McGinn leaving Miami due to improper emails

NewAPPS writes:

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Colin McGinn is leaving Miami “amid allegations that he sent improper messages to a graduate student.” (The story is behind a pay-wall.)

“Mr. McGinn…denies allegations that he behaved improperly. Those allegations were lodged by a female graduate student who has said that the professor sent her a series of sexually explicit e-mail and text messages, starting in the spring-2012 semester.”
“one message in which they said Mr. McGinn wrote that he had been thinking about the student while masturbating.”

I haven’t been able to see the whole story due to the pay wall. UPDATE: But here’s some more. (Thanks E and K!)

In the Miami case, the female graduate student first approached the university’s Office of Equality Administration, which handles harassment-related cases, near the beginning of the fall semester last year. She had previously taken a course with Mr. McGinn in the fall of 2011, and began serving as his research assistant soon after.
The student, who asked to remain anonymous because she is planning to pursue a career in philosophy, said in an e-mail that she began to feel uncomfortable around Mr. McGinn at the start of the spring semester a year ago. Her discomfort hit a high point in April, she wrote, “when he began sending me extremely inappropriate and uncomfortable messages, which continued until the beginning of the summer.”
The student declined to share the messages with The Chronicle. However, her long-term boyfriend, [name deleted by FP]—a fifth-year graduate student in the department—described some of the correspondence, including several passages that he said were sexually explicit. Mr. [deleted], along with two professors with whom the student has worked, described one message in which they said Mr. McGinn wrote that he had been thinking about the student while masturbating.
Advocates of Mr. McGinn, however, say that the correspondence may have been misinterpreted when taken out of context.
Edward Erwin, a supporter of Mr. McGinn who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Miami, said Mr. McGinn was working on a book about human evolution and the hand. Part of the reason Mr. McGinn was sending messages that could be interpreted as sexually explicit, Mr. Erwin said, was probably because of communication about that research.
“There was some sexual talk, banter, puns, and jokes made between the two,” Mr. Erwin said. “The written records, I believe, show that this was an entirely consensual relationship,” he said. And that relationship, he added, was not sexual.
The case made its way to Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami, who had a “strong” personal reaction to the allegations, Mr. Erwin said. Ms. Shalala, who served in President Bill Clinton’s administration, has been recognized for her advocacy of women’s rights.
A university spokeswoman declined to comment on Ms. Shalala’s behalf.
After the university’s Office of Equality Administration and the vice provost for faculty affairs conducted an investigation, Mr. McGinn was given the option of agreeing to resign or having an investigation into the allegations against him continue in a public setting, several of the philosopher’s colleagues said.
“Colin chose to resign after he learned, or had very good reason to believe, that his tenure was going to be revoked regardless of what he did,” Mr. Erwin said. “It’s been an unfortunate situation.”
In addition to Mr. Erwin’s support, Mr. McGinn has won backing from some philosophers at other universities who have written to the University of Miami on his behalf, according to faculty members at Miami.
For all of the accolades Mr. McGinn has brought to Miami, some faculty members believe that he crossed a line in his messages to the graduate student.
Ms. Thomasson, who has been in touch with the student throughout the case, said she had read through a number of e-mails the student brought to her and found them to contain sexual content that could not be considered simply an academic discussion of sexuality. “I read enough to see that they had explicitly sexual content,” she said.
Ms. Thomasson added that the case at Miami underscores the discouraging climate for many women in philosophy today.
“The situation of this student isn’t isolated; there are plenty of similar stories at other departments,” she said. “It’s situations like this that draw some female students out of the field, which is a real tragedy.”

A couple of initial reflections:
-It’s an astounding new development in the field for allegations like this to be taken so seriously that someone is forced out AND for this not to have been hushed up.
-I’ll bet the victim who wants to be anonymous really really didn’t want her boyfriend named either. Yeesh.

UPDATE: Full story can now be found here. Thanks, S!

UPDATE: Due to the volume and nature of (attempted) comments on this thread, we are closing comments. They may be reopened in the future.

42 thoughts on “McGinn leaving Miami due to improper emails

  1. ^This.

    And I also feel, as a female philosopher, that I owe her an immense debt of gratitude.

  2. Hope this teaches Mr. Erwin a lesson, too. What exactly does he think “research” is? Mr. McGinn, evidently, found it to be a nice little trap for a woman graduate student, a.k.a. “faculty slave.”

  3. I definitely felt gross reading the salacious details after the Chronicle acknowledged that the student didn’t want her identity or (probably) the content of the messages known publicly.

    Also, Leiter mentions on his blog a lawyer remarking that “after Penn State” (referring to the assistant football coach whose serial sexual abuse of children was largely ignored by the university for years) “everything is different.”

    If that is the case, then we might start to see more people with “strong personal” reactions to these kind of allegations (whatever that means.)
    (Quote from the article: “The case made its way to Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami, who had a “strong” personal reaction to the allegations, Mr. Erwin said. Ms. Shalala, who served in President Bill Clinton’s administration, has been recognized for her advocacy of women’s rights.”)

    Actually, is that code for “emotional”? or “woman-being-emotional”? Seriously, I was confused by that; how can people tell what is a personal reaction of disgust/shock/horror/anger at a person possibly having done something horrible and what is a professional reaction of disgust/shock/horror/anger at a someone in your workplace–that you are sort of responsible for–possibly having done something horrible?

    Or are Mr. Erwin’s comments (if not taken out of context by the Chronicle) more an implication of: “Well, this person seems really upset and angry about this, but I am not upset and angry, so this other person must have some personal, idiosyncratic reason for reacting the way they are. Because obviously I am reacting normally, rationally and without personal bias.”?

  4. My favorite part of the article is where one of Miami’s grad students blames the university for why McGinn is no longer on his dissertation committee. Here’s a crazy thought: maybe you should blame McGinn for why McGinn is no longer on your dissertation committee.

  5. Good for U. of Miami.

    What I find most disturbing is that I can think of two other senior US philosophers (one v. prominent) who are both well known for being very sexually aggressive towards graduate students. All their colleagues know about this. Neither are in any danger of losing their jobs.

    I am sure everyone reading this also know of similar people.

  6. I am friends with the victim’s boyfriend (we attended the same terminal MA program). He made a conscious decision, along with Professor Thomasson, to explicitly identify himself in order to take a stand against sexual harassment in philosophy. I imagine he discussed this with his girlfriend before doing so.

  7. I feel weird and ambivalent about all of this. McGinn is clearly a gross creep. Like many others have pointed out, we all know people who have done much worse than this with few or no professional consequences. I can’t help but think that the fact that McGinn is otherwise manifestly a giant douchebag helped seal his fate here, and I don’t know that that’s fair. I’m not sure it is a great precedent for us to up the ante so high. I suspect I’d be less rather than more likely to report on a colleague for mid-range harassing behavior if I thought it likely that it would result in him losing his job altogether.

    Not sure where I am going with any of that, but I am not ready to full-throatedly celebrate this. I’m never going anywhere near McGinn though.

  8. Rebecca Kukla — your comment assumes that a 63 year old faculty member wakes up one day and thinks to himself, “hey, enough of this decent professional behaviour. I’m gonna send masturbation fantasies to a grad student!”. You work up to that level of gross entitled wankery over many, many years. Your comment also assumes that in the lead-up to this, *no one* has tried any kinder measures with this guy, that no one has suggested to him that *possibly* his behavior is inappropriate, unbecoming, potentially legally actionable, disgusting, etc. The likelihood that this is the case is zero.

  9. About ‘mid-range harassing behavior’: The way a university handles this depends in part on what their legal advisors tell them about liability down the road, if the ‘mid-level harasser’ engages in similar or more serious behavior down the road. If the university allows the professor to continue to teach, and if he then later does something that seems to be abusive of his position, the liability of the university may be greater because they knew about the earlier case. There is therefore a strong incentive for the legal advisor to recommend getting rid of the person (possibly with the option of allowing him to retire), even when the behavior complained of is not more than ‘mid-level’ harassing. Anyway, the response of a university to a particular case may well be stronger than what may seem to be ‘deserved’, if they are concerned about future liability.

  10. Rebecca, I think you are right to be worried about raising the ante, though in the present case, the power differences distinguishes it from harassment by a colleague. Also, nothing I’ve seen says anything about what rules govern prof-student relations at Miami. If there is a policy forbidding any sexual contact, the ante may have been raised some time ago.

    Stacey, I was also concerned by the references to emotions. As though one’s opinion is sound only if one’s had no experiencces of harassment, is emtionally neutal, etc.

  11. Rebecca I’m really shocked by your comment. Sending sexually explicit emails to a graduate student is incredibly serious and warrants firing. The fact that there are even worse things a person could do does not mean that that does not warrant firing. I would *absolutely* report a colleague who did something like that; we’re obligated to do so. Sexual harassment like this is incredibly bad for those who experience it — it can drive them out of the profession or impact their careers badly.

  12. Rebecca (if I may),

    You say: “I suspect I’d be less rather than more likely to report on a colleague for mid-range harassing behavior if I thought it likely that it would result in him losing his job altogether.”

    Why not think, though, that that is itself a product of a culture that’s generally too tolerant of sexual harassment? That is, the thought that the colleague in your hypothetical example ought not to be reported seems to depend on a further thought, that his behaviour is not bad enough to warrant being fired or forced out in some other way. But why think that?

    (I hope it’s clear that this is not meant to be hostile! I’d just like to hear more about what you think.)

  13. Kathleen, I think it is quite possible that no one has told him. Erwin’s comments indicate an attitude that can sweep through an institution.

  14. One thing I might say in response to Rebecca is that we probably haven’t heard the final word on this case. I’d be surprised if there weren’t more allegations and more wrongdoing to uncover. I think there’s a legitimate concern about upping the ante, and I’ll provisionally disagree with Liz Harman in #12 about sexually explicit e-mails warranting firing. Of course, a lot depends on the details…how sexually explicit, whether the person has a history, whether the person was persistent/denied requests to stop, etc.

    What I find confusing is the fact that McGinn *resigned* over this. He wasn’t fired. My guess: More is coming, and McGinn did something worse than what we’ve already heard.

  15. I find this comment fascinating.

    How sick is the profession of philosophy that a professor sending an email to one of his own students mentioning that they have been jerking off while thinking of them not a grounds for dismissal.

    The problem in part is that this sort of behavior is so common that ethic norms have been shifted in the profession so that from the inside this doesn’t look like a big deal.

    Someone mentioned his age: That’s not relevant. Neither are his looks, ethicinity etc. If he was 25 it would still be the same sexual harassment.

    It’s really simple: Professors have a duty of care for their students. Professors who don’t get this don’t deserve to be in higher education.

  16. Rebecca, I must say I’m rather shocked by your comment too–regardless of whether or not anyone has tried to address his behavior through more moderate means before. This isn’t just a matter of the particular incidents in question, and it isn’t just a matter of the one female student his behavior was directed toward. Sexual harassment is never about one person. The victims of harassment are not only those directly on the receiving end of it. When prejudice falls across the fault lines of social identity, as it does with sexism, racism, and so on, the target of that prejudice is not the individual, but the social identity of the individual, and so the entire group which shares that identity. Someone who behaves like this simply cannot effectively teach women. If one cannot teach an entire demographic, then one is not fit to teach at all. I see no reason why losing one’s job over something like this–even assuming that the publicly available details are all the details to be had (which is unlikely in situations like this)–given that such behaviors have a systematic effect.

    I think it’s a mark of real commitment to fairness that Miami handled the situation as they did.

  17. What is the meaning of the claim reported by the Chronicle that “Mr. McGinn
    was given the option of agreeing to resign or having an investigation
    into the allegations against him continue in a public setting”? It sounds as though there were some sort of initial investigation that was supposed to continue (formally? what do they mean, “public”? When are such investigations ever “public”?), which McGinn resigned to avoid. If this is the case, I would think the issue about “raising the ante” is not quite what Rebecca is suggesting–that is, depending on how this actually went down, the proximate cause of this person losing his job is not his being reported for sexual harassment, but refusing to cooperate with an investigation of his sexual harassment.

  18. Following on with Cora Diamond, it is worth our remembering that universities tend to have quite complicated principles that can be very important in this sort of case. It may well be that there are undesirable consequences to being fired that he was able to avoid by resigninng.

  19. @Matt Drabek:

    I was responding to “. I’m not sure it is a great precedent for us to up the ante so high. I suspect I’d be less rather than more likely to report on a colleague for mid-range harassing behavior if I thought it likely that it would result in him losing his job altogether.”

    This comment seems to suggest that McGinn’s actions (assuming what is reported is correct) are not grounds for dismissal and were only mid-range sexual harassment.

  20. He sent the grad student an email about his masturbatory fantasies because he was “working on a book about human evolution and the hand.” David Letterman should hire this Erwin guy QUICK — this is comic gold!!

  21. @Patrick:

    Yeah, I assumed that was the post you were responding to. It seems like a pretty uncharitable way of reading Rebecca’s post, that’s all. I doubt she was defending the employment of mid-range sexual harassers. Here’s a perhaps more charitable reading of what she (or someone who sympathized with the sentiments of her post) might be getting at:

    One thing that people tend to forget is that firings aren’t carried out by God. They’re carried out by people in positions of great power, people who have been known to abuse that power. The trouble with removing a faculty member with authority is that such removals are typically carried out by university administrators with even more authority, and usually unjustified authority. I think a more charitable way of reading Rebecca’s post is that she was sounding a note of caution about getting carried away with “fire the bastard” as a solution to a problem (sexual harassment) that demands more broad cultural changes.

    Not that I necessarily agree, but it’s at least something perhaps more constructive. It’s at least one reason why you might be worried about the way these cases are conducted.

  22. Like others, I think that sending sexually explicit emails to a graduate student (over what appears to have been an extended period of time) is extremely serious, and definitely warrants losing one’s job. If worse things happen in other departments, so much for the worse. I, for one, am very glad that the president of the university took this seriously and decided to take action rather than letting it slip under the table – as is so often the case.

  23. I am surprised enough at the uncharitable readings of my comment, especially given my public record of being outspoken on this issue, to be disinclined to engage in detailed debate. I agree with Matt that there is likely more to this story. Part of my point, which I am surprised is contentious, is that it’s premature to celebrate when we clearly don’t know the whole story. As for upping the ante, I think it’s uselessly idealistic to think that we should all just plunge ahead and report everything. I wonder how many of you have actually been caught in the midst of the murky, contextually complicated, power-ridden, socially vexed, and quite terrifying world of reporting sexual harassment – a world in which the relationship between the harasser and the victim is far from the only complicated and power-riddled relationship in play.

    My apologies if I seemed to be minimizing the importance of harassment somehow.

  24. As things are reported it seems appropriate to me that McGinn resign his position as he is doing. I’m surprised, however, to see claims like this (@17 above): “Someone who behaves like this simply can’t effectively teach women.” As many who have worked with him have known for a great many years, McGinn has quite ‘effectively’ taught a great many women and men, graduate and undergraduate, over a long career. The University of Miami had conclusive evidence of his past teaching effectiveness when it hired him.

  25. @ Erin Tarver
    I’m a grad student in the department and I can clear that up a bit and maybe the discussion about why the e-mails were ‘sufficient’ for termination. What basically happened is that the allegations and some of the evidence was presented by the student to the administration (not formally to the department). Based on the information that was presented at the meeting, McGinn accepted an agreement that would stop the investigation and place a gag order on the university in exchange for accepting termination. Further interviews and evidence was not collected because stopping the investigation was part of the agreement. I believe that this included a gag order on the department as well on discussing this matter in any official capacity. So, the question of whether or not the information presented was sufficient for dismissal (I think it was) does not really capture the entire context. The e-mails were the primary evidence that was presented in the meeting because print talks. And the information that might have had further relevance was not “officially submitted” because there was no further investigation. Accepting a dismissal with a gag order in exchange for not having a further investigation with the possibility of legal ramifications is not quite the same as being dismissed outright for sending sexually explicit e-mails. I think that this aspect of the proceeding is entirely relevant for understanding what went down and it is absolutely ridiculous that the CHE article does not include this information or only vaguely mentions it. [I’ll mention though, that this sums up the information that I have during informal conversations. I take it to be pretty much accurate but there may be some further details that I missed.]

    But I am glad that they were able to locate the only graduate student in the department who is all up in arms about this. The majority of grad students in my department have absolutely no issue with this termination and have tried to give her complete support (I say we ‘tried’ because it is really hard to figure out how to balance respect for privacy and show some kind of ‘public’ support at the same time.)

  26. Finally, a university has actually done something about the sexual harassment so rife in our discipline. The student concerned was exceeding brave in coming forward, considering the potential harm to her career and the likely personal backlash, not to mention that, judging by past cases, she had very little expectation of any action being taken.

    I’ve grown really sickened and discouraged, over my years in grad school, by how extraordinarily hostile the environment is for women in this discipline. I profoundly hope this will inspire more students to come forward, and that it spells the beginning of the end for philosophy’s culture of condoning, or at best ignoring, all manner of sexual harassment—from inappropriate sexual talk at conferences, in class, over wine and cheese, to students being sexually propositioned and professionally retaliated against when they decline—and everything in between.

  27. Thanks, RLN, that’s really helpful and compelling context. At the moment my main thought is that the reporting on this case was irresponsible and unhelpful.

  28. […] philosopher. He studied disgust and wrote a book and was worth checking out. He had also been fired for sending a grad student e-mails saying he thought about her while masturbating. He was going to really destroy the school, because he had a great case against them imroperly […]

Comments are closed.