Wise reflections from Eric Schliesser in response to Brian Leiter’s thoughts on proportional punishment of sexual harassers:
As I have noted before (while writing about the Pogge case recall), academics actually treat harms against the profession rather severely: for example, serial plagiarists (e.g., Martin Stone) are (when caught) often banished from the profession and academic life, and given no second chances. This is also true of folk that get caught in multiple cases of serious academic misconduct (Stapel, Marc Hauser, etc.). In many cases of violations of academic integrity we de facto do not believe in second chances and we think that employment in the profession should be prevented. Many years ago, a journalist pointed out to me (with a mixture of bemusement and outrage) that academics tend to treat sins against the profession/discipline far worse than society treats a whole range of awful crimes. We convey something of this attitude to our students when we can give a student a (fairly automatic) F for (serious) cheating; many universities have some kind of procedure in which a student’s academic misconduct becomes either a permanent feature of the academic records or becomes a permanent barrier to completing the degree.* What is especially notable about these cases is that disciplines and universities often are far more severe than the law. (That’s not true of all the cases; some grant agencies have become notably harsher than universities/disciplines.)
I am not denying that it is possible to treat the kinds of cases I mention in the previous paragraph as falling under some kind of proportionality principle. But (a) that’s not the natural reading of these cases and so the principle of proportionality does not apply in violations of academic integrity; and (b) if the proportionality principle is taken to apply then the severity of these punishments is strong evidence that we take violations of the integrity of the academic enterprise as extremely serious offenses. (Of course, a reformist reader may decide that the proportionality principle does apply here, and argue that the existing punishments do not fit the crimes, or that there are half-way places between utter banishment and ongoing engagement in academic work–this came up in the Hauser case.) My own favored interpretation is actually (b) — our practice reveals we tacitly take violations of the integrity of the academic enterprise as extremely serious offenses –, but what follows will only assume that one needs to argue for the principle of proportionality in the context of academic offenses and can’t take its applicability for granted….
Here I want to turn to Leiter’s important observation that the cases of sexual misconduct and worse violate the “fundamental idea of a university as a place where everyone can come to learn and master an intellectual discipline, and be evaluated on their intellectual competence, rather than their sexual desirability.” I agree with Leiter about this (although I suspect that a lot of misconduct is not a consequence of perceived sexual desirability). This particular harm is distinct from all the other harms that follow from various forms of sexual misconduct (and let me grant that these harms may well fall under some proportionality principle). Violations of this fundamental idea are very much like violations of academic integrity. These violations undermine our collective mission to teach, learn, and master an intellectual discipline. In the case of plagiarism we have long recognized this, in the cases of sexual misconduct we have been scandalously slow to acknowledge it.