Most interesting man in the world accused of sex harassment

No, I’m not talking about the guy who plays the most interesting man in the world on television in beer commercials. I’m talking about Colin McGinn.

He’s a philosopher (he thinks, therefore we are), surfer (when he catches a wave, the wave is sitting on top of the world), and tennis enthusiast (the net exists, but only for others, not for him). And, of course, the most interesting man in the world blogs.

McGinn doesn’t shrink from his status as the world’s most interesting man. He described himself to the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) as “the most enlightened person in the world” and not necessarily arrogant, but “superior.” He added that he’s a “ladies’ man.”

It is this self-image, perhaps, that led McGinn into his current difficulties. A graduate student at the University of Miami, where McGinn taught until recently, has accused him of sending her sexually explicit and other inappropriate emails and text messages.

Although there no claim of any physical relationship, the student’s allegations, if true, would raise a colorable claim of sex harassment, and certainly describe a course of inappropriate conduct.

The student was McGinn’s paid research assistant on a project relating to the evolution of the human hand. McGinn, who is 63, admits to engaging in sexual banter with his assistant. He notes, however, that the subject of his study, the human hand, tempted such banter. Maybe so, but it’s a temptation that “the most enlightened person in the world” would want to resist.

McGinn describes his relationship with the student as an “intellectual romance.” But the student says she received an email from him saying that the two should have sex in his office during the summer when no one else is around.

McGinn denies sending such an email. However, he admits sending an email that said “had a hand job imagining you giving me a hand job.” (This was, after all, an “intellectual romance”). According to McGinn, though, he was referring to a manicure.

The Chronicle suggests that the McGinn affair is emblematic of a larger tale in the world of academic philosophy. It claims that stories of sex harassment “have long plagued the discipline in which fewer than one in five full-time professors are female.” Indeed, the American Philosophical Association has established an ad hoc committee on sexual harassment.

Having litigated sex harassment cases, and read the case law, I understand that this form of discrimination can be a particularly big problem in certain traditionally male jobs where female employees are essentially pioneers. Examples include police officer (at one time) and coal miner.

I wouldn’t have thought to add philosophy professor to the list, but why not?

The Chronicle says that a sex harassment charge against a tenured professor, whatever the department, almost never results in the accused’s departure. But it did in McGinn’s case. He resigned from the University of Miami faculty because, he says, it became apparent to him that the University’s president, Donna Shalala, was determined to drive him out.

McGinn modestly predicts that his departure will lead to the demise of the U’s philosophy department within three years.

Should McGinn have been driven out, assuming that’s what happened? His admission of engaging in sexual banter with a student, coupled with the “hand job” email, are enough to show inappropriate conduct that justifies discipline. And if McGinn suggested having sex with a graduate student in his office, the discipline should be severe.

But whether McGinn deserved to be sacked (assuming this is what Shalala wanted) is less clear. Steven Pinker, a professor at Harvard, contends that “the punishment is ludicrously disproportionate to the alleged offense.”

I’d feel a bit sorry for McGinn, but how can you feel sorry for the most interesting man in the world?

Stay thirsty, my friends, but mind your manners.

UPDATE: You can read the Chronicle of Higher Education piece about McGinn here.

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