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?

Yale University.
Yale University and the academic world of philosophy have been rocked by an Internet campaign accusing a professor of sexual assault.

Photo by Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

From the Education Department making public a list of institutions under investigation for their handling of sexual assault allegations to Columbia University students scrawling the names of their alleged rapists in bathroom stalls, this spring has been one of “outings” regarding alleged sexual assaults on college campuses. The reasons behind the trend are complex, but they all point to widespread dissatisfaction with the way colleges and universities have traditionally handled reports of rape and harassment. Cases have languished for years in some colleges’ shadow justice systems. And although those systems typically rely on a looser “preponderance of evidence” standard than the courts, critics say they often fail to produce satisfactory rulings due to institutions’ complicated and at time conflicting interests. A key criticism of many colleges is that they don’t publicize the names of those accused or found in violation.

Those factors seem to be at play in another such “outing”—this one implicating a professor of philosophy at Yale University. An Internet campaign seeking to bring the professor to justice—legally and in ways more abstract—has philosophers talking about and even contributing financially to the cause. Some philosophers also view the campaign as helping to cast sunlight upon the discipline’s own long history of misogyny and sexual harassment. With relatively few women, compared with  other humanities disciplines, and possibly due to other structural factors, the discipline has been plagued by such complaints; last year, the American Philosophical Association announced it was forming a committee to study the issue.

Others say the campaign and its tactics are causing irreparable damage, even by insinuation, to the professor’s career, prior to any legal action (although one alleged victim says she reported the professor to Yale, with no real result).

The Internet campaign began last month, when an anonymous graduate student posted an essay on Thought Catalog called “I Had an Affair With My Hero, a Philosopher Who’s Famous for Being ‘Moral.’ ” The author said she was motivated to write after the philosopher lied about the status of his long-term relationship and revealed that he had seduced young women all over the world by promising them fidelity he never intended to give. There was nothing illegal or unethical about the philosopher’s encounters with the writer, and she said so in the piece (she was not directly his student but met him at a conference). But she wanted to warn younger, less experienced women about him, she wrote—although she doubted her post would change anything.

“At the end of the day, I am but a mere graduate student; he is a big-shot Ivy League professor,” the essay reads.  “At the end of the day, nothing will happen. At the end of the day, powerful men will reciprocate sexual and romantic gestures from pretty young women, so long as there are no legal repercussions. At the end of the day, this wrong that I speak of is the norm.”

The post did not name the professor or his institution, but speculation quickly focused on one professor at Yale. He declined to comment for this story. While his name is appearing on social media (and no other name is being referenced in regard to these allegations), Inside Higher Ed is not naming him at this time because there is not enough verifiable evidence on the public record to do so.

Despite the graduate student’s initial conclusion, the Thought Catalog post did have some effect, she wrote later on another blog called Protecting Lisbeth. Originally intended to call out the professor as a moral fraud, the graduate student said her essay caught the attention of one the professor’s former students—who has said he tried to rape her in 2010. The second student allegedly tried, unsuccessfully, to report a year’s worth of harassment that preceded the attack to Yale.

“When I found out that it was known to people that he has had previous sexual harassment cases, I was furious,” the graduate student wrote. “Why do we not know about this? Why didn’t those tenured academics say anything? Are we seriously accepting this kind of behavior from an esteemed moral philosopher? Is this supposed to be normal? He is an influential public figure and world-renowned academic. He is around impressionable and sexually inexperienced young women all the time.”

Following that post, another woman using the pseudonym Lisbeth Mara started crowdsourcing donations using a website called FundRazr to retain a forensic psychologist for a potential lawsuit against Yale University. It is called the “Protecting Lisbeth Fundraiser.” Mara reached her $7,000 goal within days. (The name Lisbeth Mara appears to be a play on the name of the antihero in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series of novels, Lisbeth Salander, and that of the actress, Rooney Mara, who plays her in the American film based on the books. In the series, the character is the victim of sexual assault and exacts revenge on her perpetrator, her legal guardian.)

Mara’s friend, Emma Sloan, a recent graduate of Yale University, created the fund and wrote an accompanying post that said the independent expert testimony is crucial to building a case against the university. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed and in social media, Sloan said Mara suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that impedes everyday life, not only from the alleged attack but also from the “browbeating” she endured as she attempted to report the professor, again and again, to Yale officials.

Thomas Conroy, a Yale spokesman, said that Yale does not ignore or cover up claims of sexual misconduct, and pointed out the university’s Sexual Misconduct Response website. Conroy declined to comment on whether the university was investigating the implicated professor.

“If a complaint is reported to the university, it is investigated fully and the appropriate review and disciplinary procedures are invoked, as warranted,” he said. “The guiding principle for all of our processes and programs is that there is no place for sexual misconduct of any kind on our campus.”

Sloan describes her friend’s alleged experiences, with the professor and trying to report it to Yale, on a Facebook page dedicated to the case.

The Lisbeth Mara campaign is attracting widespread attention and discussion within the academic world of philosophy, and reviews are mixed.

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.”

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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