The UCLA sexual harassment case that every professor should be aware of

This sexual harassment case at UCLA is jaw-dropping. From one plaintiff’s complaint, against history Professor Gabriel Piterberg:

51. He then started talking about the famous philosophers Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, who met when Arendt was Heidegger’s student and subsequently carried on a clandestine love affair for more than forty years. He told her that relationships like theirs were normal and that “If it is done right, professor and student relationships are supposed to be intimate.”

52. Professor Piterberg then told her that he masturbated while imagining the two of them together.

53. Throughout this meeting, Plaintiff Takla continued to voice her discomfort with him as her advisor and his comments, but Professor Piterberg was upset with Plaintiff Takla for wanting a new advisor. He told her, “If anything happened between us, it might be while you are writing the conclusion to your dissertation.”

This is a small fraction of the terrible things alleged. There are two women with similar complaints so far. The most staggering aspects: the UCLA ombudsperson effectively hushes both. As did the victim’s other adviser. And beyond this institutional failure, a disturbing detail is that both the ombudsperson and other adviser were also women, and apparently also aware of other complaints.

This article summarizes, but the full text of the legal complaint is so much more powerful and disturbing. And important for professors to read. It is short, and you will find it hard to put down.

With the caveat that these are allegations for the time being, some reflections:

  • How many times has this happened before over two decades with this faculty member? How many times has this been hushed by the university, or a colleague, or self-censoring? Staggering.
  • A friend commented: this is the culture of humanities profession, where older male professors compensate for relatively poor salaries with these non-wage benefits. That’s an exaggerated and unkind interpretation, but I can’t convince myself it’s false.
  • Actually the other cause might be undue concentration of power. In smaller, more specialized, fragmented disciplines, where the costs of switching sub-disciplines are high (e.g. learn a new country and language), advisers will exert more power over their students. So these disciplines might want to think about how to break down internal disciplinary barriers to decentralize power.
  • Not all the facts are known, but the big failure to me is the institutional one: the UCLA coverup. There will always be deviant individuals. The institutional failure to investigate and prosecute is shameful. It’s like 1990 in the Vatican.
  • I’m pretty sure most big organizations and universities would behave in the same way, if allowed. This is not a UCLA problem.
  • Some colleagues of mine criticized the media coverage of the Lacour scandal—the UCLA student who faked a gay marriage study. They felt that UCLA had a process and would take care of it. I disagreed then and I feel even more confident now. Big bureaucracies do not want to deal with this.
  • The most blatant case of academic fraud I ever caught? My university fumbled it so badly it had to be purposeful, and the culprit is now a prominent politician in his/her country.
    • No I won’t tell you whether this was Harvard, Berkeley, Yale or Columbia, as my experience is that none of them are that different in this regard.
  • There has been virtually no news coverage since the UCLA story broke in mid-June. This strikes me as ominous.
  • Here is political economist Michael Chwe on Project Callisto, a web-based system for sexual assault reporting under development.
    • Document and time stamp harassment as it happens to you. It goes nowhere, until at a later date when (a) it gets worse and you need the records, or (b) someone else accuses the same person and you can add your complaint more easily. (b) can be made automatic when someone else reports.