July 1, 2013
Philosopher’s Downfall, From Star to ‘Ruin,’ Divides a Discipline
A Prominent Philosopher’s Career Comes to Ignominy 1
“This is a cloud I’ll be under forever,” says Colin McGinn, who resigned from the U. of Miami after a graduate student complained that he behaved inappropriately toward her. “I don’t think it’s ever going to lift.”
By Seth Zweifler
Colin McGinn is towering above Miami Beach.
The prominent British philosopher, who was considered a star hire by the University of Miami several years ago, is sitting on the deck of his penthouse condo as waves crash onto the shore 43 floors below.
To an outsider, it looks like paradise. Mr. McGinn’s home is in one of the most sought-after high-rises on Miami Beach’s “Millionaire’s Row”; his cabana, where he stores paddleboards and surfing gear, is larger than some city apartments.
But on the inside, he says, he’s living in a state of “total ruin.”
It has been six months since Mr. McGinn informed the university that he would resign at the end of the calendar year. His decision followed allegations that he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a graduate student. The student told the university that she felt uncomfortable after receiving a number of sexually explicit e-mail and text messages from Mr. McGinn. He denies any wrongdoing.
The ignominious conclusion to Mr. McGinn’s career at Miami has fueled a continuing conversation about sexual harassment in philosophy departments. Stories of harassment of women have long plagued the discipline, in which fewer than one in five full-time professors are female. That imbalance, many say, has created a sense of isolation for women who have struggled to combat the sometimes clubby culture they say they have encountered.
In the past year, groups like the American Philosophical Association have led a renewed effort to rid philosophy of sexual harassment, establishing in November an Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Harassment.
It is almost unheard-of, however, to see one of these accounts end as it did at Miami: with the departure of a tenured professor.
For some philosophers, the fact that an accomplished scholar like Mr. McGinn, who is 63, may have been pressured to leave his job when concerns were raised about his conduct provides hope that the discipline may be changing. The development could be a sign of progress, these philosophers say, in rooting out sexual harassment and sexist behavior in their field.
For other professors, Mr. McGinn’s case is little more than a high-profile example of sexual-harassment policing run amok. These scholars—among them the Harvard University psychologist Steven A. Pinker and the New York University philosopher Stephen Schiffer—see his falling out with Miami as a sign that the measures adopted by academe for dealing with allegations of impropriety are becoming increasingly draconian. That is particularly true in this case, they say, because both Mr. McGinn and the student’s boyfriend say the relationship at Miami never became physical.
Mr. McGinn has been vigorous in his own defense, on his blog and elsewhere. Even he acknowledges, though, that this is a situation from which he will very likely never escape. “This is a cloud I’ll be under forever,” he says. “I don’t think it’s ever going to lift.”
An ‘Intellectual Romance’
When Mr. McGinn, a leading philosopher of mind, arrived at the University of Miami in 2006, the institution touted the hire as a major catch that would raise the profile of its philosophy department. Mr. McGinn received the John Locke Prize at the University of Oxford in 1973—a prestigious recognition in philosophy—and previously taught at University College London, Oxford, and Rutgers University. A garrulous professor, known by some for his scathing reviews in The New York Review of Books, he has long been in demand as a commentator on contemporary philosophical issues.
In the fall of 2011, Mr. McGinn came to know the graduate student who would later raise concerns about him. The student took a seminar on human evolution in relation to the hand with him that semester. Early in 2012, she became Mr. McGinn’s paid research assistant. From the beginning, the professor says, the two had a close intellectual rapport and developed what he calls an “intellectual romance.”
“The relationship was difficult,” he says, speaking in his living room. “It wasn’t natural. It was constrained by the fact that I was a professor and she was a student. … We couldn’t just go in the way people normally would.”
On several occasions, Mr. McGinn says, he invited the student to his condo. The two went paddleboarding, played tennis, and talked philosophy. “I suppose in a very broad sense it could be said that we were attracted to each other, in the sense that we liked being with each other a lot,” he says. “Were we sexually attracted to each other? I don’t think that was really very relevant to our thoughts about it. It was so off the table, it was so not what we were doing.”
During one conversation with the student, Mr. McGinn says he told her of a tumor (which he later had successfully removed) that he had developed on his face. He had not told anybody outside his family about it. “That builds closeness between people,” he says. “You go beyond a barrier into another level when that happens, and you can’t change that.”
Another time, the professor says, the student expressed reservations about her job prospects in philosophy. He devised a solution, an undertaking he called the “genius project.” He describes it as an experimental learning endeavor in which he hoped to help the student improve her philosophical abilities by fostering creativity and encouraging taboo busting.
The two would often engage in sexual banter, he says, but it always stemmed from their collaboration on a book about the hand’s role in human evolution. Mr. McGinn says they would make jokes about the hand in a sexual context. When he saw the student, they would perform a “ceremony,” he says, during which they went through a series of “hand grips” simulating closeness and social interaction.
Mr. McGinn says he believes that the student later complained about him because she had failed to complete her work over the summer and was wary of receiving a negative report. He does not think that their sexual banter made her uncomfortable.
The student, however, maintains otherwise, according to some of her friends and professors. Before she went to administrators last September, “she was just extremely scared and anxious,” says Benjamin M. Yelle, her boyfriend, who is a fifth-year graduate student in philosophy at Miami.
Although she declined to comment for this article, citing her desire to pursue a career in philosophy, Mr. Yelle consulted with her before speaking with The Chronicle. “Sexual harassment is a serious issue in philosophy, and it’s not going to stop unless people are willing to stand up against famous philosophers like Colin,” he says. It took months, Mr. Yelle adds, for the student to work up the courage to approach the university about Mr. McGinn’s behavior.
Mr. McGinn once wrote to the student that they should “have sex three times in my office over the summer when no one else is around,” Mr. Yelle says. He also says the professor once suggested that the student should wear shorts more often because he thought her legs were attractive.
Mr. McGinn says he never suggested to the student that they should have sex. He also says he merely told the student that her legs were “muscular.” He is unwilling, however, to share the e-mails he sent to the student.
In one e-mail, described identically by several people familiar with the case, Mr. McGinn told the student that, earlier in the morning, he “had a hand job imagining you giving me a hand job.”
Mr. McGinn defended that e-mail in a June 6 post on Philospot, a blog to which he frequently contributes. He put a linguistic spin on it: “What kind of hand job leaves you cleaner than before?” he wrote. “A manicure, of course.” In a later interview, Mr. McGinn said that the student would have interpreted “hand job” to mean manicure because of the work on which they were collaborating.
“People did not have a sense of humor about things,” Mr. McGinn says of the reaction to the hand-job e-mail. “When you’re communicating with someone almost on a daily basis, like we were, the sense of humor is assumed. … Almost everything I say to people is ironic. It’s my style.”
‘Most Enlightened Person’
Mr. McGinn is angry. He’s been playing tennis for an hour, and he’s beginning to hit the ball a bit too hard, his shots sailing just beyond the baseline of the court.
“I’ve never felt this kind of anger in my life,” he says, noting that tennis has been his go-to source for stress relief in recent months. “‘Anger’ is not a sufficient word for it; it’s a sense of indignation, a sense of injustice.”
In preparation for a daylong interview with The Chronicle, Mr. McGinn compiled a list of 11 “likely consequences” of his case. Among them, he wrote, his situation will fan anti-American sentiment (because people will view his case as a result of a culture obsessed with political correctness); will lead “delinquent students” to lodge more complaints against professors; and will impede free speech in the classroom. In person, he expanded liberally on that list, saying that his departure from Miami will result in the demise of the philosophy department there within three years.
Mr. McGinn, who calls himself both a “ladies’ man” and “the most enlightened person in the world,” is not one to hide his belief that modesty is a form of dishonesty. “People sometimes perceive superiority as arrogance,” he says. “A superior person is not necessarily arrogant, but just superior.”
While he resigned of his own accord, he says that he “couldn’t win,” because Donna E. Shalala, the university’s president, was determined to drive him out. A Miami spokeswoman declined to comment on Ms. Shalala’s behalf, citing the institution’s policy of not commenting on personnel matters.
As Mr. McGinn has continued to defend himself vigorously on his blog, many philosophers have come to view him as egotistical, or simply as someone who just doesn’t get it. One professor called him a “dinosaur”; another said his behavior is “something you’d find in a department in the 70s.”
But a small circle of academics has come to his defense, arguing that the Miami administration overstepped its bounds when it pressured Mr. McGinn to resign. Some, like Mr. Schiffer, of NYU, have written letters to Miami, expressing concern over the “grave injustice” done to Mr. McGinn. “The punishment doesn’t even begin to fit the crime,” Mr. Schiffer said in an interview.
Mr. Pinker, of Harvard, does not think Mr. McGinn should have gone unpunished, but he is concerned that the punishment is so harsh that it could inhibit even scholarly relationships between graduate students and faculty members. “It’s a matter of universities’ not taking a Victorian stance that anything sexual between competent adults is so unthinkably outrageous,” he says, “that it merits the worst possible punishment.”
Some academics, too, have rejected the notion that sexual harassment is rampant in philosophy. “It is surely nonsense to suppose that sexual harassment has been greater in philosophy than in other subjects,” Ted Honderich, a professor emeritus of philosophy at University College London, says via e-mail. “Sexual harassment has always been everywhere.”
The polarization of perceptions about whether the field of philosophy has a problem, and if so how big, are one reason an individual case like Mr. McGinn’s may not lead to much change, some philosophers say.
Shay Welch, an assistant professor of philosophy at Spelman College, says the gap between Mr. McGinn’s supporters and those who have spoken out against him is representative of a broader divide in philosophy.
Ultimately, Ms. Welch says, that divide—along with the current climate in philosophy—will not change until the numbers do. More than 80 percent of full-time faculty members in philosophy are male, according to 2003 data from the U.S. Education Department, the latest available. That compares with 60 percent for the professoriate as a whole. The 16.6 percent of full-time faculty in philosophy who are female constitutes the lowest proportion of women in any of the humanities.
Others, however, remain optimistic about the potentially precedent-setting effects of Mr. McGinn’s resignation. Jennifer M. Saul, head of the philosophy department at the University of Sheffield, in England, says she has already heard from women in the field who, after learning of Mr. McGinn’s case, are considering coming forward to report incidents of sexual harassment. She hopes that trend will continue. Ms. Saul started a blog in 2010 called What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?, which has become a place where women in the field have gone to submit anonymous accounts of sexual harassment.
Mr. McGinn’s high-profile status in the discipline, some believe, is part of what gives his case broader implications. “It goes to show that even a very powerful philosopher like Colin McGinn is not exempt from adverse professional effects,” says Linda Martín Alcoff, a professor of philosophy at Hunter College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. She is president of the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division.
Ned Markosian, a professor of philosophy at Western Washington University, says he would not be surprised if Mr. McGinn’s resignation emboldened administrators across the country to take a harder line on sexual-harassment allegations, even when those allegations involve prominent faculty members.
“This has the potential to be a real turning point for the profession,” he says, “and already I think it’s a sign that things are changing for the better.”
Mr. McGinn though, is worried that his own future in philosophy may be changing for the worse. “I don’t know if I’ll get another job offer,” he says. “I think the answer may be no.”
For the self-proclaimed most enlightened person in the world, that much appears clear.
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