Nasty and Brutish

A scandal in Colorado reveals that bullying bros still plague university philosophy departments.

The female-unfriendly environment at some philosophy departments could be fodder for a sequel to The Wolf of Wall Street, if only philosophers made any money.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker.

On Friday, the University of Colorado–Boulder released a scathing report from an independent investigating team about sexual misconduct in one of its top humanities programs, the department of philosophy. The report, commissioned, it seems, under the misguided assumption that its findings would remain private, details a female-unfriendly environment of sexual harassment that could be fodder for a sequel to The Wolf of Wall Street, if only philosophers made any money.

The damning 15-page report is the result of extensive on-site interviews with administration, faculty, staff, and students, undertaken by the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women. The committee concluded that despite its enviable academics, CU’s department “maintains an environment with unacceptable sexual harassment, inappropriate sexualized unprofessional behavior, and divisive uncivil behavior.”

In addition to the 15 official complaints filed with CU’s Office of Discrimination and Harassment since 2007, the report details a near-universal witnessing of “harassment and inappropriate sexualized professional behavior” at alcohol-soaked extracurricular activities. Further, a large portion of the faculty either were “not knowledgeable about the harms of sexual harassment,” or were “not sufficiently familiar” with university policy, state law, or federal law.

And those who were? Not to worry, they used their sharp analytical minds for the noblest possible purpose: to employ “pseudo-philosophical” discourse, in a valiant effort to comply with the harassment policy’s letter, but not its spirit. If a hand smacks an ass, but nobody in HR hears it, does it make a sound?

All this resulted, the report found, in some depressing outcomes: CU’s philosophy department has earned a reputation internationally as being particularly unfriendly to women. Many faculty members, when not attempting to flee to other universities, had taken to working from home and avoiding all departmental functions. And students and faculty alike possessed complete lack of confidence in the university to discipline any of the aforementioned wrongdoing.

As a result of the report, the department appears to be on Double-Secret Probation (although not so secret anymore): Chair Graeme Forbes has been ousted and replaced by a faculty member from linguistics, and recruitment and admission of new graduate students has been halted until 2015. And—allegedly—official institutional punishment is forthcoming for those parties who merit it, although the administration remains tight-lipped about both personages involved and penalties meted.

For anyone familiar with the discipline of philosophy, the CU report does not come as a surprise—or, rather, the only surprise should be that there weren’t also detailed allegations of racism and homophobia (although, not to worry, the report also references “divisive” and “bullying” behavior to members of “various” underrepresented groups). 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.

When proud philosophers like Duke’s Alex Rosenberg laud “the canon’s” tenacious preservation, what they forget (or, perhaps, ignore) is that those good old days also depended upon a culture of total white male domination, both on the syllabus and behind the podium. In this culture, professor meant man, and it was often that man’s prerogative to seek out the affections of female inferiors—grad students, and oh, those “co-eds,” impressionable, nubile, and smart (you know, for girls).

When, in the 1980s, much of the humanities decided, gasp, that women and people of color were worthy of inclusion and study—and, simultaneously, most American universities began instating sexual and racial harassment and discrimination policies—philosophy largely managed to hold out, and today it remains one of the whitest, malest fields in all of academia (worse, in fact, than most of the sausage-fest sciences).

Thus, the CU cataclysm is but the result of natural law. And here’s some more pseudo-philosophy for you: If a bunch of white, privileged philoso-bros subsist in a vacuum, where all “important” events take place off-site, after hours, and soaked in booze, and there are precious few women or scholars of color with enough power to call them out, will they—please cry an epistemological tear—ever really know they’re doing anything wrong? What is “wrong,” anyway? “We do believe,” the authors of the report note, “that those engaged in this behavior are largely unaware that they are perceived as bullies.”

When the report went public this weekend, CU philosophers reacted—now here’s a big surprise—by closing ranks and crying foul. They assumed the report would stay private! Otherwise they never would have commissioned it! Ha, too bad the university, already dealing with a Title IX controversy from which it’s barely escaped, decided to chuck the department under the metaphysical motor coach as fast as humanly possible. We were “taking steps” to rectify the problem ourselves! Sure you were. At departmental meetings, where everyone feels comfortable speaking out, and important issues yield practical and swift solutions—oh, wait. Department meetings are three-hour pedantic hootenannies, where bullying reigns supreme and the simplest issues devolve into first-principle discussions. So, yeah, sorry. Nobody thinks you can handle this yourselves.

All of this is not to say that the entire discipline is nothing but a bunch of Colin McGinns. Far from it—there are thousands of righteously upstanding philosophers in the world, including (on most days) the one I’m married to. Many of these philosophers speak out loudly and often. As the University of Sheffield’s Jennifer Saul points out, although “there are a great many departments with problems like Colorado’s,” we need to “bear in mind that in each of these places … there is a complicated mixture of people. Some of them are the bad actors. Some are fighting hard against the problems. Some are confused and frustrated and unsure what to do.”

Although it is unequivocally good to have CU’s deeds exposed, Saul has reason to be uneasy in the wake of this kerfuffle. There is now ample ground to suspect that any department with a similar makeup will rush to close ranks, and such an outside review shall never be commissioned again. However, the national scrutiny this scandal has brought may simply preclude ranks-closing altogether—in effect, every academic department in the country may soon find itself audited by an outside body, whether it wants to be or not. Any department that isn’t doing pernicious things has nothing to worry about—and if it is, concerned faculty still have a chance to speak up, file complaints, quit being scared about their standing in a “profession” that does not deserve to go on as it is. One doesn’t need to be a Platonist to recognize that the status quo in philosophy is far short of ideal.