New Chronicle Story on McGinn is out

The many who will be interviewed at length will be surprised by how short the article is…

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

Miami Beach

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.

UPDATE: We’ve let this run long enough. Comments now closed.

53 thoughts on “New Chronicle Story on McGinn is out

  1. “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.”

    LOL. It might also provoke new terrorist attacks, lead to greater budget deficits, and cause the nation’s collective intelligence to drop by 40%. Really, it’s a national security matter.

  2. so, we’re back to genius project? i thought he announced that he was joking about that (and that we were stupid for not realising he was being ironic). no?

  3. A new Dos Equis campaign slogan? “I don’t always make hand-job jokes, but when I do, I prefer to be drinking Dos Equis. I am … the most enlightened man in the world!”

  4. This is such a weird paragraph. Someone needs to look up ‘rampant’ in the dictionary but I am not sure if it’s Honderich, the Chronicle author, or both.

    ‘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.”’

  5. Female graduate students at NYU must be thrilled to know that Schiffer has defended McGinn.

  6. Dear sweet stars, for a philosopher to use the word “likely” in this context is excruciating. I want to use this in my logic class! Let’s analyze the denotation and connotation of the word “likely” as it appears in his “likely consequences.” Not all superiority is arrogance, but the belief that one’s own case is so very, very important to free speech in all classrooms is arrogance in the extreme.

    Ted Honderich’s comment seems unreasonably certain, given the lack of any evidence one way or another as to actual rates of occurrence of sexual harassmant in different fields. He seems to assume its distribution is equal. This is not a safe assumption.

  7. Does anyone or find it problematic to take a story behind a paywall and publish the entire thing?

  8. Even if McGinn is guilty of sexual harassment in this case, Pinker does have a good point here: “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.”

  9. @beta. First, you are equivocating. ‘Consequences’ in ‘likely consequences’ clearly does not mean ‘logical consequences’, it means ‘causal consequences’, which most certainly can be assigned probabilities. Second, the complete lack of evidence either way is exactly why we should think that harrassment is equally common in other parts of academe. A little philosophy is a dangerous thing…

  10. J: This is not the entire thing.

    It concerns me that the Chronicle featured Ted Honderich implying it’s nonsense to suppose that harassment does not distribute equally. I told the same reporter four factors that are known to correlate with a workplace being more likely to house harassment, but I didn’t issue them with breezy masculine confidence, I suppose. My point is this: Instead of erring on the side of equally nonsensical assumptions, consider the evidence that harassment appears to be more likely where there is a lack of knowledge of grievance procedures, sexist attitudes among co-workers, unprofessional work environment, and skewed sex ratios in the workplace.

  11. So, trying to keep track, so I’ll remember them: Who are the prominent philosophers who have publicly supported McGinn? Schiffer, Pinker (outside philosophy). Who else?

  12. Equivocating means I deliberately used the same word in two different senses. I didn’t. Therefore, I’m not. It is not clear that likely doesn’t mean likely.

    A lack of evidence never justifies assuming an equal distribution. That is not logical. And I’ve taught way more than “a little” logic.

  13. I wonder how McGinn’s defenders, who put this whole thing down to female overreaction and humorlessness would have reacted if McGinn had pulled the same thing on a male graduate student. Run through it as a thought experiment–witticisms about hand jobs and suggestions that they have sex three times in his office during the summer. Do the thought experiment.

  14. Since it’s an empirical question, I doubt a thought experiment is a good way to find out the answer.

  15. Nice point, Anon. This is clearly a case for EXPERIMENTAL PHILOSOPHY. We could do a survey of responses to the hypothetical scenario of the local faculty superstar hitting up on a male grad student. On a scale of 1 to 5 for strongly disagree to strongly agree, wha’dya say:

    __1 Heterosexual males are humorless: Superstar was just having a bit of fun.

    __2 Heterosexual males overreact: they are soooo emotional.

    __3 It’s only natural that an alpha male like Superstar have sexual access to all young boys–been that way since the stone age, and for millennia in the Catholic Church.

  16. I’m not sure that Pinker has a good point actually (contra Anon 3:07, #8 above). If his point is that the “punishment” McGinn endured is entirely incommensurate to his misdeed (and hence that this incident set a dangerous precedent), then Pinker has seriously misunderstood the situation. McGinn was not fired for any misdeed. McGinn resigned. We have no way of knowing what the University of Miami would have done if McGinn had permitted an investigation to proceed. Perhaps I have misunderstood Pinker’s point though.

  17. If you take a look at the full letter Pinker (or someone on Pinker’s behalf) wrote, it’s obvious that he hasn’t looked closely into the situation. His letter is full of basic misunderstandings. Hell, Pinker doesn’t even correctly spell the name of the professor to whom he writes the letter.

  18. 15, I guess that was sarcasm, but I don’t see your point.

    Thought experiments about empirical questions tend to reproduce our own biases. That’s why they aren’t generally good ways to find out the answers.

  19. 18, I am speculating and predicting that if an empirical study were done we’d find that people’s reactions to cases of heterosexual harassment by alpha males are viewed differently than comparable scenarios about homosexual harassment. I’m betting. Maybe I’m wrong–I’m not claiming that the thought experiment confirms the results. But I’m still betting. And I’m actually quite serious that it would be interesting to compare responses to heterosexual harassment with same-sex harassment.

  20. calls himself both a “ladies’ man” and “the most enlightened person in the world”

    Prof. McGinn needs a publicist.

    Beside the point, but …the idea of a philosopher living in a 43rd floor penthouse on Miami beach and having an apartment-sized cabana is amusing. What would Socrates say?

  21. the idea of a philosopher living in a 43rd floor penthouse on Miami beach and having an apartment-sized cabana is amusing. What would Socrates say?

    I think he would say “nice work if you can get it.”

  22. scott, I was taking Pinker’s point to be important as an overall general principle, not necessarily relating to McGinn’s case.

    You could apply it to McGinn’s case and if we put ourselves in the role of objective surveyors without all of the facts before us and take McGinn at his word (which, despite his unlikeability, he deserves), that his communications were made in good faith, and without any improper intent, then this would be a case where even though he resigned, it would be clear that the resignation was itself a punishment incurred due to pressure based on allegations of harassment.

    If McGinn was smarter, he should have stayed and fought the allegations, but just because he didn’t stay and fight the allegations, that is not an admission of guilt.

    But back to what I took Pinker’s point be, that sexually connotated communications between grad student & professor is not necessarily improper or harassment. I take Pinker’s worry to be that if we suspend our beliefs about McGinn’s guilt or innocence, and posit that the communications with his student were not harassment, then we have an ugly case where because the communications were of a sexual nature, their very nature is used as proof of harassment, when it very well might be innocent or mutual banter.

    Of course in the context of reality, with the questionable actions and continuing questionable blogging of McGinn, it appears that this might be a case of a man so disconnected from social norms in terms of sexuality in the workplace, especially in the academic sphere, that he utterly believes that he has done nothing wrong, despite hordes of opinions to the contrary. Though strong opinions for or against McGinn, I think, should be abstained from without all of the facts know to us. Otherwise we are all guilty of just gossiping, not philosophizing.

  23. Anon,

    Why should we take McGinn at his word, rather than take the student at hers? Surely the fact that one of the parties complained of harassment is some evidence, over and above their sexual nature, that the communications were harassment. But yes, if we were to suspend all evidence of wrongdoing and take the accused at his word, then this would look like an unjust railroading. How does that make it any different than any other case where someone denies accusations again them?

  24. Derek, I didn’t say we should, I said if we did … And I don’t think we should take McGinn at his word over and above the female grad student’s word. I think that means the best position to take is one of reservation of judgment about McGinn’s guilt or innocence is all. The fact that this case has not been properly adjudicated in any meaningful way (except for in articles, blogs, and comment sections), is the point. This seems to be McGinn’s fault though, since I assume U of Miami has protocols and procedures for dealing with harassment claims, but McGinn chose not to go down that avenue. Even though that’s true, and might encourage people to assume the worst about McGinn, I still am not convinced it’s a good enough reason to assume he is guilty of what he’s been accused of.

    I am just as troubled as the next person by instances of sexual harassment in any setting, but here it seems we still only have allegations of wrongdoing. Without all of the facts, including direct testimony from the female grad student (not just hearsay from her boyfriend), this is no different than any other case where someone denies accusations against them.

    That being said, if McGinn is guilty of what he’s alleged to have done than he should never teach again, but I think it’s unfair to him to assign guilt at this stage. So McGinn, release the emails, and accuser give an interview and let the philosophical community come to an informed decision.

  25. Everything I say is ironic, therefore if you take me literally, you’re an idiot. (Out one side of my mouth).
    You obviously don’t know what “a hand-job” literally refers to, so you’re an idiot for not taking me literally. (Out of the other side of my mouth).

  26. It is false that without all the facts, we’re all just gossiping.

    Accusers should never be ordered to give interviews and let communities come to decisions about their accusations. The community does not have any business coming to such decisions about particular allegations. The community should, however, discuss the stories available to us in order to work out what we can do better.

  27. Anon 26: I worry a bit that you’re conflating what it’s reasonable to assert in ordinary life with what it’s reasonable for a court of law (or a court of tenure-stripping, for that matter) to assert. There are plenty of cases where it’s entirely appropriate to assert that a person has done something, yet entirely inappropriate for a court to assert the same thing. For example:

    O.J. Simpson murdered two people.
    George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin.

    I’m pretty comfortable making those assertions. But in the O.J. case, there just wasn’t enough evidence to convict. I suspect we’ll see much the same result in the Zimmerman case (i.e., insufficient evidence to convict).

    We see much the same thing in rape and sexual assault, extremely difficult crimes to demonstrate in court. When a victim reports being raped, that’s enough for me to take her at her word. If she identifies a particular person as the perpetrator, I start with the presumption that it’s pretty likely that he’s the perpetrator. Things are different for a court of law, no doubt. Courts of law have a higher burden because they’re tasked with justifying something that’s quite bad on its own – incarceration. The government had better prove beyond a reasonable doubt that some person raped another person, because we don’t want the government to have the power to throw people in prison without meeting that burden. I can’t throw anyone in prison, so I don’t carry that burden.

  28. Kate, I stand by the claim of gossiping. Without knowing the facts, then making serious assumptions about a person’s guilt or innocence without the facts, is gossiping. Talking about the issues brought up by the situation is not gossiping, but trading opinions (and insults) about McGinn’s guilt or innocence, I think, is gossip.

    I agree an accuser should never be ordered to give interviews. I would never claim she should be forced, but my suggestion is that an interview with her in this case it might be helpful. You say the community has no place in coming to decisions about such things, but that is what is actually happening right now in the philosophical community already. People are making ill-informed decisions about McGinn’s guilt or innocence. So since the community is already engaged in this type of praise/blame function, perhaps it would be best for her to give an interview if the philosophical community has a genuine interest in being fair to McGinn. However, I take her very serious worry to be about reprisals in the future for coming forward, so it’s perfectly reasonable that she doesn’t.

    Matt, I don’t think it’s always incorrect to conflate what goes on in a courtroom with how we should resolve things in everyday life. In this instance it seems fairly clear to me that we have McGinn admitting to sending emails and having conversations with a female grad student that included sexual topics that went on for a period of time, and he seemingly describes their working relationship turning into a friendship. Perhaps he did overstep into harassment, or perhaps he did not, but he claims she had an ulterior motive to use those communications against him. All I’m saying is, that’s enough of a story for me to stop short of saying he definitely did sexually harass her. I can’t say he did or he didn’t. And if he didn’t, then he has suffered some sort of injustice. I refuse to start from the assumption that just because he’s accused of being the perpetrator, then it’s likely he’s the perpetrator, even in everyday life. Though I think that’s a point reasonable people can disagree on.

  29. I am thoroughly astonished that after his own description of the “genius project,” his own admission of making sexual jokes to a graduate student while he was in a supervisory position, his description of their relationship as an “intellectual romance,” his insistence that all of this was perfectly desired by the student in question despite substantial evidence to the contrary and his reasons offered for discounting that evidence are roughly that she would have said something and he would have known, his insistence that “taboo busting” was of pedagogical use in turning her into a “genius” of his own making, his coming dangerously close to (if not already) violating FERPA laws by publicly discussing the students academic record, etc., etc., etc., that anyone is still questioning whether or not the philosophical community is being too hard on him.

  30. A former Dean, a woman, begged me years ago never to hire women as interns. You can find a dozen articles on how difficult it is for a woman to find a mentor. Impossible after this, I’d say. I was just formally recognized for mentoring a woman athlete, but maybe never again. Would Larry Summers dare to make Sheryl Sandberg his protege now? A male student can be mentored by anyone, but a woman student will have to find a woman, or she’s out of luck. And according to Sandberg, so many educated women choose to have families and avoid the top jobs, that the pool of available woman mentors stays small. Catharine MacKinnon’s policies, which protect a few women from cads, have backfired on the vast majority of educated women.

  31. If someone is worried that they can’t mentor me without making unwanted sexual jokes and thus being accused of sexual harassment, I’m ok with needing to find mentoring elsewhere.

  32. Kathryn, you beat me to it. “West Coast Prof” at 32 has some bizarre notion of the incapacity of men to refrain from making hand-job jokes to their female students. Going forward, I’ll thank him not to classify me with his bros.

  33. West Coast Prof, my dissertation director was a man and never, ever said anything to me of the sort McGinn openly admits having said/written to this woman. It never crossed my mind that there was anything problematic in our interactions, because there wasn’t.

    The idea that male mentors and supervisors need to be afraid of women students in the wake of this episode is ridiculous. The reason McGinn got in trouble–regardless of whether or not one thinks he is innocent or guilty–is that he told his student that he thought of her while giving himself a handjob. How to avoid being accused of sexual harassment by your students: don’t write or say wildly inappropriate things to them.

  34. West Coast Prof,

    As a teacher, student, and colleague of numerous women over the course of many years, I’ve found it remarkably easy to maintain close professional and educational relationships without sexually harassing anyone.

  35. That does strike me as an awfully long excerpt to reproduce under the pretext of fair use.

  36. I don’t think I would make that particular taboo-busting handjob joke with most friends, let alone a professional associate, it is sort of a weird thing to say!

  37. It seems to me that the self pronounced ‘boy-friend’ is playing a very dubious role here. Jealous? Of course. But how reliable is he as a spokesman for the ‘victim’?

  38. Lucy, the boyfriend is not jealous, and has consulted with the woman involved as to what role she endorses him taking. He’s reliable because they are equals and act like it.

  39. Kathryn: Thank you for making the obvious, to a thinking person, responses here. I am so, so saddened that anyone in our discipline is trying to defend/excuse McGinn.

    You know what, gang? The Supreme Court just decided that taking the 5th can be used by a prosecutor against a defendant. I don’t agree with this ruling as am matter of law, but it is a pretty good one as a matter of reasoning.

  40. Actually, ChrisTS, it’s interesting that silence and *failing* to explicitly invoke the fifth is now permissibly held against a defendant.

    The oddity of the chain of events is that McGinn did explicitly invoke his silence, saying he’d say no more on the topic, and then kept saying more.

  41. ChrisTS, you think Colin McGinn is exercising his right to remain silent???
    Loudest silence I’ve ever heard.

  42. Deja vu. 20 years on I still remember the fight in my hall about the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill kerfuffle. And then we lined up strictly according to sex, regardless of department or academic politics. I was allied with passing administrators and even Eng. Lit. women. All the guys–and laus deo things have changed since then–were convinced that Hill was trying to frame Thomas or overreacting or both and that she was after publicity. One of my colleagues predicted that she would make a mint on a ghost-written book and pursue a career in modeling or acting, or otherwise capitalize on being a sexy celebrity.

    And, oh yeah, the same stuff about how we don’t dare to mentor/hire women because they could/would make a fuss to manipulate and entrap men. Hypersensitive, hysterical, vindictive and, of course, humorless–and now they have the law, and the PC police on their side, and can sue.

    Tout change; toujours le meme chose. Illiterate French but I think ya know what I mean.

  43. Matt,

    Your point concerning the difference between asserting something in judicial process and in more quotidian contexts is well taken. But regarding your evocation of the examples of O.J. Simpson and George Zimmerman, those examples aren’t very like one another. For one thing, the Simpson case seems likely to have been an instance of jury nullification rather than insufficient evidence to convict. For another, Zimmerman’s defense case hasn’t been presented yet. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to believe at this point in time that Simpson murdered two people. But I don’t see how there is anything approaching a similar warrant to believe comfortably at this juncture that Zimmerman murdered Martin, absent special knowledge of the evidence.

  44. Harriet (if I may) I’m close to McGinn’s age and clearly recall the Thomas affair–but all my peers at my small campus–male and female–even then clearly could see that Thomas was using the “lynching” vocabulary to divert attention from his likely misdeeds. She was a very convincing witness with nothing obvious to gain and plenty to lose. As is this person at the center of the McGinn case. There is no way in hell that she could think this would be a calculating great career-move in the way that your colleagues saw Hill–because with the obvious risks at hand (sorry) most charitably both are just trying to set the record straight on what was going on. And I sincerely hope our profession sits up and takes notice and reflects on how we interact as colleagues, and how we need to bolster our professionalism not just in publishing, which we hardly need encouragement about, but in behavior, which we obviously desperately need.

  45. Am I the only one who finds the sudden introduction of a new claim – that McGinn wrote to the student suggesting that she have sex with him three times in his office — simply bizarre?

    I mean, if McGinn really wrote such a thing, why in God’s name are we even talking about some stupid thing he wrote about thinking of the student while giving himself a hand job? And still more trivial, relatively, is the very next thing mentioned in the paragraph from the Chronicle after the claim about the sex in the office, namely that the student, with her fine legs, should wear shorts. How can both of those accusations even be mentioned in the same paragraph without real distinction, as if they might be regarded as comparably wrong?

    What’s going on here? Is her boyfriend grossly distorting or simply fabricating the supposed sex in the office suggestion, or has everybody who’s been talking about this to date been completely misleading as to the true nature of what went on, and the gravity of it?

  46. Anon @ 41: :-)

    No, he has not availed himself of the opportunity to remain silent. Quite the contrary. My point was that there is some reason to believe that a person who will not defend him/herself in favor of a gag order on the investigating entity – short of the U.S. government – might not have the benefit of the doubt.

  47. Considering that McGinn has posted on his blog threats of legal action against those whom he considers to be spreading slander, I find it doubtful that someone as vulnerable as a student, and intelligent enough to be so far successfully pursuing a PhD in philosophy, would fabricate the content of said emails.

  48. Kathryn,

    Well, maybe you’re right, of course, about the boyfriend not fabricating or grossly distorting the content of the emails. But what I still don’t get is why the accusation about McGinn suggesting the student have sex in his office didn’t lead the charge against McGinn. Why go instead with accusations of misbehavior that is by any fair reckoning hugely less serious?

    There’s something here that just doesn’t add up, and I truly don’t know what it is.

  49. Alan, 46, thanks! You’re at a better place than I am. While things have gotten a lot better I’m still dealing with guys at work and personally who endlessly rehearse the theme that women are, on the one hand, hypersensitive and humorless and on the other viciously calculating, using sex to get benefits and out to entrap men.

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