Many of you will have already seen this story, published earlier today by the Miami New Times, on the University of Miami’s handling of accusations of harassment against Colin McGinn. As the article notes, the New Times reviewed hundreds of messages between McGinn and the student who was subject to his advances while researching the story. What they found reveals a familiar pattern in universities’ handling of sexual misconduct—institutional betrayal. (Note: Miami has also been in the news recently for giving a student found responsible for sexual assault merely a one semester suspension as a sanction.) The story paints a picture of a woman not only harmed by being subject to excruciatingly inappropriate sexual advances by someone who she hoped might be her mentor and the beginning of a strong professional network, but further by her university seeking to expeditiously extract itself from a difficult situation without consideration for their responsibilities to her nor for the effects their way of handling it would have on her wellbeing and her future. The university chose to ask McGinn to resign for violating their consensual relationship policies—sidestepping a more complicated process—while the student contends there was nothing consensual about it:
Claire’s big break came two days before the end of her first semester, on the afternoon of December 12, 2011, when she received an email from McGinn. “I want you to be my official research assistant (with pay! but not much),” he wrote.
That was at 1:36 p.m. She quickly responded: “I would be absolutely delighted…! It would be great to work with you. I really enjoy our conversations.”
For the rest of the afternoon, Claire’s thoughts raced. She pictured herself cowriting books and papers with McGinn. Careers in philosophy are hard to come by, but with such a mentor, everything seemed within reach — especially when McGinn said he would turn her into a genius.
Claire couldn’t wait. That evening, she began finger-painting. Around 7 p.m., she emailed her new boss, relating the art to their research. “I have started a painting of some hands,” she wrote. “More like I am painting the hand using the hand as a tool.”
The response came as a shock: “I would love to see your paintings and your messy hands. It sounds somewhat erotic (I have a wide definition of the erotic).”
The word “erotic” glared at her from the laptop screen. The twinge of unease would deepen during the next nine months. In hundreds of messages reviewed by New Times, the illustrious, 63-year-old, married professor repeatedly used terms like “slight erection,” “handjob,” and “Lolita,” which he said was his favorite book. He even asked Claire to have sex with him — “three times over the summer when no one is around.”
Claire contends she tried to deflect McGinn’s advances by steering conversation to their research. But McGinn wouldn’t let up, she says. She lost weight from the stress. Her passion for philosophy waned, and for the first time, she began turning in assignments late.
So on September 14, 2012, Claire did what she calls “one of the most difficult things I have done.” She accused the most famous philosopher in the department of sexual harassment. She submitted his offensive emails to Wilhemena Black, the coordinator who oversees the university’s compliance with Title IX, a landmark federal statute that prohibits schools receiving financial aid from the Department of Education from discriminating by gender or allowing sexual harassment.
Thirty-five days later, UM officials ruled there was insufficient evidence. Instead, they accused McGinn of the more tepid “failure to disclose a consensual romantic relationship.”
McGinn didn’t tarry. He resigned before he could be found officially responsible for anything, then took to the internet to proclaim his innocence. This spurred a spate of high-profile stories about the case from Slate, the New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, and elsewhere. Claire — whom New Times has given a pseudonym because she is an alleged victim of sexual harassment — declined their requests for comment but spoke to New Times for the first time.
“I never slept with him or had sexual contact with him. I never even kissed him. So how was his obsession consensual or romantic?” Claire says. “I came to UM to learn and grow as a philosopher, not to have my professor tell me he had an erection when he thought about me and found me a stimulating mental construct to masturbate to.”
Far too often universities approach sexual misconduct as if the primary concern is risk management for their own brand, rather than as a matter of community justice and equal educational opportunity, and it seems (unsurprisingly, but nonetheless, wrongly) that’s what happened here. The handling described by the New Times is precisely the kind of response that can severely exacerbate trauma and discourage victims from reporting–it also raises serious questions about Miami’s compliance with the law.