Brian Leiter’s deleted post: “Yesterday’s poll and the increasingly ugly cyber-dynamics of the sexual harassment crisis in academic philosophy”

Below is the full text of Brian Leiter’s deleted post at the Leiter Reports on May 7.


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I have recently learned that expressing concern for due process and academic freedom values in the context of the current publicity about the sexual harassment problem in academic philosophy makes one a target for vilification.  (This would explain why my correspondent who, aptly, used the phrases “due process” and “academic freedom” did not want to be named.  The singularly unhinged  Rachel McKinnon, for example, denounced both of us as “asshats” on social media; I’ll return to some of her other charming interventions, below.)  The long period of neglect of the problem of sexual harassment in the academy–as my colleague Martha Nussbaum has described in some detail in her writing, but also in conversation with me–no doubt explains some of the irrational response, but it does not excuse it.  That the profession is culpable for permitting a culture of sexual harassment to flourish in many places does not mean, however, that anyone who worries about due process, or who accords weight to the rights of the accused, is wicked or culpable.  I have been involved in helping victims of sexual harassment seek remedies or transfer out of abusive programs, and have spent hours on the phone with legal counsel at universities investigating these matters.  I will continue to do so.  Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time is aware that I believe sexual harassment is a serious problem in academic philosophy (more so than in academic law, though it exists there too), and that it is the major obstacle to the full participation of women in the profession.

I also, partly because of my experience in the law, appreciate the importance of fair process.   Yesterday’s survey revealed that 43% of readers believe it is appropriate for student protesters to disrupt the classes of someone found to have violated the sexual harassment policy at the university, while 34% shared my view that it is not appropriate, with the remainder being unsure.  A colleague elsewhere (not the correspondent who commented on the due process and academic freedom issues) wrote:

[I]t seems that very many of our colleagues have downgraded basic notions of fairness and due process. An inquiry and a review of that inquiry—both of which had access to information that we don’t have—made a decision, the same decision.  43% of our colleagues who read your blog think they are in a position to know better and endorse vigilante justice.  It is depressing.

Philosopher Matt Drabek announced on another blog that the “use of the term ‘vigilante justice’ is offensive,” though did not explain why.  Vigilante justice means securing through extrajudicial means a result that could not be achieved through legal or quasi-legal process.  That is what has happened at Northwestern.  Sometimes vigilante justice is justified, but I do not believe this is such a case.  Mr. Drabek went on to declare that my “little displays [i.e., commenting on due process and academic freedom implications] on this case are getting more and more bizarre.”  We are not heading in a good direction if a comment about due process is a “bizarre…display.”

Like many, I was surprised, given the findings of the University’s Sexual Harrassment Office, that the sanctions were not more severe (e.g., unpaid suspension for some period of time), but as my correspondent, above, notes the sanction was recommended after findings by Ms. Slavin’s Office and upheld on appeal by a faculty committee.  Perhaps there is more pertinent information that explains the institutional judgment at two different levels of the University?  I have seen the sanction described as a “slap on the wrist,” which is not what I would call what amounts to (I am guessing) a $10,000 fine, revocation of a Chair, mandatory counselling and restrictions on interaction with students.   Some, including some student protesters but also some academic philosophers, believe Ludlow should have been fired given the findings.  I think that sanction–essentially, a career-ending sanction, as we saw in the McGinn case last year–is disproportionate to the University’s findings, but there is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement about that.  (If, in fact, the student’s more serious allegations are vindicated during litigation, then I expect the University will change its position.)  The issue I raised is whether, given that the University imposed its own sanction and did not remove Ludlow from the classroom, a student mob (even a “polite” student mob, as I have been assured it is) should be able to achieve that result.  Apparently, Winter Quarter is almost over.  Will the student protesters permit Ludlow to teach in Spring?  That remains to be seen.

My former colleague Cass Sunstein presciently noted more than a dozen years ago the tendency of the Internet and social media to push people to the most extreme versions of the views they begin with.  In the psychological literature, the phenomenon is known as “group polarization”, and it is one that clearly takes hold on social media where like-minded people congregate.  I occasionally try to intervene in such discussions, though I suppose I should take the pscyhological research more seriously and desist.

In response to my correspondent’s invocation of “due process” and “academic freedom,” “Kristian” wrote on another blog:

Students are not trying to stop Ludlow from teaching because of his beliefs, rather his (alleged) violent actions (which he was not convicted of in court, but the university said he did it after their investigation) against a student.

Thus, this has nothing to do with his academic freedom.

That Brian has chosen to focus on a minor and non-existent issue of academic freedom instead of supporting the students in their attempts to rid themsleves of a sexual attacker sends the wrong message to the field of philosophy and -I suspect- stems from sexist attitudes. At least it is consistent with sexism.

As an analogy, imagine George Zimmerman was a professor. Should students have protested him and stopped him from teaching? Or would you raise the same cries of academic freedom? Imagine a white, conservative professor defended the imagined  Prof. Zimmerman’s right to return to his class after killing -though not convicted of murder- a black student.

To Kristian, I replied:

[T]here is no extant conception of academic freedom that does not include the freedom to teach.  However, I agree that the academic freedom issue is more minor compared to the due process issue and the precedent established by permitting student mobs to make it impossible for faculty to teach when students feel the punishment is not proportional to the found wrongdoing.  Ludlow did not do what Zimmerman did; if he did, we wouldn’t need to have this discussion, as he would have been removed from the classroom by the university.  Your baseless accusation of sexism explains why so few care to comment on these issues under their own name.

To this, Kristian replied, in part:

Suppose Zimmerman was a prof., was found not guilty on all counts -on grounds of self-defense- and was sanctioned by his school, but allowed to continue to teach.
In that case, protesting him so that he couldn’t teach would not be a violation of his academic freedom. Rather, it would be the students attempting to get a dangerous teacher, whom had acted violently towards a member of an oppressed minority, out of their environment.

Would you -hypothetically- support Zimmerman’s right to teach? If someone at, say, The Weekly Standard argued that he did have the right and the protestors were exercising “vigilante” justice, wouldn’t you suspect the author of racism? Certainly, such an editorial is consistent with racism and conibutes to a more racist world. (Please note this is a thought experiment, You can’t just say that it wouldn’t happen. As every freshman student knows.)

So it is with your defense of Ludlow’s right to teach even in spite of a violent action that his school has sanctioned him for but which a court has not convicted him. He does not have a right to teach after acting violently towards members of an oppressed minority. Rather, they have a right to go to school in a place that is free of such employees.

The University did not find that Ludlow “act[ed] violently towards members of an oppressed minority.”  Protesting Zimmerman, in the nonsensical hypothetical, would violate his academic freedom, but it would be morally justified because of the severity of his wrong-doing and the morally odious law that permitted him to escape legal sanction.  Nothing remotely similar obtains in this case.  I did not post this reply, as I was soon side-tracked by Rachel McKinnon, who asked:

How did the protests “drive” Ludlow from the classroom? It was a peaceful, silent sit in. They weren’t stopping him from ignoring them and teaching anyway.

I replied:

[T]he plan, as stated on the Facebook page [of the student protestors], was to repeatedly sit-in and disrupt the class until he was out of the classroom.  When he was withdrawn from the classroom, the students declared victory.

To this, Professor McKinnon replied:

Right. Sit in, quietly. How is that a breach of academic freedom, even if that’s broadly construed to cover teaching/learning? He could still teach if he wanted to under those conditions, even though it would be distracting.  The simple answer is that it’s not. Some of us teach in non-ideal conditions all the time. We make it work. He could have. He was not “forced out” of the classroom by the sit ins themselves.  I consider his being removed from teaching a victory. Why is the students’ viewing it that way evidence for your view?

To this, I replied:

[H]ave you taught for weeks and weeks with student protestors not enrolled in your class who get up and leave every time the class meets?  Even if they were quiet, it would be very difficult and undoubtedly disruptive.  But you also consider his being removed from teaching a “victory,” so we are obviously quite far apart on this issue.  What will happen in Spring Quarter?  Will Ludlow be effectively removed from the classroom by vigilante justice, rather than university process.

Professor McKinnon replied:

Have I? No. Could I? Yeah, I’d take that bet. Maybe you wouldn’t.  What will NU do for the following term? I have no idea. They’ve got a serious problem to deal with. I think Ludlow has lost his right to teach.  I think it’s apt to compare Ludlow to a priest who sexually harasses parishioners. People are often quite happy to have them out of ministering for such a breach of trust. What Ludlow did is perhaps forgivable, on some notion of forgiveness, but not viz. breaching a fiduciary obligation to his students. We de-license other professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, for serious breaches of conduct. Why not in academia?

We do have de-licensing procedures for doctors and lawyers, and they include elaborate procedural protections for the accused, precisely the issue we were discussing.

At this point, someone using the pseudonym “Current Student” arrived to tell me off:

Brian Leiter, since you’re here, I think you should know that myself and a number of other women in the graduate student community found your latest post nothing short of sickening. The actions of the students at Northwestern were inspiring, and they deserve praise for supporting a member of their community and mobilizing so quickly to protect themselves and their peers.

The fact that you are most concerned with academic freedom and due process in the face of this likely sexual assault is indicative of your extraordinary level of privilege as a person who will never need such protections from abusive and dangerous mentors.

So the post about “due process” and “academic freedom” was “sickening,” and explained by the alleged fact that I (and presumably everyone I care about) is so privileged as to “never need such protections from abusive and dangerous mentors.”  To this I replied with as much restraint as I could muster:

“Current Student”:  if you speak truly for yourself and for others, then you should leave academia, since you are a danger to a university community, to the rule of law, and to the freedom of thought.  You lack all perspective and are clearly unable to even evaluate evidence, including the evidence of what has been on my blog over the last several months.

I do hope “current student” (if s/he is one) takes this advice seriously.  University communities do not need people who think that due process and academic freedom are “sickening” considerations, that organized but morally well-intentioned mobs demand our unwaivering support because of unproven allegations, and who blithely assume that concern for fair procedures can only arise from alleged privilege.  Having spent several years now documenting sexual harassment issues in the profession, including documenting in detail the allegations against Ludlow, it is astonishing to be told I am “most concerned” with only the issue of academic freedom and due process.  And the students “mobiliz[ed] to protect themselves and their peers”?  What can this mean?  The University did not find that Ludlow was a stalker and has already barred him from non-academic contact with undergraduate students.  (Interestingly, one other commenter emerged to ask:  “Who asked for ‘protection’ from Ludlow? And how are students ‘protecting themselves?'”)

Within a polarized group, of course, direct reprimands for outrageous statements are unintelligible.  Rachel McKinnon quickly intervened to assure the “Current Student”:  “Don’t listen to Brian.  His kind is aging and will be gone soon enough.”  I’m 51, but it’s good to know Prof. McKinnon is wishing me and others of my “kind” dead.  An anonymous person (not “Current Student”) then emerged to literally defame me, though the proprietors removed that comment.  (Other infants on the thread were then astonished to learn that lawyers respond to defamation per se by pointing out that it is defamation per se.)  Comrade Drabek reappeared to urge others to make a screen shot of the whole comment thread, since “there needs to be a record of this bullshit performance.”  I assured him I agreed, and had already made such a record.  To cap off this display, one of the moderators arrived to close the thread and apologize–not to me, the victim of per se libel by one commenter and whose signed comments had been called “sickening” by “Current Student”–but to the anonymous “Current Student” whom I had reprimanded.

I have heard from many since who agreed with my response to “Current Student” and expressed disbelief at the irrationality of much of that thread.  In all these uproars, where the cyber-mobs condemn anyone who expresses any reservations about allegations or calls for consideration of the rights of the accused, I invariably hear from others who agree completely with the reservations and with the importance of the rights of the accused.  This has been going on for a long time.  I have also heard from those who thought I was too critical of McGinn, and not critical enough.  That I have given too much publicity to critics of the Colorado Site Report and not enough to the critics.  That I have reported allegations against Ludlow in unnecessary detail and not enough detail.   I try to aim for some balance on these professional issues, but it will never be the case that everyone will be happy.

Since I am unreservedly on the side of those who believe sexual harassment is a serious problem in academic philosophy, and who strongly supports sanctions for sexual harassers, including Ludlow, and who has worked to get such sanctions brought against other sexual harassers in the profession, may I say to those who share those views with me that the over-the-top and holier-than-thou rhetoric, and the disregard for rights and fairness that increasingly characterize these discussions are alienating a lot of philosophers whose help will be needed.  Because of the vituperative abuse that accompanies any public dissent on these issues, this discontent and alienation is only showing up in some of the polls on this site, in a lot of off-line conversations, and in off-color parodies like this one which has been making the rounds, despite being sexist.  A lot of philosophers who care about these issues and have engaged in no wrong-doing are feeling very defensive and clearly becoming less likely to support a Site Visit, less likely to want to get involved in possible sexual harassment cases, and less likely to engage with other colleagues on these issues.  Anyone can guess how one portion of cyberspace will respond to these observations, but I hope others will do better.

(Just to be clear:  the “Current Students,” the crazy McKinnons, the sanctimonious posturing is not alienating me:   I’m used to stupidity (it’s the essence of cyberspace), and happy to respond in kind, or just ignore it.  These displays have certainly lowered my opinion of some philosophers, but that’s a different matter, unrelated to the need for continued vigilance and remedial action regarding sexual harassment.)

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