Reader query: how to cope with disturbing information about mentor

A reader writes:

About 6 months ago, I learned that my undergraduate mentor in philosophy routinely slept with his female students, during my time at the university and for many years beforehand. He never made any even slightly inappropriate advances towards me, and he spent an enormous amount of time and energy mentoring me and supporting me through grave doubts about my abilities as a philosopher – indeed, had it not been for him, I would never have considered graduate school, and would not now have the Assistant Professor job that I love so much. He was always exceptionally kind, supportive, and sensitive to (and indeed often a champion of) feminist concerns. Over the past six months since learning this information, though, I’ve felt deeply hurt and betrayed, and have at times started to doubt myself in all of the old ways. Was I not in fact a good philosopher in undergrad? Was he only as supportive as he was because I was young, and female, and conventionally attractive? Did my other professors take me less seriously as a philosopher because they assumed that I was sleeping with him, too? The part of me that remembers how close our relationship was believes that he would feel deep regret if he knew how his actions affected past (and present?) students like me, but the part of me with more distance doubts that anyone who routinely slept with the 20-year-olds he taught could possibly care. I’ve wanted to get in touch with him recently, to tell him how hard his behavior has been even on students like me with whom he had a fully appropriate relationship, in part because I feel a responsibility to try to get him to change his behavior if he still does this to students. But is it utterly naive to think that getting in touch with him would have any positive affect? And might there be any negative repercussions to doing so that I’m not thinking of? (He’s not a particularly successful or influential philosopher, so I don’t think that he would have any ability to harm my career.)

Please leave your thoughts in comments, but absolutely DO NOT reveal identifying information about other similar situations (or this one, for that matter).

14 thoughts on “Reader query: how to cope with disturbing information about mentor

  1. If you feel confident that you turned into a capable professional, then allow that to be the evidence that he engaged with you because you had potential. the truth is that you will never know for certain, and at this point in your career it likely does not matter anyway

  2. People are complicated. They do good and bad things. I suspect that at least some/many people who engage in iffy sexual behaviour with students probably think that it’s ok because it’s – as they see it – consensual. Even if they know it’s not really ok, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad person through and through. (Although some may be) I think you should set your self-doubts aside. If your mentor was always appropriate with you I think you can take it as being the kind support that part of you feels it was. I know this is easier said than done, but if others in the department thought less of you because they thought he was sleeping with you, then that’s their problem. It sounds like you’re doing well now, so as the commenter above suggests, (i) they’d be wrong; and (ii) if they did think that, then ask yourself, why didn’t they intervene?

    I’ve been in a similar-ish situation: someone who I later discovered had/has a dubious reputation was very kind to me when I was in a difficult position and tried to protect me from some nasty goings-on. I think he did this out of genuine kindness, not because I was (at the time) young, and female.

    Whether to contact your old mentor: I’m not sure. I can imagine a defensive reaction that won’t lead to anything constructive. No advice on that score, I’m afraid.

  3. Hiya,

    That’s a tough situation. Looking at your doubts, I hope that cognitively you recognise their weakness even if they are powerful affectively. Just to affirm:

    Was I not in fact a good philosopher in undergrad?

    You obviously are now, so this, in a sense, doesn’t matter. Most of us would not want to be judged by our quality as undergrads and those who do may not be as capable now.

    And I do mean obviously. You’re clearly capable enough to finish a PhD and secure a job.

    Was he only as supportive as he was because I was young, and female, and conventionally attractive?

    Undoubtably, his motivations were a mishmash of complex factors. But, in the end, you transcended any possible taint of his possible compromised motives. You showed yourself worthy of such support even if your ex mentor proves not worthy of your regard.

    Did my other professors take me less seriously as a philosopher because they assumed that I was sleeping with him, too?

    Even if they did, again, you clearly transcended that. You’ve made your own professional self and it’s clearly rather successful.

    Of course, it’s really horrible to have formative and cherished experiences compromised in this way. You certain deserve to grieve some for that lost and, in fact, be rather pissed off at your ex mentor for his obviously and basic unprofessional behavior. But I don’t see that there’s anything there that should undermine your self-esteem or the regard of any colleagues.

    As for whether to confront him, that’s a really tough question that depends a lot on the particular situation (esp yours). If he’s not in a position to continue the behavior, I think that should reduce the pressure.

  4. OP here.

    Thank you for the advice, all – including the support. I’ve reached the same conclusions in regards to my abilities, and was actually able to put those doubts to rest within a month or so of finding this information out. I mention them mostly because they were emotionally incredibly difficult on me *even given my current status and all of the evidence to the contrary.* I can imagine that the experience would have been much more debilitating if I had been early in my PhD, struggling on the job market, etc. This mentor continues to teach, and so has other students who are in those more vulnerable positions. If I get in touch with him, it would be in an attempt to get him to change his behavior in a way that might save these other students from feelings that might be even more harmful given their earlier point in their careers. I’m hoping, I suppose, that he really does take the behavior to be consensual and unproblematic and isn’t considering how it might affect other students. Perhaps, I keep thinking, if he knew, he would stop. But as I said above, perhaps this is also hopelessly naive of me. If I respond and he lashes out at me, so be it – I have enough distance from him that I can handle it. But might I also make things worse for those women who are currently his students?

    Of course, as Monkey says, so much depends on particular situation here, and perhaps there really isn’t any boiler plate advice to be given. In that case, the support is still very much appreciated.

  5. One possible interpretation is that he felt guilt over sleeping with students, and saw helping you as a way to redeem himself somewhat. “Yes, I sleep with some of those undergrads, but when I encountered an incredibly talented one I suppressed that and did the right thing.” I wouldn’t let it reflect negatively on your own abilities, just because his judgment is impaired at a moral level doesn’t mean it’s impaired at an intellectual level; he was not going to put that kind of time and energy into supporting someone who he didn’t genuinely think had potential.

  6. OP, I’m really glad you got to the doubt resting place. Excellent job!

    I’d do it, if you can do it safely. I was in a similar (but much less bad) situation and I confronted the person in a friendly “I think you just don’t know the effect” sort of way. The end result was very minor change, but no change for the worse.

    (As a side not, it’d be worth seeing what the university policy is, now.)

    If he’s so unstable that he’d lash out at students because I former student chided him about what is universally acknowledged at *at least* tricky behavior, I feel that it’s highly likely that he’s not behaving otherwise particularly well. In the end, its his job to behave professionally and you, as a former student, pointing out issues with his (otherwise excellent) teaching is a normal thing to deal with.

    A final thought: Be super duper sure that he was in fact sleeping with students. Speaking from personal experience, when I was in grad school and close, supportive friends with female grad students (esp. those a couple of years behind me), I was asked by various people if I was sleeping with them. (No, I was not. I was in a long term monogamous relationship and well understood to be in such.) I presume more people just thought it, as the questions were of the “I’m trying to confirm the rumor…” sort.

  7. Dear OP,

    all of my sympathy for the terrible distress you must have felt (and sometimes feel). Let it not touch your value, determination and development as a philosopher – as you already understood, which deserves admiration! But, I would add, let the terrible news not destroy your fond memories of lessons and discussions, what you learnt, the helpful advice, the support and encouragement that professor provided when he was your mentor.

    I do not mean you must imagine two fictional different individuals – the “good” one and the allegedly “bad” (or: bad) one. Your question about getting in touch with your ex-mentor already presupposes you are indeed aware the person accused of harassment, the nice and apparently sincere professor and the present professor who is still teaching are one and the same person, for you hope to move something in him and provoke a change. What I mean is that, FOR YOU, perhpas it is not useful to doubt and question not only your talent and serious committment to philosophy but also his theoretical and professional advice, his appreciation of your work, whatever he said that in point of fact helped you become a university professor and an excellent philosopher. There’s no need to reject your experience as an advised and mentored student under these aspects.

    A different issue is if it’s helpful to contact him now. You are honestly concerned with the current students. It’s true: perhaps a change in the professor’s behaviour and full awareness of it and its consequences on students may avoid others to experiencethe worst side of the mentor/student power differential- IF the professor is still harassing undergraduates, and IF he indeed used to behave in such a deplorable way in the past. Although it seems hard one would change such a long lasting harmful attitute towards students just beacuse a former students writes to highlight how he must become conscious of what he is doing and the multifaceted situation he thus deteremines.
    I am not denying your influence on him, and it’s inherently valuable from you to worry about other students given the emotional and affective crisis you recently experienced (Others would prefer to forget or at least and delete the person in question from their current life). I suggest you ask yourself if searching for a communication with your ex-mentor is good FOR YOU now. It’ll be hard and painful, for you will experience both fondness and sincere gratitute as well as negative emotions. Perhaps (probably?) he would react in a way that’s very different from the supportive and discussions you used to have once. Perhaps you won’t obtain no change and understanding at all. The desire to change others can be dangerous – frustrating, at least.
    Yet I fear you have to be able to deal with all of this if you really want to act and make a difference.

    Nevertheless, I’d encourage you to write to him and ask, if you are well aware of what the effects may be and you have enough self-confidence to know you can do that. For you are still grateful to him, and your esteem, as far as your own knowledge and experience with him goes, is sincere – which is not something to reject or be ashamed of. Perhaps you need to write to him about that for healing, accepting and reconstructing, even if no reconciling, let alone justifying is possible.

    Good luck, you already demonstrated your strenght!

  8. Bijan, i think that your really helpful remarks could aid the OP in working through the issues, perhaps to solidify her recovery. All the comments are full of good advice, but I always have trouble seeing how to get my mind in order, as it were. So your remarks give one an idea of a process.

  9. OP, I wonder if your approaching him is really a good idea. Did you have personal discussions with him when you were a student? There are a lot of issues involved. I’ve had personal discussions with some of my students, and I’m trying to think how I’d feel if one of them initiated a discussion about my sexual habits, which I have never discussed with students. It would seem like a complete betrayal if his/her info was false. Even if something in the area is true, his version may be quite different from yours.

    I’d be much more inclined to go through more official channels in one way or another. If he is actually sleeping with students he is in the process of grading, there are very serious conflict of interest issues. I think I’d also be inclined to call the university’s relevant office to see if anything might be done in terms of departmental education. Who knows what else is happening.

  10. OP here again. I haven’t yet responded again because I remain torn – but at least your comments, and wonderful support, confirm that others would be torn too, and that none of the considerations that I’m seeing for moving in each direction are either irrational or (at least obviously) overriding. Sometimes that itself helps.

  11. Hey OP,

    I think it’s a genuinely hard call.

    I’ve been pondering Anne’s comments @9 and they made me (even?) less confident about the confrontation option. It seems to me, though, that it’s more problematic to start such discusses with certain classes of people than others. When people asked me about whether I was sleeping with a fellow student, there was no rational relationship to any moral duty that my professors were connected with (as it was unconnected to any professional duty). If I had been cheating on my partner, that would be a problem, but paradigmatically a personal, private problem.

    If people were worried about my sleeping with students in my classes, I think I would have felt differently (or should have). I probably still would have been a bit miffed that my probity was so in doubt, but I would be wrong too feel so since that sort of attitude shields misbehavers. If someone said, “Look, Bijan, I’m coming to you only in doubt and because it’s important: You seem to have intense relationships with your female students. In some cases that shades over into romantic/sexual relationships and if they do it becomes a huge problem and is bad for you and the students. This can happen even with good intentions. If you’d like to talk about this or need other sorts of support, feel free to come to me.”

    If they had had hard evidence (i.e., seen me kissing a student; had a student in their office talking about it, etc.) then I think it’d be even more justified.

    Now, some of that would be because I am their student. But colleagues can and should make these sorts of moved.

    Obviously, this can only be for 1) genuine cases of sexual malbehavior, not just being a sexual minority and 2) it has to be balanced with climate for that group. So I’d be far more hesitant to talk to a woman about a rumor that she was sleeping with students, because questioning (and peering at) their sexual behavior is part and parcel of many hostile climates for women.

    But as a feminist or pro-feminist man, I think one way we can step up is to be more open to people asking us about such things.

    Of course, it could still go wrong in all sorts of ways. I was more trying to explain why I think I’d set the threshold for confrontation lower for a man (esp. a feminist man) than for a woman.

  12. I think if I were him and the information turned out to be false, I would feel more betrayed if the OP went through official channels than if she tried to have a conversation with him about it.

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