Over this past month, devastating shockwaves have reverberated through the public as, one after another, prominent actors and other notable figures have confirmed accusations of sexual harassment. The fallout from these revelations has been rapid and retaliatory.
Besides confronting the upsurge of betrayal and outrage from their former supporters, those who admitted guilt have effectively been proscribed, denounced by colleagues and rejected from professional endeavors. Even film executive Harvey Weinstein, whose recently exposed history of appalling sexual abuse seems to have triggered this flood of allegations, was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last month.
As careers in the Academy come to a halt, we are reminded, uncomfortably, of the abuses that exist within an academy closer to home. Earlier this November, I experienced something akin to the shock I imagined many had felt awakening to the confessions of Kevin Spacey or Al Franken splashed across their Facebook feeds. Amidst these other exposes, The New York Times ran the announcement that William V. Harris — a distinguished professor of Greco-Roman history at Columbia University — had stepped down from teaching. His former advisee, a female doctorate student, had filed a claim of sexual harassment against him.
Reading the published details of the lawsuit was sickening, all the more so for its familiarity. The plaintiff reported that Harris had invited her on a professional trip but booked only one hotel room, in which he pressured her for sex. Precisely this same behavior had been reported by Fernanda Lopez Aguilar in her sexual misconduct complaint last year against her former mentor, Yale ethics professor Thomas Pogge. The disturbing parallels practically leaped off the page at me: Harris, like Pogge, was a groundbreaking professor in his field who had been accused of serial sexual abuse toward female students and mentees.
We’ve seen this narrative far too many times, yet we are shocked all the same whenever another allegedly guilty name comes to light.
Perhaps our shock is largely the product of ignorance. As these allegations affirm, such abuses are often widely known within a professional community but are rarely acknowledged on an institutional level. The nature of academia enforces silencing; the formal recourse offered to victims tends to privilege reconciliation over retribution and the risk of accusing an individual with the immunity of tenure far outweighs the likelihood of justice. For those on the outside, there is minimal understanding of such incidents and their actual frequency in the academic environment.
For those aspiring to enter such an environment, the potential consequences of ignorance can be terrifying. In the wake of the news about Harris, I was expressing my dismay to an older friend in graduate school, who stated that many had been well aware of his abuse. My friend then compared Harris to another prominent professor, whose name in the context of sexual abuse took me utterly by surprise. Over the course of my undergraduate career, I had read a number of articles related to notions of gender and sexuality by this second professor for my classes. In a panic, I texted another friend: “Is this true?” The response: “Yes — common knowledge, openly discussed.”
Perhaps not openly enough. In that moment, I was starkly aware of how little I knew about the names that appeared on my college syllabi and bibliographies. I could not reconcile the discrepancies between the academic syllabus and the secret blacklist that others, more knowledgeable and experienced, had been forming all this time.
As we watch the punitive erasure of guilty actors play out in the Academy, it is difficult not to experience the impulse to apply the same measures here. Beyond firing faculty members found guilty of sexual abuse, what should become of their scholarship, which has assumed an afterlife of its own?
When former University of Cincinnati professor Holt Parker was arrested for trafficking in child pornography last year, the classics community wrestled with the ethical question of whether to continue citing or assigning his scholarship on ancient sexuality. Different answers have emerged: the work of abusers should be censored in all cases, it should be censored only if the subject matter is related (i.e., to gender or sexuality), it should not be censored but students should be privately informed of the fact of the abuse.
It is clear that the definition of the relationship between intellectual integrity and moral accountability lies at the heart of this question — one that is excruciatingly urgent but impossible to answer without transparency. Both as a student and as an aspiring teacher, I desperately need answers, as do many others. It is up to the academy to initiate this conversation and determine in what form such a “caveat lector” ought to come.
Sherry Lee is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column typically runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .