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The Professor’s Tale

What is it like to be a man in philosophy?

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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This is a story about campus sexual harassment, involving a female graduate student in philosophy and a prominent male philosophy professor at an Ivy League university. Except that the alleged events didn’t take place on a campus or anywhere near one. Nor did the alleged events meet any legal definition of harassment, since the professor in question wasn’t the student’s professor, or her dean or her employer, and she was pursuing her doctoral degree at a completely different institution. But there sure was plenty of sex: in hotel rooms, her apartment, and other venues.

Jason Seiler

Jason Seiler

And there was also plenty of ill feeling after she discovered that the professor, who, she said, specialized in “moral philosophy” and “global justice”—and whom she called “my global justice hero” in an unsigned online article—turned out to be perhaps somewhat less than “moral.” It emerged that he allegedly had quite a few other girlfriends with whom he rendezvoused in other hotel rooms in cities around the world. Those amorous adventures could be said to be “global,” all right, although perhaps not “justice” as many people—and especially the aggrieved author of the online article—commonly understand it.

The article, which appeared on April 26 in the online magazine Thought Catalog, was titled “I Had An Affair With My Hero, A Philosopher Who’s Famous For Being ‘Moral.’ ” The author, who wrote as Anonymous, did not identify either the alleged two-timing professor or his institution, but a two-second Google of “Ivy League global justice” immediately yields a likely name. The piece circulated widely, in part because it makes for entertaining reading. Here are some excerpts:

When I met him at a conference I didn’t think he’d remember me, so I was surprised when he sent me an email, prompting a regular exchange between us. He told me he’ll be coming to visit the city where I lived and invited me to his hotel. We talked for hours about philosophy and shared personal anecdotes. .  .  . Towards the end of his visit, he gave me a rose, took me to a concert, and dinner. I took it as a sign, and, when we returned to his hotel, I declared I was staying. When I asked him if he had protection, he replied that he hasn’t had sex for many years, and that I shouldn’t worry about it.

That was an easy sell!

The second time he visited City X, he opened the door to his hotel room naked.

The things that go on in hotel rooms!

The third time he was visiting City X, we decided he would stay in my apartment. While we were lying on my couch, I expressed astonishment about being with him, my global justice hero, and told him about how I worried that someone as amazing as him would already have someone in his life. He admitted he’s been with the same woman for several decades, before I was even born. I was shocked by this revelation. How could he extol honesty, whilst omitting this crucially relevant information? I was in tears. He held me in his arms and told me that he’s fallen in love with me. He assured me that his relationship with his partner has now become a platonic sibling-type, that she would be happy for him that he can have “love and romance” in his life. 

Uh-huh. Anonymous must have had her earbuds plugged into Nirvana when her mother warned her that a man will say anything to a woman to get her into bed.

She reported that she began to get suspicious when the professor declined to leave his partner in order to be with her—or even, in fact, to tell his partner that she existed. Then she found out about the “22-year-old virgin” who’d been his former secret mistress, plus the “PhD student in India, who wears a sexy negligee,” and the “other young female scholars that he hosts in his apartment.” Anonymous concluded sadly: “He will continue giving his lectures about justice around the world, pretending not to eat meat for moral reasons, inviting young women to his hotel room for philosophical discussions, and I’m just among the other young women scorned by the moral philosopher, who devotes his life to justice.”

All this would make for a merry tale illustrating the adage “Hell hath no fury like a woman who discovers that her man has been whispering the same sweet nothings into the ears of other females as he’s been whispering into hers.” It would also make for a merry tale of hypocrisy among sanctimonious progressives in academia. “Global justice” typically involves requiring citizens of wealthy First World countries to hand over their income and assets (via taxes) for “redistribution” to impoverished Third World countries, on the theory that they’re complicit in Third World poverty. It’s always fun to see a vegetarian guru of redistribution who also happens to occupy a cushy position at a prestigious East Coast university doing a bit of redistribution of his own on the side. Anonymous lamented: “I falsely assumed that the man who calls affluent westerners human rights violators would treat women with dignity.” Surprise, surprise!

And finally, this ought to be an inspirational tale for grad-school nerds laboring in the library stacks trying to finish their philosophy dissertations: Get yourself a job in “global justice,” and you’ll have more progressive females in sexy negligees throwing themselves at you than there are stars in the sky or Third World kleptocrats.

Unfortunately, this story, while certainly all of the above, has a dark side. It is also a story about a vendetta, actually one of a series of vendettas waged by feminists over the past few years against philosophy professors and philosophy departments. The campaigns typically make broad claims about sexual harassment, but the incidents alleged typically fall short of what would be required to make a legal case of assault, sexual quid pro quo, or maintaining a hostile workplace or academic environment. Yet they are remarkably successful, partly because universities these days are terrified of running afoul of the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR under the Obama administration has been issuing increasingly draconian rules and press releases regarding campus harassment, including a May 1 “name and shame” list of 55 institutions, from Harvard on down, that are under OCR investigation for improper handling of harassment complaints. In 2013 the University of Miami forced a star philosopher on its faculty, Colin McGinn, to resign over a series of ill-considered but clearly consensual double-entendre emails and text messages he had exchanged with a female graduate student then working as his research assistant. Early in 2014, the University of Colorado-Boulder ousted the chairman of its philosophy department after a report that some professors had gone out drinking with graduate students and other professors had been observed “ogling” female undergraduates.

And in the case of the Ivy League global justice professor, within days of the appearance of Anonymous’s article in Thought Catalog, he was specifically identified by a number of feminist activists—including Anonymous herself—as
a Yale professor who had allegedly made sexual overtures to a female Yale undergraduate while serving as her senior-essay adviser and, after her graduation in 2010, employing her as a researcher and translator. That woman is reportedly preparing to sue both the professor and Yale itself, which, according to a September 30, 2011, article in the student newspaper, the Yale Daily News, had found “insufficient evidence to support the allegation of sexual harassment” and merely issued the professor a reprimand for improper business practices.

In short, the global justice professor has been effectively “outed”—linked irrevocably not just to a taste for trysts in hotel rooms around the world but to a concrete allegation of sexual harassment on his own campus. He may win the lawsuit if it is ever filed (those cases are hard to prove), but that’s beside the point. Everyone in the philosophy world is now pretty certain who he is (he has been named on several philosophy blogs), and his career in academia, if not formally finished, may well be mortally wounded. Several well-known philosophers at other universities are more or less calling for his head. Global justice, indeed.

Here is what happened: According to Anonymous, she had submitted her article not only to Thought Catalog several weeks before it appeared, but also to What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?, a lugubrious feminist blog where female grad students in philosophy complain that their male professors are “dismissive” toward them in class, and female professors of philosophy complain that male grad students don’t want them as advisers. A blog editor immediately put Anonymous into contact with lawyers for the Yale graduate who was contemplating a lawsuit. That young woman was doing some activist outreach of her own. Under the pen name “Lisbeth Mara” (apparently after Lisbeth Salander, the name of the heroine of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Rooney Mara, the actress who played Lisbeth in the 2011 movie), she posted a page on the FundRazr website seeking $7,000 in donations to pay for a forensic psychologist to testify in court about the post-traumatic stress she said she was suffering from her encounters with the professor while at Yale and immediately afterwards. 

On May 10 Lisbeth’s crowdfunding efforts were taken over by a friend, Emma Sloan, also of the Yale class of 2010. Setting up FundRazr and Facebook pages titled “Protecting Lisbeth” and featuring a photo of Yale’s neo-Gothic campus together with a scary stock photo of a man’s grimy hand covering a woman’s mouth, Sloan managed to raise the $7,000 within 30 hours, partly by upping the rhetorical ante on Lisbeth’s plight. Lisbeth had claimed to be the unnamed woman described as “Case 2” in the Yale Daily News story of 2011, in which several alleged victims of sexual harassment told their stories to a reporter. The year 2011 had been a tough one for Yale in harassment terms. In March 2011, 16 students and alumni had filed a complaint against Yale with the OCR, alleging that the university’s administrators had brushed off or otherwise mishandled pervasive sexual misconduct by male students and professors, and the OCR had started an intensive investigation. The “Case 2” complainant eventually added her name to those of the original 16 petitioners. Yale and the OCR reached a voluntary settlement in June 2012 in which there was no finding of wrongdoing on Yale’s part, but Yale agreed to change some of its practices and procedures.

In her 2011 email interview with the Yale Daily News, the young alumna reported that while serving as her senior-essay adviser in 2009 and 2010, the professor had constantly attempted to make their relationship more personal, offering her a ride from the airport on one occasion, inviting her over for brunch, and going bicycling with her as they discussed her essay. After graduation he took her along on a 10-day trip as his research assistant and translator, insisting that the two share a hotel room so that he would “not spend funds that could be funneled towards charitable projects.” He also confided to her that he had been accused of sexual harassment at the university where he had previously taught. The young woman related “several other incidents on the trip which she asked the News not to describe in detail” that she believed constituted sexual harassment. After the two returned, their relationship soured, she said, when the professor discovered she had a live-in boyfriend, and she had trouble getting paid by Yale because she had not officially been on the Yale payroll (Yale did eventually pay her, although on condition that she not discuss her differences with the professor, she said).

When Sloan took over the Lisbeth crowdfunding page, she escalated the extreme discomfort that the “Case 2” complainant had experienced over the shared hotel room (the professor had allegedly tried for a single king-size bed, perhaps to save even more money for charity) into language so incendiary that Sloan was obliged to remove it after hearing from the professor’s lawyers raising libel issues. On the Facebook page, Sloan described the Lisbeth events as a “brutal, sadistic, sexual assault” by “a well-known professor of ethics.” That’s language that’s hard to square with the Yale Daily News account of what the young woman had said about her unpleasant encounters with the professor. Sloan also wrote: “Lisbeth is one of as many as 12 women who may have been the objects of this professor’s sexual misconduct.” She claimed that Yale’s administrators had known full well when they hired him that the professor had a reputation for “predatory behavior” and had left a trail of harassment complaints in his wake. (I tried unsuccessfully to reach Sloan by telephone.)

On May 5 Anonymous—she of the global-justice disillusion—chimed in with a second, longer article, this time on a “Protecting Lisbeth” blog that Sloan had set up. She confessed that, um, she was still keeping up her relationship with her moral-philosopher Lothario, even though she found him “reprehensible.” She wrote: “[S]ince I have spoken to the lawyers [for Lisbeth], I pretended to continue my affair to gather more emails and information about the case.” Anonymous also changed her tune considerably. In her Thought Catalog article, she had taken full responsibility for falling for a seducer’s line as ancient as Zeno’s Paradox: “I brought this up upon myself, and I deserve to live with the consequences of my free, voluntary action.” In her second article, she decided that she, too, had been a victim of some sort. “[M]y affair with him was not a case of genuine consent for I would never have consented to being his secret mistress.” She recast her onetime hero as an insecure manipulator who had a lousy childhood and liked to tell dirty stories.

What is interesting is how quickly a number of high-profile philosophy professors dug into their wallets to support a lawsuit that will inevitably blight the career of one of their confrères irretrievably, if it hasn’t already done so. One was Brian Leiter, director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago’s law school. On his widely read left-of-center blog, Leiter Reports, he announced that he had contributed to the Lisbeth campaign (he claimed to know Lisbeth’s real name) and urged others to do the same. (Leiter did distance himself somewhat from Emma Sloan’s infrared rhetoric, saying he could “express no opinion” about what Sloan had written.) Other contributors had included Joshua Cohen, a global-justice theorist at Stanford, and Martha Nussbaum, Leiter’s colleague at Chicago and a high-profile public intellectual. Another donor, Eric Schliesser, a moral philosopher at Ghent University, wrote on his blog: “I have come to believe that the systematic pattern of exclusion of women in philosophy is, in part, due to the fact that my profession has allowed a culture of harassment, sexual predating, and bullying to be reproduced from one generation to the next.” 

Right now, you might be asking: Harassment? Sexual predating? That’s for campus jocks, frat brothers, and all-night partiers, not tweedy philosophical dweebs in horn-rimmed glasses debating the finer points of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Yet as it happens, philosophy professors are the very bull’s-eye of an ongoing campaign by academic feminists both male and female against what they see as rampant sexism in their profession. That’s because philosophy seems to be the only branch of the humanities left that is still overwhelmingly male. Fewer women earn Ph.D.s in philosophy than in such fields as mathematics, economics, and chemistry. In 2011 just 21 percent of all college-level philosophy instructors were women and 17 percent of faculty with tenured or tenure-track philosophy jobs, according to the American Philosophical Association (APA). Undergraduate women receive only 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees in philosophy.

There has to be an explanation for that. The simple explanation is that most women aren’t very interested in philosophy, at least the variant that academics now pursue. It’s the most abstract and mathematics-like of the humanities disciplines, and abstract thinking is something at which men seem to excel. The razor-sharp distinction-drawing and brutal, courtroom-style inquisitions that typically take place in philosophy classrooms aren’t much to many women’s taste, either.

That’s the simple explanation. The preferred and politically correct explanation is that it’s all the fault of men. And that’s where the “systematic exclusion” and “culture of harassment, sexual predating, and bullying” to which Schliesser alluded comes in. And also, the ascendency of feminists frustrated by the fact that 40 years of affirmative action, diversity preferences, and sexual-assault grievance procedures on campuses—often deliberately designed to favor accusers over the accused—have done almost nothing to change the sex disparity in philosophy departments. It is a situation that makes the contributors to such blogs as What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy? and Feminist Philosophers seethe with frustration.

Not surprisingly, many of those women have foraged around for extrajudicial and even extra-administrative tactics for bringing perceived perpetrators of philosophical sexism to justice without having to go through time-consuming proceedings that don’t always end satisfactorily for accusers, or meet even the ultra-low burden of proof that those proceedings entail. Those off-the-books sanctions typically involve public shaming of the alleged perpetrator and also playing on university administrators’ desire not to cross the OCR and yearning to be perceived as sufficiently enlightened and woman-sensitive. The Feminist Philosophers blog has endorsed a system of informal shunning: not inviting suspected harassers to conference panels, declining to appear on panels with them, and refusing to publish their papers. What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy? is mostly a shaming forum with no names named.

The APA’s Committee on the Status of Women recently set up a “site visitation” program in which a team of investigators invited by a university descend on the campus, conduct interviews, and then recommend changes in department culture. The removal of the philosophy department’s then-chairman, Graeme Forbes, at the University of Colorado-Boulder earlier this year was the result of one of those site visits. The committee’s report, released in summary by the university this past February, did not specify a single instance of actual sexual harassment or misconduct. That didn’t stop the committee from compiling a laundry list of further sanctions—not adopted by the university—that included banning the serving of alcohol at departmental functions, dissolving departmental listservs, and encouraging philosophy students to “call out” and issue Red Guard-style public “corrections” to professors whose teaching styles offended them.

The tale of the Ivy League global-justice professor is yet another example of this sort of extrajudicial sexual-harassment “justice”—except that it’s been taken one step further, bypassing any kind of formal investigation whatsoever. If you believe the Lisbeth Mara story as retold by Emma Sloan with help from Anonymous, you can applaud the tactics they have employed: the deft use of grassroots appeals and social media to force a long-overdue reckoning. But there are other words that aptly describe their actions: “witch hunt” and “reputational lynching.”

The professor, with his posturing about Western exploitation while seemingly running his own exploitation racket, is not an appealing character. You might say that the trouble he’s in right now couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. But because everyone in the philosophy world now has a pretty good idea who he is, he is probably also a very frightened and defenseless guy. (I emailed the professor who I thought best matched the description, and he at first agreed to answer my questions, then later likely thought the better of it, because I never heard from him again.) At Yale, Stephanie Spangler, a deputy provost in charge of sexual-misconduct claims, is said to be reinvestigating the Lisbeth Mara matter—although a Yale spokesman refused to comment on that report. But right now it hardly matters how much truth there is to Lisbeth’s story, or whether she wins her lawsuit, or whether that lawsuit ever gets filed. The furies of feminist philosophy have already exacted retribution.

Charlotte Allen, a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard, last wrote on Harvard’s Black Mass.

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