Ann Olivarius on Miami, McGinn and Shalala

Some of our readers may have come across this article, which includes criticism by Ann Olivarius of Donna Shalala’s handling of Colin McGinn. Feminist Philosophers has obtained permission from Olivarius to publish the whole of the editorial which is quoted from in the Miami New Times Article. She has also given us some vital background to the editorial.

First, the background:

I am the lawyer representing the victim of Colin McGinn’s sexual harassment at the University of Miami. In an op-ed below, I set out my views about a recent statement by UM President Donna Shalala praising herself in her conduct of this case. But from speaking with Jenny Saul and others, I believe that many philosophers are under some misapprehension about key facts in this case, which as a preliminary matter I seek to clear up here.

First, my client (I will call her “Claire”) has sought strenuously to maintain her privacy, which is her right as a victim of sexual harassment. To the extent her identity has become known or surmised, that flows directly from actions by McGinn, never by Claire. He contacted leading figures in the world of philosophy soliciting letters in his own defense, naming her in the process. He also pushed the matter into the public arena. He spoke to Katie Roiphe of Slate and other journalists, while Claire maintained her silence seeking to protect the imperfect privacy she retained.

Second, when she brought McGinn’s harassment to UM’s attention, the very first concern Claire raised was that he would retaliate against her. She is an outstanding young philosopher whose career is absolutely central to her priorities. After she ultimately concluded she had no choice but to report McGinn’s long campaign of harassment so that other women would not have to endure another iteration, her overwhelming worry was that he would seek to sandbag her prospects.

For good reason. McGinn had told Claire many times how he enjoyed exacting retribution on his perceived enemies. When his book The Meaning of Disgust received a scathing review (“The sad fact is the reader would learn more about disgust by reading Mad magazine. For the rest of us—those who actually care about disgust, or aesthetic emotions, or scholarship at all—the book is bound to disappoint” ), McGinn sent Claire furious texts about how he wanted revenge: “You have no idea of the envious resentment I create. Precisely because I am so talented. And I am so tempted to destroy that stupid bitch. Verbally.” McGinn’s review in The Philosophical Review of Ted Honderich’s book On Consciousness was so venomous it prompted an article in the New York Times. McGinn also warned Claire against crossing or provoking him. So when she finally reported his long and exhausting campaign of harassment, she was right to ask UM officials for protection.
Yet they did nothing discernible to keep McGinn’s retaliation in check. He remained on the University’s payroll for a year’s sabbatical as part of his negotiated exit and thus subject to its authority, including to its ongoing legal obligation not to retaliate against a student for reporting sexual harassment. UM had the leverage with him that any payor has to enforce terms of its settlement agreement. Certainly it could and should have inserted standard “non-disparagement” language into the agreement to protect itself and Claire; did UM’s lawyers not think of this, despite her profuse warnings about his vindictiveness, or did they just fail to enforce it? The idea that they were powerless to stop him simply doesn’t wash.

Certainly they knew about McGinn’s blogging. Claire emailed UM shortly after his first few posts. She told UM’s Vice Provost, David Birnbach, that “my future career is in jeopardy because I came forward about his inappropriate behavior, which is exactly what I feared at the beginning of all this.” But UM didn’t stop McGinn. At a minimum, UM could have come to her public defense, instead of letting her twist in the breeze McGinn was fanning. That would have cost them nothing. But they have never said anything to support her. Again and again, UM has been flamboyantly inert in dealing with McGinn’s attacks on Claire’s honesty and motivations.

In my view, the letter from President Shalala discussed in my op-ed below, which contends that the University’s behavior in this case has been wise and far-seeing and that she actually deserves praise for it, continues UM’s quite strange, but nevertheless consistent, blindness and lack of concern for the effects of McGinn’s sexual harassment and retaliation on his student –whom the University has a legal and moral duty to protect.

Now, the editorial:

For centuries, the standard way Catholic bishops handled child sexual abuse by priests was to move them quietly to a new job and keep mum. The abuse victims were kept in the dark. So were the unsuspecting parents and children in the new parish. No apology or compensation was offered. The bishops and cardinals congratulated themselves on their deft maneuvering that kept the church free of scandal – the only goal that mattered. Even after the whole rotten system was blown open in recent years by courageous survivors, dissenting priests, investigative reporters and plaintiffs’ lawyers, it is striking how many bishops have complained that criticism of them is unfair – for surely no one could think they wanted to protect pedophiles. They were just doing their duty to the church.

Donna Shalala doesn’t quite look like a Catholic bishop, but I am astounded how much she seems to have borrowed from their playbook in steering the University of Miami after one of its graduate students, whom I represent, complained about a long campaign of sexual harassment by her supervisor and mentor, philosophy professor Colin McGinn. Two years ago Shalala granted McGinn a kind of “plea-bargain” that avoided a long and ugly Faculty Senate trial that would have generated terrible headlines for UM. In return McGinn received another year’s salary, a dignified sabbatical and a slap on the wrist. His obsessive crusade for intimacy and sex with a student who was utterly dependent upon him for her future academic career was magically reduced to a mere “failure to report a consensual romantic relationship.” The Miami New Times showed just how gross McGinn’s behavior was in an article last week. But Shalala refuses to admit this, or treat the student with dignity. In a letter to the editor last week, she doubled down on her bullheaded strategy and, like one of those bishops, made herself out to be a victim of unfounded criticism. “No good deed goes unpunished,” she said. “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.”

But her self-congratulation doesn’t hold up. In fact it is unseemly for an intellectual leader of her distinction to make an argument that distorts reality to this degree.

First, there was absolutely nothing consensual about the relationship between McGinn and the student. McGinn (whose favorite novel is Lolita, and who wrote a book called Mindfucking) was a determined sexual harasser. For months the student strained to resist and deflect him without alienating him, always terrified he would turn on her and destroy her career the way he boasted he had done to many others. The effort exhausted her and she became sleepless, anxious and agitated.

To get McGinn out of her parish, Shalala averted her eyes from the truth and blessed the “plea bargain.” But her expedient piece of scandal avoidance rested on the back of the victim, who was abandoned. Instead the University put its authority behind the idea that she was a liar – by declaring it was “consensual” when she had to listen to McGinn discuss his erections, demand greater emotional devotion from her on penalty of withdrawing his support for her work (“I don’t want you to lose sight of how lucky you are to have me. Just don’t throw it away,” he wrote her), and press her repeatedly for sex, which she always refused. He got a year’s salary; her reputation was trashed.

Second, UM can’t have it both ways. If McGinn didn’t do anything so very wrong – if he was just in a romantic relationship that soured as UM maintains – why was it so important to get rid of him with “lightning speed”? Why is UM a “safer, better place” with him gone? But if his actions (as the evidence demonstrates) were a serious violation of the student’s rights that did mandate McGinn’s departure, why didn’t the University conduct an investigation consistent with the requirements of Title IX or keep her informed about it? Why hasn’t it yet apologized to her?

Third, there’s proof that Shalala and other University officials threw the student under the bus knowing full well that McGinn had harassed her. Shalala told a group of angry graduate students in September 2013 that the McGinn case “is a very different situation than a faculty member . . . romantically involved with a student. This is a much more serious case than that.” Then why did she argue the opposite in her letter to the editor last week? And Vice Provost David Birnbach, who now becomes UM’s Acting President, told a witness privately in February 2013 that “what Colin [McGinn] did was so bad he could have been sent to jail for it.” Perhaps one of the first acts of the Birnbach administration could be to have the courage of his convictions in public.

Fourth, Shalala’s dismissal of all criticism sidesteps the University’s complicity in McGinn’s sustained campaign to attack the student’s reputation (with enthusiastic help from Edwin Erwin, another UM philosophy professor) AFTER the plea bargain was in place and McGinn went on sabbatical. He wrote to major figures all over the world of philosophy and posted multiple blogs denouncing the student and making himself out to be a hapless victim of political correctness. UM knew all about it but did nothing to stop him or protect her. The terrible result of its deliberate indifference is that the student has had to leave UM and has spent much of the past two years trying to reconstruct an extremely promising career while so depressed she often cannot venture from her darkened room.

When Donna Shalala faced a scandal in the UM football program in 2011 that threatened the University’s reputation (and football revenues), she showed she could move fast and decisively. UM issued a public apology and pre-emptively removed the Hurricanes from bowl games worth millions. Her next job is running the Clinton Foundation – an organization that does a lot of good, but may be facing scandals of its own; there are allegations of influence peddling in the way its foreign donors have had access to Bill Clinton’s contact list. It does not do UM or the presidential aspirations of Hillary Clinton any good for Shalala to show up for work at the Clinton Foundation while UM continues to deny and evade its sorry record in letting Colin McGinn’s student be sexually harassed and twist in the wind thereafter. It is time for UM to apologize and compensate the student for the damage McGinn and its own errors of judgment have done to her life and career.

Dr. Ann Olivarius, senior partner of McAllister Olivarius, is a lawyer specializing in discrimination who represents the student discussed in this article. A Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale Law School, she was named by the ACLU on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the federal law forbidding sex discrimination at universities, as one of the “Nine Most Influential Actors in the History of Title IX,” and Nelson Mandela described her as “someone who has courageously advanced the causes of justice and improved life opportunities for millions of women, blacks and disadvantaged.”