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Philosophy of Sexism?

U. of Colorado releases extraordinary report about sex bias and incivility in department, and brings in outside chair to change the culture. Move comes in a discipline regularly criticized for lack of support for women.

February 3, 2014

The University of Colorado at Boulder on Friday announced that it was changing the leadership of its philosophy department and requiring mandatory training for all faculty in an effort to change a culture that is hostile to women.

The university also released an outside report that found that the department "maintains an environment with unacceptable sexual harassment, inappropriate sexualized unprofessional behavior, and divisive uncivil behavior." The report found the department lacking the professionalism to handle alcohol or faculty-graduate student interaction at social events, saying that drunken behavior was linked to many incidents of harassment.

Further, the report found that many faculty members work at home to avoid the department. Departmental email has become so uncivil that the report urges the elimination of all departmental listservs except for those that could be used to make basic announcements to which people cannot reply.

Women in the department -- faculty members and graduate students -- are described as the primary victims of the situation. A disproportionate number of female faculty are currently trying to leave. Efforts to recruit new women to the department, which many see as essential to improving the environment for women, are hampered because of its reputation (worldwide, the report says) for sexism and harassment. In addition, the report says that "some male faculty have been observed ogling undergraduate women students."

Non-harassing male faculty members have been affected as well, the report says, by increased workload they (along with female faculty members) face due to the desire of many graduate students to avoid working with male professors believed to be hostile to women. And male graduate students fear working with such professors could hurt their reputations. Female graduate students are described as "anxious, demoralized and depressed."

The report -- prepared by the American Philosophical Association's Committee on the Status of Women -- details a department in which the culture seems designed to prevent change. "The department uses pseudo-philosophical analyses to avoid directly addressing the situation," the report says. "Their faculty discussions revolve around the letter rather than the spirit of proposed regulations and standards. They spend too much time articulating (or trying to articulate) the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior instead of instilling higher expectations for professional behavior. They spend significant time debating footnotes and 'what if' scenarios instead of discussing what they want their department to look and feel like. In other words, they spend time figuring out how to get around regulations rather than focusing on how to make the department supportive of women."

In recent years, the report says, 15 formal complaints have been filed with the university about faculty members in the department. But it is unclear to most people who has been punished, and many women believe that there are male faculty members who should have been fired or severely punished. The lack of information about who has been punished, who has been cleared and why adds to what the report described as a high level of distrust of everyone.

And the report criticizes the university administration for insisting (until now) that the department fix itself rather than intervening earlier. The report also says that many faculty members appear unaware of federal and state law relative to sex bias and harassment.

Philip P. DiStefano, chancellor at Boulder, issued a statement praising the evidence gathered in the report. "That evidence points directly to the need to create a stronger, more inclusive environment in the department for women as scholars and students, that prevents acts of sexual harassment and discrimination, and that allows faculty to work together in a collegial environment of mutual respect," he said.

The report is critical of the chair who was removed -- Graeme R. Forbes -- saying that he had been unable to change the environment (although the report says he was in a "completely untenable position"). Via email, Forbes said that "at the moment we are awaiting fuller advice from the university on how to respond to media requests such as this."

The new chair -- coming from outside the department -- is Andrew Cowell. In the past, he has chaired both departments in which he is a professor, linguistics and French and Italian.

An Unexpectedly Public Report

The Colorado report was the first produced by the site visit program of the American Philosophical Association's Committee on the Status of Women. The program was launched last year, with the idea that sending a team of philosophy professors to review a department could identify ways for it to become more supportive of female students and faculty members.

One idea behind the program was to keep the reports confidential, so that departments might welcome the input and be unafraid of seeking outside help.

Peggy DesAutels, a professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton and director of the site visit program, said that she was "shocked" that the report was released, although she said she realized that was a possibility at a public institution covered by open records laws. She said that she was concerned that the publicity might "deter other departments" from seeking a site visit.

At the same time, DesAutels said that the situation at Colorado was so bad that she saw a positive side to the report's release. "In this particular case, for Colorado, the profession is better off knowing about this," she said.

On the blog Feminist Philosophers, which has been outspoken in calling for the discipline to take action against sexism in the field, a blog post said that the Colorado situation could distort the idea behind site visits. "Site visits are, wherever possible, meant to be supportive affairs involving the offering of helpful advice. In physics, the model for the program, departments with GOOD climates seek out site visits as a way of  getting even better. Having a site visit is a badge of honor," the post says. "This is the way we’d all like it to be in philosophy. Let’s make that happen. We all have things to fix, and site visits can help us fix them."

What About the Discipline?

Philosophy professors have been for some time now been debating whether their discipline is hostile to women. Many women have criticized the tradition of having a "smoker" -- an informal party at a key hiring meeting that to many seems like a relic of the days when the old boys network decided on faculty appointments. Other women have questioned the number of philosophy conferences at which women do not get any of the major speaking slots. Others have suggested that philosophers known to harass women need to be "shunned" by scholars. And many have suggested that a focus of many courses almost exclusively on male philosophers discourages female students.

Blogs such as "What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?" regularly describe harassment and a lack of collegiality as experienced by women in the field.

Hilde Lindemann, professor of philosophy at Michigan State University and chair of the APA's Committee on the Status of Women, said that she does not know for certain, and doubts anyone does, why the discipline seems to have so many gender issues. She also said that she did not necessarily believe that Colorado was typical, but she said she had heard reports about many hostile departments, and that she didn't think Colorado was necessarily unique, either. "There are many departments that have some problem," she said.

The Colorado findings are "huge" for the profession, Lindemann said. Too often in the past, she said, philosophers have dismissed problems facing women as the result of "a bad apple," a sexist man in a department.

"That can be written off," she said. "But what this report shows is a pervasive issue, and that's what many of us have been saying is the problem all along. It's pervasive."

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