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Bullying or Caving In?

A report claims that the philosophy department at the University of Colorado-Boulder harasses its female faculty.

By Ben Cohen

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March 31, 2014

The philosophy department at the University of Colorado at Boulder is in hot water. CU-Boulder’s administration replaced the department chair, suspended graduate admissions for a year, and sent everyone to sensitivity training. What caused such draconian punishment?

The administration acted after the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women alleged a pattern of bullying, sexual harassment, and incivility in the department. The “site visit report” by a team of three women wrote that “it is our strong conclusion that the Department maintains an environment with unacceptable sexual harassment, inappropriate sexualized unprofessional behavior, and divisive uncivil behavior.” 

The report didn’t describe any of the bad behavior, except for this: “…some male faculty have been observed ogling undergraduate women students.”

It did, however, come with a long list of recommendations including “mandatory training on the harms of sexual harassment,” “bystander training” (so that everyone in the department will intervene when necessary), “no alcohol served at any events” and “no socializing.” Apparently, some of the incidents occurred at evening social gatherings. “We found that there is excessive drinking when faculty and graduate students socialize, and that there is an inappropriate expectation that graduate students and faculty should socialize together after hours (e.g., in bars in the evening.)”

The charges against the Colorado philosophers had broader ramifications. Writing in Slate, Rebecca Schuman used the scandal as a springboard to discuss the entire field of philosophy’s allegedly hostile climate for women. She complained that philosophy remains a majority male field and that course reading lists include few works by women or people of color, writing “The ugly truth is that the situation at CU is far from unique in philosophy, which among the humanities is perhaps the last relic of the good old days of academe, before the feminazis and the ethnics ruined everything.” Many others have raised similar complaints that philosophy is hostile territory for women.

But these critics have made a problematic leap; we know that more men pursue careers in philosophy, but we don’t know why. Nobody has produced any evidence that philosophy has a greater than average problem with sexual harassment, or that discriminatory behavior keeps women out of philosophy. For example, The New York Times solicited editorials from five feminist philosophers, arguing that philosophy has a hostile climate to women, but none of the editorials contained a scrap of statistical evidence.

In the case of CU-Boulder, the allegations should have been greeted with more skepticism. The report alleged all sorts of bad behavior but didn’t even provide anonymous descriptions of the behavior. For example, the report claimed that the Office of Discrimination and Harassment received fifteen complaints of sexual harassment, but it tells us nothing about the content of those complaints. 

To Dr. Michael Tooley, professor of philosophy at CU-Boulder, those complaints are highly exaggerated. Tooley is no sexist; he is deeply sympathetic to feminist concerns and collaborates on research with feminist philosophers. According to claims he made on his website, the fifteen complaints of sexual harassment were actually fifteen reports—not necessarily even complaints—of sexual harassment. Among those fifteen reports, the Office of Discrimination and Harassment investigated four, and only two resulted in punishment. Tooley also believes that all the complaints involved the same person, and the administration severely punished him by suspending him for a semester without pay. 

Tooley contends that the site visit team never conducted the investigation it promised:In our own case, the site visit lasted a day and a half, with only three hours given over to scheduled discussions with faculty.” According to Tooley, they talked to everyone in a big group, collected their fee, wrote their report, and left. 

While the report was short on details regarding the allegedly hostile environment for women, it provided a list of demands for rectifying the situation. Two are especially disturbing.

First, philosophers in the department are instructed not to criticize feminist approaches to philosophy. It states, “If some department members have a problem with people doing non-feminist philosophy or doing feminist philosophy (or being engaged in any other sort of intellectual or other type of pursuit), they should gain more appreciation of and tolerance for plurality in the discipline. Even if they are unable to reach a level of appreciation for other approaches to the discipline, it is totally unacceptable for them to denigrate these approaches in front of faculty, graduate or undergraduate students, in formal or informal settings on or off campus.” 

This is troubling language in an academic setting. How is a faculty member to know where the boundary line between rational criticism and “denigration” lies? Given the apparent over-reaction to the previous report, the safest course would be to refrain from any speaking or writing that might bother any of the feminists.

Equally troubling is the demand that the department hire more women.  The report states, "Finally, the Department will have to devise very specific and targeted plans for recruiting more women graduate students and more women faculty. A cluster hire for women should be considered."

The demand for more women hires comes despite the fact that, according to Tooley, the department already discriminates against men in hiring. “Indeed, in recent years, I have seen cases involving bias in the opposite direction, both as regards hiring, and with respect to graduate admissions,” he said.

An affirmative-action process for hiring women, or quotas for hiring women, would inevitably involve hiring some weaker candidates. That would not only discriminate against men, but would also shortchange students and diminish the discipline. Philosophy is already a small field; bringing in weaker instructors would make it less useful to students. In the end, this will mean fewer jobs for philosophers.

Historically, philosophy has given students useful skills, sharpened their reasoning, and improved their writing skills. Philosophy majors have the highest LSAT scores and rates of acceptance to law school. Traditionally, philosophy has sought to place our moral and empirical judgments on firmer ground, and aggressively challenging each other’s beliefs is part of that process. 

Sadly, colleges often cave in to demands that they put the cause of gender parity above academic excellence. This is another of those instances.

Without a doubt philosophers can be uncivil, arrogant, and wrong, but this intellectual combat improves the reasoning ability of the participants. As Colorado’s philosophy department succumbs to the group equality mindset, we will give up much of what makes philosophy valuable in the first place.

 


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