Opinion: Crazy in Colorado, or are male philosophy profs really sexist pigs?
They’re the Buridan’s Ass bandits! The feminist police who patrol academia for signs of “rape culture” must have run out of fraternity houses to pick on, so they’ve decided to go after -- philosophy professors.
Yes, you read that right. You might think philosophy profs are tweedy, elbow-patched pipe smokers who spend most of their time poring over “Kritik der reinen Vernunft” or debating whether it would be ethically OK to throw a fat man in front of a runaway trolley so as to save five other lives. You would be wrong.
According to a January report from the American Philosophical Assn.'s Committee on the Status of Women, the philosophy department at the University of Colorado Boulder is a hotbed of “unacceptable sexual harassment, inappropriate sexualized behavior and divisive uncivil behavior.”
It’s hard to figure out exactly what the male philosophers at Boulder were actually doing in the way of “inappropriate sexualized behavior” because the committee, which seemed to have spent a full year (plus $25,000 of Boulder’s money) on this witch hunt, is keeping that under wraps. The report that it issued to the public is merely a “summary” containing no specific incidences of misconduct, much less naming any names. The report did say that there was “excessive drinking” when professors and graduate students socialized together, and that “some male faculty have been observed ogling undergraduate women students.”
Ogling! Guess Plato’s “Republic” isn’t that interesting after all.
The women’s committee also complained that the Boulder philosophy department was treating the problem far too -- philosophically. The report stated: “The department uses pseudo-philosophical analyses to avoid directly addressing the situation. Their faculty discussions revolve around the letter rather than the spirit of proposed regulations and standards.”
So the women’s committee decided to inject some spirit of its own into Boulder’s lackadaisical philosophy department: the spirit of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union combined with the spirit of Chairman Mao. The committee proposed that henceforth there be “no alcohol served at any events connected with the department … and no evening socializing.” The committee also demanded that the department institute mandatory sexual harassment training for all, hire a “facilitator” whose job it would be to make female philosophy students feel better, and dissolve all departmental listservs so that faculty and students wouldn’t be able to communicate with one another easily.
Oh, and no joking around, either! “Avoid cheap and easy jokes in class or other professional settings. Individuals must call out disrespectful comments as they occur, and those called out should receive the correction without being defensive.”
The year 1966 in China just called. They want their Red Guards back.
Administrators at Boulder didn’t go quite so far as the ladies of the American Philosophical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women wanted. But they went pretty far. They fired the department chair, barred the department from admitting new graduate students and duly set up the mandatory sexism training classes that the committee had recommended.
Then, in February, Bradley Monton, an associate professor of philosophy at Boulder, complained at a meeting of the Boulder Faculty Assembly’s Executive Committee that both the committee’s findings and the administration’s actions were exaggerated. Monton said the practices that the committee had spotlighted -- excessive after-hours drinking among faculty and students -- had ended years earlier. Monton later retracted his remarks -- under pressure from the administration, he now says -- and resigned from the faculty assembly, also under pressure.
College philosophy departments have been under attack from feminists for years. Philosophy is one of the few humanities fields left in which men actually outnumber women. At the University of Georgia, for example, only 33% of undergraduate philosophy majors are women, according to a National Public Radio report. Nationwide, only 20% of philosophy professors are women.
Feminist philosophy professors don’t like that, even though a study at Georgia State University found that female students who took an introductory philosophy course simply deemed “the course less enjoyable and the material less interesting and relevant to their lives than male students.”
Philosophy is the most abstract of all the humanities disciplines, and it’s likely that it appeals more to men, with their generally greater facility for abstract, math-like reasoning, whereas women’s brains seem more strongly adapted to social skills and memory.
Feminist philosophers are having none of that, however. They’ve insisted that their profession is institutionally biased against women. They’ve urged such supposedly corrective measures as shunning professional conferences whose panels don’t include female speakers and discontinuing the philosophy “smoker,” a traditional part of the faculty hiring process in which job candidates and professors have discussions over drinks -- an institution that feminists claim encourages suspicious male bonding (feminist philosophers don’t seem to like booze).
Fortunately, there seems to be a backlash against Boulder’s draconian measures with respect to its philosophy department. Six women with ties to the philosophy department have issued a public statement complaining that the university’s actions tarnished the professional reputation of the entire department. And last week, even the American Assn. of University Professors sided with Monton, not Boulder. “One of the central tenets of academic freedom is the right of faculty to speak out on matters of institutional policy,” said an AAUP report demanding that Monton’s full faculty privileges be restored.
Charlotte Allen writes frequently about feminism, politics and religion. Follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte.
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.