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?

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn

Photo by Carlos Morales/Simply Charly

When I Skype with Colin McGinn in September he is sitting on the floor in an empty room. The reason for this is that he is moving, but the emptiness has larger resonances: He has lost his job, his reputation, his income, his stability.

Colin McGinn comes from a long line of coal miners without a history of university degrees, and somehow worked his way to Oxford. After going on to win prestigious awards, write acclaimed books, form a group of philosophers called the “New Mysterians,” and garner plum academic appointments, including his latest at the University of Miami, the famous philosopher of mind has lost everything because of a 26-year-old woman.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

The case tipped into public consciousness over the summer when the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece that quoted emails that Colin, who was 61 and married, supposedly sent to a graduate student, whom I’ll call Nicole. (Because we are using a first-name-only pseudonym for the woman in question, we have decided to use first names for everyone involved.) In one he wrote that he "had a hand job imagining you giving me a hand job" and in another he floated a proposal to have sex three times. A few months later, the New York Times printed the technically correct but highly misleading statement that Colin resigned “after allegations of sexual harassment,” and the world began to assume that the university had in fact charged him with sexual harassment, and that he had in fact sexually harassed a student. Slate ran a piece on the affair, rallying around the “legitimacy of the sexual harassment accusations against the professor,” amid snowballing articles on the problem of sexual harassment in philosophy as illuminated by his case.

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Very quickly reporters, bloggers, philosophers, and academics were not talking about a man, Colin, but a kind of man: He became for many that kind of arrogant man and what this specific arrogant man did or did not do was almost beside the point. A powerful, successful man brought low by his sexual badgering of the less successful and powerful was too irresistible a story for it to matter whether it in fact took place. In some sense Colin was a perfect anti-hero for the academic clamor, with his reputation for virtuoso intellectual aggression, for tearing people down in book reviews, for a particularly male blend of superiority.

Here are some of the undisputed facts: Nicole was a first-year graduate student who took a fall 2011 seminar with Colin on philosophical explorations of the role of the hand in human evolution. In the winter and spring of 2012, Nicole often brought lunch to his office and they ate together and talked about philosophy. She did an independent study with him in which they were co-writing a philosophical paper; they played tennis and went paddleboarding. Over the summer he hired her to do some research for him, and she went home to Indiana. In September she went to the Office of Equal Opportunity at the university and reported him for sexual harassment. In the fall, the university conducted an investigation and laid out the charges in a formal letter to the faculty senate. In January 2013, before disciplinary proceedings began, Colin resigned from his tenured position.

Like other journalists pursuing the story, I wrote to Nicole for her side of the story, but she did not speak to me. Instead she authorized her boyfriend of nearly two years, Ben Yelle, to speak on her behalf, as he has done in all the previous news stories. Yelle is a fifth-year philosophy graduate student, and the story he tells is one of textbook sexual harassment. In his account, Nicole began working with a famous philosopher in the fall. After some time, she was made increasingly uncomfortable by his sexual innuendoes and flirtations. She tried to ignore them, at first, and then she explicitly rejected them and told him she wanted to pursue a purely professional relationship. Colin “would pretty much berate her when she didn’t show affection or say nice things,” Ben told me. She made up excuses to avoid meeting with him. Ben added, “I saw how anxious she was before or after meetings with him.” The professor wrote various suggestive or off color emails to her. He threatened to say bad things to the people in the department if she didn’t meet with him. After the term ended, he proposed having sex three times. “She finally told me about this in the summer [of 2012], late June or early July,” Ben said. “My initial response was, ‘You have to report him.’ But she was scared as hell.”

The problem with Ben’s account is that the emails and texts between Colin and Nicole, which went on for more than six months and many of which I have seen, do not support it. Instead what emerges is a picture of a strange, strained, but avid and affectionate rapport between them. Until sometime in June, there appeared to be a reciprocal warmth. The two developed an elaborate private language based on some philosophical work they were doing about the hand with private jokes and private references. Her tone in the emails and texts over the winter and spring was often enthusiastic, playful, effusive: “Colin! My prehensive companion! How I miss you!” They both refer to the unusual relationship as “the Colin-Nicole union” or the “Colin-Nicole companionship.”

In the emails and texts, she did not seem to be passively replying, or tepidly appeasing him, but rather actively creating and nurturing the private language. There were times when he pulled back or expressed pessimism and she reassured him of the strength of the bond, and argued for the adaptiveness or resilience of their connection. There was a moment in February when she said she would be “devastated” if he lost interest. Her texts, which remain in his phone, say things like “thank you, dearest,” “sending you virtual hugs,” “I send you a hand squeeze,” and “you have an incredibly sexy mind.”

Colin described to me a time when Nicole Skyped him from her bedroom in her family’s house in the Midwest. According to Colin, he assumed she was afraid her parents would hear her and she held up a piece of paper that read, “I miss you.” In an email, Ben wrote that this story “is unverifiable (and a lie).”

The reason it is important to give a rich sense of the emails and texts here is that sexual harassment is about words. As someone who teaches at New York University, I wholly sympathize with the general impulse to protect a student’s privacy, which is why I am not naming her, but the only way to understand the philosophy professor’s now infamous communications is to read them in context, and make every effort to know what they would have meant at the time to the people involved. An email floating out the possibility of having sex three times is a very different gesture if you are sending it in a vacuum to a graduate student who is just trying to get on with her work on Wittgenstein, or to one who is texting you that she misses you or is calling you “dearest” and texting about your “incredibly sexy” mind.

Later when Colin was brought in to talk to the vice provost about the serious charges the university has made, he brought along a batch of emails to show that the situation was more tangled than a straightforward case of “sexual harassment.” He said the vice provost told him, “Who said anything about sexual harassment?” (The vice provost did not respond to requests for comment.)

In fact, the words “sexual harassment” do not appear in the charges made by the university in an official letter to the faculty senate signed by the vice provost, which two people read to me. By the accounts of at least three people familiar with the investigation, the university chose not to pursue charges of sexual harassment after reviewing the evidence. The administration was calling for Colin’s resignation, but did not feel it should pursue the charge of sexual harassment. Instead the letter lays out both Nicole and Colin’s conflicting stories and contradictory claims and states: “The university believes that Professor McGinn’s conduct is unprofessional due to the amorous relationship that developed between a senior faculty member and his student.”

Of course, we don’t know what was going on in Nicole’s mind, but I asked Ben why he thinks the university would characterize the situation as an “amorous relationship” when what he describes is an unambiguous case of sexual harassment. He said, ”I have no idea.” I asked him if the emails he saw between Colin and Nicole ever expressed any warmth, or any playfulness or anything the university might construe as signs of a mutual or “amorous” attachment. He says he never saw anything stronger than that she enjoyed working with him.

The letter to the faculty senate states, along with several other subsidiary charges, that Colin violated a policy from the University of Miami’s faculty handbook governing “consensual amorous, romantic or sexual relationships” between professors and students. As is the case in many universities, these relationships are in the handbook’s words, “strongly discouraged,” and yet the rules do not explicitly forbid them. They say instead that such relationships must be reported right away, and the professor should remove himself immediately from any evaluative position. In other words, there is both a strong condemnation of these affairs, but also an acknowledgment that there are many tenured professors who have married graduate students, and to fire any professor with a romantic entanglement with a student would be unworkable.

As a professor myself, I am hugely critical of romantic relationships with students. I see very clearly how disruptive they are of the ecology of a classroom, a department, how they can corrupt the fruitful, important space that exists between professors and students. When I hear of male professors having affairs with students, I always feel a powerful instinctive disapproval, not to mention a general fatigue with the cliché; on the other hand one has to acknowledge, however begrudgingly, that romantic feelings do spring up in awkward circumstances.

According to university regulations, Colin should have reported the relationship and taken himself off of Nicole’s committee, and removed her as his research assistant. This would certainly have made things less murky, though it would also have gone against their mutual fantasy, in its heyday, of the “Colin-Nicole union,” which seemed to involve professional guidance and a sort of starry idealized intellectual partnership. In a swampy situation like this, there is also the question of what exactly you would say to the relevant university office, and when exactly, if you are not sleeping with someone, you say something.

Looking back on it, though, Colin says he now thinks he should have removed himself as her supervisor, he should have recognized the conflict and potential explosiveness of mingling their personal and professional relationship, and told Nicole he could not work with her.

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