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

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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.

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.

One of the challenging things to grasp about the nature of the relationship is that it had certain quasi-romantic elements, but was not sexual; according to Colin, they discussed and dismissed the possibility of having a conventional sexual affair. The two were deep in a private world, according to Colin, working together on arcane philosophical research on the hand, the jokey strangeness of which Colin memorialized with a parody of a cult on his blog, and they developed an affectionate private patois which both of them used, and which included private hand jokes, and a pet name for one of Nicole’s feet.

In the course of their meetings they would hold and caress hands and feet. In the e-mails, they referred to the specific forms of hand holding and massaging as “grips.” As Colin describes it, the offbeat physical side of things emerged from an excess of affection, a thwarted energy between them, an inventive way of expressing intimacy without sex. Colin says, “We were creating a relationship through the hands. In a way, sex is clichéd. This seemed more original, free of all the problems.”

Judging by the emails and texts, Nicole seemed to be an active participant in the hand intimacy. She wrote to him, for instance, proposing a new “more intimate” grip, which she then went on to describe in detail. One day in early June she sent him a text: “I was thinking of your thumb this morning intertwined with mine.” And in an email: “I should add that I felt a bit of imprint from the hand exercises yesterday when I was typing away. I paused for a couple moments to enjoy it.”

Later she would report to the university that the touching of hands and feet made her “uncomfortable.”

According to Colin, they found themselves in an increasingly difficult space, both of them balancing their closeness with the necessary limits. In his view, they were trying to construct a bold original bond that would not destabilize their delicate situation (i.e. that he was married, that she was his student). According to Colin, they had many discussions about the form of the relationship, the limits, the nature of it, the possibilities. In emails, at times, he writes about being pessimistic about it, and she reassures him that the connection is strong. They seemed to share a sense of creating something new, pioneering an unusual kind of rapport, an intimacy that does not threaten a marriage or violate professional imperatives. In the emails, Nicole refers to it as “the beautiful and unique relationship that we have developed.”

Colin’s description of Nicole is that she was “original, quirky, highly intelligent, strong willed.” He said, “It was impossible she was manipulated by me.” Ben’s description of her, on the other hand, is filled with stories of her weakened, anxious, often “bawling her eyes out,” of him stepping in, protective, outraged, and her vulnerable, injured. After I talk to both of them, it is hard to reconcile Colin’s Nicole with Ben’s Nicole.

In the emails, however, you can read conflicting feelings. At times, she seems exuberant, clever, playful, eager, warm. At other times, she seems to be pulling back, apologizing, making excuses. Colin now says he did not see it, but a bright strand of ambivalence is clear in moments of stiffness, a return to formality, a psychic retreat. This is not surprising to me: a 26-year-old with a boyfriend, intrigued, flattered, weirdly drawn to a 61-year-old man, yet not wanting to go further, to enter a fully fledged sexual affair. Can one be attracted but wary, invested but anxious, warmly engaged but freaked out, intrigued but put off? Nicole had a boyfriend her own age and this, whatever it was, stood in another category, apart.

One thing that comes across vividly in the correspondence is that Nicole was afraid of mediocrity, of her own limitations as a thinker and scholar. “I’ve been feeling down about my intellect,” she writes. The idea that someone renowned in your field sees in you a collaborator, a potential equal, is seductive. By that I don’t mean to imply that I think she wanted to sleep with him and enter into a more conventional affair, but rather that it is not surprising that she would be drawn into his vision, that she would want to embrace his idea of her. “She was humoring him,” Ben said. “I don’t mean this in a bad way but she was mercenary about his support.”

At one point in the spring, Colin concocted what he called “the genius project,” which was, tongue in cheek, his project of turning her into a philosophy professor with tenure at a not terrible university. Ben says that he and Nicole laughed together about the genius project. “We thought it was ridiculous.” But in emails to Colin, Nicole seemed enthusiastic about it, hungry to hear more; she told him it was lifting her spirits.

Thinking back to my own graduate student days, I can see how if someone is trying to teach you to be creative, be a free thinker, be a genius, you would likely be both intrigued and resentful. You would be hungry for it, and you would hate it. Graduate students, even smart ones, are rife with insecurity, simmering with a sense of powerlessness. You could say the system is almost designed to breed insecurity in them, to break them down, and a gifted or charismatic professor who recognizes a “spark” has more than just the obvious institutional power.

Later, in the letter to the faculty senate the university distills her position: “Despite her anxiety, she continued to tell him what he wanted to hear for fear that if she stopped … he would hurt her career.” This is plausible to a point, but the tone of the emails and texts over the winter and spring is too whimsical, too affectionate, too active, too warm, too energetically participatory, for this to be a comprehensive account of events. To reduce a six-month, variable, colorful, unusual, intimate, singular, or eccentric situation to a single motivation is clearly an oversimplification, though granted an oversimplification that must have been appealing or useful to her at the time.

People have quite sensibly pointed out that Colin was not sensitive enough to his own power, or at the very least not alert enough to dangerous subterranean power inequities, that he didn’t notice the building of hidden resentments and resistances, which seems fair. Though he says something that also seems fair: “Real power didn’t reside with me at all. With the mere fact that a female student goes to the authorities at all, it becomes sexual harassment.” It is true that a female student has the unspoken power to whisper two words and ruin an entire career.

What is, of course, a bit surprising is that an intelligent man like Colin McGinn did not wake up in a cold sweat every day worrying that somehow he would be found out. In part this is generational. In England in his early days as an academic the climate was different, but most professors these days engaged in a “romance” of even an amorphous sort would be terrified. In some sense he thought he was safe because he wasn’t sleeping with her. He was operating under, as he put it, “the illusion of indestructibility.” From the tenor of the emails it seems that he was so invested in her, so deep into it, so warmly enchanted with her, that he did not see her clearly, or read the signals with sufficient acuity. He was not a brilliant reader of Nicole.

For one thing, he told me he was quite sure that Nicole did not have a boyfriend, during the fall and spring he got to know her. He says that they talked extensively about how the relationship would change if she were to find a boyfriend; he asked her once if Ben specifically was her boyfriend and she denied it. She wrote to him about a trip to the Everglades and what she did there, without mentioning a boyfriend. When I told him that Ben was in fact her boyfriend, and had been for the duration of their interlude, he visibly paled. When I told him on Skype, he looked away from the camera.

Despite his reputation for toughness or arrogance, Colin seemed to be in some peculiar, almost boyish way smitten with Nicole. There is a softness in the emails that is not what his numerous critics and remote enemies would expect to find; there is the vulnerability, however whimsically and ironically expressed, of a man enraptured. He writes, “I am feeling concerned that you are depressed and downhearted. I don’t want to add to your troubles, of course. So although I miss you very much, please don’t feel you have to oblige me if you are feeling rotten … I wish I could lift your spirits in some way.”

* * *

How does a relationship so delicately, so precariously, so self-consciously pitched outside of normal definitions fall apart? It is hard to say, but something seemed to happen over the summer that turned Nicole entirely against Colin. In early June she was sending him warm, affectionate texts, and by September she was walking with Ben by her side into the Office of Equal Opportunity to report a case of sexual harassment.

Colin says he thinks the sea change occurred because of work. In June, he started to send her texts reproaching her for not doing the work he was paying her to do. She sent irritated texts back. Reading the exchange, he does seem overly harsh in his demands for her concentration, and I can imagine her being annoyed at his suddenly snapping into demanding boss mode. I can also imagine being afraid of getting on his bad side.

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.”

* * *

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.

* * *

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.