CFI Still Doesn’t Get It

If you didn’t already know, a scandal has exploded yet again throwing CFI in a bad light (you can catch up on events here and you should definitely read the original piece starting it all here). And once again they are making things worse with a disastrous pattern of communication. Things are still happening behind the scenes, so I am awaiting events to unfold further before I make a decision, but CFI is not handling this well, and this could spell the end of them for me.

Apart from the obvious (the horrible treatment Stollznow has endured and the awful human being Ben Radford is…and I do not have to trust all of Stollnow’s report to reach that conclusion about him, although I have [as of writing] seen no reason to doubt anything she’s said; and that’s well apart from the fact that Radford already has a record of being an unskeptical anti-feminist worthy of eye-rolling), I have two major problems with what is going on so far, one has to do with the legal and corporate culture at CFI (which I will blog about later, either tomorrow or next week), the other has to do with CFI’s public communications in this matter.

It seems evident, regardless of which details are disputed, that Ben Radford engaged in a sustained campaign of sexual harassment against Dr. Karen Stollznow (both employees of CFI for many years). And he received no visible punishment. He continues to be employed at CFI. I’m told he was punished somehow but no one can talk about how (this is a serious problem I will be taking on in my next post about this matter). But frankly, if even a fraction of what Stollznow says is true, any other business would have fired him in a heartbeat, and I am struggling to understand why I should support any nonprofit that would keep him (or why I should subscribe to a magazine he edits). As for Stollznow, seeing her harasser largely unaffected and receiving no significant support from CFI, she essentially just had to leave.

More about all this may come out, more developments may ensue (I am aware of things happening I can’t discuss). But right now, this is how it looks. And that does not make CFI look good. At all.

But making all this far worse (again) was CFI’s public statement on the matter. Which is a disaster. The same thing happened last time, when CFI’s “statement” about the Lindsay affair was exactly the wrong thing to say, the very worst possible public communication on the matter. It failed to acknowledge any wrongdoing or even what the problem was, it passive-aggressively complained about being criticized, and said nothing that showed any understanding of what it was being criticized for, and nothing as to what it was going to do about it. Indeed, the statement as a whole was essentially an exercise in contempt…even if that wasn’t its intention, but intention isn’t magic–and that’s what a communications director is supposed to be for: to ensure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen, that communications with the public don’t look contemptuous or useless or clueless. Yet in that case CFI didn’t even avail itself of its own communications director. Even now I don’t think its board of directors understands how contemptuous, useless, and clueless that statement made them appear.

This new statement is the same kind of travesty. Other organizations have leadership that actually understands how to do this right (examples here, here, here, and here, and still especially relevant, here). CFI is alone in doing it disastrously. That is essentially the definition of relative incompetence.

I thought CFI’s communications director was Paul Fidalgo–who I know wouldn’t be this awful at the job. If he wrote this new one, he should resign and instruct CFI to hire someone who knows what they’re doing. But I doubt he wrote it, because he didn’t write the last one (that was written by CFI’s warring board of directors who couldn’t agree on anything). And if that’s the case, CFI board of directors, you need to stop doing that. Seriously. Stop doing that. You are consistently making things worse and making CFI look incompetent and insensitive. You do not know what you are doing. Use your communications director. That is what you pay him for.

To help you see what I mean, CFI, let’s break down your public statement on the Radford-Stollznow matter (and we know who the parties are, even if your lawyers keep telling you you can’t admit it).

Regarding the August 7 Communication from CFI

Regardless of what you intended (and again: intentions aren’t magic, you need a comms director to make sure your true intentions are communicated effectively, so regardless of your intentions, the fault here remains yours) what you released on August 7 looks like nothing other than a “Cover Your Ass” statement in insensitive legalese that is cold, self-contradictory, passive-aggressive, and accusatory. Almost every single thing in it was the wrong to say, indeed almost exactly the opposite of what it should have said.

There was no “we are sorry for what happened to Dr. Stollznow, and we want to make every effort to ensure that never happens again, and that we will not support such behavior in any way at all.” No. No sympathy was expressed for the victim. Not even any validation of what happened to her. Instead, it looks like this statement basically calls her a liar and tells CFI constituents to shut up and fuck off and that CFI refuses to do anything further about this. If that is not what it was supposed to say, whoever wrote it needs to step down and never write this stuff again, and a more experienced person needs to be tasked with writing these things from now on.

It’s worse because the statement accomplishes exactly the opposite of what its own stated goal was: ‘to encourage future complainants to feel comfortable submitting complaints’. Indeed, your statement looks almost tailor made to discourage and scare off future complainants. And to accomplish exactly the opposite of your stated goal is a communications failure of epic proportions.

Paragraph Breakdown

August 7, 2013

There have been blog posts recently that have commented on public allegations made by Karen Stollznow regarding harassment she suffered and what she considered a less than adequate response by the organization employing the harasser. These posts have named CFI as the organization in question and one of CFI’s employees as the accused harasser.

Nothing wrong so far. That’s a straightforward (and for you, safe) summary of the facts to date. But then it goes off the rails…

As a general rule, CFI does not discuss personnel matters in public. We refrain from discussing these matters in public not only out of consideration for our staff, but also because experience has shown that this is the best way to encourage people to come forward with complaints. If individuals who need to alert us about harassment could not be assured that CFI will endeavor to protect their confidentiality, then management might never be informed of the problem, and that’s not what we want. We want to encourage people to come forward with their complaints so we can give them the serious attention they warrant. This general rule about not discussing personnel matters in public is followed by the vast majority of employers.

This is almost a hundred words devoted to expressing a primary goal: “to encourage people to come forward with complaints.” This will come back to bite you in coming paragraphs. So I just wanted to point it out while we’re here.

But what’s wrong with this paragraph (and why it shouldn’t even be here, or should have been worded radically differently) is that it looks dishonest and manipulative. The accuser has already publicly come forward. You cannot therefore cite “her confidentiality” as a reason to not speak about the case. To hide behind her this way is contemptuous. We know this can’t be a valid reason for you to say nothing now. So why insult our intelligence by pretending we don’t know that? Why resort to this excuse? Your silence is not protecting her. Nor will your speaking out now discourage future complainants from coming forward. To the contrary (as I’ll soon make clear), your silence is discouraging future complainants from coming forward.

If, for example, CFI has evidence Dr. Stollznow lied about something, then this cannot be a reason to not say so, since CFI can’t mean it wants to encourage lying. To the contrary, outing a liar would discourage lying in a complaint, which should be the desired outcome, not the outcome CFI is trying to avoid. We have no reason to believe Dr. Stollznow has actually lied about anything (one might find in any witness testimony small exaggerations, and errors in minor details perhaps, but that’s not the same thing, so let’s not pretend we need to assume 100% accuracy to trust an account). Whereas if CFI has evidence that corroborates anything in Dr. Stollznow’s account, then it would actually encourage future complainants to see that you are willing to back them when they come forward.

See the problem? You should be backing her, or else saying you have no evidence backing her. You cannot use “protecting her confidentiality” as an excuse to do neither. Even if, for example, you can’t release specific evidence, you can release redacted evidence or give general descriptions of evidence. You can at the very least confirm there is evidence supporting at least some elements of her story. You have no valid excuse not to. (For an example of doing that sort of thing, see here.)

What you should have said is that you will respect the confidentiality of complainants generally and thus normally wouldn’t discuss a case like this, but only because this complainant has come forward you will speak to the case as much as you are able. For example, to corroborate or contradict anything she has alleged, so far as you can; or to say you can’t corroborate or contradict anything she has alleged and (more or less) why; or that you are being prevented from speaking about the case at all because her harasser is forcing you to be silent in the matter by invoking his own privacy; or whatever…something, anything but what you instead wrote, which is illogical and disingenuous.

This is already bad communication. But it gets worse.

For now, we see no reason to deviate from this general rule.

We do. Stollznow has come forward. Your “general rule” is therefore compromised under the weight of an enormous and obvious exception. If you can’t see plain facts that we can see, this does not make you look competent or trustworthy. You need better reasoning than this. General rules no longer apply when exceptions arise.

The question you need to ask yourself is: Do future complainants see from this that you will have their back? To the contrary, they see that you will not, that you will only defend yourself from criticism, and not even acknowledge that they were victimized. How does that “encourage people to come forward with complaints”?

However, we would like to make it clear that any suggestion that CFI has been less than diligent in addressing harassment complaints is mistaken. During the administration of current president and CEO, Ronald A. Lindsay, that is since July 2008, CFI has investigated all complaints that have been made to management, and, where necessary, has taken appropriate corrective action.

Action that is completely invisible to us. It does not matter why you can’t remedy that invisibility, it remains a fact: no evident consequences occurred. Now think about a future complainant reading this. They have no reason to believe their complaint will get any results at all, because they cannot see any results in this case. A persistent harasser simply keeps his job. His victim has to leave. That’s what all future complainants see. This does not serve your goal “to encourage people to come forward with complaints.” Indeed, what evidence is there that can assure any future complainant that anything will even happen?

That is a huge communications problem. It does not matter what your legal situation is (which I’ll talk about in a future post). If you want to achieve your goal “to encourage people to come forward with complaints,” you need to find a way to communicate to future complainants that complaints actually get results. Simply hiding behind “trust us” will not work when you have already made it hard for your constituents to trust you (as a result of your previous communications disaster in the Lindsay affair).

The extent of the investigation’s nature varies from case-to-case, depending on the allegations that are made. Claims requiring extensive investigation may be handled by an impartial outside law firm and/or consultant. Although use of outside impartial investigators can be very expensive, CFI is committed to carrying out as thorough an investigation as necessary.

This is probably the very worst thing you could have said. Look at this last sentence from the perspective of any future employee, contractor, or complainant: “requiring” a “very expensive” investigation makes it look like CFI only cares about money, and that it is annoyed it had to investigate this matter, and is whining about how expensive it was. Talk about passive aggressively discouraging future complaints! That’s exactly the opposite of what this very statement had claimed was a major CFI objective.

Why on earth is this statement in here? Why mention money at all? This sounds like a dirty corporation effecting a coverup, delivering a wink-wink nod to its investors (i.e. donors) explaining why they spent so much money on this ridiculous waste of time, and that anyone who files complaints in the future should feel guilty for costing them so much money.

It does not matter what you thought you were saying. This is what you have communicated. And that is a communications disaster. You just contradicted and undermined a major goal affirmed in this very same statement. Again.

Sure, perhaps you intended this to be evidence of how seriously you take claims like this. But you should stop, step back, and think about whether it might have a completely different meaning and effect given the way you worded it and the context you put it in. Because it does.

Neither allegations nor denials determine the actions CFI takes. The results of the investigation determine the actions taken by CFI. If CFI has employed an outside investigator, we go with the investigator’s findings; we do not substitute our suspicions. If the investigator found, for example, that a sexual assault occurred, we would accept that finding; likewise, if the investigator found that no sexual assault occurred, we would accept that finding.

Not only does this communicate nothing, it abrogates all responsibility for the outcome. It is simply irresponsible to let third parties dictate who you will hire or fire, or any decisions affecting the company. Deciding who to believe is not the job of a third party (who I am sure was not asked to decide that anyway, but to only report what it could and could not independently confirm, which is not a decision, but data…data that one must then use in addition to other data to assist in making a decision).

This statement is also illogical. Because it requires violating the law of excluded middle. It says you had to conclude that either a sexual assault occurred or didn’t, when in fact there are many middle conclusions possible other than those: “it probably occurred,” “it might have occurred,” “we have reason to believe it occurred even though we only have the victim’s testimony and we trust her,” etc.

And not only is this illogical, it basically communicates that CFI takes no responsibility for anything and makes no decisions and has no moral opinions about what happened. It also communicates that CFI never decides to trust a woman unless she is independently corroborated (thus, being an eye-witness to a crime doesn’t count as evidence for you; even though the whole American legal system would collapse if we followed such a rule), but that CFI implicitly trusts a man without any such requirement of requiring corroborating evidence. It also communicates that CFI exercises no professional judgment and makes no effort to determine who is trustworthy in general (as juries are instructed to do when accused persons gainsay witnesses, as they almost always do).

In short, this is the worst way you could have worded that paragraph. And once again, you show no sympathy for the victim, validate her in no way at all, and essentially “hint” that your “third party” found Radford innocent. We know that is not the case, yet you can’t even bring yourself to admit a single fact. You speak in useless generalities that communicate nothing to the public, other than that CFI takes no responsibility for anything and lets third parties make its decisions (and then doesn’t even tell its own supporters what decisions were made).

That does not make you look good. It makes you look a bit like weasels. And again, what you intended here is not relevant. What matters is what you communicated.

(Of course, I must also note that sexual harassment and sexual assault are not the same thing, and the sexual assault allegations are only a small part of the whole pattern of harassing behavior alleged in this case, but I’ll be charitable and assume you were serious when you said “for example,” and weren’t implying that this whole case rested on whether you could find a third party who witnessed the sexual assaults…even though one normally doesn’t need such a thing in the real world to trust a victim, as a victim’s relative trustworthiness can be ascertained by other means.)

One thing we will never do is have our decisions dictated by rumor, gossip, or innuendo, whether it’s directed at the accuser or the accused. Such an approach would be improper and unjust for any organization. For an organization dedicated to promoting critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning, it would be a violation of our guiding principles.

This essentially says Stollznow is a liar. You just declared that what she has written is just “rumor, gossip, and innuendo” and that you don’t believe any of it. For no stated reason. Once again, what you intended here is not relevant. What matters is what you communicated. (Since Stollznow is the only person up to the moment you posted this communication who made any relevant claims that would relate to your “decisions” in this matter.)

Now look at this again from the point of view of a future complainant reading this. They can now expect to be called a liar in official communications. They can expect CFI will do and say nothing to support them. They can expect CFI will make no decisions of its own. And they can expect CFI won’t believe anything they say.

That is what this statement has communicated to all future complainants.

Think about that. And now revisit your stated goal “to encourage people to come forward with complaints.” Can you not see that you shot that goal square in the face? And then smashed it with a sledge hammer for good measure?

Getting the Point

CFI, get the point. Please.

A future complainant so far sees from you no reason to believe their complaint will get any results at all, because they cannot see any results in this case. A persistent harasser simply keeps his job. His victim has to leave. That’s what all future complainants see. This does not serve your goal “to encourage people to come forward with complaints.” Indeed, what evidence is there that can assure any future complainant that anything will even happen?

A future complainant so far sees from you no reason to believe you will support them. At all. They see a company that will turn their back on them, even call them a liar. This does not serve your goal “to encourage people to come forward with complaints.” Indeed, what evidence is there that can assure any future complainant that they will not be treated in this same deplorable way?

How can we trust you, when you don’t communicate anything to us, show no compassion or sympathy for victims in your own company, show no support for them whatever, and appear to protect the career of a victimizer?

I must make clear that if this case had occurred under any other national atheist or skeptic organization (with the exception of JREF, but that’s another story), I would be more charitable. But CFI already has an established record of not being trustworthy in these matters, of being tone deaf to women and women’s issues, and of failing to treat them competently. That makes this incident significantly worse. You already have a huge trust problem with us, CFI, and you are not moving to correct that. You are acting in ways that are leading us to trust you even less. What you intend is irrelevant. This is what you are doing.

Just a month ago I recommended we give CFI another chance, but with caution, given that CFI had so badly botched its treatment of women just this very year (in CFI and WiS 3). There I wrote:

Although I have lost a lot of confidence in Ron Lindsay’s leadership (and would still prefer someone better), he at least is now handling the situation correctly. He isn’t treating us with contempt. And CFI has voiced a commitment to doing better. After a few epic failures, they are now demonstrating responsiveness to discontent in their actual and future membership. We might still consider them on probation (Rebecca Watson’s take on this is apt) but I’m hopeful, and they need to see that we will support them if they continue in this direction. So I think it’s time to start working toward that.

So far, you are not continuing in this direction. You are pedaling backwards. Rapidly.

If you don’t correct your course, clearly and soon, I’m going to have to cut you loose, and declare you a wholly untrustworthy organization who does not respect women or know how to communicate with its own constituents.

If you don’t want that to be the story of you, then what are you going to do to change the story?


  1. says

    The actions of CFI have been disappointing and this post explains why that is so well. Besides, there is a minor error. The actual CFI statement says “extensive investigation” and not “expensive investigation.” So, these points don’t make sense:

    Look at this last sentence from the perspective of any future employee, contractor, or complainant: “requiring” a “very expensive” investigation makes it look like CFI only cares about money, and that it is annoyed it had to investigate this matter, and is whining about how expensive it was.

  2. says

    Ok, I get it. The reason I misunderstood was that I interpreted “requiring an extensive investigation” as hinting towards the organization’s incapability of doing such an investigation itself, not as hinting towards financial costs of such an investigation.

  3. maudell says

    I’d like to add that Dr. Stollznow has requested the conclusion of the investigation and was not able to get it. On Blake Smith’s Facebook page, there is a post where he writes that he jumped to conclusions too fast by supporting her without getting Radford’s explanation, and now that he’s got it, it’s ‘very complicated’ (according to Smith, it’s a personal matter between Radford, Stollznow and her husband). [sorry, I don’t have the link, but I think it is fairly easy to find]. On the thread below, Dr. Stollznow’s husband responds to those who claim that CFI’s secrecy is to protect her. He confirms the way the investigation happened: they questioned Dr. Stollznow, then spoke to Radford, let him know all the evidence all allegations she communicated to them. Radford’s defence and their conclusion remained unknown to Dr. Stollznow, despite her requests to know.

    In other words, Radford received *more* information about the investigation than she did. And he had the last word with them, she can’t even know what he said.

    You know who understands this dynamic best? Abusers. As has been pointed out all over the place, that’s what we get from catholic methods. It’s pathetic.

    • says

      Thank you. That post is here (currently).

      For those who might not know, Smith, Radford, and Stollznow co-host(ed?) the MonsterTalk podcast.

      In Smith’s Facebook thread, Stollznow’s husband, Matthew Baxter, weighs in after Radford claims he’s being targeted with lies; Baxter is an eye-witness to some of what his wife reported, and his comments are worth noting:

      Ben, I know that it is your job at this point to minimize things. You would never admit to the things that you did. Fine. I get that. The truth is that you were asked to back off for years and you didn’t. You acted like I didn’t even exist in your persistence with Karen. I am her husband and no matter what you think of me, I asked you like a gentleman to back off. I never came out and told you off for your repeated sexually charged contact. I tried to (erroneously) give you the benefit of the doubt. I hoped you would just get bored. You didn’t. You continued. When Karen cut your communication paths off, you started claiming that she was disrespectful to you. Do you really want this fight, Ben? We can back up our side of things. You are in the wrong. Period. No amount of claiming that someone gave you mixed signals will work when we both have copies of the cries for you to STOP. Just admit where you were wrong and apologize. Remember when things actually worked out for awhile? TAM 2011. You behaved and were a real gentleman. We forgave and things were smooth. We had always been willing to be reasonable as long as our wishes were honored. You just couldn’t let it go. You have a problem and need to get some help.

      He then added:

      There is no more secrecy about who is involved. The cat is out of the bag. Who is being protected now? Here is the secrecy: Ben even says that his claims and evidence were only heard by the investigator but he fully heard and saw our claims and evidence. He had a chance to defend himself against our claims. We have no way of refuting what he said to the investigator. We have no way of knowing what details are simply wrong to correct them. We have no way of knowing which evidence CFI decided to reject and why. We have no way of knowing what was in that report that is about us. I’m so glad that we are protected from defending ourselves from his claims. This secrecy is awesome.

      (Sarcasm, of course.)

  4. Anti Hitchens says

    Dick, you arrogant prick, it will be funnier than hell if you actually get sued for libel. I think you will go to far, due to your own hubris, and actually cross the line in a legal morass.

    • says

      I’ll set aside your childishness and pretend you are willing to act like an adult:

      Let me know if any statement in my article is false. If you can show that it is, I’ll revise.

      So far, so far as I know, everything I’ve said is true (as I’ve worded it), and any reasonable person in my present position would agree. I can’t be sued for libel for stating things I have good reason to believe are true. The plaintiff (especially a public figure, as in this case) has to show the statements are false, and that I should have known they were false. I know that can’t happen, because I can think of no way I could know anything I’ve said is false. (In fact, under California libel law, “public figures…must prove that the defendant acted with actual malice, i.e., knowing that the statements were false or recklessly disregarding their falsity,” so even just proving negligence doesn’t count.)

      If, on the other hand, they can only show that it’s false (and not that I should have known it was false), then the most they can do is legally enjoin me to remove it and issue a retraction. Which I would gladly do. Indeed, a lawsuit would be wholly unnecessary for that. They need only send me the evidence I got something wrong. Revisit my sentence in bold above.

    • davidjanes says

      Julie /Richard:

      Depending on labor law in New York, they may or may not be able to share the results of an employee disciplinary process with anyone other than the employee being disciplined and the supervisor(s) involved.

      This is not a defense of CFI by the way – just that in my experience it has become nearly impossible to publicly share any part of an employee’s work experience with the outside world other than their dates of employment. It’s one reason the reference process during hiring has become nearly farcical. You spend a lot of time playing telephone tag for a 15 second confirmation of the hiring and termination dates.

    • says

      I am aware of this. And it is something that disturbs me deeply. I’m going to blog about the fundamental and disastrous injustice of such a law soon. It shouldn’t be hard to realize why that law makes every nonprofit organization untrustworthy (against their will even, which is even more unjust) and essentially would be the Catholic Church’s wet dream (I mean, not only being legally allowed to conceal unethical behavior from the public, but being legally required to…how brilliantly evil).

  5. carlie says

    Thank you for so thoroughly fisking this statement. It’s the kind of thing that is so bad, it’s hard to know where to begin.

  6. Julie says

    The fact that Radford was given access to all of Stolznow’s testimony and evidence, but she has not been able to see Radford’s or the conclusions, is a new, horrible detail for me. CFI just sinks lower.

    • says

      I would recommend reading Stollznow’s whole account of events at Scientific American (the second link in the first sentence of my article here). She commented on this aspect of the case in more detail.

      This is another issue where I think CFI’s board of directors doesn’t understand what’s wrong with this and is acting (it would seem) on the advice of lawyers more concerned to sweep these events under the rug than to more judiciously advise them on what they actually could honestly do–like, for example, give her the report. If they don’t like the prospect that she will leak outrageous information from it, that would suggest they care more about themselves than justice (and if they could actually imagine themselves in her shoes, surely they’d agree).

      I don’t think they grasp the fact that if Radford makes counter-accusations against her, she becomes an accused person and therefore should have exactly the same rights he does (such as to know what accusations have been made against her and what evidence was given in support of it).

  7. says

    Note to commenters: I don’t usually work weekends, so further comments will linger in moderation, unseen, until I return to business Monday. I normally don’t point this out in comment threads, as this fact is already standard practice at my blog (it has long been noted in my comments policy), but I thought I should call attention to it this time because of the particularly important and breaking nature of news regarding this matter.

  8. hjhornbeck says

    Confession time: I thought CFI’s response wasn’t that bad. Sure it said nothing, but at least it was boilerplate legalize, released quickly to ease tensions.

    While you are less charitable than I’d be, I’m also having a tough time refuting your points. There are some deep issues with the release that my initial skim missed, and it points toward the CFI board being strongly dismissive of all sexual harassment claims.

    This will not end well for them.

    • says

      Right. Note that I said I had to be a little less charitable than I’d usually be myself, because of their recent track record. They already started in a position of lowered trust on exactly these kinds of issues. So they should have been even more diligent about getting this right.

  9. A Hermit says

    The fact that the person who was harassed is out of the organization and the person who did the harassing is still there kind of tells you everything you need to know doesn’t it?

    That outcome does not serve to encourage others who have been harassed to come forward.

    • says

      It is troubling because it entails either they concluded she was lying or that what she reports wasn’t that bad. The latter would be abominable (even, as I noted, if only a fraction of it was true). The former would be as well, unless they “proved” she or her account were unreliable (as otherwise they can have no reason to distrust her).

      Which means, as it stands, even on a charitable reading (i.e. assuming they would not think what she reports was “all that bad”) they are de facto saying she’s a liar. Even if they think they only mean they “don’t know” what’s true, they don’t seem to realize that that is the same thing as believing she’s untrustworthy. So, why? For good reasons? Or not?

      This brings us back to what was discussed in comments above: their refusal to tell her what evidence they (supposedly) have against her.

    • A Hermit says

      And if their position is that they believe she is lying then she, as you pointed out above, is in the position of being the accused and should have the right to see the report which is forming the basis of that belief.

  10. Alyssum says

    What stood out for me in was that they say that they will except the findings of an outside investigator. They do not say that they will act on the findings or how they will act on the findings. This is not very comforting since lack of appropriate action seems to be one of the main issues brought up by Karen Stollznow.

  11. says

    I’m reminded to mention (since I shouldn’t assume everyone knows this) but the CFI (Center for Inquiry) I am speaking about is the main/US branch. The Canadian and UK branches are largely independent and mostly under different management. Likewise any other national branches they may have.

  12. b. - Order of Lagomorpha says

    And he received no visible punishment. He continues to be employed at CFI. I’m told he was punished somehow but no one can talk about how (this is a serious problem I will be taking on in my next post about this matter).

    From the SA article:

    They assured me they were disciplining the harasser but this turned out to be a mere slap on the wrist. He was suspended, while he was on vacation overseas.

    (bolding added) A “slap on the wrist”, indeed. I’m thoroughly disgusted with CFI.

    • says

      They (unofficially) claim he was punished in some other way as well. I’m not sure I trust them. And in any event, it’s meaningless if they can’t even admit to his bogus suspension, much less anything else. Invisible punishment is no different from punishment that doesn’t exist–in the view of all future employees, contractors, financial supporters, and complainants. The view they claim to care about.

      Moreover, I still can’t imagine any punishment that would be appropriate other than his dismissal. And that’s even if a fraction of her account is correct (they seem to be assuming that even if a fraction of her account is incorrect, then Radford should not be dismissed, which is illogical, but since they don’t actually say anything clearly at all, who knows what they are thinking.)

  13. says

    As an active member of CFI and co-organizer of CFI social events in my town, I share your disillusionment with CFI and their behavior in this matter. I too am seriously reconsidering my membership if they don’t take drastic action to correct their terrible response ASAP. Prior to this I was also making plans to attend their CFI Summit convention in Tacoma coming up in October, but I may not bother with that (luckily I have not yet purchased tickets for it). It will be interesting to see if this burgeoning fiasco impacts that conference. If the organization continues to bungle it, I would hope some speakers would think again about their participation, depending on contractual obligations. I could stand to miss it, especially since I just found out about the Florida Freethinkers conference in Orlando scheduled the weekend right after the CFI Summit (Nov 2nd/3rd)), with some great speakers lined up. Heck at least that is within easy driving distance for me.

    In any case, perhaps the only drastic action worthy of truly correcting this debacle would be (if they legally can) fire Radford, and if not that, at the least Lindsay should step down and hand the reigns over to someone else, preferably a woman.

  14. b. - Order of Lagomorpha says

    Ah…I didn’t notice the other (supposed) punishments. I agree–it’s totally worthless if you don’t make it known. Pour encourager les autres if nothing else. If you know that this (whatever “this” might be) is what’s going to happen, perhaps some people will be discouraged from taking the risk, even if just not doing it because it isn’t right doesn’t faze them. If you hear “suspended while on vacation and some…ummm….other stuff”, it’s not terribly effective at discouraging bad behaviors. And the victim should know exactly what happened, both so that they know harassment (sexual and/or otherwise) is taken seriously and for whatever small satisfaction they might get that the perpetrator got negative reinforcement.

    I remain deeply disgusted with CFI. Their CFISummit is coming up in October here in my home state. I’d been thinking about going–how often do I get a chance to hear Eugenie Scott and Joe Nickell (and Ophelia Benson and…and…and)? Not anymore. As disappointed as I am to miss out on seeing people I admire, I refuse to give a dime to an organization that behaves as it has.

  15. Donnie says


    It appears either the link to the original blog post by Dr. Stollznow is boinked, or Scientific American pulled the blog post. I believe that the later is the case.

    • says

      See comments above. CFI asked for corrections (to relatively minor fact-claims in the account, none having to do with the behavior alleged of Radford) and SciAm pulled the whole article. Possibly until the three statements Lindsay wants corrected are corrected.

    • says

      Good, thanks.

      Lindsay’s reasoning for it to be corrected is largely petty or relatively minor:

      Item 1 is a trivial question of when CFI adopted a specificaly “zero tolerance policy for hostile and harassing conduct,” which seems to worry Lindsay a lot more than me, since I don’t think that has anything to do with CFI’s reputation (and indeed, it kind of looks worse, given that the alleged behavior was going on under the policy even longer by his account).

      [Note that Stollznow may have confused this with that, or gave the wrong impression that she did. In any event, I don’t consider it a big deal when CFI instituted the policy.]

      Item 2 essentially admits that Radford suffered a suspension of (still) unstated duration (and that Stollznow incorrectly believed, or appeared to misstate, that it was concurrent with his vacation). Which does not pertain to what Stollznow alleged of Radford.

      Item 3 is subjective and not factual (he basically just says he doesn’t personally think the past history of sexual harassment at CFI has been “extraordinarily bad”). Worse, it is also his subjective opinion that Stollznow’s account declared it “extraordinarily bad” (yet those aren’t her words). He does seem to claim there has been no record of any other disciplined case (light or otherwise) under his watch, but her statement did not specify so narrow a time period. Moreover, his wording (“No harassment was found in the prior cases so there was no discipline for harassment”) could actually be a confirmation of just what she said (claims were dismissed or ignored and the accused was just advised to behave, hence “no discipline” was applied).

      [Also, I’ve seen too many cases of documentation not being filed to trust him. Some conferences had a problem with this; not documenting any claims or consequent actions allows them to claim nothing has happened. Can we trust that CFI hasn’t done the same thing, e.g. several times filed no claims or reprimands but just given offenders a private talking-to?]

      And that’s it. Notably he does not challenge any of her claims regarding the actual harassment she endured. (That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t, possibly he is just focusing on these because he can publicly gainsay them, whereas maybe his hands are tied in any other respect.)

      Indeed, the rest of his statement appears to imply he thinks those were the three claims harming CFI’s income and image…he doesn’t seem to think the actual behavior of Radford and their failure to fire him for it has anything to do with that. Bizarre. Head in sand?

  16. b. - Order of Lagomorpha says

    Donnie ninja’d me–it’s also still available via Google cache. I grabbed screenshots of it, just in case.

    • ludicfallacy says

      “Lindsay’s reasoning for it to be corrected is largely petty or relatively minor:”

      You feel legal considerations are petty and relatively minor?

      Clearly you know nothing about law.

    • says

      You feel legal considerations are petty and relatively minor?

      When we’re talking about years of sexual harassment and why Ben Radford is still employed at CFI, yes.

      Indeed, even with regard to “legal considerations” Lindsay’s three desired corrections are indeed minor. They have virtually no legal repercussions even for CFI, and are mere minor details of dates and subjective opinions regarding how bad past undisciplined harassment at CFI has been–which completely miss the point of why CFI is actually in hot water over this (and why people are actually pulling donations), and which don’t challenge a single significant element of Stollznow’s account…and every one of which can be attributed to not only an honest mistake on her part, but mistakes CFI is responsible for, because it failed to inform her of the correct facts (by keeping the final report and outcome of the case from her).

  17. says

    Update: In addition to corroboration of Radford’s harassment by Stollznow’s husband (above), we now have a personal friend of Stollznow, Joe Anderson, publicly corroborating it as well (here).

    Both accounts make clear that Radford was repeatedly asked to stop, and instead repeatedly continued, contacting her in unwanted (and professionally unnecessary) ways at least weekly.

    Even just that behavior (even before we consider what the exact wording of the cards and emails and things he kept sending her) would be sufficient to terminate someone at almost any other business I’ve worked at.

    Possibly the company policy is to only do that if he continues after being officially reprimanded, although in this case that would seem disingenuous considering they terminated an employee for one single incident in another case (and even boast of doing so: see comment here, referring to what Lindsay said here).

    Also, in addition to my analysis of the new communication from Ron Lindsay (that last link), which you should read above (if you haven’t already), Stephanie Zvan does a detailed breakdown of the same letter, which is well worth a read: What Is Not in Dispute.

    Jason Thibeault also now is maintaining a timeline of events (of both this case and the developing Shermer case): Sexual Harassment Accusations in the Skeptical and Secular Communities: A Timeline of Major Events.

  18. Don Kemerling says

    I am quite sympathetic with Karen Stollznow, and would not put anyone through what she went through for the last few years. Right now, if I were to have to choose to be either in Ben Radford”s shoes or Karen Stollznow’s shoes, I would much prefer hers, because she has shown herself to be resilient and very talented, and she has, and deserves, much respect. I see her future as very bright. I hope she can still contribute to the Skeptical Inquirer. Mr. Radford is in no enviable position, that I can see. He’s got the village running around with the scythes and pitch forks, and has been deeply humiliated.

    I am concerned about the future of CFI. It has a long tradition that should be respected and protected and rebuilt. I cannot but assume that they know that they have a serious problem, but to throw constant criticism, including verbalizing the worst possible interpretations of their actions, or lack of communication, as something akin to evil is not productive, in my opinion(I usually refuse to use the word “evil”). They are not an “evil” organization. You may say that Ben Radford is an awful person, but let us just consider a specific range of his behavior as awful, and thus try to assess this in a reasonable and compassionate way. His problems may be due to some psychiatric difficulties, and if so we should consider some sympathy for him as well, and hope that he is getting help. We certainly can’t say that the behaviors in question are those of a person acting either in his best interest, or the best interests of CFI. If that is all so, then we should understand why they have to keep some information confidential. Whatever decisions they make they are certainly complicated by labor law and ethics, and perhaps some other practical considerations.

    I’m not sure that if any of us were invited in to give them advice, that we would be able to lead them out of this difficult spot. I am sure, however, that I would be very troubled if they go down the tubes over this affair. I have looked to this organization for leadership and information and exemplary standards for 25 years now, and others have done so for longer than that. I too am disappointed, but I have great respect for the people that I know up there in Amherst. I don’t know as many of them as I used to, but I think it’s time to stand back and let them deliberate a little, and hope that the plan they come up with will insure that they survive as a vital resource for the skeptical and secular humanist community. We’ve squeezed them with terrific force, so let’s cut them just a little slack and see if they do the best things. It may take some time–not much time I hope–but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are no bloggers or Meetup groups or web page owners that can take the place of the Center for Inquiry. I hope they know what is at stake, and I think they do know what is at stake. It’s time for the extreme critics to realize what is at stake.

    • says

      I’ve tried all I can to help them get out of this old-school, self-destructive pattern of bad leadership. They just aren’t listening. Their days are thus numbered with me. That’s sad. But we can’t allow this to continue. They need to change. Or be replaced with an organization that gets it.

  19. Don Kemerling says

    Did they tell you they weren’t listening? Are you privy to all the internal discussions and decisions associated with this matter? To think that an organization like CFI dismisses ethical issues associated with sexism and sexual harassment is impossible for me. I just can’t believe it. If it is true, then the board of directors should do something about this immediately, of course. Do you know if there have been board meetings since this has all precipitated and become public–as much as has become public? August is a time when many academics leave town or are otherwise unavailable. Have they had the crucial meetings yet?

    It may be easy to say that CFI must be replaced, but that’s a difficult thing to do. Their library, and their publications, personel etc. are not something that you wave a magic wand to make appear in a superior form. Paul Kurtz himself was unable to do so, before he died. There have been numerous fine secular and freethought institutions that have fallen by the wayside in the past. I certainly hope that you do more than just make a personal ultimatum via blog.

    • says

      I am actually privy to enough of what CFI’s board has deliberated over this for my statement to be a correct account of CFI’s decisions and public behavior (the absence of which is precisely one of the biggest problems they aren’t “listening” to). Yes, there have been board meetings and deliberations over this. Yes, what you’ve seen from CFI (aka nothing) is all they are going to do.

      If CFI’s board of directors is going to destroy CFI over this, that is on them. We can lament what a sad waste of resources it was. But that would just become part of the cautionary tale they would then become.

      We cannot endorse a system that protects harassers and drives out their victims. We cannot endorse a system that cannot coherently communicate with its constituents in any morally responsible way. We cannot endorse a system that repeatedly fails to understand women’s issues or show any substantive concern for actual women it is responsible for.

      And that’s just the tip of what’s wrong here.

      CFI is in a nose dive.