Sunday, April 03, 2011



I’ve been chewing on this piece from IHE for several days now. Apparently, many women in the philosophy field have grown tired of sexist jerks committing sexual harassment with impunity. Since nothing ever seems to happen to the perpetrators, these women are starting a semi-organized campaign of informal ‘shunning.’ The idea is to give the silent treatment on a larger scale, both to punish the most egregious offenders and to create incentives for others to behave acceptably.

The commentary on the piece last week was instructive. (At least, once you got past the usual culture war posturing.) Some of the commenters had an “about time!” response, cheering on an action that they considered long overdue. Others told stories of bad behavior that had gone unpunished. Still others took the side of the shunned, arguing that the danger of informal sanctions based entirely on hearsay is that the accused will never get a chance to defend himself. After all, in court you have the option of testifying on your own behalf; in the court of whispered opinion, you really don’t.

Both sides are right, as far as they go, but they both seem to take for granted that official sanctions are ineffective. The pro-shunning side seems to assume that official sanctions are hopeless, so frontier justice is necessary. The anti-shunning side seems to assume that official sanctions are ineffective, but such is life, and frontier justice is worse.

As an administrator -- one of the folks whose job it is to tend to those official channels -- I found the common assumption disturbing. Do official channels have to be so terribly ineffective?

It seems to me that official channels that actually work would offer the best of both worlds. The miscreants would be answerable for their sins, and the falsely accused could be exonerated. I don’t imagine perfection, given the inevitable gaps between “what actually happened” and “what can be proved,” but I can imagine getting close enough that calls for shunning campaigns would seem strange.

Academic culture is unique in many ways. One of its distinctive calling cards is a temperamental allergy to people with positional power actually using it. In most other lines of work, a taboo like that would be considered either bizarre or simply unthinkable; in academe, it’s a norm. It’s so normal that in a debate among highly educated people about sometimes-criminal conduct, the one shared assumption is that you don’t want administrators to get involved. In any other line of work, you’d want to bust the perps, and you’d call in the folks empowered to do that.

The taboo seems to be based on fear of abuse. But the idea that incapacitating those with positional power will somehow create a power-free zone is delusional. Instead, it empowers local bullies. When legitimate authority has been rendered irrelevant, then by default, the only option left against petty tyrants is some sort of frontier justice, whether overt or covert.

The choice is not between hierarchy and freedom. It’s between legible, accountable power, and illegible, unaccountable power. Both are problematic, but I’d take the former over the latter any day of the week. At least the former offers rules of combat.

To the extent that those legible, accountable institutions need to be reformed to be effective, by all means, bring it on. But to take their failure for granted -- to make their failure the assumed starting point of a discussion -- leaves nothing but unappealing options. Laws without police aren’t laws. The question of shunning doesn’t have a good answer, because it’s the wrong question. The right question is how to make legitimate, legible authority more effective.

I am amazed at how quickly the comments to that article devolved into ardent claims of young women (grad students) sleeping with their professors in return for generous grades. As though this has anything to do with the topic at hand at all. IHE readers are presumably an educated and informed lot, yet they're so very terrified of the succubus of lore.

A close runner up on the amusement front is the wild-eyed terror that, given the opportunity to shun their male peers, every woman in philosophy would use the opportunity to fling allegations at her innocent peers in order to dominate them and gain power and destroy the careers of countless innocent academics. Why are some men so, so, so afraid of women? The innocence question is legitimate in this scheme, of course, but is that really cause to jump to this frantic dystopia? Give those women an inch, and they'll be performing forced castrations within hours!

As for actual analysis, yes, I agree with DD that effective official channels are ideal. But if the retelling in IHE is to be believed, the order of events was not: sexual harassment occurs, individual academics are suspicious of administration, plan to shun offenders is formed. The claim in the article is that official channels were employed, or at the very least administrators knew about the problem, and still nothing was done - THEN the plan to shun was formed. They don't just assume official sanctions are hopeless; they've experienced it. At least, again, according to the article. It is hard to know what to believe when you're relying on anonymous reports.

Anyway, if so, the first question is why have official channels been ineffective? Or, have they, really? I agree that this suspicion of the administration exists, and that it has to be a part of all this, but it seems like there is more going on, as well.
I think you may be being overly optimistic about how well official channels work in other work environments.

I suspect the difference in other fields, particularly those without unions, is mobility - it's easier to leave a toxic workplace if you're a sales director or a nurse than it is if you're in a narrow academic field.
Perhaps the official channels seem ineffective for the right reasons.

Administors should not take formal actions without conclusive evidence.

Further, to protect the innocent, administrators must keep things confidential until ready to be formalized and to be made "public."

Isn't that how all allegations of misconduct, not just sexual harassment allegations, should work?
lettucefactory describes perfectly the experiences that I have seen and heard about (as the union person charged with protecting contractual rights of my members, both accusers and accused).

The accuser brings forth a complaint, is repeatedly urged to take it through Official Channels, despite trepidations and potential nasty repercussions (which, of course, are illegal but happen anyway and cause additional problems). Accuser is eventually convinced to do so.

Official Channels do a piss-poor job of "investigating" (using the word loosely). Sometimes investigations consist of asking the accused "did you do this?" and nothing more. Official Channels never, not one time in my experience of more than a decade, find for the accuser, no matter the details. Pro forma warning given to accused not to retaliate, and everybody wipes their hands.

Except - the departmental relationship between accuser & accused is badly damaged. This typically is not merely a sexual issue, but as is the case with many forms of harassment/abuse, it is a power issue. So, often, accused has a power advantage over the accuser to start with (else, they would probably not have harassed them. It is exceedingly rare for a junior person to harass a senior person in authority over them). And that makes it highly likely that continued problems, or minimally, perceptions of continued problems, will occur.

From the accused's side - the Official Channels do such a poor job of investigating (lest they actually find something and have to act) that nobody believes the results of Official Investigation anyway. Instead, people assume that a person who is accused is probably guilty. And further, the Official Channels frequently neglect to follow the contractual provisions laid out to try to ensure due process, resulting in grievances and more headaches for an embarrassed Accused, who might decide to just not make a row about the failure to follow procedure, in a futile attempt to just keep the whole mess quiet.

No wonder, people have little faith in Official Channels. The institutional bias appears to be to keep Official Channels inept and use them as a smoke screen for failure to take real action. Sooner or later this will result in an EEOC claim and a lawsuit, but til then, business as usual.
I think it's worth noting that there can be harassment/sexism within *disciplines* beyond the bounds of individual institutions and "official channels" that those institutions have at their disposal. It's my understanding that one of the motivations for this call to action has to do with things that happen at conferences, for example. What "official channel" is there for sexism in that kind of case? There isn't one.

Seriously, DD, some harassers take their show on the road. In disciplines that do not have accrediting bodies - which is pretty much every discipline that isn't directly linked to a "professional" field - there *are* no official channels for this sort of thing, let alone meaningful or effective ones.
Official channels aren't very productive in non-academic jobs. I've been fired from a job because I complained about harassment but the accused apparently presented a better "story." In other work environments I've spoken up and been told "oh well that's just how [said person] is. We're all used to it." This includes being excluded from research projects in grad school being the only female who signed up, speaking up about it simply resulted in overt political actions to delay my graduation and prevent me from moving forward.

So speaking up? Not productive. Being burnt once may not be a good enough reason to give up on official channels, but when it keeps happening if different settings? Makes it hard to want to trust anyone.
What's weird about this to me is that the "official channels" people seem to be going through are the wrong ones. No one talked about marching down to HR. No one talked about filing an EEOC complaint. Some talked about grieving to the union – to no effect. They talk to their department chair - and then nothing happens. That's because they were talking to the wrong people.

Part of the problem here is that academics, because many of them think about themselves as student instead of employees, don't receive the training in sexual harassment prevention that most workers and managers receive as a normal part of employment. That training teaches you what to do if someone harasses you. Annually. And frankly, the lack of portability of the profession, combined with the inherent power differential that tenure creates makes this kind of problem almost inevitable. Hat tip to you DD for having the self restraint not to hammer on that point. That said, most businesses are sufficiently risk adverse that they’ve learned to respond effectively to harassment complaints. There’s no reason the university couldn’t as well. As for the issue of conferences, as Tailhook as shown us, your employer can get slammed for what you do at a hotel if you’re there for a work related reason.

Many of these people describe situations that would be a slam dunk EEOC hostile environment case - the men could make the accusations if they wanted to, by the by. That “administrators knew what was going on” is beside the point – without an official complaint, their hands are tied. That shunning is the unofficial response probably reflects that women are using the tools they think are being employed against them to respond to this threat. But honestly, without due process we are all screwed. Ultimately, women are not helped by this approach, however satisfying it might be.
Someone else said it better than me.
Dr. C -- What's to stop a disciplinary association -- say, the MLA -- from establishing channels of its own? Sanctions could include being suspended or banned from presenting at conferences, and public shaming. If the official channels don't yet exist, why not start some?
DD - a disciplinary association could do that, though it is worth noting that such actions on the part of an organization like the MLA have no real teeth - professors don't *have* to belong to the MLA in order for English departments to be accredited, for example, so that means that in fact many if not most people in my discipline *aren't* necessarily consistent members of the MLA. Can the MLA discipline people who aren't members? What does disciplining even mean if you don't have to belong to the organization to be a professor in the field?

I'm not saying that some sort of process couldn't happen. I'm just saying that it's not this easy solution to the problem. (Also, the one example I have of this in my field is neither a member of the MLA nor a professor at a university. Yet, he's a VIP in a particular subspecialization. That harassment will end when he dies, I'm thinking, and not before.)
Oh, and being suspended or banned from presenting at conferences would assume that all conferences are overseen by the MLA, which isn't the case. I suppose one sanction that could have some teeth would be to strip organizations of their allied status if there were repeated complaints about one of its members, but, again, the person could just stop being a member, and it wouldn't really hurt him or her - they would just move on to do other things, either at conferences not affiliated with the MLA or by focusing on publishing and giving invited talks at universities or something.

Do you remember the reaction when Naomi Wolf spoke up about her experiences with Harold Bloom? It's not like he's been banned from the MLA because of it, lost his endowed chair, or stopped publishing.
I belong to a professional association (not MLA) that established anti-harassment procedures for its conferences several years ago. It has resulted in a few changes, e.g. job interviews taking place in hotel meeting rooms or other semi-public places rather than in interviewers' own hotel rooms. But beyond that? The same serial harassers show up every year and focus their attentions on new attendees who don't know who they should steer clear of.

I also belonged to another professional association that was (in)famous for the deans-harassing-students harassment that went on at its yearly meetings. When students complained to the association's executive, they were told to file their complaints through the harassment officer at the home institutions of the trouble making deans. How far do you think that complaint would have gone? Nothing changed until the student representatives boycotted the meeting one year, which effectively shut the meeting down, and then some of the prime offenders retired and were replaced by more mature individuals.

In my experience, whatever usefulness harassment policies have exists when the harassment takes place on the harasser's campus and falls under the jurisdiction of those policies. Otherwise it's pretty much open season.
Maybe off topic a bit, but I've been thinking about it: a recently hired administrator remarked on my appearance one day in the hall; a few days later at a meeting the administrator placed a hand on my wrist for 10 seconds or so while making a point; at another meeting, I found this administrator staring at me; and then when someone else came in and we needed to push chairs together a bit, the administrator said, "May I sit closer to you?"

Am I being sexually harrassed?
Do official channels have to be so terribly ineffective?
Of course not. But they *are* so terribly ineffective. I am a little concerned that you framed this as relating to "instinctive distrust of power by academics". That may well exist, but I think this is much more about "learned distrust of official channels by people who have paid attention to how they actually work (or, don't work)".

On the note of how to make it better- I am inclined to wonder what a focus on restorative and not punitive justice could do, if we want to make responses more comprehensive. But some of the IHE comments were so atrocious... I really feel like the biggest problem is willful ignorance that there *are* issues.

What are you doing to make the official policies work better, DD?
I have say the stories I have heard about harassment do ring true, and it is unlikely that when five women report similar experiences that their claims are without merit.

The danger is that the kind of social power that comes from shunning can easily corrupt. Once we agree that shunning is acceptable for major offenses, how long until the bar is lowered to minor ones? And if there is a disagreement among the shunners about guilt of the person shunned, who will persist in the disagreement once it becomes clear that doing so will result in you being shunned as well?
I've seen Official Channels work, but only when the wronged party was of a higher social status than the person committing the infraction. For a junior woman accusing a senior man, there is no possibility of adequate investigation or sanction in my experience.
I am going to be extreme, but since so many rapes are undocumented or not taken seriously, I am not surprised nothing is being taken seriously in these harassment cases. What I can't understand is why these men in academic fields are being protected. The only way to combat this is by educating young women not to take this kind of crap and report every single type of sexual harassment. Or how about going to the police rather than administration if it is that severe. If colleges will do nothing about it then take it to people who can do something about it or at least get some outside legal documentation.

And for those who talk about evidence, much of sexual harrassment is innuendo and the like where these perps know how to make the victim question themselves and make it a he said/she said situation.
And yes, informal channels are inferior to formal ones. That's why the best possible result is for formal channels to function.
Oh, I forgot to mention that I only had to be a post doc at one university for a few years before hearing multiple tales about certain professors and a variety of students, one resulting in a divorce. Any punishment was invisible.
For those who think that shunning will likely get out of hand, you have a point. However, any study of collective action literature will quickly show that group actions are notoriously hard to coordinate, and even harder to sustain. Hence, if shunning is actually happening - and working - somewhere, then it is probable that there's some extraordinary background to cause that. People don't engage in collective action just because somebody tells them to do it; they need powerful reasons and incentives (or disincentives not to).
I think the collective action literature cuts both ways. I agree that there is a cost to shunning someone else, and so there will be a temptation to free ride. However, incentives can be established to overcome this: perhaps those who are known to associate with the shunned person are shunned as well. Once these are in place, the cost of not abiding by the incentives to shun others becomes much greater.

So I agree that it won't happen spontaneously without an organized incentive structure. The problem is that once this incentive structure is put in place, it becomes very costly to not shun someone even if you don't agree with the decision.

In other words, in this case moving from individual agency to collective action is a challenge, but once collective action is established, preserving individual agency to dissent will be very difficult.
Why is this situation playing out in philosophy, as opposed to any other fields? Is the harassment worse than in other disciplines? Are the victims more aggressive in pursuing their cases?
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