So the simple answer seems to be that it both can and does happen in linguistics. The ‘it’ is sexual harassment. An apparently egregious case of such was brought to my attention via a tweet from David Adger directing me to this post. The author is Lauren Hall-Lew (LHL). Her website indicates that she is a sociophonetician working out of Edinburgh. The post is in reaction to this piece in Mother Jones (MJ), a bit of reporting on the alleged unwanted (and, if true, indefensible) sexual advances of Florian Jaeger on a (then) grad student Celeste King. The MJ piece goes into quite a bit of detail concerning the charges and replies by the University of Rochester (UR) people that looked into this. The most damning bit, IMO, is that the charges were credible enough for Dick Aslin to resign over UR’s tepid response (his assessment). It is also noteworthy that he and Elisa Newport, once chair of the UR cog sci dept (now at Georgeown), were willing to go public seconding Kidd’s claims. These are very serious senior people with impeccable professional reputations and if in their view the stories concerning Jaeger are credible then I take them seriously. I will not go into the toing and froing that the article reports, but I would like to make a few comments.
First, Kidd is not alone in making the charges. There are others (in fact given the seriousness of the charges, many others) reporting the same thing.
Second, UR’s defense is that they could not prove that what Jaeger did was illegal and would be willing to defend their decision “in a court of law.” This is quite a weak reply. There are many things short of legal culpability that are professionally unacceptable. Moreover, at this moment it seems that UR’s response to the charges has been to harass those faculty that brought the Jaeger behavior to the attention of the higher ups. Here are Aslin and Newport as quoted in MJ:
“The administration has inexplicably failed to defend its most vulnerable citizens—its students—and put future students at risk by failing to act appropriately on their behalf; and it has retaliated against the faculty members whose only motive was to defend these students,” Aslin and Elissa Newport, the former chair of the brain and cognitive sciences department, wrote in a letter delivered to members of the UR Board of Trustees. “The present situation must be viewed as a colossal failure of UR leadership at all levels.”
It is entirely possible that there was no proof sufficient for legal proceedings and yet there was quite a bit of bad behavior. In fact, the MJ piece suggests that this is indeed what happened. Here is MJ:
The investigation into Jaeger’s behavior took about three months. In her final report, UR investigator Catherine Nearpass concluded that Jaeger had had a sexual relationship with at least one graduate student in the department, as well as a prospective Ph.D. student; that parts of his behavior were inappropriate; and that he “liked to push boundaries with students,” the EEOC complaint alleges. Still, the university ultimately found that Jaeger had not violated the university’s policy against discrimination and harassment, and that there was not enough evidence to conclude he sexually harassed Kidd or any other student in his lab. An appeal was unsuccessful.
The EEOC complaint goes into some detail outlining what Jaeger appears to have done and it ain’t pretty. Might I suggest that it become a policy that lab retreats not include hot tubs and drugs.
Third, it is possible that UR is right, namely that Jaeger’s behavior did not rise to the level of illegality. So what is to be done? This is the topic of LHL’s interesting post. LHL knew Jaeger in grad school and she is not particularly surprised about the charges (adding further evidence that Kidd, Aslin and Newport are onto something). But the real meat of her post, IMO, is a subtle suggestion as to the roots of this behavior:
In discussing this Mother Jones article with other women who went to grad school with us, one made the excellent point that this particular incident has happened because Florian carried his borderline sketchy behaviors from graduate school into postgraduate life, without calibrating for his increase in power relative to the grad students he was interacting with. One grad student flirting with another grad student is one thing. A professor flirting with a grad student is another thing entirely. The options for responding are severely constrained in the latter case in a way they aren’t in the former case. When someone gains power without checking themselves and their behavior, this is what happens.
I think that this gets it exactly right. The problem isn't merely the behavior but also who is engaged in it. Sexual relations are complicated (as the interlocutor rightly noted). But exploiting a position of power, either implicitly or explicitly, is a bright line.
I would like to push this point a bit further. Jaeger’s alleged bad behavior is rooted in a kind of intellectual dishonesty. The great peculiarly academic vice is seeking deference beyond our domains of competence. Academics are prone to trade on expertise in one area for influence and power in another. What LHL’s interlocutor points out is that when this is coupled with power, this kind of over-reaching goes from often unobjectionable BS to downright disgusting behavior. Academics of all people should be cognizant when they do this, when they start trading their expertise in one area for generalized power, prestige, kudos, in others. After all, one important intellectual responsibility is knowing when you are speaking authoritatively and when you are full of it. Start confusing the two cases (e.g. start believing you deserve shit because you are smart and know something about one tiny domain of knowledge) and nobody should be surprised that bad behavior follows when given the opportunity that hierarchical relations (student-teacher, mentor-post doc, etc.) offer. So, being blind to power relations is not merely a moral vice (although it is that too), it is also an intellectual failing, and one all too tempting to intellectuals.
So, LHL’s colleague has put her finger on an important root cause. Still, what is to be done? First, kudos again to Newport and (especially) Aslin for putting themselves publically on the line for their students. It is rare to see colleagues publically go on the record regarding the inappropriate behavior of another colleague. Moreover, their action suggests part of a remedy for the kind of bad behavior Jaeger allegedly engaged in: public shaming! Here’s a suggestion. Stop inviting people who behave like this to speak at your colloquia. Stop inviting them to give special addresses at conferences you are organizing. Stop including them in your workshops. In other words, start shunning them for their bad behavior.
We don’t generally do this. Why not? Would we ignore other forms of harassment? Do we really want the people who act this way to become role models for our students? Do we want to expose our students to potential misbehavior? Isn’t this what we are doing when we pretend that this doesn’t exist?
What the UR events indicated is that we cannot rely on the law to enforce decent behavior on colleagues intent on acting badly. If Aslin’s resignation did nothing, then it is unlikely that this is the most efficient route to reform. But, we can do something. We can make it clear that people who act this way are not going to be honored guests in our departments, conferences, workshops etc. Being invited to these is not someone’s right. Not being invited is not an infringement of academic freedom. It is an honor. It is an indication that the invitee is the kind of person we want to interact with personally and want our students and post-docs to interact with personally. One ingredient in being so honored, is having things worth listening to. But it is only one ingredient. The other is being someone with the right kind of professional integrity and behavior. And in this day and age, this means understanding that acting like Jaeger allegedly did is not acceptable. And one way to make this clear institutionally is not to pretend that it doesn’t exist when we make our decisions about who to honor professionally by inviting them into our professional homes.
 Nor am I convinced that legal interventions are always the right solution. The law is a blunt instrument rightly demanding a high level of proof and most usefully applied in the least ambiguous most egregious cases.