Shifting the topic slightly: good approaches to sexual harassment?

UPDATE: Due to reader entreaties (and our own uncertainty about the best way to proceed in this difficult situation) we are re-opening the Oregon thread, for a maximum of two days. But please, please strive to follow the Be Nice rule.

All of us at FP have grown mightily uncomfortable with the discussion of the Pluralists’ Guide, of particular departments, and particular philosophers’ personal lives. We are also finding our “be nice” rule to be nearly unenforceable without ending these discussions. And yet, we recognise that the many of the issues raised are deeply important. So we’ve decided to try closing the most active posts on these topics to further comments, and (inspired by a comment from Heg) to start a new post with the topic “Tell us about some sexual harassment policies and approaches that work well.” So please do so in comments: we could all benefit immensely from such a discussion.

Our apologies to you if you disagree with this decision. We have allowed a lot of discussion on these important topics, but we think it’s important to shift a bit now.

Also, just to be clear: closing comments at this point is not a tacit endorsement of any side in these debates. It’s simply an effort to move to a more productive discussion.

13 thoughts on “Shifting the topic slightly: good approaches to sexual harassment?

  1. The trouble with focusing on policy in general and sexual harassment and discrimination policy in particular is that it does not address the importance of department culture overall. The best policy is useless if there is not a culture that has everyday practices and norms that are consistent with the policy.

    One bad apple need not spoil the climate in a department, if the department has a culture that is not tolerant of bad behavior. This means that bystanders stand up for both the policy and for those who decide to use the policy. This can also mean that when one member of a department behaves in a manner that is inconsistent with policy, the others clearly express their displeasure. This expression of displeasure can have an effect on the person who is behaving badly. It can also have an effect on the person who is hurt.

    After an incident of sexual harassment, the person who is hurt can feel isolated from their community or supported by their community. It is also good for members of a group to see their community stand up for the fair treatment of people ‘like them.’ Being isolated and seeing examples of people being hurt with no visible recourse, go a long way to making a climate terrible.

    One challenge is that many grievance procedures are designed to protect the university and others from litigation. As a result, public discussion of events get shut down.

    But, there are many positive things that one can do. There is lots of harassment that is not a full blown tit for tat or what have you. Sexual harassment can also be a pattern of bad but not horrible behavior, for example a steady stream of inappropriate jokes. This is the kind of thing that bystanders can nip in the bud.

    For thinking about ways to be a good bystander, it is useful to check out MIT’s bystander training, which can be found here:

  2. I’m an undergraduate student at a department in Canada. While we do have an unusually high number of women philosophers at our department, there has been some cause for concern. One effort, which is less policy oriented, and was undertaken with the help of students, was trying to provide “safe-space” workshops. These were to be made available for professors and students so that professors could be more forward looking about their behaviour and actions, and even help professors learn how to address instances of sexism, racism, and homophobia in both classroom and non-classroom settings. The only problem with this suggestion was that it is difficult to get all faculty members to take part in these workshops and discussions, just because there is no way to make these mandatory.

  3. Ram, if it is any comfort, making them mandatory is not necessarily productive. It can cause pretty bad resentment.

    Alpha, thanks so much for mentioning the bystander training. I can’t remember if the site mentions it, but it is often good to practice new behavior before you have to put it into action. That might be something good for interested people in a department to try.

    As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, there’s a group in NYC who have several very large inflatable rats one of which is put up outide the building where a law firm is (known to?) engaged in exploitative practices. it is such a wonderful idea, but I suppose realistically one can’t go putting inflatable rats outside colleagues’ doors. Still, there might be some concrete way of getting across to faculty that when one person engages in shameful behaviour, the department as a whole is put at risk for recruiting, etc.

  4. This is a true story, but I think it is best to disguise it. I witnessed the high ranking official discussing the policy I mention.

    A high ranking official completely disapproved of faculty sleeping with students. The EEOC-AAO also reported to him, and so he heard of accusations about subsequent problems with faculty who did that. If the story checked out (i.e., the faculty member admitted to the sex even if not the subsequent problem) he fired them. Nothing in the university Rules and Regulations prohibited faculty from sleeping with students, and normally a complaint against such a faculty member would have to go through all sorts of hearings, etc. But, as he said, faculty generally can’t afford to fight the university, so he just went ahead and got rid of them.

    I don’t actually think this is a happy story.

  5. I think you should either switch to a system of moderating the comments–so that they are not posted until you approve them–or just allow whatever goes up to stay up.

    To many of us, the fact that you took down all evidence that someone (one of the anonymous bloggers on your own site!) offensively said that the Rutgers graduate students were merely “protecting their daddies” was creepy. That is: your taking down the creepy remark was in itself creepy. It was to erase the fact that these women had been insulted in this way, though the insult was public and widely read.

    It was erasing what otherwise looks like a public record of what happened when they stood up for themselves.

  6. “All of us at FP have grown mightily uncomfortable with the discussion of the Pluralists’ Guide, of particular departments, and particular philosophers’ personal lives.”
    Can I just applaud all of you here for doing your damndest to create a forum for reasoned, polite, and respectful discourse. I know it’s a losing battle some (if not most) of the time, but some of us really do appreciate it.

    That being said, I think maybe it might be helpful to identify what a realistically ideal sexual harassment policy would do (would the priority be to remove potential harassers from the community quickly, or to proceed with caution to establish the validity of accusations first, for example) while we continue this discussion. I can’t say that I speak from a great deal of experience, but there often seems to be a discrepancy between what individuals think should happen and how they judge the success of a certain policy. Rereading that it sounds mundanely obvious, and I’m probably just too tired to get my point across, but reading the multiple accounts of the incident at OU (not to sound demeaning, just to be brief) it seems clear that the student who sent Leiter the email and Professor Mann do not dispute that something terrible happened, but disagree on how the whole thing was handled. Obviously I could be wrong about this, and like I said above I’m tired, but in conversations like these the problems quickly begin to outnumber the solutions (or so it seems to me) and maybe we ought to do things one at a time. Besides, you’re philosophers, you should e able to handle a thought experiment.

    Hope this wasn’t too inane or ranty.

  7. Anon @ 7:05. Some of the bloggers have discussed whether to reopen the issue of the note that produced such a negative response, including number calls for an apology. In fact, it was jj who proposed doing so. It was decided not to. That may or may not have been a good decision, but we have been extremely concerned about how things have been going on these posts. The discussion that was removed had completely gone off from the original topic, and we try very hard not to let that happen here.

    Let me add, jj did explicitly say that she did not know the Rutgers women, that she was not speaking of them, and that she thought that they were too intelligent to be taken in by the biases she mentioned. In fact, the very latest research, which she cited, does strongly suggest that intelligence and information (which we could assume the Rutger’s women had) does over ride bias. I do hope that my mentioning this does not arose fresh outrage; it is mean merely to indicate that intentions at least were not malevolent.

    I am happy to note that a number of anonymous people strongly challenged jj’s comment and called for an apology. No one who used their names in responding to jj was a Rutgers grad students.

    It was all in all a very unfortunately episode and no blogger here wanted Rutgers women to feel so insulted. Unfortunately, my ability to continue this discussion is coming to a swift end because of a very serious health crisis in my family that is involving contacting a hospital right now.

  8. I don’t have any experience with anti-harassment policies, but there are already some suggestions out there by people who have spent quite some time researching them. There is, for one, the American Physical Society’s “Best Practices for Recruiting and Retaining Women in Physics” (, which also seems like a Best Practices-guide for running a department in general.

    Then there is a detailed “Example anti-harassment policy for conferences” (, which was developed for Free/Open Source/Technology conferences (for general advocacy work, there is the Ada Initiative at After reading the post at, I think such a policy should be standard at philosophy conferences.

  9. Good heavens, I go to the U.S. for a week and I miss a lot, it turns out! Glad to see you all doing your usual hard work of aiming to discuss matters constructively.

    What has worked in the institutions that I’ve been a part of: Having a really robust, well-known, well-staffed and well-reputed EEOC office or ‘complaint department,’ so that those suffering sex discrimination or sexual harassment in their departments know they have a receptive place to go for lots of help.

    I’ve worked places that require varieties of training, and Jenny’s right that it does engender (punny!) some resentment. I now work at an institution in Canada that offers ‘safe-space’ training on a voluntary basis, and when I went to my first training session, I was in a sea of staff and students with only one other faculty member in sight! It was incredibly depressing. I’m not sure what the solution is, there.

  10. Anne J.’s response to me (7/27, 7:05) betrays the serious problems with the policy of allowing comments to go up and then be taken down.
    Many people I have spoken to consider the low point of this whole discussion to be jj’s daddies comment. When I read it I remember it being directly about the Rutgers students (whatever qualifications may have been there). Anne J. defends jj by describing what jj said. It’s harder to counter Anne’s account because we ca

  11. Stick to the topic, folks! This post is not about jj’s comment. It’s about how to deal with sexual harassment. Off-topic comments will be deleted.

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