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Feb 03 2014

The CU-Boulder philosophy department gets failing marks

This is the school where my daughter has just started graduate work, and now a scathing review of the philosophy departments’ practices has been released. Turns out it was a nest of snakes. (Fortunately, my daughter is in the computer science department, and believe me, she’d be speaking out if things were this bad there).

…it is our strong conclusion that the Department maintains an environment with unacceptable sexual harassment, inappropriate sexualized unprofessional behavior, and divisive uncivil behavior. Members of most groups we talked to report directly observing inappropriate behavior. This behavior has harmed men and women members of every stakeholder group in the Department.

Some assistant and full professors (both male and female) report responding to this situation by working from home, dropping out of departmental life, and avoiding socializing with colleagues. Several faculty members’ reputations for bad behavior place a higher service work burden on colleagues. Women are leaving or trying to leave in disproportionate numbers. [note: the report does not name names or describe specific incidents. --pzm]

The 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. Some female students report avoiding working with faculty members because they directly witnessed or were subjected to this harassment and inappropriate sexualized unprofessional behavior. There was and is a lack of support for students who lost their advisors or instructors due to sanctions. The female graduate students would like more women in the department but they cannot recommend this department as a good place to come.

In addition, 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 are concerned that the lack of administrative support for the Department resulting from the climate of harassment [i.e. “provost saying, ‘no more departmental support until the department shapes up’”] will negatively affect their abilities to succeed. 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). And some are angry in discovering the severe problems in the department that they didn’t know about before they arrived.

It’s good to see that they point out that an epidemic of sexism is bad for the men as well as the women.

Man, I hear this kind of thing all the time about philosophy departments — philosophy and engineering seem to be the major repositories of sexist behavior in academe. You’d think philosophy would enable a rational perspective, and it’s a mystery to me why so many suddenly go so stupid on sexual harassment.

Although this paragraph suggests a possible reason.

The Department uses pseudo-philosophical analyses to avoid directly addressing the situation. Their faculty discussions revolve around the letter rather than the spirit of proposed regulations and standards. They spend too much time articulating (or trying to articulate) the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior instead of instilling higher expectations for professional behavior. They spend significant time debating footnotes and “what if” scenarios instead of discussing what they want their department to look and feel like. In other words, they spend time figuring out how to get around regulations rather than focusing on how to make the department supportive of women and family-friendly.

Ah, that’s how the power of philosophy can be corrupted to do great evil: it’s a whole mob of people trained in the virtues of reflexive devil’s advocacy.

35 comments

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  1. 1
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    You’d think philosophy would enable a rational perspective, and it’s a mystery to me why so many suddenly go so stupid on sexual harassment.

    The heart wants what it wants.*

    * Quote used with full knowledge of its source and his likely habits.

  2. 2
    The Mellow Monkey

    Their faculty discussions revolve around the letter rather than the spirit of proposed regulations and standards. They spend too much time articulating (or trying to articulate) the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior instead of instilling higher expectations for professional behavior. They spend significant time debating footnotes and “what if” scenarios instead of discussing what they want their department to look and feel like.

    How absurdly familiar that sounds.

  3. 3
    raven

    I knew there was something drastically wrong with the UC philosophy department almost a decade ago.

    I’ve seen one of them attack science and support creationism.

    Sandwalk: An “Atheist” Defends Intelligent Design Creationism
    sandwalk. blogspot. com/…/bradley-monton-is-professor-in.html‎

    by Laurence A. Moran – in 731 Google+ circlesSep 24, 2013 – Bradley Monton is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. On his website he says he specializes …

    The guy’s name is Bradley Monton. All he did was rehash every creationist talking point they have. My cat could do that.

    I wouldn’t recommend that anyone in a science field take a philosophy course at UC Boulder. Or anyone sentient for that matter.

    To be fair, I have zero idea how Monton fits into all the other problems that department has.

  4. 4
    Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach

    I was thinking part way through that you could just change the name of the school and it would fit either of the engineering departments I’ve attended. Except they made no attempt to debate or rationalize it, it was that way because fuck you, that’s why.

    But there aren’t many women in engineering because of the fluffy-pink-lady-brainz, not because its one of the most actively hostile environments around.

  5. 5
    Reginald Selkirk

    The Department uses pseudo-philosophical analyses to avoid directly addressing the situation.

    This sounds just like the problem with philosophy of religion as well. Sophistry instead of philosophy.

  6. 6
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    CaitieCat #1
    Something wrong with Emily Dickinson?

  7. 7
    Inaji

    Dalillama:

    CaitieCat #1
    Something wrong with Emily Dickinson?

    As CaitieCat used the pronoun he, I assumed CaitieCat was referencing Woody Allen, who used the phrase in his defense of his relationship with Soon Yi.

    /derail

  8. 8
    changerofbits

    Sounds like the UC Philosophy department is being ran like TAM.

  9. 9
    cuervocuero

    Regarding the ‘reasons’ given for obstinate refusal to look in the mirror…

    Are some of the faculty in the department youtube vloggers?

    It might be quite enlightening to pin that observation in prominent places and read it out at the start of events…and then anthropologically observe how subsequent ‘plaints echo its call.

    I’d also like to hear other philosophy departments and atheist philosopher speakers weigh in on their turf.

  10. 10
    ludicrous

    Yeah, I recall Pigluicci’s lame, defensive response to Saul’s report last summer. He bemoans the situation endlessly but not one word about what he even thinks, let alone plans to do about it. Big department chairman….not my responsibility.

    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2013/08/does-philosophy-have-sexual-harassment.html

  11. 11
    samihawkins

    So is there anybody who read this:

    The Department uses pseudo-philosophical analyses to avoid directly addressing the situation. Their faculty discussions revolve around the letter rather than the spirit of proposed regulations and standards. They spend too much time articulating (or trying to articulate) the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior instead of instilling higher expectations for professional behavior. They spend significant time debating footnotes and “what if” scenarios instead of discussing what they want their department to look and feel like. In other words, they spend time figuring out how to get around regulations rather than focusing on how to make the department supportive of women and family-friendly.

    And didn’t find it disturbingly familiar? If so I envy them. I also envy whoever wrote this for finding such an academic-sounding way to call the faculty a bunch of pointdodging shitweasels.

  12. 12
    Inaji

    samihawkins:

    And didn’t find it disturbingly familiar?

    MM noted that, right up there at #2. I also find it all too familiar. I expect most of the people here do.

  13. 13
    jnorris

    They are concerned that the lack of administrative support for the Department resulting from the climate of harassment [i.e. “provost saying, ‘no more departmental support until the department shapes up’”]

    If the provost’s way of dealing with a situation that could generate many lawsuits is to turn his back to it, then the whole university has a problem. I couldn’t recommend CU-Boulder to anyone.

    How to start dealing with it: 1. no new graduate students or majors in the department. Those students who want to leave get a good letter from the university president. 2. reduce all teaching loads to a basic survey type introductory course and one logic course (except for current majors foolish enough to stay). 3. no adjuncts, promotions or new tenure track hires. 4. no travel funds, sabbatical leavess, no publishing teaching load reductions. 5. offer retirement buyouts to all tenured faculty and for those who stay: no private offices, just a cubical in the basement. 6. replace the current department chair with a non-academic administrator.

    Or go nuclear on them and terminate the entire department by making philosophy courses general humanity electives taught by the religion department. Put logic courses in the mathematics department. Wait five years or so for the Augean stables to be cleansed and hire new.

    Also get rid of the do-nothing provost. Do that first.

  14. 14
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    I think we should just post that paragraph as a response (with a link to the report) every time one of the pointdodging shitweasels comes by here trying to squeeze out some form of acceptable abuse from the rules of respect, consent, and autonomy.

    *thanks, samihawkins–saves me from coming up with a suitable epithet myself

  15. 15
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    As we were putting this report together, we became aware of a proposal for a departmental spring retreat….

    To be perfectly honest, we are floored that members of this department would believe that having another mountain event would be a good idea, given the unprofessional behavior that transpired at the last one.

    This department needs a lot of work.

  16. 16
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    Dalillama @6, yes, what Inaji @7 said: Woody Allen was my reference point, as he notoriously referred to his continuing the “relationship” he’d formed with someone who was his daughter at the time.

    It’s not that hard to figure out why a whole cadre of douchecontainerships like this would defend the front lines (aka “grey areas”) of rape culture: because it makes their shitweasel rapist lives simpler.

  17. 17
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    CaitieCat
    I wasn’t actually aware of Allen’s infamous use of the phrase, but I did happen to recall the Dickinson reference.

  18. 18
    No One

    I know a graduate student in that Dept. He is the very antithesis of this. Shit…

  19. 19
    Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD

    The heart may want what the heart wants but to use another quote
    You can’t always get what you want.

  20. 20
    PZ Myers

    Read the whole report. It also says that there are some very good people there.

  21. 21
    Pteryxx

    The site report (PDF here) did include detailed recommendations for transparency and for specific policy changes. Briefly from Schuman’s furious takedown at Slate:

    As a result of the report, the department appears to be on Double-Secret Probation (although not so secret anymore): Chair Graeme Forbes has been ousted and replaced by a faculty member from linguistics, and recruitment and admission of new graduate students has been halted until 2015. And—allegedly—official institutional punishment is forthcoming for those parties who merit it, although the administration remains tight-lipped about both personages involved and penalties meted.

    The APA Committee’s site visit program guidelines state that the site visit team will keep reports confidential. This report – the first one to come from the site visit program – was made public by the U. of Colorado itself, and the PDF above is linked from colorado.edu.

    Inside Higher Ed:

    The Colorado report was the first produced by the site visit program of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women. The program was launched last year, with the idea that sending a team of philosophy professors to review a department could identify ways for it to become more supportive of female students and faculty members.

    One idea behind the program was to keep the reports confidential, so that departments might welcome the input and be unafraid of seeking outside help.

    Peggy DesAutels, a professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton and director of the site visit program, said that she was “shocked” that the report was released, although she said she realized that was a possibility at a public institution covered by open records laws. She said that she was concerned that the publicity might “deter other departments” from seeking a site visit.

    At the same time, DesAutels said that the situation at Colorado was so bad that she saw a positive side to the report’s release. “In this particular case, for Colorado, the profession is better off knowing about this,” she said.

    On the blog Feminist Philosophers, which has been outspoken in calling for the discipline to take action against sexism in the field, a blog post said that the Colorado situation could distort the idea behind site visits. “Site visits are, wherever possible, meant to be supportive affairs involving the offering of helpful advice. In physics, the model for the program, departments with GOOD climates seek out site visits as a way of getting even better. Having a site visit is a badge of honor,” the post says. “This is the way we’d all like it to be in philosophy. Let’s make that happen. We all have things to fix, and site visits can help us fix them.”

    Also a correction to Daily Camera’s original article:

    CORRECTION: University of Colorado officials overstated the cost of an external report on sexual harassment within the philosophy department that was compiled by the American Philosophical Association Committee on the Status of Women Site Visit Program. The cost of that report was $5,793.

  22. 22
    WhiteHatLurker

    PZM says:

    Read the whole report. It also says that there are some very good people there.

    Yes, and their lives are being made miserable by the ones that necessitated the report … and as the report says near the end:

    [...] the Department itself has set the conditions in place that encouraged bad events [...]

  23. 23
    Hubert Roloc

    Unfortunately, that is nothing new. Read e.g. Epictetus, Handbook, chapter 52. It sounds almost as if he addresses the last quoted paragraph.
    It ends with the conclusion “…. therefore we speak falsely, but are quite ready to show how it is demonstrated that one ought not to speak falsely.”

  24. 24
    mildlymagnificent

    I strongly recommend clicking on the link in PZ’s post. My husband and I amused ourselves by reading aloud several sections. I also recommend others do the same, make sure you emphasise or shout every instance of the words no and not. It sounds very much like the worst dressing down anyone ever got in the boss’s office.

    If you don’t want to read the whole thing – go to the conclusion and then read the “Special Note”. If there was ever a clear signal that some people really can’t get a message unless you shout at them, this was it.

  25. 25
    huffysnappy

    Sounds like two Schools within the Faculty where I have been attempting to finish my STEM PhD.
    Our Uni, which likes to boast about its top ranking in the nation for biomed research grants, would undoubtedly not have the courage to do anything about these, its own pockets of…extreme rapey bullying thieving charlatanical academically misconductifying shitweaselfulness.

    Here, bullying research students seems to be perceived as a mark of world class research practice. But I suppose that’s a reasonable mistake to be made by a group of delusionally self important and vicious nincompoops who wouldn’t recognise a decent piece of scientific work, until after they’ve stolen it from one of their graduate students.

    Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to do the necessary wet laboratory work at home.

    I sincerely hope the situation at CU Boulder Philosophy improves as a result of this review.

  26. 26
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    [note: the report does not name names or describe specific incidents. --pzm]

    Cue the rape apologia. “Show me the beef!”, as Fuckbrain McWatsisface so hilariously quoth during whichever marathon sexual harrassment thread it was.

    [Sorry; hardly informative, I know. They all blend into one after this long. Possibly the one about a lady who tweeted photos of douchebags during a Con?]

  27. 27
    diego

    Philosophy is by no means immune to harassment, in fact it is a pretty widespread problem. There are two similarities with other gender-biased fields; 1. is that a skewed sex ratio exists, which by itself makes it harder for women a priori, and 2. there is something about the culture in fields like physics, computer science, and philosophy that fosters this kind of thing. I know a lot of women philosophers who have had to put up with quite a lot. But the good news is that philosophers are beginning to realize the severity of the problem and some are taking steps to fix things. Department chairs are realizing that these aren’t good ratios of women: nearly 50% for non-major undergraduates, 20% for major undergraduates, less for graduate programs, and much, much less for women professors.

  28. 28
    Anri

    Wait a sec – professional philosophers tried to use clever language and quibbling over word meanings to sidestep real problems that hurt real people?

    SAY IT AIN’T SO!

  29. 29
    Crimson Clupeidae

    I’m an engineer in the aerospace industry. I work at a small company with only about 20 engineers. There’s currently only one woman working in this half of the building, and she is the director of engineering’s administrative assistant.

    I’ve had that ‘don’t be that guy’ talk with two of the engineers here, and I’ve only been here since September of ’13. We are getting an intern in a couple months, and she is really sharp (she was my second choice out of all the interns that we interviewed). I will be really watching the other engineers around here to be sure they get the message, and I have no problem suggesting disciplinary action to my manager if I think it’s warranted.

    I just hope they can learn before then how to control what comes out of their mouths a little better. What they think is harder to change, but I can have more influence at least in what they say.

    It’s amazing though, how little it takes (from me) to shut them down. They know they shouldn’t be saying what they’re saying, so it doesn’t take much, at least. It’s harder to change the culture though, that lets them think it’s ok, even when they know it’s not right.

  30. 30
    John

    My nephew attends CU(freshman) and has classes in this department. I texted him about this and he said “From what I heard it was one professor who did a skit in class that people didn’t like. She’s been doing it for 15 years.” It does not sound like the students are being informed.

  31. 31
    rnilsson

    @#3 raven:

    The guy’s name is Bradley Monton. All he did was rehash every creationist talking point they have. My cat could do that.

    I wouldn’t recommend that anyone in a science field take a philosophy course at UC Boulder. Or anyone sentient for that matter.

    To be fair, I have zero idea how Monton fits into all the other problems that department has.

    Apparently the University of Colorado has a bit of a Sisyphos job ahead of #self, rolling that Boulder up the Monton over and over. Or the other way, as the case may be.

  32. 32
    Brittany

    @ johnfredlund #30

    I think your nephew is confusing the recent issues with the UC-Boulder Philosophy department with the recent controversy in the UC-Boulder Sociology department.

    In the Sociology department, a tenured professor was pressured to resign over a skit about prostitution that she had been using in her Social Deviance class for over a decade, despite no complaints by students that they found the skit inappropriate. No details about what was offensive about the skit other than the fact that it dealt with the topic of prostitution were ever released, to my knowledge. IMO, even if the skit was offensive, which I’m not convinced it was, the treatment of the professor in that scenario was completely over-the-top. She was never even asked to stop using the skit or to change it before they went full-blown trying to oust her, with no due process, for a method of teaching about a controversial topic within her discipline.

    By contrast, the philosophy department sounds like it badly needed to be shaken up and any pressure for the harassers to resign would be appropriate (although they should still get due process if they’re going to be fired for cause, per their tenure contracts). Their behavior sounds like there are many cases of clear misconduct and an overall hostile environment. Strong administrative action is justified in this case.

  33. 33
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    @Brittany

    Having read the story, I’m slightly concerned about the use of the phrases “crack whore” and “slave whore”, but certainly I see no reason to fire her outright. It would appear to be arse covering on the part of the Uni, the dean apparently having said the skit was “too dangerous in a post-Penn State environment”, whatever that means.

  34. 34
    Brittany

    @Thumper

    Good point, I missed that part when I read through it (I had read about it before and just dug up a quick link to overview the situation). I assume “crack whore” was a crass term for drug addicts who get into prostitution to support their habit and that “slave whore” (?) perhaps refers to trafficked women. Maybe it was meant tongue-in-cheek or she just likes to use crude language to disrupt social norms in a class on social deviance. Either way, “I was just kidding” isn’t an excuse and she could still disrupt social norms without shitting on an already stigmatized group. I have no problem with her department head or dean or somebody telling her to change the name of those categories to something a little more sensitive and to watch how she refers to marginalized groups.

    The administration’s reaction was just so extreme in proportionate to the offense that I can see why johnfredlund’s nephew and other students kinda shrug it off as a ridiculous incident. Although there’s a time for invasive administrative intervention, like in the case of the philosophy department, the sociology incident seems like an overreach. I’m concerned about what it means for professors who advocate unpopular positions if university administrations get too heavy-handed in policing what professors can say about their own topic of expertise in the classroom, not to mention what this says about the declining respect for labor rights in academia if this can happen to a tenured professor (imagine if she was an adjunct!). What does it say about academia when serious pervasive harassment problems in the UC-Boulder philosophy department go unremarked upon while the sociology professor gets the book thrown at her for a relatively minor offense and a black woman professor can get reprimanded because white male students complain about her teaching about structural racism? Nothing good.

  35. 35
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    @Brittany

    I have no problem with her department head or dean or somebody telling her to change the name of those categories to something a little more sensitive and to watch how she refers to marginalized groups.

    Me neither, but that doesn’t appear to be their objection.

    Your link depressed the fuck out of me :(

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