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Sexual Harassment Allegations Surround Exit of Prominent Professor

On Behalf of | Jun 18, 2013 | Sexual Harassment |

Amid sexual harassment allegations, Colin McGinn, a prominent philosopher at the University of Miami, is leaving amid allegations that he sent improper sexually oriented messages to a graduate student, all according to reports. It is reported that part way through the 2012-13 academic year, Mr. McGinn signed an agreement with the university stating that he will formally depart at the end of December 2013, several faculty members who are close to the philosopher said. The university declined to confirm Mr. McGinn’s job status.

Mr. McGinn, who is known internationally for his work in the philosophy of mind, denies allegations that he behaved improperly. Those allegations were lodged by a female graduate student who has said that the professor sent her a series of sexually explicit e-mail and text messages, starting in the spring-2012 semester. In his statement, Mr. McGinn wrote: “There is a dispute between me and university officials, in which I maintain that I am right and they are wrong.” He also said explicitly that he has never been charged with sexual harassment.

Complaints of improper sexist remarks and behavior have long plagued the field of philosophy. More than 80 percent of full-time faculty members in philosophy are male, compared with just 60 percent for the professoriate as a whole, according to 2003 data compiled by the U.S. Education Department.

While allegations of sexual harassment or gender bias are sometimes made by female students who have been working closely with a prominent male faculty member, it is “very rare” for those cases to end with the professor’s leaving the institution, said Brian Leiter, a professor and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago Law School. “Frankly, the thing that catches my attention here,” Mr. Leiter said, “is that the allegations, as I have heard them, are not particularly serious, compared to other cases I’ve heard about in which nothing has happened to the faculty member. It’s certainly surprising.”

In the Miami case, the female graduate student first approached the university’s Office of Equality Administration, which handles harassment-related cases, near the beginning of the fall semester last year. She had previously taken a course with Mr. McGinn in the fall of 2011, and began serving as his research assistant soon after. The student, who asked to remain anonymous because she is planning to pursue a career in philosophy, said in an e-mail that she began to feel uncomfortable around Mr. McGinn at the start of the spring semester a year ago. Her discomfort hit a high point in April, she wrote, “when he began sending me extremely inappropriate and uncomfortable messages, which continued until the beginning of the summer.”

Her long-term boyfriend, Benjamin Yelle described some of the correspondence, including several passages that he said were sexually explicit. Mr. Yelle, along with two professors with whom the student has worked, described one message in which they said Mr. McGinn wrote that he had been thinking about the student while masturbating. Advocates of Mr. McGinn, however, say that the correspondence may have been misinterpreted when taken out of context. Edward Erwin, a supporter of Mr. McGinn who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Miami, said Mr. McGinn was working on a book about human evolution and the hand. Part of the reason Mr. McGinn was sending messages that could be interpreted as sexually explicit, Mr. Erwin said, was probably because of communication about that research. “There was some sexual talk, banter, puns, and jokes made between the two,” Mr. Erwin said. “The written records, I believe, show that this was an entirely consensual relationship,” he said. And that relationship, he added, was not sexual.

According to reports, a number of e-mails the student brought to her and found them to contain sexual content that could not be considered simply an academic discussion of sexuality. “I read enough to see that they had explicitly sexual content,” she said. Ms. Thomasson added that the case at Miami underscores the discouraging climate for many women in philosophy today. “The situation of this student isn’t isolated; there are plenty of similar stories at other departments,” she said. “It’s situations like this that draw some female students out of the field, which is a real tragedy.”

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