[This is a revised, and I hope more constructive, version of what I posted about ten days ago, edited down for relevance. I am grateful to a number of philosophers and students for feedback on these issues.]
There is a sea change afoot in professional philosophy in the Anglophone world, and it is one that is long overdue: sexual harassment is now recognized as a scourge of the profession, and is being openly discussed in a way that wasn't true even ten years ago. The long and shameful period of neglect of the problem of sexual harassment in the academy--as my colleague Martha Nussbaum has described in some detail in her writing, but also in conversation with me--is finally coming to an end, slowly but, I believe, surely. I have given extensive attention over the years to the sexual harassment problems in academic philosophy; I was particularly struck by the strong and supportive reaction when I first warned prospective PhD students in 2009 about the "Sexual Predator Faculty." That was my first tangible indication how much pent-up anger there was about the profession's neglect of these issues. I have been involved since in helping victims of sexual harassment seek remedies or transfer out of abusive programs, and have spent hours on the phone with legal counsel at universities investigating these matters. I will continue to do so, and I encourage colleagues elsewhere to "step up to the plate" and get serious about these issues. Women should be able to study philosophy without being demeaned and harassed based on their gender.
At the same time, I have been disappointed to learn that expressing concern for due process and academic freedom values in the context of the current publicity about the sexual harassment problem in academic philosophy makes one a target for vilification. Perhaps because I also wear a lawyer's hat, I have had a longstanding concern with issues of fair process. (In my very first post about the McGinn case, I noted the due process issues, and then as well some philosophers disagreed with me; a couple of years ago, I defended on academic freedom and due process grounds John Yoo against calls for Berkeley to even "investigate" him.) Last week's survey revealed that 43% of readers believe it is appropriate for student protesters to disrupt the classes of someone found to have violated the sexual harassment policy at the university (and who had been sanctioned but not removed from the classroom), while 34% shared my view that it is not appropriate, with the remainder being unsure. Philosopher Ned Block (NYU) wrote:
[I]t seems that very many of our colleagues have downgraded basic notions of fairness and due process. An inquiry (by the Director of the Sexual Harassment Prevention Office), and a review of that inquiry (by the Faculty Committee on Cause, a committee of the Faculty Senate)—both of which had access to information that we don’t have—made a decision, the same decision. 43% of our colleagues who read your blog think they are in a position to know better and endorse vigilante justice. It is depressing.
"Vigilante justice" means securing through extrajudicial means a result that could not be achieved through legal or quasi-legal process; that is how the term is used by lawyers, at least. And that is what appears to have happened at Northwestern. Sometimes vigilante justice is justified, but I do not believe this is such a case, given the evidence available at the time.
Like many, I was surprised, given the findings of the University's Sexual Harrassment Office, that the sanctions were not more severe (e.g., unpaid suspension for some period of time), but as Professor Block notes the sanction was recommended after findings by Ms. Slavin's Office and upheld on appeal by a faculty committee. Perhaps there is more pertinent information that explains the institutional judgment at two different levels of the University? Some, including some student protesters but also some academic philosophers, believe Ludlow should have been fired given the findings. I think that sanction--essentially, a teaching career-ending sanction, as it appears to have been in the McGinn case last year (though he resigned as part of a settlement, rather than being fired through process)--is disproportionate to the University's findings, but there is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement about that. (If, in fact, the student's more serious allegations are vindicated during litigation, then I expect the University will change its position.) The issue I raised is whether, given that the University imposed its own sanction and did not remove Ludlow from the classroom, a student mob (even a "polite" student mob, as I have been assured it is) should be able to achieve that result. Winter Quarter ended not long after Ludlow's withdrawal from the classroom. We now know Ludlow will not teach in the Spring. What role student threats to disrupt the class played in that decision we do not, at present, know.
My former colleague Cass Sunstein presciently remarked more than a dozen years ago on the tendency of the Internet and social media to push people to the most extreme versions of the views they begin with. In the psychological literature, the phenomenon is known as "group polarization", and it is one that clearly takes hold in both real life and on social media where like-minded people congregate. We have seen examples of this in some of the recent on-line discussions.
For example, some of those who responded to my correspondent's invocation of "due process" and "academic freedom," suggested that there was no "academic freedom" issue, since protestors were responding to the allegations against Ludlow, not his ideas. But "academic freedom" of course includes the freedom to teach. Others responded:
As an analogy, imagine George Zimmerman was a professor...Suppose Zimmerman was a prof., was found not guilty on all counts -on grounds of self-defense- and was sanctioned by his school, but allowed to continue to teach.
In that case, protesting him so that he couldn’t teach would not be a violation of his academic freedom. Rather, it would be the students attempting to get a dangerous teacher, whom had acted violently towards a member of an oppressed minority, out of their environment.
Would you -hypothetically- support Zimmerman’s right to teach? If someone at, say, The Weekly Standard argued that he did have the right and the protestors were exercising “vigilante” justice, wouldn’t you suspect the author of racism? Certainly, such an editorial is consistent with racism and conibutes to a more racist world. (Please note this is a thought experiment, You can’t just say that it wouldn’t happen. As every freshman student knows.)
So it is with your defense of Ludlow’s right to teach even in spite of a violent action that his school has sanctioned him for but which a court has not convicted him. He does not have a right to teach after acting violently towards members of an oppressed minority. Rather, they have a right to go to school in a place that is free of such employees.
Since I am unreservedly on the side of those who believe sexual harassment is a serious problem in academic philosophy, and who strongly supports sanctions for sexual harassers, and who has worked to get such sanctions brought against sexual harassers in the profession, may I say to those who share those views with me that I am worried that some of the cyber-rhetoric may prove counter-productive: the ridicule of anyone who reserves judgment on the available evidence, and the disregard for rights and fairness that increasingly characterize these discussions are alienating a lot of philosophers whose help will be needed in future.