Monday, September 11, 2017

It can (and has) happened here

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. Because power. 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.[1] 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.

[1] 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.


  1. Thank you for your thoughts. I believe that the right solution involves addressing the rock-star culture that so thrives in academia and which we are all part of, as aptly described in this article: (the article is about tech, but the rock-star culture is the same). What you propose is part of that solution and the article has many other good ideas. I think it's important to understand that we all contribute to this culture in small ways

  2. I wanted to write something about this topic, but now I think that is unncessary. I can just point people to this page, and say: read what Hornstein has to say about it.

  3. One way of addressing the rock-star culture is to stop counting citations. Banish impact factors and journal rankings. Evaluate scientists qualitatively rather than quantitatively.

    1. There must have been rock stars in academia before impact factors and the like. But I also suspect that they might have a contributing role in an already favorable climate

    2. I think that changing the mode of evaluation wouldn't change much in this respect.

      We see in every walk of life that when you offer people a lot of what they want, those people will overlook your deepest flaws to keep the tap flowing. The more you offer, the deeper the flaw they will overlook. This is the case in art, film, business, sport, love, politics... why not in academia, too?

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    1. But did you read the article? Misogyny/lack of acknowledgement of women's rights is at the heart of rock-star culture

    2. Thanks. I did not read the article, since the hour was (too) late, which is also why I got a little carried away in my comment. Having read the article, I see better that what I said is off. Apologies.

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  6. Hi Norbert, I posted this on my Facebook wall in direct response to your blog post, and it generated a lot of discussion. It was suggested that I should also post it here, which I think is only right, given that you're apparently not on FB yourself. This is what I said:

    "OK, I'm going to put this out there. I like that the Jaeger story is getting so much traction and that the response has been so sympathetic on the side of the complainants. I also like most of what is said in this blog post here. But this part in the beginning really rubbed me the wrong way. The author says: "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."
    At the end of the day, if credibility is only ever measured in direct proportion to seniority and "impeccable professional reputations", then what is the fate of those who are *junior* and haven't had the chance to shape impeccable reputations yet -- the people, in fact, who are most often directly affected by these actions, and are most vulnerable? Perhaps we should change the way we think from the ground up, and start to have faith in the weak and the vulnerable, because they have so much more to lose --- and not only trust those who have crossed some invisible barrier of success, thereby "earning" a right to our credibility."

    The only thing I would like to add to this is that I think this is a more general problem. In this case, it's worth wondering what would have happened if Celeste Kidd hadn't had the support of Aslin and Newport. Would her complaints have been dismissed or would we ever even have heard about it? How many others are there like her, who don't have the backing of colleagues with impeccable professional records, that she did?

    (Sandhya Sundaresan)

    1. Thx for your thoughts on this. I fear my reply may disappoint, but here goes.

      I agree that credibility should be more widely shared. But, frankly, it is not. People earn credibility and it is more widely accessible to others the more a person is known. I know of Aslin by reputation and know Newport by both reputation and personally. Hence when they put their names on the line, I find it hard not to treat their views as credible. Now, we can all agree that the charges leveled against Jaeger were serious. And I hope we can all agree that serious charges must be vetted. As I cannot do this personally, I rely on others credible testimony to evaluate them. So, credibility is not only measured by reputation, but good reputations do and, IMO, should enhance credibility. Having "faith in the weak" mistakes the issue, IMO. We need to take serious charges seriously and this means vetting them before crediting them.The issue, btw, is not success, it is a good reputation and a claim made by someone with a good professional reputation is a good reason to take it seriously. That does not mean that Kidd was not credible, though she was not credible TO ME as I did not know her. I take it you do not think that mere assertion of wrongdoing suffices. But if not credibility will matter and reputation is a good indicator of credibility. That, at least, is how I see it.

      Had King not had backing it would have been difficult for the case to become visible. It certainly helped that Aslin and Newport and others supported her. But are you so sure that this is a bad thing? Surely a single charge without further backing is weaker than one with lots of it. And shouldn't it be? Are you suggesting that every charge made against someone should be treated as suggesting that the charged person is culpable? I am pretty sure that I would ask for a little more backing than that before blowing the lid of a case with charges as serious as this. You?

      Last point: the MJ piece noted that Kidd had a promising career. This made it sound that if she did not have such, what Jaeger did would have been ok. Of course this is false. If true it was bad behavior regardless of how promising her future might have been.

      So, yes reputation matters. I believe that it should. And yes it is something that grows with seniority (not surprisingly). Is this a bad thing? No, I don't think so. At any rate, it strikes me as unavoidable as well.

    2. Of course serious charges must be vetted, and I don't want to speak for Sandhya, but I'm quite sure she agrees on that point as well. It's clearly not ok for them to just be accepted without proper investigation, and Sandhya clearly wasn't suggesting that we should treat every accusation as indicating culpability. But of course it goes both ways -- we also can't ignore serious charges without properly looking into them, and my sense is that this latter kind of failure of vetting is more common than the former one.

      Reputation will always matter, and it's maybe okay for it to play an important role as a shortcut in instances where we don't have direct access to the information needed to determine the truth for ourselves. In other words, we use it as a proxy for actually vetting things. But that means that taking accusations seriously enough at ground level to properly investigate them has to be something that is done *independent* of reputation. The wider community of linguists looking at this case from a distance is mostly (perhaps aside from those who have personal experience with Jaeger, Kidd and the others directly involved) not in a position to directly evaluate the evidence and decide whether the accusations are supported. So yes, reputation is going to be a crutch that we lean on to try to make sense of what is going on.


      Obviously the administration at UR doesn't have this excuse. They are obligated morally, legally and otherwise to take accusations like this seriously and investigate them carefully no matter what the reputations of the people involved. They seem to have failed spectacularly in this, as you, Norbert, and various others have laid out so nicely. But I think that part of the problem is in fact that they fell back on reputation in a totally irresponsible way in failing to properly investigate what was going on.

      And when it comes to those of us looking on from afar, I think we still have to be more careful than we usually are in how we use reputation to shape our views on things like this where we don't have direct access to the facts. First, reputation shouldn't be the only or perhaps even the most important short-cut we take to try to figure out what's going on. It's probably more useful to think of things like what has been learned about general rates of things like sexual harrassment and the (as far as I am aware) extremely low rate of false accusations, or things like the number of accusers who have come forward in a particular case and how much their stories are in agreement. Second, I think reputation can also be quite misleading in these cases. People develop good reputations in lots of different ways, many of which aren't really relevant as a way to gauge whether they're telling the truth. Also, people's reputations (and our awareness of those reputations) are, I think, massively influenced by our own prejudices and the various prejudices in the community. If we try to evaluate a situation based on the reputations of the allies of the people involved, all we're going to get is a popularity contest, not a particularly good idea of who's telling the truth.

      I agree that reputation does matter, but I think that up until now it has matterred too much. I think it's partly responsible for the way that people in positions of power, like many high profile male professors, have gotten away with so much abuse for generations.

      I'm not saying it's easy to find something to replace reputation as a short-cut in cases like this, but I think we need to try.

    3. Sure. We need to take this very much more seriously than we have till now. Moreover, I think faculty, and especially senior faculty need to be more sensitive to these issues. Faculty are caretakers and senior faculty, having a good chunck of the power also have a good chunck of the responsibility. So we are on the same page here. Inbestigate seriosuly and dont whitewash the famous. Agreed also that UR did not appear to do a good job. But, I say the latter not because I personally know the details (I do not) but becuase those I respect and trust tell me tha UR really screwed up. Even here, I am not sure abput the legal, as oppsed to the professional ethics, issues. So, even here, reputation matters. But I suspect we are agreed on this.

      As for the rest, I suspect if the field would stop winking at this kind of behavior, it would soon have the right effect. Culture matters and works fast. The problem is that we often don't do much if the legal route fails. But why not? Shaming works. It is a cost many do not want to bear and this deters. Look, academics are people and people will act badly. We just need to make it costly to do so in the hope that this will have the effect of mitigating the behavior. One can hope. Let us try it and see.

  7. The question isn't whether Aslin and Newport are credible or deserve to be believed. Of course they are, and of course they do. The question is, how much this should matter or be relied on, in a situation like this. In addition to the stuff Tom points out, the problem is that there is likely going to be an *inverse* relationship between how successful someone is in their field and how likely they are to fall victim to this kind of abuse. Junior, untenured scholars and women fall victim more than senior, tenured men. If we rely too much on professional reputation as a metric for credibility, then there is the danger that many of them may simply come across as less credible by default.

    1. How much it should matter,depends on the case. In this case, as I know nothing about it first hand, having Aslin and Newport weigh in matters to me a lot. They have wide credibility. They have earned it. This does not mean the case could not be made without them or that lesser lights are not credible. It means that often one is not in a good position to judge and relies on others. What would you suggest? Believe anything anyone says? You will reply, inbestigate every claim. And this should be done. But even so, as a matter of exonomy, you cannot do so for oneself and so you need to know who to trust. I will begin by looking at those in the know who I know. I bet you will do the same. Progessional reputation is not a metric. But if a person has a well deserved reputation then it would seem odd not to defer to it all things being equal. So, I stand by what I said here. In this case, I am willing to believe Jaeger acted badly because credible,people went on public record saying he did. I actually know of no other way to proceed short of carrying out my own investigation. Have you done this? Could you in heneral? And if not, what will you do? I see nO other reasonabl,way to go.

      As I have said my piece, I leave the last word to you.

    2. @Norbert: I obviously can't speak for Sandhya, nor do I have any ideas that generalize fully to every conceivable case of this nature. But the UR case does have other properties that allow one to reason about it, even if one does not know Aslin or his reputation (which is the case for me). For example: one of the things that was so infuriating about the UR president's response(s) to the EEOC filing was his comparison of this case to the Rolling Stone / UVA one (a comparison that I think he later apologized for, but that is beside the point). The UR case involves testimony or statements from about 11 students and 7 faculty members. It would have to be a conspiracy on a massive scale – indeed, a hard-to-believe scale – for there to be no fire behind this smoke. This type of reasoning may not be foolproof, but it is highly suggestive, and can be carried out while abstracting away from the relevant parties' prestige etc.

    3. I don't rquate cedibilty with prestige. I do link it to professional reputation widely ndetstood. This often reflects virtues like intellectual honesty, which is relevant. I also accept that there other relevant metrics that can play a role. But, to be honest, that Aslin was willing to resign over thsimand taht he and Newport went public speaks to me. Maybe less so to you. I am fine with that. But For me these wete decisive bits of evidence swaying my opinion.

    4. Oh yes, I agree the numbers mattered here. I thought I mentioned this, but maybe not. If not, I agree they wete important.