.

    As far as applying corporate rules to universities:

    (a) I’m not a lawyer, but I think the courts have ruled that private corporations have a right to ban relationships between supervisor and supervised, not that they have a legal obligation to do so—other than in cases of harassment, of course.

    (b) Private corporations are held to lower standards of freedom for their employees. Here in the US, for example, it’s perfectly legal for corporations to ban certain speech. Do we really want even private universities doing likewise, though they have the right to? And in any case students and employees of public universities here surrender fewer rights than those of private universities.

    (c) Most corporations don’t ban relationships between all workers at different levels, just between workers who have a direct supervisory relationship (the Amaral paper points out the standard corporate response of moving the subordinate to someone else’s supervision). Walmart certainly goes further, but given Walmart’s history of various kinds of discrimination it’s a safe bet that their reason (like most corporations’) is not fairness but corporate liability. We should be more than somewhat surprised and cautious when Walmart becomes our paragon of virtue:

  39. As to the question of fiduciary interest, I agree that perhaps grade school and secondary school teachers have an obligation to act in the best interests of students and there may be a danger of undue influence in the case of grade school and secondary school teachers, but here we are discussing graduate students and their professors, graduate school being a step towards becoming a professor. That is, graduate students are future colleagues of their professors and at times teach part-time in community colleges. On the one hand, I think that you are presenting a very idealized vision of the way that graduate students view their professors: we are talking of adults generally in their mid 20’s, not of 16 year-old’s. On the other hand, I still think that you are being patronizing about
    the ability of young adults to deal with complex situations, involving sexuality, with older adults. I myself taught undergraduate students, and in my experience, they were quite adult and aware about sexuality: even if I had wanted to, it would have been impossible to me to exert some kind of underhanded sexual pressure on them. They would have complained to their peers, placing me on a student black-list, and then to the department head.

  40. I don’t know that it’s condescending to be worried that there is or can be undue influence. That doesn’t say there always is.

    It might be a bit mean in this sort of situation to invoke research about influence, but there’s lots of recent research on how undue influence works. To take an example from another domain entirely: Drug companies like to bring free lunches to doctors’ offices. It seems pretty extreme to say that Doctors are going to start perscribing XYZ just because they get the odd free meal. Doctors in fact swear up and down that it doesn’t affect their judgment. I mean, we’re talking adults, years and years of schooling, deeply committed professionals, right?

    Well, they are deeply committed, but rewards like that have a huge impact. It is a huge problem and I think the AMA is issuing some sort of guidelines: no more free lunches!

    Read Montague’s lab at Baylor has been working on this. Just putting the name on a picture frame of someone who has rewarded you for something can radically impact your aesthetic judgment, according to some experiments.

    So what’s going to go on in a situation where someone is supposed to be your helper in some way? Maybe the person is getting you the best mortgage he can, or helping you deal with grief, or giving you A’s and telling you how bright you are. Research strongly indicates that the chances are exceptionally high that your opinion of such a person will go up on irrelevant matters. Doctors, lawyers and ministers can all, apparently, big scorers (a psychiatrist I once knew said ministers are the worst), and in my experience scuzzy old men who are professors can attract women who otherwise might be out of their league.

    All of this is before we get to the question of how to deal with it. And it’s just one mechanism of influence. And we can’t have a rule for all “undue” influences on one’s life. But I do think we should be careful when the institution has built into that one gets into these power-asymmetry, judgment-reward mechanisms and so on.

  41. Please, don’t get me wrong. I acknowledge that there are what you call “undue influences, everywhere in contemporary society. I’m skeptical first of all, if there can rules governing undue influences, especially those which are mostly unconscious (if Obama were a bus driver, would I find him so good looking?) and second, if it is good to make rules prohibiting undue influences, even if one were able to do so. The way (I think) for us to get undue influences, out of our thinking, is to become conscious of them: no one can do that for us. Naturally, getting undue influences out of our thinking can be a group process, done through dialogue, different forms of group therapy, but it’s important, very important, that we work on it. Over-protecting people from undue influences, first of all, may
    make them more attractive (what is prohibited tends to become sexy) and second of all, delays the necessary work of what I might call the therapy of undue influences.

  42. Amos, why is adopting rules prohibiting certain kinds of faculty-student relationships incompatible with helping faculty better understand the power and influence they have over their students? Why, in other words, can’t we (or you, or whoever the appropriate agent is) do both?

    Indeed, it seems to me that public deliberation about why these rules are necessary, if done well, can promote that understanding.

  43. Noumena: Sorry for being sarcastic with you before. I think that a rule prohibiting relationships between students and teachers when the student is in the teacher’s class, being supervised by the teacher or will inevitably come into that situation in the future (there is only one teacher who teaches
    Ethics, a required course) is sufficient. Otherwise, rules tend to overprotect students and even teachers from dealing with real issues of undue influence. It is true, as you say, that in theory people can deal with issues, even while they are protected by rules, but in my experience, that doesn’t happen. If by public deliberation of why the rules are necessary, you mean this type of forum, of course that stimulates awareness. However, once the rules are in force, I doubt that people will deliberate about them much:
    they will be taken for granted.

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