Rebecca Schuman at Slate on academics who treat their graduate students as a sex pool.
Some things in academia never change. Even in an age when the feminists apparently control everything, it seems that the practice of older (usually male) scholars sleeping with much younger (usually female) graduate students is alive and … well, I wouldn’t say “well.” With two such relationships making recent news in the discipline of philosophy alone, for some of the older generation of male professors (again, mostly male), the grad students are still a dating pool—and vice versa. This is not just icky—it is highly damaging to the profession.
Philosophy! Again! What is it with these guys?
It’s not just a matter of two consenting adults’ hearts wanting what they want. Because not only are these relationships almost always an unacceptable abuse of power, they also affect the dynamics of departments, entire fields, and the very act of academic mentorship altogether.
So why does it still happen (other than the fact that people enjoy having sex)? It happens because in many academic disciplines—such as, of course, philosophy,which already enjoys a reputation for misconduct—there is a tendency for beginning scholars to have “philosophical idols,” as explained to me by Meena Krishnamurthy, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba. (Just count the times this author uses the word “hero.”)
Oh gawd. Ok. You know where else that happens? Locally – among the atheists and secularists (and skeptics). There’s a huge amount of fandom and hero-worship. That’s why I was so disagreeable to the “Global Secular Council” when it gave birth to itself: it was the unabashed presentation of the same 8 or 10 faces we’d been seeing for 8 or 10 years, and the unabashedly worshipful language. Not healthy, people! Remember “thought leaders”?
[pauses to see if it’s still there – it’s still there]
The world’s greatest thinkers are already making the case for rationalism, but as free agents their impact on international discourse is hindered. We coordinate the thought leaders of our movement, providing an arena where compelling information from a secular perspective can be organized, published, and disseminated.
Our team of social and political thought leaders compiles the knowledge and data that uphold our worldwide community, providing substance and fresh leverage to we who think scientifically, as we lobby for government and societal change in the United States and around the globe.
Don’t talk like that. Don’t don’t don’t.
Take this example from Carla Fehr, associate director of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession Site Visit Program, which conducted the recent visit to the University of Colorado–Boulder that resulted in the ouster of the chair and the freezing of graduate admissions. Let’s say, Fehr proposes, a woman whose adviser has a reputation for dalliances with students goes out on the job market. “People ask, with a wink and a nod, what it was like getting that letter of recommendation.” If, the next year, she leaves his letter out, she’s then “asked why the famous professor was not writing for her. Her professor’s behavior,” Fehr explains, has “put her in a position where she just couldn’t win.”
It was nice for him though. Isn’t that the important thing?
So what, if anything, can be done? Institutional policies that forbid such relationships? Many universities have these already, and they rarely seems to matter. Off-site visits, such as the one Carla Fehr engineered? As satisfying as it was to see CU–Boulder duly spanked, that resulted in an infuriating amount of rank-closing and defensiveness. Sure, every now and then, a Colin McGinn type does something high-profile enough to cost him his job—but that’s rare. Usually the “consequences” are little more than behind-the-back whispers and the occasional passive-aggressive slight. (One of my mentors in grad school once stuck a very prominent scholar—who had just left his wife for a 28-year-old graduate student—in a near-unattended 8 a.m. conference slot.)
Indeed, most of the time, an accomplished senior scholar can get away with almost any poor sexual decision with a student, and still be respected in the field. Colin McGinn himself is giving a keynote at a high-profile philosophy conference in a few weeks.
Well that’s insulting. And it kind of confirms what I just said – it was fun for him and that’s the important thing.