A Philosopher's Blog

Yale & Sexism

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 5, 2011
Sexual harassment

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Recently 16 Yale students and alumni announced that their school would be subject to an investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for civil rights. The goal of the investigation is to determined whether or not Yale has permitted the existence of a hostile sexual climate. If so, this could be a violation of Title IX, which requires equal opportunity for men and women and also forbids discrimination based on gender.

Yale was previously in national headlines because of the Yale DKE’s infamous chanting of  such phrases as  “no means yes, yes means anal.” This incident seems to have helped motivate the complaint.

One important aspect of the criticism being directed against Yale is they way it handles allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Like many schools, Yale does its best to handle such cases internally rather than turn the matter over to actual law enforcement.

Author Naomi Wolf, who graduated from Yale, has claimed that “Yale has been systematically covering up much more serious crimes than the ones that can be easily identified.” Wolf alleges that the university has used the sexual harassment grievance procedure to protect the university rather than help the victims.  She went on to make a far more disturbing claim, that several faculty members had allegedly raped graduate students and these incidents (and others) had been hidden within the grievance process.

One of Wolf’s concerns about the lack of transparency is that parents and students cannot “find out what professor has systematically a record, a track record of harassing students, behaving inappropriately or worse, you know, rape.”

I, of course, have no idea as to what really goes on at Yale. However, these claims seem to be consistent with the darker side of university culture.

First, universities tend to operate like other organizations (such as businesses) in that they want to minimize law suits and things that damage their reputations. As such, the idea that a university would engage in practices aimed at such goals has a high degree of plausibility.

While this practice is understandable (after all, law suits and reputation damage are costly), it is hardly justifiable. Problems should be addressed in a proper and just manner, rather than swept into the shadows. In addition to the moral reason to do this, there is also the practical reason that such practices can lead to far greater harms than those they are intended to prevent.

Second, universities are also like other organizations in that there tend to be internal groups whose members protect each other, even in cases in which these members engage in misdeeds (up to and including criminal activity). This is an all too common practice in politics and business, and hence it would hardly be a surprise to see it happen in the context of academics.

While there is a lot to be said for loyalty and not throwing one’s fellows under the bus, it is not morally acceptable to protect people who do, in fact, deserve to be punished for their misdeeds. Concealing these misdeeds and protecting their perpetrators merely makes matters worse, at least from a moral standpoint.

Third, as a graduate student and a professor I’ve heard my share of various rumors and disturbing stories about vile behavior and cover ups. For example, among most graduate students it is common knowledge that there certain professors who get rather  “friendly” with their graduate students. There are also darker rumors of professors pressuring students or worse. As such, the idea that vile things happen at Yale is not beyond the realm of possibility. Lest anyone think that the academy is dominated by scum, I can assure you that most people in academics are decent and behave in a professional manner-which is true of most organizations. However, there is sometimes an unfortunate tolerance of those who should not be tolerated. This is, sadly, no different from other organizations.

In light of these reasons, there seem to be grounds for being concerned about universities in general and Yale in particular. Of course, there remains the question of what should be done.

Like Wolf, I do believe that there appears to be fundamental flaws in the current system. One flaw law is that cases are handled by what appears to be a non-transparent grievance system that is alleged to aim more at protecting the university than at assisting victims. Another flaw, if Wolf is right,  is that the system seems to be able to protect perpetrators from legal action. While an easy corrective step would be improving the existing system, perhaps a more radical solution is in order

When I first learned that universities could handle what appear to be actual crimes via an internal process, I was somewhat surprised (this was actually years ago). I did accept that some  matters could and should be handled within the university (such as academic misconduct). However, I  had naively assumed that allegations of criminal activity would have to be handled by actual legal authorities rather than by a university board.

While cover ups and misdeeds are possible within the actual legal system, it would seem that their would be somewhat less opportunities for such things than with a system that takes place entirely within the university.  After all, if Wolf is correct, there are professors who committed rape at Yale and were able to remain not only free but also within academics. This is clearly not acceptable and it seems absurd that universities would be able to get away with this sort of thing. As such, it seems reasonable that universities should not be permitted to handle alleged crimes internally but should be required to turn them over to the actual legal system.

This is not to say that universities should not be allowed to handle anything internally. However, alleged activities that are criminal in nature (such as rape) should be handled as crimes and not as matters for internal boards.



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2 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on April 5, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    There are many more women than men on campuses, and women generally don’t like competing for men. And a lot of men probably won’t behave very nobly in such circumstances, which will leave a lot of women feeling scorned and itching for revenge.

    What happens to women who make false accusations? My guess is that nothing will happen, and that is a huge problem.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on April 5, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    Maybe these guys belong at Yale 😉 Magus, where are you?

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