A Step Forward for Philosophy

Disciplinary association issues open letter to victims of harassment and sexism, and calls for departments to promote equity. While some philosophers welcome the move, others doubt it will change anything.

June 16, 2015

It’s hard these days to talk about women in philosophy without talking about sexual harassment and assault and sexism in general. Whether conditions for women in the discipline are actually worse than they are in the humanities overall is up for debate and likely impossible to quantify, but philosophy has attracted much criticism in recent years for what some have called a systemic discrimination problem. From accounts on the blogs What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy? and Feminist Philosophers to a spate of scandals involving male faculty members accused of assault or harassment, and sexist conduct generally, philosophy has developed a reputation. And while the discipline’s professional association has looked inward in response, creating a site visit committee to examine reportedly troubled departments, or help those programs that simply want to optimize their climates for women, for example, many critics have called on the American Philosophical Association to do more to address the problem.

In perhaps its strongest statement on the matter yet, the association’s Board of Officers is releasing later Tuesday morning a letter acknowledging the suffering experienced by victims of sexual assault and harassment. The letter also includes a renewed commitment to eliminating the discrimination and a suggestion that some legally documented harassers might be blocked from conferences.

“We, the board officers of the APA, want you to know that we recognize the hardship imposed on you and the structural obstacles to recognizing and addressing sexual harassment,” reads the letter, addressed “foremost” to victims of sexual harassment within philosophy and, secondly, to all association members. “Some of you have come forward and pressed complaints against your harassers, assuming the burden of embarking on a time-consuming and psychologically draining process. Some of you have reached out to an APA ombudsperson for resources and advice. …Some of you are silent victims.”

The letter addresses familiar complaints by some victims that their harassers have been less than adequately punished for their actions, taking a leave of absence or a new job. Touching on other familiar complaints, it says some victims “have not been believed, had complaints ignored or trivialized, and been treated as though it is you who is the problem.” Many victims have “not received adequate support from your colleagues and redress from your institutions,” the board says. “All of you, we assume, have had both your personal and your professional lives deeply affected by your experiences.”

The board calls on all philosophy departments to commit to ending harassment, the first step to which is “vigorously and immediately pursuing all allegations.” All members of the APA are responsible for knowing the legal definition of sexual harassment and bystander reporting rules under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to prevent sex discrimination in federally funded programs, it says, as well as the APA’s existing statement on sexual harassment.

Some enforcement mechanisms and supportive actions, such as denying conference registration to members found guilty of sexual harassment by their home institutions, are too legally risky for the board to adopt, according to the letter. But the board encourages members to inform it of other members with active restraining orders against them, as they may be barred from conferences. It also suggests members adopt informal “buddy systems” at conferences and report any problems to the APA ombudsperson for nondiscrimination.

Cheshire Calhoun, chair of the board and a professor of philosophy at Arizona State University, said the board wanted to reach out to those who’ve been impacted by harassment or assault, beyond a policy statement.

“It’s all well and good to have a statement and recommended best practices, but victims reasonably want the APA to do something -- to put teeth into these documents,” she said. “They are, after all, the ones who are stuck with an ongoing difficult professional situation that is unfair for all sorts of reasons.”

Imagine, for example, she said, “that you have been subjected to sexual harassment and now you want to attend an APA meeting where you are likely to bump into your harasser. It’s unfair that you can’t secure the benefits of attending and presenting at professional conferences under the same conditions that everyone else can.”

It’s important for victims to know that the board understands the negative effects of harassment and assault can be long lasting, she said.

Ruth Chang, APA ombudsperson for nondiscrimination and a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, said victims often experience a sense of isolation, escalated by “callous and insensitive remarks in the blogosphere that range from implying that the victim is a liar, to victim blaming, to insensitive discussions of a particular case in the terms of some abstract principle,” such as academic freedom or due process. While those principles may be deserving of debate, it shouldn’t be done in the context of particular cases, she said. Doing so -- likely without all the facts -- “unfairly impugns” the integrity of someone who’s already been seriously aggrieved.

Beyond expressing solidarity with victims, Chang said the board wanted to express a “zero-tolerance” policy toward sexual harassment and encourage members to take an active role in supporting victims and reporting inappropriate behavior.

The letter also potentially puts harassers on watch.

“It’s not OK to kid yourself into thinking that, because you haven’t got into trouble before, what you’re doing is OK,” Chang said. “Times are changing. And if the profession is going to get better, people need to keep up.”

Mixed Reaction

While some association members praised parts of the letter in advance of its release, they also said it might lack real impact.

Heidi Lockwood, an associate professor of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University, has blogged about sexual harassment in philosophy, including how college and university policies often fail to protect students and faculty members beyond their campus borders, such as at conferences.

She said she on one hand applauded the APA for openly acknowledging the “gravity of the harms that victims suffer” and acknowledging that there are many silent victims. But she said she wished the letter’s references to long-lasting effects of harassment or assault, or what she called “secondary trauma,” acknowledged that a perpetrator many not only escape punishment, but continue to be a “celebrated” member of the profession.

Lockwood also said she thought the association’s reliance on a restraining order to determine who may be barred from a conference  was “a bit naïve.” Laws governing such orders vary from state to state, she said, so obtaining one against a predatory contact who lives in another state, or country, for example, may prove difficult. And of course many harassers, for a variety of reasons -- including the victim's fear of professional retaliation and the severity of behavior required to get a restraining order granted -- are never subject to orders.

Over all, Lockwood said she thought an open letter “is an important call to action.” But will the discipline heed the call, she asked?

“An open letter to unnamed multitudes does not have the same impact, for example, that a letter of apology -- or even acknowledgment -- to specific victims would,” she said. “I was sexually assaulted by my graduate student thesis adviser almost 25 years ago, and left philosophy for almost 15 years as a result. This obviously had a profound effect on my personal and professional life. I have explicitly asked for a letter of apology or acknowledgment from the program or university, but have not received a response.”

Justin Weinberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina at Columbia and editor of the popular philosophy blog Daily Nous, said he thought the letter was useful in “telling victims of sexual harassment that understanding and support is forthcoming from the profession in general, not just from those relatively few individuals who are known for speaking out on the subject.”

That might encourage victims to both report their harassment and to stay in philosophy, he said.

Addressing limitations of the letter, he said the APA is “reasonably limited in what it can officially do on the basis of, say, who has been found guilty by their universities of sexual harassment. But the reality is that individuals do in fact exercise discretion in light of such information, certainly when it comes to the distribution of professional opportunities outside the APA, and perhaps within it, too.”

So there’s “further conversation to be had about the use and abuse of such discretion,” he said.

Janice Dowell, an associate professor of philosophy at Syracuse University who recently helped plan a regional conference, said she -- as a sexual harassment survivor -- had spent time “thinking carefully" about how the APA could make meetings welcoming to other survivors. But the "sad truth," she said via email "is that there is very little it can legally do; the letter's characterization of just where its hands are tied strikes me as correct."

The letter does make an important point, she said: that even if the association can't flex its enforcement muscles, progress can still be made. That is, “if members of our profession would 1) educate themselves about the damage harassment wreaks on a victim's career and health, 2) recognize that the testimonial evidence they have from most complainants is at least as good, if not better than, testimonial evidence we happily rely almost every day and 3) get over our distaste for uncomfortable situations." 

Dowell added, "The reason why sexual predators in our profession get away with what they do is because those of us who have the evidence sitting right in front of us either discount the damage done, convince ourselves the complainant's testimony is unreliable or decide its best not to say anything, since doing so would be ‘awkward.’”

Calhoun acknowledged some of the letter’s -- and the board’s -- limitations. Even with the best intentions, the “unfortunate reality” is that “no professional society is well positioned to put teeth into a sexual harassment policy. Professional societies don’t have Title IX officers, they can’t do the necessary fact finding to assure due process and they haven’t the economic resources to survive lawsuits.”

So how can an association board serve members? By acknowledging “the difficulty that some of its members now face in pursuing their education, performing in their jobs and participating in philosophical exchange,” Calhoun said. When someone’s been wronged, she added, “it’s important not just to secure just penalties for the wrongdoer, but it’s also important to have your suffering heard and understood, your grievance accepted as legitimate, and the norms for good behavior publicly reaffirmed. This is what makes truth and reconciliation commissions so effective.”


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