A harrowing story

of what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy, from The Guardian.

One of the things I found most disturbing was this:

This was, in some ways, a more prototypical harassment experience. Perhaps not coincidentally, my harasser was a tenured philosophy professor, like McGinn. Physical contact of the sort this fellow engaged in – hand on thigh/small of back and repeatedly trying to kiss me – has been ruled to constitute a hostile environment. He also mentioned possibly being able to get me funding, which, in the context of physical advances, is a classic quid pro quo. (And I don’t need the funding: I have a great academic fundraising track record, and had no problem securing it myself.)

A few other professors observed some of this professor’s inappropriate behavior toward me. They filed a complaint bundle with the university’s equal opportunity office, ostensibly about a much broader pattern of sexual harassment. Against my express wishes, they included in their complaint the inappropriate behavior they had observed toward me as an “anonymous graduate student”.

Anonymity was not meaningful in this context. I asked to be left out of the complaint for fear of retaliation and in the knowledge that it would distress me to be involved because of my previous bad experience with the complaint process. The other professors disregarded my preference. With the decision thus made for me, I eventually talked to university investigators as a “witness”, and then filed a one-page form to become a complainant myself, in order to better secure my access to outcome information.

I’m wondering if the professors filing the complaint were legally obligated to mention the behaviour they had witnessed, even thought the student told them not to. I’ve recently learned that, at least for many members of a department, there is an absolute legal obligation to do this. This shocked and appalled me– the last thing a victim needs is to feel even less autonomy; it strikes me as incredibly important to respect victims’ wishes. The Guardian story makes me even more convinced that this requirement is a problem.

I’m leaving comments open on this, but please be especially careful in comments– for all we know, the victim and/or the professors who filed complaint are reading this.

12 thoughts on “A harrowing story

  1. Some time ago, a couple of our female grad students went to talk to the affirmative action/equal opp people about a professor’s behavior. They quickly learned that the office was obliged to act if it got evidence of questionable behavior. So instead of getting advice they could think about, they quickly were turned into accusers.

  2. The woman in philosophy did what she felt was best for herself but I think the Professors did what was best for the institution and for future students. It could be the case that they never had as much evidence before to act. Imagine if the situation had happened to someone else before the woman in philosophy started there and in consequence this Professor had been removed and therefore not present to harass anyone. Wouldn’t the woman in philosophy have preferred that the previously harassed person and professors had taken the action necessary to make her future at the institution harassment free?
    As for the delay – I think the same works with bereavements – I don’t think you are allowed to say that you have been brooding and crying for months, I think you have to go straight away to get time off.

  3. This is a difficult situation. I gather there is no legal obligation to mention the behaviour witnessed, but that one has to weigh up respecting the wishes of the victim to have nothing to do with a complaint versus trying to protect other people who might be preyed upon by the same person. Sometimes one might feel like the latter outweighs the former.

  4. I believe the required-reporting is decided by the individual institution. My graduate program had the same requirement, even if the person harassed didn’t want to go further.

    Two years into my program, a professor made some rather crude references regarding his personal life. I was disgusted, but could shrug off the words and avoided him (which was easy, mostly, as our areas of interest didn’t overlap much.)

  5. …I didn’t report it, but someone else did. I don’t know who.

    I got a call from some investigative Office, and asked me to verify statement after statement. “Do I have to? I really don’t want to pursue this.”

    I had to assure the person numerous times I did not want to pursue this.

  6. It’s an improvement when schools and other organizations take sexual harassment seriously, but the focus should be on the harassers and sex offenders. The only way to stop framing sexual harassment and rape as a “woman’s issue” while treating it as a woman’s problem is to focus on the offenders. Surely, with a couple of smart hires, any institution can find a way to create a foundation of clear guidelines that would include advice for handling a situation personally to empower those on the receiving end when there is nuance or confusion, and to deal with discrimination and harassment with the suspected/alleged offender in the hot-seat. This would help to somewhat avoid unnecessary victim/offender polarization, which does NOT mean making the object of harassment responsible for it and requiring that person to make a case of it when there are other witnesses.

    It would be preferable if this were done outside of the department and departmental politics.

  7. Monkey, a similar issue came up in another thread recently where we were talking about the duty of the authorities to bring rape charges (if they have or can obtain the evidence) even against the wishes of one or more of the victims.

    It’s perhaps not as obvious in the case of an institutional disciplinary complaint. But although it behooves the institution and its representatives to be sensitive and receptive to the voice of a victim, I think they do have a legitimate responsibility to the community at large (to protect future victims, etc.), to which responsibility even the wishes of a past victim must yield when necessary.

  8. It’s always such a complete nightmare: you’re damned if you speak out, you’re damned if you don’t!

    It’s a deep cultural issue with roots reaching all through history to our early ‘civilized’ beginnings of male dominance. Therefore it is so revealing to see how such misogynist norms EVEN permeate the established elite humanism of philosophy. As such it seems that this present intellectual ‘elite’ and ‘humanism’ demand some basic ethical rethinking and rebuilding of the field’s basic value-system.

  9. I believe this was the policy at my institution when I was a graduate student, or at least I was told so by the faculty member in whom I confided that another graduate student was stalking/harassing me. In my situation, it was a relief to be told that I or the faculty member had to inform someone officially (the behavior of the other student had been carrying on for weeks and it was extremely distressing to me, still I felt guilty for not being able to get him to desist on my own, so…). With some encouragement and the knowledge that I “had to”, I went to the office that handles harassment. They were *very* helpful (professional, understanding, aware of the kinds of difficulties the issue raises for the person being harassed, etc.) and took a “how would you like us to handle this” approach. Given the situation, (I had a paper trail in the form of emails & handwritten notes from the other student, some of which explicitly contained messages along the lines of “how dare you tell me not to interact with you” and “I will not leave you alone until you speak to me.”), they said they could do as much as help me file a police complaint, or as little as telling him, officially, to stop or else face further consequences regarding his continuation at the university. Granted, this was a student/student situation, not a prof/student one. If the office that handles harassment had not been so helpful, I think I would have felt very differently. Still, it makes sense to me (now at least) that my knowing that there was someone who was creating a hostile environment for another student (in this case, me) required action on my part. Perhaps we could say the following: if the institutional structure is not in place, it is warranted, ethically speaking, not to report, but if it is in place, then one ought to report. I know this does not solve the problem of other people doing what you ought to do yourself (which could be presumptuous, dis-empowering, etc.). Perhaps the solution to that is to: 1. work really hard to make sure that good institutional structures are firmly in place and that the people working in offices that deal with harassment are good at their jobs, 2. remind people who confide in us that it is not only “for their own sakes” that they ought to file against harassers, that it is normal to feel like you should just be able to tolerate and/or “handle” the situation, but in fact this just allows the situation to continue for others after you leave, 3. be very vocal, generally speaking, about the importance of filing a complaint when one is harassed (assuming institutional structures are in place), and again that filing a complaint isn’t just about one’s own immediate situation.

  10. I should have said in #1 above, that the equal opportunity people said that if someone describes an illegal encounter to them, they are legally required to investigate.

    I would think this is a matter of state law, and so holds in all of texas. I’d be surprised if there weren’t similar requirements in most states.

    I think the chair and dean are under a similar obligation.

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