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CU's Philosophy: True accountability
deserves greater transparency

CU's Philosophy: True accountability deserves greater transparency


By Steven F. Hayward

Posted:   02/19/2014 01:00:00 AM MST

It is hard to know just what to make of the contretemps over the University of Colorado Philosophy Department that broke a couple of weeks ago. But from the publicly available information (and I have no other), there should be serious misgivings about the narrative. The determination of what occurred in the Philosophy Department deserves more transparency that it received, and it is possible that the sweeping characterizations of the department are unfair and unjust, and some of the remedies disproportionate. And I say this of a department faculty whose political outlook mostly differs from mine.

Unquestionably philosophy is among of the most male-dominated disciplines in universities today, but inviting outside review by the American Philosophical Association's (APA) Committee on the Status of Women was guaranteed to produce a finding as predictable as the Salem Committee to Investigate Witchcraft in 1691. The irony of this situation is the unacknowledged reversal of the presumption of "privilege" that was at the heart of the original (and justified) feminist complaint about sexism a generation ago. While it may still be justified in the case of academic philosophy, it should not be beyond question whether mere statistical "underrepresentation" should be regarded as prima facie evidence of guilt, and therefore allowing the APA report to assert damning findings about the whole department while disclosing virtually no concrete facts.

One of the few meager facts in the APA report is that there have been "at least" 15 formal complaints to the University's Office of Discrimination and Harassment (ODH) out of the Philosophy department. "At least" 15 complaints? Is the actual number higher? Over what time period? How does this compare with the rate of complaints from other departments? How were these complaints disposed? How many were regarded as serious offenses? The report nowhere says, beyond a few vague hints that a handful of instances drew reprimands of some kind. Without a time frame or baseline against other departments it is impossible to make a relative judgment.

The APA can't be wholly blamed for this terminal vagueness, as the disposition of formal harassment complaints is handled confidentially for the most part. Unlike police departments whose arrests and investigations are a matter of public record, ODH does not disclose the data or details of their cases, and complaints, once made, require a virtual lockdown of discussion among bystanders and affected parties. This No-Persons-Land of university self-policing stems from the erosion of robust due process that would be intolerable in criminal and civil complaints outside university grounds, and campus feminists have been the prime mover in the erosion of due process standards.

Likewise the report's finding that "some male faculty have been observed 'ogling' undergraduate women students" should require something more substantial than was offered. Count me as shocked, shocked, that faculty ogling would occur. I am sure this has never happened before. Is there a relative scale for judging degrees of "ogling," by the way? Is "ogling" a more or less serious offense than a leer? I get it that the "power relationship" of a professor over a student makes this kind of behavior more serious than the normal private behavior of frat boys on a Saturday night, but are undergraduate women presumed to be so helpless or defenseless as to be unable to process and fight back against the lecherous leers of an analytical philosopher?

Likewise the APA report punts on offering any details about "bullying" in the department because it would "reveal... the perpetrators." Instead it offers general characterizations of a department that could easily be confused with the Miami Dolphins locker room, with an after-hours culture that is a poor imitation of Monty Python's "Philosopher's Song." Is the majority of the department faculty complicit in this, or just two or three bad actors? If the latter (as most people strongly suspect), why not name them? And rather than require the entire department to submit to a re-education camp, why not make it easier for the department or the administration to fire the bad actors? Nothing will spur better behavior faster than the prospect of termination.

The report complains that "The Department uses pseudo-philosophical analyses to avoid directly addressing the situation." Does this mean that philosophers actually philosophized about the problem? Again, shocking. The APA may be right that this approach is inadequate, but how would this differ essentially from the mode of reaction from feminist professors about complaints made in a women's studies program, where complaints would be run through the filters of gender theory?

Here one ought to ponder whether what some would describe as "bullying" is endemic to academic philosophy. Today's dominant analytical method (not my cup of tea — give me that old-time metaphysics, please) involves the splitting of hairs from 100 meters, with the throwing of sharp elbows more conspicuous than other disciplines. To the layperson, I'm sure academic philosophy resembles a cable TV shout show with longer syllables. One thinks here of Harry Truman's counsel about heat and kitchens.

The experience of a small number of faculty whose intellectual contempt for colleagues generates a toxic departmental climate is hardly unique to CU. But a report that avoids disclosing facts and details but rests instead on survey responses — an exceedingly weak form of evidence for charges so serious — falls short of any reasonable standard of proof. Barring more transparency, I think the presumption should be reversed: the Philosophy Department is the victim of the increasingly Star-Chamber atmosphere of campus political correctness.

Steven F. Hayward is the inaugural visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy at CU.

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