East Carolina U. Blocks Hiring of Philosophy Professor Accused of Sexual Harassment | Chronicle of Higher Education


August 17, 2014


Gaston De Cardenas for The Chronicle

The philosophy department had chosen Colin McGinn for a one-year appointment, but administrators declined to accept the department’s choice, without saying why. Mr. McGinn resigned in December from the U. of Miami, where he had faced accusations of sexual harassment but was not found responsible for that offense. He believes the allegations in Florida are behind East Carolina’s decision.

By Robin Wilson

Administrators at East Carolina University have turned down the philosophy department’s request to award a one-year endowed professorship to Colin McGinn—a prominent philosopher who resigned from the University of Miami in December following allegations of sexual harassment by a female graduate student.

The Whichard distinguished professorship is awarded for up to two years to a faculty member associated with a humanities program at East Carolina. This year was the philosophy department’s turn to choose a scholar, and after months of consideration, it decided on Mr. McGinn.

But in a letter dated August 1, an East Carolina administrator told Mr. McGinn the university wouldn’t approve the philosophy department’s choice.

“After thorough consideration, East Carolina University has determined that it will not extend you an offer of appointment to a faculty position,” said the letter signed by Marilyn Sheerer, who was then the university’s provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs.

She refused to comment further to The Chronicle, and Mr. McGinn and East Carolina philosophy professors say officials haven’t offered an explanation for the decision—even though they’ve requested one.

Discord in the Discipline

Mr. McGinn is one of several philosophy professors across the country who have faced accusations of sex harassment or sexual misconduct in recent years. The University of Colorado at Boulder has suspended graduate-student admissions in philosophy this academic year, following a finding by the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women that the department was rife with “inappropriate sexualized unprofessional behavior.”

The allegations come amid claims by women in the discipline that it is unfriendly for female scholars and graduate students. Only 20 percent of the professors in philosophy are female.

East Carolina would have paid Mr. McGinn $110,000 for the coming academic year to teach two undergraduate courses, offer a weekly faculty seminar, and deliver two public lectures.

He says he believes the sexual-harassment allegations at Miami were behind the decision to reject him—even though Miami never found him responsible. Miami asked him to resign following accusations that Mr. McGinn sent a graduate student who worked for him a series of sexually explicit emails and text messages.

The university didn’t accuse him of sexual harassment, like the graduate student did, but said he had violated its policy requiring professors to report romantic relationships with students they supervise. Mr. McGinn has said he didn’t think he needed to report the relationship because it didn’t involve sex. He has called the campaign against him a “witch hunt.”

‘Stellar’ Academic Credentials

Michael Veber, an associate professor of philosophy who led the search committee at East Carolina that chose Mr. McGinn, says he didn’t put much stock into what went on at Miami. “After reviewing the evidence, Miami never even accused him of harassment,” says Mr. Veber. “So I don’t see how anyone could justify denying him a position because of any of that.”

Nicholas Georgalis, a distinguished research professor of philosophy at East Carolina, says his department wanted to hire Mr. McGinn because of his eminence as a scholar. “His publication record is amazing, he is a rare public intellectual, and his letters of recommendation from top people in the field were extraordinary,” says Mr. Georgalis, who has been at East Carolina since 1973 and says he can’t remember administrators ever turning down a philosophy-department hire before this. “We felt this was a great opportunity.”

As for the reaction to the sex-harassment allegations Mr. McGinn faced at Miami, Mr. Georgalis says “a lot of it was hysteria, reactions based on rumor.” He adds, “I evaluated him based on his academic credentials, which are stellar.”

But a prominent female philosopher says the fact that East Carolina professors were willing to ignore the charges against Mr. McGinn shows how far the field still has to come in terms of respecting women. Hilde Lindemann, a professor at Michigan State University who heads the philosophical association’s Committee on the Status of Women, says professors at East Carolina should have taken the charges into consideration, even though Mr. McGinn wasn’t found responsible for sexual harassment.

“It does seem there is a preponderance of evidence that suggests Colin McGinn is not trustworthy around women who have less power than he does,” says Ms. Lindemann. “The fact that nothing has been proved, if anyone thinks that means the evidence should be discounted, then I would respectfully disagree.”

She adds: “Until we can fix the climate so that it becomes unthinkable to harass a grad student, we will end up with more departments like East Carolina who feel unless you can prove this sinner has sinned, we’re going to hire him.”