Another lawsuit against a sexual harassment victim

As so often happens, yet another sexual harasser is suing his victims.

A University of California, Berkeley professor who is the subject of three sexual harassment complaints has filed lawsuits against the women he is accused of victimizing, an unusual step that the students say will not deter them from speaking out.

Blake Wentworth, assistant professor of south and south-east Asian studies, has accused the women of defamation and “intentional infliction of emotional distress”, with new lawsuits filed nearly a year after university investigators concluded that he had violated sexual harassment policies.


Responding to sexual harassment in academia: punishment or pedagogy?

Eric Schliesser has an interesting discussion posted at D&I (which we linked to earlier) of the piece in the Chronicle by Brian Leiter, regarding the ethics of how we respond to sexual harassers in academia.  I think the exchange is worth reading, but that both pieces assume the wrong framework for approaching the issue.* That is, it would be more productive to think about the appropriate role of sexual harassers going forward in academia through the lens of pedagogy rather than punishment.

Leiter’s piece begins with a discussion of Colin McGinn – particularly, the question of whether or not he should be allowed to teach again. Leiter fears that disproportional punishment in response to sexual harassment in academia is trending (e.g., firing, refusal to hire); Schliesser notes that other offenses in the academic community aren’t treated under the kind of proportionality principle Leiter is advocating for (e.g., some plagiarists are shunned from the academic community; we don’t typically give students a second chance before a plagiarized paper receives an F). But, when the administration at East Carolina University vetoed the faculty’s offer of a teaching position, was this an instance of punishment? When a commentator on a blog suggests that having been fired for sexual misconduct disqualifies one for future teaching positions, are they thereby advocating for punishment of offenders?

I don’t think so. If I learn that Jane betrayed her friend John’s trust, and on that basis I decline to form a friendship with her, my failing to become friends with Jane is not a punishment. It is a negative consequence of her conduct towards John, but not all negative consequences are punishments. I wouldn’t put Bernie Madoff in charge of my finances; I wouldn’t leave my dogs with Tony Barbara; and though I’m sure she would never need it, I wouldn’t loan my car to Lindsay Lohan. I wouldn’t be punishing Lindsay Lohan – she’s just not entitled to my car, and I wouldn’t want to take the risk.

Of course, if I don’t choose to engage in a particular kind of relationship with someone on the basis of their past conduct that doesn’t entail that they will never be able to enter into such a relationship with someone else. This contrasts with the kind of case Leiter is considering where a sexual harasser cannot find another position in academia at all. But, as Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa pointed out in a comment on facebook, neither is there some general governing body handing out teaching positions: “[T]here’s a job market. No person or organization faces the question of whether [some sexual harasser] should ever be allowed to teach again. The question faced, by each of a bunch of departments, is, should we hire [this person] to teach here?” In any given instance, that will be a complicated question to answer. (If for no other reason than that the academic job market is flooded with candidates. For any one, no matter whether they’ve engaged in misconduct or not, what are the odds there isn’t a better qualified candidate out there?)

Suppose I’m wrong about all of this, though, and that there is a punitive element to the refusal to hire a sexual harasser. Even so, I think it would be more productive to think about this issue through the lens of pedagogy rather than punishment. As Leiter writes, “[s]exual harassment of students by their professors betrays 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.” (NB: with Schliesser, I suspect much sexual misconduct is not about desirability.)

Some kinds of relationships only function properly if certain preconditions are met. Friendship must be given willingly. Being a doctor requires that one have medical knowledge. Practicing as a social worker requires licensure. Rather than asking if we ought to keep those who engage in sexual misconduct on faculty so as to not send harassers out into the world for someone else to deal with as Leiter does, or asking if refusal to hire is proportionally punitive, we ought to be asking what’s pedagogically appropriate. Certainly, we have moral responsibilities – to victims and perpetrators of sexual misconduct. But examining this through the framework of pedagogy rather than punishment has the dual benefit of not privileging our responsibilities to wrong-doers over those who are wronged and keeping our guiding aim, qua educational community, centered. Are those who betray the fundamental idea of a university fit to be employed by one? If so, why? If not, what would it take for them to become so again?

I would be opposed to my department hiring McGinn, but it’s not a question of punishment. I would be opposed to my department hiring McGinn because he doesn’t seem to think he did anything wrong, and I don’t know how someone who thinks it’s appropriate to treat students in that way could be entrusted with their educations.

*There’s a lot more to say about all of these issues, but I just want to briefly note that with Schliesser, I also don’t think the Chronicle piece gets the cases quite right. For example, it reads:

On the other hand, there are cases like that of Sujit Choudry [sic], former dean of the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, who was found to have violated the university’s sexual-harassment policy, though there was no finding that he acted with a sexual intent . . . A dean of a major law school should not be hugging his secretary on a regular basis, as Choudry [sic] did. Such a dean may not be a sexual harasser, but he is sufficiently insensitive to professional norms and legal rules to be unfit for administrative responsibilities, including responsibility for ensuring that others comply with legal rules regarding sexual harassment . . . But now Berkeley wants to fire him for the offense for which he lost his deanship and some salary already. He is now spending tens of thousands of dollars defending his right to remain as a professor, even though there has been no public allegation about misconduct in that role. In cases like this, vindictive hysteria appears to have replaced a proportionate response to the actual misconduct.

Choudhry was found not merely to have hugged his administrative assistant on a regular basis – rather, he admitted to (1) hugging her regularly, (2) kissing her on the cheek regularly, (3) touching her shoulders and arms, (4) holding her hands to his waist, and (5) not engaging in similar conduct with male colleagues or staff. Leiter is right that there was no finding that he acted with a sexual intent, but neither was there a finding that he did not. The investigation report notes that Choudhry’s defense was that he did not act with a sexual intent, but then goes on to explain why this is irrelevant to the question of whether or not he engaged in sexual harassment for the purposes of university policy (i.e., he engaged in intentional physical touching that was unwelcome, and only directed at women, consistently over a seven month period).

Law Professors on the Preponderance Standard in Title IX cases

A group of more than 90 law professors have signed on to a white paper regarding the preponderance of the evidence standard’s use in campus sexual misconduct cases. I recommend reading the entire document, but here’s a snippet:

The consistency of the 2011 DCL with civil rights legal doctrine means that, had the 2011 DCL indicated tolerance for other standards of proof in sexual violence cases, it would have approved treating sexual violence and harassment victims differently from all other victims of all other discrimination prohibited under our nation’s anti-discrimination civil rights laws, and done so without any justification for that differentiation. Because differential treatment by the government without justification is itself a form of discrimination, OCR making such an exception in a specific set of sexual harassment cases, but in no other civil rights matters under its jurisdiction, would have been incompatible with the agency’s mission to secure gender equality in education.

Departments changing social activities

As soon as the prospective graduate students visiting Northwestern University’s philosophy department reached the top of Chicago’s lofty John Hancock Center, the cocktails began to flow. Later that evening, everybody had dinner at a prominent professor’s high-rise apartment, where the partying continued well past midnight.

Those raucous recruitment weekends were once routine in the department. But the big, boozy nights are over. Now prospective students spend an early evening with professors at a local Thai restaurant. No one orders alcohol, and the director of graduate studies often brings her children.

That is the new reality as colleges are increasingly vigilant about sexual harassment. When a well-known philosopher at Northwestern, who had hosted the party at his apartment, was pushed out of the university after a female graduate student filed a high-profile complaint of sexual misconduct, the department examined not only his behavior but also its context. “These events all provided a really easy opportunity for nonprofessional relationships,” says Jennifer Lackey, director of graduate studies in the department.

Read on.

Guest post: A woman of colour on Pogge letter

By A Woman Philosopher of Color

I am genuinely grateful for and impressed by the critical discussions that have taken place across the blogosphere and on Facebook (and otherwise) about Thomas Pogge’s harmful behavior. That said, I am worried that many of the voices that are being heard about this matter are those of white women (and men). With the exception of a few, such as the courageous Fernanda Lopez, women of color have largely remained quiet. This is for good reason. Given their precarious position in the discipline, it makes sense that women of color are reluctant to discuss the matter. Fear of further exclusion from the discipline runs high. When some women of color have managed to talk about the matter, they have done so only to make clear that they were not victimized by Pogge. It is unfortunate that women of color in philosophy feel the need to do this. However, it is an appropriate response in the context of some of the dialogue that is taking place.

For example, consider the letter written by Professor Melissa Williams indicting Pogge for his harmful behavior and his weak response to the allegations against him. At the end of the first page, Williams asks Pogge (to whom the letter is addressed) to engage in a thought experiment:

You do not seem to grasp how damaging your conduct has been. Imagine, for a moment, that you are a woman of color who worked with Thomas Pogge on this or that project over the years. Imagine the topic of Thomas Pogge’s conduct coming up in conversation, and eyes turning to you with the implicit question, “You too?” Imagine further that Thomas Pogge’s letter of reference for you was important in securing your current job, so that you are constantly wondering whether colleagues believe you got the job only because you slept with Thomas Pogge. I know you to be capable of imagining yourself in another’s position, and you must have imagined scenarios like this.

Williams uses this thought experiment to criticize Pogge for trying “to discredit” his accuser in his response to the initial BuzzFeed article. Though the connection to the above thought experiment is left unclear, Williams is right to call Pogge out for his poor response to the allegations. It is wrongheaded for many reasons, some of which are also discussed here. My main worry with Willilams’s argument is that it does not go far enough in its support for women of color in philosophy. After making the point about “reference letters”, Williams should have taken this opportunity to make clear that the women who do succeed in the profession are very good and that whether they did or did not get a letter from Pogge is really not a basis to evaluate them on. If this simple fact remains unacknowledged, then women of color who work in global justice are left in the position of having to prove that they were not victims or that they didn’t receive letters or jobs on the basis of letters from Pogge.

Professor Ingrid Robeyns’s post on “Why we should sign the Thomas Pogge open letter” makes other important mistakes. Roebyns argues that in deciding whether to sign the letter or not, what matters is whether one regards oneself to be a member of the relevant academic community. In Pogge’s case, the relevant academic overlapping communities are (at least): academic philosophy/political theory; the community of people working on global justice; and the universities where Pogge works or has worked, and organisations to which he is affiliated. If one is a member of any of those overlapping communities, then knowing about the Open Letter yet not signing can reasonabl[y] be seen as a statement that one believes that this is none of one’s business since (i) this is merely a matter of a person’s sexual preferences, which is a private matter; and/or (ii) the legal institutions will do their work, and we must let them do their work; and/or (iii) we don’t have all the relevant information and hence shouldn’t judge.

Robeyns goes on to convincingly argue that these are not good reasons for failing to sign the letter. However, contrary to what Robeyns suggests here, there are other reasons for not signing the open letter that should not be understood as an expression of believing that “this is none of one’s business.” Some of these reasons apply broadly, but seem especially relevant in the case of women of color in philosophy.

First, in the United States, many decisions about tenure are based on external letters. For junior professors who work in global justice and who may have little choice over who is asked to write a letter on their behalf, there is the risk that Pogge himself or some of his ardent supporters may be asked to weigh in on one’s tenure case. Pogge and/or his supporters could hold one’s signing of the letter against her (or him). This seems especially worrisome for women of color who have worked with Pogge or in global justice and where his letter or his supporters’ letters may seem natural to include.

Second, Robeyns’s post ignores the general fact that it may be especially hard for women of color – let alone junior women of color – to sign the statement, given their precarious position in the discipline. Again, the worry about negative repercussions or further exclusion runs high. There is also the worry that women of color have historically been lumped into the group of “repeat players with a track record of reckless accusations who will sign anything, regardless of the merits”.[1] Because of this history, women of color are likely to be very leery of signing an open letter of this type.

Third, there are other ways to express support of the women who have been harmed and to condemn Pogge’s actions. For example, there are many women of color and otherwise who have been working behind the scenes to, among other things, help with writing the open letter and to provide relevant information for the civil rights case. Especially when one is doing these other things, not signing the letter does not necessarily imply that one does not share in the attitudes expressed in the open letter or that one does not condemn Pogge’s actions.

It is unfortunate but understandable that women of color are reticent to speak about the Thomas Pogge matter. Because of the dynamics of this case and of those in the discipline of philosophy, this is unlikely to change for the near future. I hope that those who do have the privilege of being able to speak will work harder to take the considerations of women of color in philosophy more seriously.

[1] Note that Professor Leiter does not seem to have women of color in mind here. There is, however, a history of identifying women of color as being out to get white men (especially through false accusations of sexual harassment).

Further information regarding the Pogge allegtions (UPDATED)

UPDATE 6/20/2016: An “Open Letter Regarding Thomas Pogge” has been signed by over 160 academics, including most of the members of Yale University’s Department of Philosophy as well as the department chair; you can add your name to the letter by clicking on the middle tab at the top of the letter.

From the Huffington Post, regarding allegations of quid pro quo:

In her affidavit, obtained by HuffPost, Aye said she met Pogge at a conference in 2013, and began emailing with him soon after. He offered to help her career, she said, stating early on in an email, “lots of job openings cross my desk, so maybe I can help you find a place where you can be productive in the [global justice] universe.” She said she always denied his offers. Their relationship became intimate during his visits to Europe in late 2013.

But Aye said she decided in early 2014 to “warn other women” that Pogge had deceived her repeatedly, including hiding that he had been married for about 30 years.

Pogge has denied acting inappropriately with any graduate students.

Aye believed she was one Pogge’s “secret mistresses,” she wrote in her affidavit, and that some of the other women were graduate students for whom he’d written recommendations. She alleged these relationships bordered on being “quid pro quo” arrangements.

Pogge wrote in an email to HuffPost that he had written a recommendation for one of the students he became intimately involved with, but said he did so before he “had any romantic relation with her.” He said he was familiar with her academic work because he had taught her in the summer of 2010.

And regarding Columbia:

Yale recruited Pogge away from Columbia in 2007. When Pogge faced university charges of sexually harassing Lopez Aguilar at Yale in 2011, he told the school investigator that Yale was fully aware of the allegations against him at Columbia, according to BuzzFeed. Yale hired him anyway. 

Aye said Pogge had told her a different story about what happened at Columbia.

“He said that when he was at Columbia, he had a stalker who was crazy and eventually she entrapped him and performed oral sex on him, but the woman was crazy,” she said. “Harassment never even came up, it was just him sharing a story about crazy women he’s encountered in his life.”

Pogge disputed part of that claim in an email to HuffPost: “I cannot recall ever telling her that I was stalked by anyone (nor was I in fact stalked by anyone — at Columbia or elsewhere).”

Christia Mercer, who has taught philosophy at Columbia since 1991, said she was aware of allegations that Pogge had behaved inappropriately with a student at the school. Mercer said she warned professors at the University of Oslo in Norway, where both she and Pogge held academic positions, about the claims against him after she read the Thought Catalog essay in 2014. Pogge was reappointed later that academic year, and still holds a position with the university.

Stop Protecting Abusive Academic Men

A powerful post.

In the last two weeks, we have seen gender, higher education and celebrity revolving around one issue our news feeds. No, I am not referring to Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s appointment as Visiting Professor at the LSE, but rather the series of revelations relating to violence against women in academia and the celebrity-verse. First, on 20th May, Buzzfeed broke the story about two allegations against renowned Yale professor Thomas Pogge for sexual misconduct. Then, on 28th May, global news outlets reported that the Los Angeles Superior Court had issued Johnny Depp with a restraining order in response to his wife Amber Heard’s evidence of a history of domestic violence during their relationship. Finally, on 30th May, one of the world’s best-known feminist scholars, Sara Ahmed, resigned from her professorship at Goldsmiths University due to the institution’s failure to tackle sexual harassment. Brought side by side, three separate events speak volumes about how the obsession with male genius and creativity continues to sustain rape culture.

Equality is not a credential

Sara Ahmed resigned from her post after trying for several years to get justice for a series of victims of sexual harassment at Goldsmiths University.  Her discussion of the resignation is here.  She has now written a powerful piece that discusses the ways that institutional efforts toward greater equality have come to be paperwork exercises.  Worse yet:

Being good at writing documents become a competency that is also an obstacle for diversity work, as it means that the university gets judged as good because of the document….

So a problem can be reproduced by the appearance of having solved it. I mention this earlier work on diversity here and now for a reason. It helped me to make sense of a statement on Sexual Harassment published by the college on June 3rd in response to the attention given to the problem on social media (an attention that has something to do with an act of bringing to attention).

The statement refers to various activities as evidence of its credentials. One activity is Athena Swan: which has become reduced to a branding exercise (which is not to say that is all that it is) by being evoked in this way on a statement on sexual harassment. Another activity they reference is the conference on Sexual Harassment in Higher Education (SHHE) that took place in December 2015. The conference was organised by Anna Bull, Tiffany Page and Leila Whitley who were . They as organisers have just published an important and powerful response to the college’s statement. As they note: “It was because no one was else was willing to organise an event on sexual harassment that we took it upon ourselves. This has been a recurring theme during our time at Goldsmiths: the reliance on the labour and energy of students, rather than a concerted effort by the institution.”An event that was claimed as evidence of what the college was doing came about because of what the college was not doing.

This article is really a must-read for all of us who are working to make philosophy more equal, writing endless documents and protocols, organising workshops, etc.



Sara Ahmed resigns from Goldsmiths, University of London in protest of the institution’s failure to address sexual harassment of students

The feminist academic Sara Ahmed has resigned from her post as a Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, in protest of the institution’s failure to address the sexual harassment of students. She has written an open letter about her resignation that deserves to be read widely: Sara Ahmed Speaking Out

In case you somehow missed it, please read:
Sara Ahmed Speaking Out