The Philosophers’ Stones


Things are in an uproar at the University of Colorado, specifically in the philosophy department, which has suspended admissions to its graduate programs for the 2014-15 academic year. The department also has had its chair removed and replaced (although as of this writing you would not know that from the departmental directory), and been the subject of a furious lambasting by an external review committee invited to campus from the American Philosophical Association. To top it all off, the APA report concludes with this terrifying recommendation:

Under no circumstances should this department sponsor or be affiliated in any way with an event that includes alcohol.

You can bet that got the faculty’s attention.

Image from the APA Committee on the Status of Women Report to the Philosophy Department of the University of Colorado.

Image from the Report of the APA Committee on the Status of Women to the Philosophy Department of the University of Colorado.

What is the cause of all this consternation? Fragile female philosophers and their sensitive male counterparts. We knew all the way back in September that female graduate students awash in sexism at the Harvard Business School were having the fantods. But mild mannered philosophers in laid back Colorado? Really?

Really.  Apparently conditions at the University of Colorado’s philosophy department are so bad that

female graduate students report being anxious, demoralized, and depressed. Some female students report that they avoid working with some faculty members because of things that they have heard about those faculty members.

Back when I was a graduate student, I was “anxious, demoralized, and depressed” approximately 100% of the time, but no matter– my field was English, so such emotions were to be expected. In Colorado, though, it gets much worse:

male graduate students report being extremely worried about the climate of harassment.They are worried that they will be tainted by the national reputation of the department as being hostile to women. They are worried about getting a job letter from someone who has a bad reputation when the student does not know exactly who has a bad reputation….They avoid some faculty because they do not want to have a reputation that might come with being advised by a harasser (a problem exacerbated by lack of certainty about who the harassers are).

In other words, students base their behavior on listening to rumor and innuendo (“some female students report that they avoid working with some faculty members because of things that they have heard”). Male students act upon rumor and innuendo they have not heard (“they avoid some faculty because they do not want to have a reputation that might come with being advised by a harasser (a problem exacerbated by lack of certainty about who the harassers are)”). It goes without saying that budding male philosophers are not troubled by the actual harassment of their feminine counterparts, but only by possible boomerang effects on themselves. Do keep in mind we are talking about people who study empathy.

All in all, a sorry state of affairs.

Much to my disappointment, the APA report, conducted under the aegis of the association’s Committee on the Status of Women, contains no prurient details or juicy descriptions of wayward philosophers in action. It merely smears with a broad brush, finding eight “themes” the department must address if it is to clean up its act:

1. An environment of sexual harassment and sexualized unprofessional behavior.

2. Lack of civility, collegiality and respect for members of various groups.

3. Bullying.

4. Lack of boundaries and professionalism.

5. Lack of transparency regarding disciplinary processes, procedures and outcomes.

6. Lack of faculty trust in university judicial institutions, practices and procedures.

7. Lack of transparency in the administration of the graduate program.

8. Lack of leadership.

Try as I might, I can’t even find a second-hand smoking gun, although The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, and Boulder’s The Daily Camera have all covered the story. What I glean from the APA report, however, is that there is a lot of male bonding going on in the form of drinking, joking, and attempted womanizing that leaves the ladies feeling they are not members of the club. Apparently, such boys-will-be boys esprit de (part of the) corps is endemic throughout the discipline.

Even so, it is difficult to understand the draconian corrective measure the APA report recommends. In addition to the ban on after-hours drinking, it also mandates that all departmental events (presumably including those strictly academic in nature)

focus on being family-friendly and professional. Events should be held during normal business hours (9-5) and should be such that you would feel comfortable with your children or parents being present. This holds for official department events as well as those attended by individual faculty, on or off campus.

Given the attention span of the average eight-year-old, constructing “family-friendly” dissertation defenses or guest lectures will require challenging logistics.

The most chilling recommendation of the report, however, suggests the department institute

Bystander training for all department members, so people are comfortable intervening in situations that the group has decided that it will not tolerate. This will help remove perceptions that those who are not engaging in sexual harassment are complicit with sexual harassment.
The faculty's new hangout.

The faculty’s new hangout.

Bystander training” is a new craze currently sweeping the academy, along the lines of “see something, say something.” Even if you are not sure what you saw, where in a series of encounters what you witnessed has occurred, or are uncomfortable at the thought of being required to be a tattle-tale.

I wish it were possible to apprehend the sorry story of Colorado’s pathetic philosophy department as something other than an object lesson in the arrested development of faculty members whose coddled lives are such that they never quite make the transition to adulthood. But it is not.

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