Are Internet Campaigns Against Sexual Assault Effective or Troubling?

News and views from academia.
May 23 2014 3:18 PM

An Internet Campaign Accuses a Professor of Sexual Assault

Is this activism, or vigilantism?

(Continued from Page 1)

Many commenters, mostly anonymously, have criticized both Sloan and the graduate student for implicating a professor outside, or at least ahead, of formal legal channels. In comment threads since removed from the Thought Catalog piece and on Protecting Lisbeth, readers questioned the character of the graduate student and said she was not only implicating the professor but other women he had mentored. Others said they failed to see any alleged abuse of power within her relationship with the professor, since they were both consenting adults. Others still dismissed the entire campaign as gossip, or a scam.

But other readers responded positively. On the philosophy blog Digressions and Impressions, moderator Eric Schliesser, professor of philosophy at Ghent University, said he personally donated to the FundRazr campaign and encouraged others to do so.

“This matters to me,” Schliesser wrote. “As most readers of this blog know by now, I have come to believe that the systematic pattern of exclusion of women in philosophy is, in part, due to the fact that my profession has allowed a culture of harassment, sexual predating, and bullying to be reproduced from one generation to the next. While I hope that the vast majority of men in professional philosophy want nothing to do with this culture, we have been complicit in it by not speaking up and by looking the other way when the perpetrators were talented philosophers in some sense.”

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Schliesser said that, judging from his inbox, “many folk in top departments are fed up with the scandalous behavior of some of their peers.” He called the discipline an “unfolding slow-motion train-wreck” but one that’s “incapable of self-reform.”

Because of that, he said, “lawsuits and the harsh light of publicity are the best means to destroy the culture of silence in the profession and to give everybody incentives to do the right thing[.]” Following the post, Vernon L. Smith, professor of economics at Chapman University and a Nobel Prize winner, commented that he also would contribute to the cause. 

The blog Feminist Philosophers has posted updates on the campaign and called Sloan “very courageous” for lending her name to the cause.

Jennifer Saul, one of the blog’s moderators and a professor of philosophy at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, said via email that the campaign was, to her knowledge, without precedent. She added: “It clearly comes out of frustration with the community of philosophers who have tolerated a lot of terrible behavior from a lot of people for a very long time. I have been hearing about bad behavior and failures to act, from many philosophers, for many years.”

On some philosophy blogs, Heidi Lockwood, associate professor of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University, and a graduate of the philosophy department at Yale, has been listed as assisting with the legal case. In an interview, she declined to comment on the case beyond what is already public record. But she said that the Protecting Lisbeth campaign sheds light on why sexual harassment is still a problem in higher education. There are structural issues at play, she said, noting the power “asymmetry” between professors and students—even graduate students. And even when colleges and universities have blanket prohibitions against professor-student sexual relationships, as does Yale, Lockwood said that institutions view their responsibility to enforce those policies as ending “at their borders—literally at the edge of their campuses.”

Because philosophers and many other academics identify themselves as members of their disciplines first and employees of their universities second, she said, institution-specific policies leave students vulnerable at conferences, for example, what Lockwood called the faculty parallel to "fraternity parties."

Hilde Lindemann, professor of philosophy at Michigan State University, is the chairwoman of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in Philosophy. She said that the association has taken solid steps to address sexual harassment, with many best practices borrowed from physics, which also has struggled with gender equity issues. Recently, the association began doing site visits to institutions where sexual harassment has been reported, including the University of Colorado at Boulder. That report—including the fact that the university’s administration chose to make it public—was controversial, but Lindemann called such controversy the “growing pains” of a profession moving into a new era.

Lindemann said she saw the Protecting Lisbeth campaign as something different, however, in that it implicated a member of the profession before any formal investigation. Lindemann noted how difficult it could be for a student to openly accuse a professor of sexual harassment or assault, given the power, financial, and career issues at play. But she said she wondered if it would have been better to ask the professor’s department chair or an administrator for a site visit from the committee, for example, rather than starting an anonymous online campaign and subsequent "rumor-mongering."

“I just don’t see any of that as particularly helpful,” she said.

But Ann Olivarius, who is representing one of the alleged victims in a potential lawsuit, said social media “is responsible for breaking this case.” She called Protecting Lisbeth unprecedented and “grass-roots,” and said alleged victims are still coming forward as a result of the Internet posts.

Olivarius, a Yale law school graduate and plaintiff in the Alexander v. Yale case of 1980, which was the first to apply Title IX legislation to sexual harassment in higher education, continued: “This is not my client who started this campaign. These are other people who have had experiences with the professor who are speaking up about it. We’re trying to identify who they are, and hope some of them will be willing to become witnesses."

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