Colorado: what we do and don’t know

Please note: I have nothing to do with the site visit to Colorado.  Although I have been through site visitor training, I don’t have insider information about the visit or what has come after.  The thoughts that follow are based on my (rather extensive) knowledge of sexual harassment in the field, my (rather substantial) time spent reflecting on sexual harassment, and careful reading of the documents in the public domain.  (The things that I say that we know are based on taking the site visit report to be accurate.  I know and have immense faith in the site visitors, so I am confident in doing this.)

I want to start by saying what a wonderful thing it is that we now have a site visit program, and that we have fantastic people like Peggy DesAutels, Carla Fehr and Valerie Harcastle working for it.  I join many others in being immensely grateful to them for writing a hard-hitting report that will hopefully lead to enormous improvements once the current dust settles.

I am, however, quite concerned by some deeply problematic and overhasty things I have been seeing online and I’ve decided the best way to draw attention to them is to clearly distinguish between what we do and don’t know.

We do know: There was a very problematic climate at the University of Colorado Philosophy Department, and the University has brought in a non-philosopher to chair it and suspended graduate admissions.  They also made a decision to publicly release a document that the site visit team wrote for confidential use.

We do not know: Why the University decided to release this document.  There are a variety of reasons that they may have done so, and not all of them reflect well on the University.

We do know: It appears the University is making at least some false claims.  The site visit did not cost anywhere near 25,000.  The cost of a site visit is (a) travel and expenses of site visitors; (b) 500 honorarium for each of 3 site visitors; (c) 250 program fee.  (On the other hand, this false claim may have been inserted by a reporter.)

We do know: BOTH the former chair and the leadership above him come in for criticism in the report.  (The latter is being neglected in most discussions that I’ve seen.)

We do not know: Who was involved in the sexual harassment, or any of the other behaviour described.  I have seen reports that people are speculating about this online on the basis of website photos and stereotypes.  This really needs to stop immediately.

We do know: There was a lot of harassment going on, and a very unhealthy climate.

We also know: Many people in the department not only didn’t commit harassment themselves, but found the climate highly objectionable.  This is perfectly compatible with high levels of harassment, and even (here I disagree with Brian Leiter)* with pervasive sexual harassment. For harassment to be pervasive it must happen frequently over a long period of time (it can be either severe or non-severe and still be pervasive).  It is abundantly clear that this was taking place.

We know: The site visit report suggested some very strong constraints on department socialising, alcohol consumption and communication, due to specifics of the situation they found there.  Contrary to some of what I’ve seen online, this was by no means intended as a puritanical general prescription.

Another thing we know:  Although some people online are demanding more specifics, or the naming of names, this cannot happen.  To do this would be to place victims in jeopardy, and also to deny due process to those who are accused.  This information is and must remain confidential.

A final thing we know:  There are, unfortunately, a great many departments with problems like Colorado’s.  This doesn’t mean we should let Colorado off the hook.  Rather, it means we should be doing something about all of them.  We should also bear in mind that in each of these places– and there are very, very many of them– there is a complicated mixture of people.  Some of them are the bad actors.  Some are fighting hard against the problems.  Some are confused and frustrated and unsure what to do.  (Some are all of these.)  And so on.  We need to improve things in all of these places, and it’s a great thing we’ve now got this program to help us do it.

And now, something I really want everyone to know:  I realise people may be getting skittish about site visits.  But site visits are, wherever possible, meant to be supportive affairs involving the offering of helpful advice.  In Physics, the model for the programme, departments with GOOD climates seek out site visits as a way of  getting even better.  Having a site visit is a badge of honour.  This is the way we’d all like it to be in Philosophy.  Let’s make that happen.  We all have things to fix, and site visits can help us fix them.


*Brian’s now got in touch to note that he agrees with me on this, but was concerned about ambiguity in the article that he was discussing.