Sexual harassment in the academy

Sexual harassment in any circumstance should not be tolerated.

Trent M. Kays

A close friend once told me about how she was sexually harassed in the workplace. The grotesque mannerisms of an employer bent on sexual conquest certainly upset my friend, and rightly so. She felt there was no good solution to the problem she faced. If she reported the sexual harassment, she would lose her job — a job she sorely needed. If she didn’t report the sexual harassment, she felt she would lose her integrity and sense of self.

I did not envy her decisions, though for me there was only one correct line of action: report the harassment.

It’s easy for me to view my friend’s situation in black and white terms. While I have been the subject of harassment, I’ve never had to address sexual harassment from a female point of view.

She asked me what I thought she should do, and I told her to report the harassment. No job is worth being subject to outrageous sexual advances and harassment. I told my friend I’d help find her another job, but I’d also respect any decision she made and would always
support her.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of sexual harassment, though the incident with my friend was the first time such harassment was so relevant to me. It infuriated me that a friend of mine would be subject to it.

Disheartening to me, sexual harassment and sexism permeate into areas I thought could be above such debased behavior. Perhaps it was naivete or idealism, but many years ago I considered higher education to be different. It’s not.

Far from a place in which the fight against sexual harassment and sexism could be launched, higher education is an equally likely place for such harassment.

Take for example the case of Colin McGinn, who was until recently a respected philosopher at the University of Miami.

McGinn has been accused of sexually harassing a female Ph.D. candidate who served as his research assistant. He sent sexually charged and innuendo-filled emails to this female research assistant and made improper advances. It’s mind-boggling that McGinn would think it was OK to harass another human being in such a way.

McGinn, when confronted, verbally waved off the accusations by saying, “Remember that I am a philosopher trying to teach a budding philosopher important logical distinctions.”

Really? It seems unlikely that anyone would mistake “logical distinctions” for sexual harassment. Moreover, McGinn’s excuse is reminiscent of former President Bill Clinton’s famous line, “It depends upon what the meaning of the
word ‘is’ is.”

Intentionally mystifying semantics will get us nowhere, especially when confronted with cases of sexual harassment and sexism.

McGinn is just a high-profile example of sexual misconduct. There are numerous examples of colleges and universities mishandling or ignoring sexual harassment allegations.

Early this year, both Swarthmore and Occidental Colleges were accused of mishandling and mistreating victims of sexual harassment and assault.

 This begs the question: What’s wrong with higher education?

Certainly, such harassment isn’t held just within higher education. It permeates any hierarchical structure where there are those authoritatively above others.

But, what I’ve always found odd is that authority in higher education is more illusion than tangible. We need to remember that professors are no better or no worse than anyone else.

Just because one has more education doesn’t mean they can’t be an irresponsible sexual aggressor. These aggressors are everywhere. If no one has ever stood up to them, they continue to inflict their gross advances on others. It’s imperative we take their power away.

McGinn resigned from his tenured position — a big deal in the academic world. One doesn’t just give up tenure. It is unlikely McGinn would have had his monumental tenure revoked by his university.

In many ways, tenure is a wonderful thing for would-be sexual aggressors. It creates a space for aggressors to continue unabated in a position of power over students. It’s hard for students to stand up to people who, essentially, become their mentors. You never want to see your mentor in anything less than the best terms.

This is especially true of students in doctoral school. At that stage of education, your advisor and other professors with whom you closely work become those you wish to emulate. They are the gauges by which you measure your work. So, it is easy to fall into a relationship where a student can be taken
advantage of.

For certain, it is an abhorrent violation of trust and integrity. Faculty members who would treat students in the way McGinn did deserve to have their tenure revoked, their employment terminated and, if evidence permits, charges filed.

By resigning, it seems to me that McGinn was allowed to take the easy way out. He doesn’t deserve it. No person deserves such ease, as they will never understand what they did wrong.

If higher education is to ever achieve its promise of egalitarianism, faculty like McGinn cannot be tolerated.

As a Ph.D. candidate myself, I admire the student who came forward. It’s hard to do so, and she deserves only our praise and support.