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Rules for a Discipline

July 15, 2014

It’s no secret that philosophy has been plagued by allegations of sexual harassment and gender inequity in recent years. And the American Philosophical Association has taken steps to address the issue, forming the Committee on the Status of Women and beginning by-invitation site visits to departments with questionable climates or that seek to be more hospitable to women.

But some philosophers want the association to do more. A petition asking the group to craft a code of conduct for the profession yielded some 670 signatures earlier this year – and the association took note. It announced this month that it has established a task force to consider whether a code of conduct is appropriate, and if so to create such a code.

The code -- which presumably would pay special attention to issues of sexual harassment and discrimination – could be a first for the humanities. Both the Modern Language Association’s and the American Historical Association’s respective professional codes of ethics and conduct condemn sexual harassment and discrimination, for example, but those references aren’t framed by any discussion of historical concerns within the discipline. (Detailed codes of conduct are more common in the sciences, where there are shared research ethics within a field -- particularly if research involves human subjects.)

Nancy Holland, chair of the task force and a professor of philosophy at Hamline University, said it’s too early in the process to know how closely the document would focus on harassment and gender equity issues.

For now, she said, “Our charge is primarily to determine if the [American Philosophical Association] should adopt a code of ethics, rather than to suggest what such a code might look like.”

In March, in the aftermath of reports of pervasive sexual harassment within the University of Colorado at Boulder’s philosophy department, two female professors of philosophy started a petition asking the association to craft, “by one means or another, a code of conduct and a statement of professional ethics for the academic discipline of philosophy."

“As teachers, mentors and colleagues, we, professional philosophers, take our tasks of teaching, research, and service to the profession very seriously,” Eleonore Stump, professor of philosophy at Saint Louis University, and Helen De Cruz, a postdoctoral fellow in philosophy at the University of Oxford, wrote in their petition. “We want to create a supportive environment where fellow faculty members and students feel safe and where their concerns are heard and addressed.”

Amy Ferrer, executive director of the association, responded to the petitioners in a statement they posted on their web page. In her response, Ferrer said that members of the association's Board of Officers, “like so many others in the profession, are deeply troubled by incidents of harassment and other misconduct that have recently come to light. We want members to know that we take professional ethics very seriously.”

Ferrer also said that the idea of a professional code of ethics wasn’t new. In 1994, a committee charged with considering adopting such a code decided that the association instead should refer to guidelines established by the American Association of University Professors. As a result, the American Philosophical Association has since referred queries about ethics to the AAUP’s  Statement on Professional Ethics, along with its own topic-specific policy statements, such as that on sexual harassment.

Via email, Cheshire Calhoun, professor of philosophy at Arizona State University and chair of the association's Board of Officers, said it was now "clear" the decision needed to be revisited, and that sexual harassment is not the only issue of concern.

"We are now in the age of social media where opportunities for uncivil and reputation damaging posts abound," she said. "And we of course continue to live in a society where particular social groups, such as the transgender, the disabled, racial minorities, and women, are at particular risk of being targets of professional misconduct."

Stump, the petitioner, said her concerns were prompted in part by the high-profile news stories about gender discrimination and sexual harassment within the discipline. That’s because such stories make observers “mindful” of what’s beyond the headlines, she said – the “myriad problems of inclusivity for women and minorities in the profession, as well as more general issues of civility and welcome for everyone in a philosophy department[.]”

As a possible model for a code of conduct, Stump pointed to that of the American Psychological Association. Unlike many disciplines, which tend to focus on discrimination and sexual misconduct in the abstract, the association sets strict guidelines for psychologists’ interactions with students and patients.

The eight-member task force, made up of professors from institutions across the U.S. and Canada, is expected to provide a progress report to the philosophical association’s board in November. Discussions – which will mainly be internal – are just beginning, but the task force announcement already has prompted a range of reactions.

Jennifer Saul, chair of philosophy at the University of Sheffield in Britain and moderator of the blog What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy? called the development “very good.”

“It won't fix everything but it will help to give some direction to those trying to improve things in their own departments and there is a real demand for that,” she said, pointing to voluntary gender equity standards she helped design for philosophy departments in the United Kingdom.

Heidi Lockwood, an associate professor of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University who has blogged about what she calls the “extreme badness of silence” about sexual misconduct within the discipline, applauded the decision. A code could help “try to formalize expectations of conduct in the discipline,” and fill in gaps in institution-specific codes of conduct, she said. For example, “A faculty member who is behaving appropriately with students at her own institution, but harassing students or staff at a conference or other event, cannot be sanctioned under most university policies.”

A graduate student in philosophy at the University of London who has written anonymously about sexual harassment within the discipline, and implicated a professor of philosophy at Yale University in particular, said via email that it was “high time that a formal organization attempts to remedy the current climate for women in our discipline. Ever since the publication of my blogs, I’ve made contact with other academics who are victims and witnesses of sexual harassment in academia.”

Like Lockwood, the graduate student said a big “problem that we currently face is that, despite internal institutional procedures for dealing with such cases, universities face a conflict of interest between upholding the rights of their students and protecting their reputation.”

Of course, Lockwood said that with any code come questions about enforcement – and most investigations of sexual misconduct still happen within the university setting, which is full of conflicting interests. Consequently, she said, disciplinary organizations aren’t the “ideal vehicles” for inter-university prevention and enforcement. (Indeed, the American Historical Association faced serious hurdles in trying to police plagiarism among its members -- a practice it has long abandoned, and left to colleges and universities.) Instead, Lockwood suggested a consortium of higher education leaders -- presidents and chancellors -- to form a committee or governing body to deal with the problem.

Brian Leiter, a popular philosophy blogger and professor at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote on his blog, Leiter Reports, that he wasn’t sure the philosophical association was “well-situated to draft an ‘Emily Post’ set of guidelines,” and also cited enforcement concerns.

“The [assocation], of course, has no enforcement powers, and were it try to enforce such standards, they would run afoul of a variety of legal and sometimes constitutional protections,” he said. “My hope is that the APA Committee will focus on recommending general expectations for faculty-student relations.  Those might have some influence on departmental and perhaps university policies.”

In other words, he said, “the standards and remedies for such misconduct probably should be informal, rather than codified.”

But Eric Schliesser, another popular philosophy blogger and a professor at the University of Ghent in Belgium, who has previously referred to philosophy as perpetuating a “culture of harassment, sexual predating, and bullying to be reproduced from one generation to the next,” said he worried that any set of standards wouldn’t be strong enough.

“I am not hopeful about these standards,” he said via email. “First, I worry greatly that much of the effort will go into creating codes of conduct that unintentionally will promote a 'do not rock the boat' attitude that  will be used against marginalized folk that may find existing norms intolerably unfair.”

But, Schliesser added, if “wisely crafted [the standards] might do some modest good, especially in the area of sexual harassment. So, until I see the working drafts I will try to be constructive about these efforts.”

 

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