Was Philosophy Prof. Colin McGinn’s Story Really a Clear-Cut Case of Sexual Harassment?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Oct. 8 2013 11:57 AM

The Philosopher and the Student

Was the saga of Colin McGinn really a clear-cut case of sexual harassment?

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Colin says she didn’t give him the comments on his book she was supposed to. Ben says that she did the work, but didn’t do all of it because he hadn’t given her enough time. Whatever happened, the curt businesslike exchanges over the summer do indicate ongoing tension over the work she was being paid to do, though that doesn’t seem enough to explain her radical shift in tone. Unless the situation was so delicate, so fraught, so ambivalent, so unstable, that it only took one little thing to push it over. It is also possible that Colin seemed to her to be escalating the conversation about sex, or steering things in a more sexual direction. He had sent the infamous “three times” email in May—in which he floated out the possibility, among others, that they have sex three times over the summer—and she may have been feeling increasingly trapped, or maybe guilty, or that the complicated, fascinating situation had gotten out of her control.

In the beginning of September Colin was still trying to get her to meet with him to explain why she hadn’t done some of the work over the summer. As Ben describes it in an email to me: “In the fall after refusing to meet with him he told her that she would be best off if she would just apologize to him and that he could be quite forgiving. He told her that her refusal to meet with him was unhelpful and that she was much better off with his support than without it, because the last thing he would want to do is ‘think badly of her.’ ” Colin says that he was increasingly bewildered by her behavior, and thought if they could just meet and talk they could iron out the difficulties that had arisen over the summer.

To a certain extent this is a recognizable, even common occurrence: where some form of ambivalent romance or illicit situation ends in bitterness, where suddenly the ambivalence tips into resentment, where everything is interpreted rigidly in an ominous framework, where you turn the other person into a terrible caricature of himself or herself, only usually it doesn’t end in lives being ruined, or livelihoods destroyed. (And, of course, this particular denouement is not good for Nicole either: to leave for another university, to worry about remaining anonymous for her professional future, to have private emails dragged before questioning university officials.) On his blog Colin put up a quote from Nabokov about romances that “ended in a rich flavor of hell.”

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The questions here enter foggy territory that would take true philosophers or maybe novelists to navigate: Should a man, even an arrogant man, lose tenure and a long, lustrous career over what was probably a blundering excess of attachment, a burst of infatuated blindness? His mistake was that he was romanticizing what was happening, was carried away by an idea, by a feeling, and did not take the sensible or professional steps.

The sexual harassment script is so vivid in our minds that to a certain extent it doesn’t matter if events technically unfolded according to it; one can feel the writers of the original Chronicle of Higher Education article, and the New York Times piece, rushing past the details of the story, which are murky at best, to the meaty and wonderful generalizations. Very often when I talk about the case to academics, especially philosophers, they are impatient to get past the troublesome facts to the gleaming and satisfying theme. (“A Star Philosopher Falls,” reads the New York Times headline, “From Star to Ruin” reads the Chronicle of Higher Education’s.)

One bright, ambitious young philosopher I met at a party says it doesn’t matter if there was a warm consensual romantic relationship. He said the problem of sexual harassment is so rife in philosophy that it is good for someone to be strung up and an example to be made. He went on to explain that Colin is precisely the kind of abrasive, arrogant man who would do something like this, and used as an example the title of his memoir, The Making of a Philosopher, which he viewed as a sign that Colin is narcissistic and full of himself. (I have by this point in my reporting absorbed that many people think powerful, arrogant men should be punished, though I myself like a powerful, arrogant man.)

One of the reasons I think people revel so much in the downfall of someone “like” Colin is that we like to hear news that the world is humming along just as we suspected, that all the prejudices and slights and wrongdoings we have always imagined are yet again proved to be real. Our fears that the “powerful” or “arrogant” are corrupt and abusive of the less powerful and less arrogant are confirmed. Our instinctive distrust of those who are stars, who have succeeded spectacularly, is vindicated by news of ugliness or corruption. We like, in other words, a good cliché.

What happened in the halls of the philosophy department at the University of Miami is much messier and more ambiguous and dingy and depressingly human than the glamorous black and white of the political language—sexual harassment. There is no arrogant, successful man sending dirty missives, no innocent, wronged victim to rally around; instead there is a whole complex swamp of motives and hopes and judgments and desires and ambitions, many conspicuously, spectacularly ill-advised, and there is a little bit of human warmth.

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After Nicole had made her charges, there emerged what Colin called “a problem of co-existence” which meant that Colin could not be in the campus when Nicole was. Lectures were canceled. Lawyers were hired. One of Colin’s colleagues, Ed Erwin, who told me he had not been his friend, and didn’t particularly even like him, asked Colin about his side of the story. Colin told him, and Erwin sent a note to his colleagues encouraging them to call Colin and hear his side of what happened. Not a single one called.

Amid the furor over Colin’s resignation, an open letter to the university circulated, signed by a very large number of prominent philosophers from places like Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, Duke, Stanford, and the University of Miami. This “Letter from Concerned Philosophers” expresses a kind of formless free-floating outrage. The Concerned Philosophers are ostensibly calling on the university to somehow prevent Colin from making what they see as “retaliatory comments” about a defenseless student. What the university could practically do to prevent him from saying whatever he wants, or why the statements they refer to are “retaliatory” rather than a man “expressing his view” of events intimately involving him, they do not say. The Concerned Philosophers do generously concede, “We recognize Colin McGinn’s right to free speech,” though it would seem, just barely.

Toward the end of my conversation with Ben, I say, “Is it possible there is something you don’t know?” He says, “It’s possible. I mean who truly 100 percent knows the person they are with?”

Sometimes Skyping from the empty room, Colin seems very tired. Though he is the kind of vigorous 63-year-old man who takes pride in playing tennis and swimming, in these conversations he looks a little frail or overcome, a little King Lear after the storm.

He rubs his eyes under his glasses. “It’s such a huge tempest over such a boring personal thing.”

Many people have asked why if Colin really felt he was innocent of the charges, or if there was a defense that could have preserved his job, he didn’t fight back and make his case to the faculty senate. There are many reasons for this, high among them that he felt pretty sure he wouldn’t win, no matter how well he made his case, and also high among them was the preservation of his shaken marriage, for which the textured truth of the relationship was not necessarily better than the simple rumors. He was worried about his wife.

In his autobiography, The Making of a Philosopher, written at a more optimistic time, Colin writes about seeing himself as a character in a novel, though I don’t think he was thinking of the particular novel he now finds himself trapped in. He also wrote, “I began to realize that even the most familiar belief might be mistaken, a mere prejudice—that everything had to be open to rational scrutiny.”

Is it possible to imagine a less hysterical ending? One where Colin is disciplined for a serious lapse of judgment or professionalism without losing his tenured position, his reputation, his ability to make a living and the Concerned Philosophers can still sleep at night? One where Nicole can sit reading in a sun-dappled library somewhere, without worrying about her name unloosed on the Internet. One where the university takes swift compassionate action that both recognizes the complexities of human weakness, and preserves the sanctity of the classroom.  It seems a great deal of destruction for a strange amorphous amorous entanglement.

In any event, one hopes that Nicole will find peace and academic success in her far-off place, and that Colin can find a way to reassemble his career, and think and write and do philosophy and visit his grandsons in Cambridge, England.

In our last conversation by Skype, Colin is speaking from a yellow room in a new house. There is even a chair.

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