McGinn, Miami, Harassment, and Institutional Betrayal

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 TimesChronicle 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.

17 thoughts on “McGinn, Miami, Harassment, and Institutional Betrayal

  1. I don’t know that ‘Claire’ will see this–but I do just want to say on the off chance that she does: I am sorry that this happened to you. I am sorry that the University of Miami failed you, and I am sorry that we as a philosophical community have not done enough to prevent these abuses, and that we have not done enough to support those who are harmed. I hope that Miami is held accountable (or better yet, makes recompense), I hope that we philosophers do better going forward, and I hope that you find justice.

  2. Also for Claire: The people who have seen this include many many many who, while we haven’t been through precisely what you’ve been through, have been through matters close enough that we really do have a clue how nightmarishly awful it is. I hope you are finding your way to indignation and anger along with whatever else you are feeling. In the meantime, if it gives you any emotional space at all, try to think of some of us out here as bearing a little bit of that anger on your behalf. I second especially this part of what noetika said– may you find justice.

  3. Claire, if you’re reading this: I am horrified by what has happened to you. So many philosophers were pleased to see Miami take *some* action against sexual harassment that the deep problems with what they did were not properly understood. You have been dealt injustice upon injustice. Your strength, continuing on in philosophy, is amazing. Please know that you are a hero to so many women in philosophy for coming forward in the way that you did. I hope that our field is in the process of changing, and that it changes fast enough for you to find a healthy home in it where you can simply enjoy philosophy again.

  4. Hi Claire-

    Thanks for sharing your story. I’m so sorry this happened to you. I’m so glad you’re not giving up on philosophy! You’re an inspiration to the rest of us.

    WRJWTDPO

  5. I am also immensely grateful to, and inspired by, Claire.

    I note that President Shalala is quoted in the story as justifying framing the situation as a consensual relationship in order to remove McGinn from contact with students as quickly as possible, whereas firing is a process which takes a lot of time. This makes me wonder how the situation would have played out if the University had chosen to go down that (more honest) path, if other equally egregious harms would have occurred.

  6. Claire: Thank you for speaking out. No one should have to be as brave as you are. Please know that you have a large community of supporters who share your anger and want to help in any way we can.

  7. It is outrageous that this kind of bad behavior–personal and institutional– continues decade after decade in philosophy and that so many women philosophers have had their professional careers severely burdened for no good reason whatsoever. My thoughts are with you, Claire.

  8. Thank you for coming forward with your story. That took a lot of courage. I surely hope you are not driven away from philosophy because of this grievous behavior you had to endure. I hope you know that we believe your story. You should not worry about your professional reputation because you did nothing wrong. On the contrary, you did exactly the right thing in coming forward.

  9. Claire
    Everyone else has already said what I want to–thanks for your bravery and realize that you have lots of support from other philosophers.

  10. Claire, thank you so much for coming forward like you did. I am sorry that you were treated so despicably by a professor, and with such disrespect by your former institution. The sort of transparency that you enabled here permits our discipline and the whole academy to see exactly how such harassment and unprofessional conduct takes place, and so often evades correction or prosecution. We will only make things better because of bravery like yours; I’m very proud to count you as a fellow philosopher.

  11. Just to add to the expressions of support for Claire, and everyone who has had to put up with such things in our field. I hope that as a result of your bravery in coming forward, we can make our field a better place to be!

  12. There is a followup story where Donna Shalala defends UM’s actions and this blog is quoted at the end: http://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/um-president-donna-shalala-responds-to-new-times-story-no-good-deed-goes-unpunished-7583019

    Here claim: “Most college and university mechanisms for dealing with claims of sexual harassment against tenured faculty are extensive and protracted. The University of Miami is an example of how one institution got it right, resulting in the resignation of this faculty member. The process was lightning speed – a rarity in the history of higher education. UM is a safer, better place for it.”

  13. Shalala is deeply wrong.

    The way Miami handled the case was immensely damaging to the victim, who has to live with her university having issued an official judgment of “consensual relationship”– where it is strongly implicated by Shalala’s remarks that they did this for reasons of expedience. And certainly her evidence makes it clear that the relationship was anything but consensual.

    Moreover, while McGinn is no longer at Miami– so in that sense it’s safer– the university is in fact a worse place for the way this case was dealt with. Other victims will now fear to come forward, knowing that (a) even with vast reams of evidence the university may deem the relationship consensual for the sake of a quick resolution; and (b) the university will not protect them from retaliation.

  14. Claire, thank you for your bravery and please know that you have many supporters. The Miami New Times article was so difficult to read–how much more difficult it must have been to go through.

  15. Claire, thank you for being so strong in the midst of a situation you shouldn’t have had to experience.

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