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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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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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