Dele­tion is im­prac­ti­cal

While it is im­por­tant to re­assess be­hav­iour through a 2018 lens, it is hard to make the case for re­mov­ing the work of a dis­graced scholar from the record

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - John.gill@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

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.

Eras­ing Kevin Spacey from the film was a busi­ness de­ci­sion. This is not a con­sid­er­a­tion in academia; what mat­ters is the con­tri­bu­tion re­search makes to the body of knowl­edge

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