As the ugly truth about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual violence oozed into the light last autumn, every profession hastily reviewed and reassessed its own record, past and present.
Framing the questions being asked in academia, Times Higher Education ran a series of accounts from scholars reflecting on their experiences of harassment and abuse of power.
Among them was testimony from a professor of philosophy who challenged the argument that, when it comes to sex between scholars and students in particular, what happens between consenting adults is nobody’s business but their own.
Her account made clear how widespread the problem is or has been – as an undergraduate she was propositioned by at least three faculty members, she said, and as a postgraduate by five of the 16 academics in her department. That is some ratio.
There was also the low-level harassment, often passed off as humour, of which she said she could recount a hundred anecdotes. “I did not invite or enjoy any of this,” she made clear.
More contentious, perhaps, was her argument about successful academic “couplings”, as she warned against whitewashing exploitative behaviour in light of an ostensibly happy ever after.
“When a student turns up as Mrs X or Mrs Y at the next departmental Christmas party, all the unwanted, even assaultive behaviour of the recent past is eclipsed and silenced. Calling out the professor on his prior behaviour is, at that point, perceived as an attack on a family man’s character, his wife’s judgement and their mutual, consensual, love,” she wrote.
The problem, she said, is that she knew of no such example where the confetti had not been preceded by “at least three previous ‘attempts’ by the professor that the students in question experienced as sexual harassment”.
Even if the final coupling is a happy one, there will have been collateral damage along the way – and that cannot be overwritten.
In this week’s cover story, we return to the issue with four more pieces in which scholars consider this question of re-evaluation. It is central to much of the debate that has followed the Weinstein revelations – the extent to which historic behaviour, reputations and achievements can and should be reconsidered through a 2018 lens.
Among the contributions is a reassessment by a female lecturer of a relationship that she had with a senior academic while she was herself a student – first as an undergraduate, then during her PhD.
Encouraged to write about her experience after reading the THE article outlined above, she says that it was only after breaking up with this man, and finding out that he had moved on to another student to whom he was engaged, that she really understood his predatory behaviour.
Now a lecturer herself, she says that she can “sense how easy it would be to seduce [my students]…but I can also see how profoundly young they are. These power dynamics are ripe for exploitation”.
A second contributor gives another perspective, describing more immediately what it is like to be a student who suffers sexual harassment. The impact is deep, and the damage not repaired by an apology or disciplinary ruling. This is not relegated to a footnote with the passing of time, she says.
It is not just personal behaviour that can be re-evaluated, and other contributors ask the associated question of when and if scholarly output should be reassessed in light of personal behaviour.
A watershed such as the Weinstein revelations demands that these questions be asked and, in the case of show business, there is some precedent – Kevin Spacey, for example, was edited out of a film due for release when allegations about his own predatory behaviour became public.
But it is harder to make a case for research to be discounted or publications removed from the record. For a start, the decision made to erase Spacey from the crime thriller All the Money in the World was made, its director admitted, as a business decision. This is not a consideration in academia; what matters is the contribution that research makes to the body of knowledge.
More helpful, it is suggested, is if such output, and scholarly reputations, are understood within the context of problematic personal behaviour – that is, not to airbrush the behaviour from history, but not to delete the individuals, and their work, from the academic record either.
If academic endeavour is ultimately about seeking truth, this seems the only reasonable response. It is probably the only practical one, too.