Are Some Guys In Philosophy At The University Of Colorado-Boulder Bullies?

On January 31, 2014, the administration at University of Colorado-Boulder made public a report about the Department of Philosophy that had been prepared, by invitation, by a three-member team from the American Philosophical Association’s Commission on the Status of Women.

The site visit had been invited in April 2013. It was conducted in September 2013. In late November, the visiting team submitted its report to the department head, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and the provost (the highest ranking academic official) — each of whom had been involved in inviting the site visit. (The chancellor is the highest ranking administrative official.)

After reviewing the report for more than a month, the administration decided to make it public — evidently, with the chancellor’s approval.

Basically, the administration wants to stop hearing complaints involving the Department of Philosophy. For understandable reasons, the administration is exasperated with all the complaints involving the Department of Philosophy.

In various places the report contains some background information (e.g., the report alleges that at least 15 complaints involving the department have been filed with the Office of Discrimination and Harassment). But the report does not contain a separate subsection on the background of events that led up to the invitation for the site visit — or of the department’s attempt(s) to address the issues involved.

Among other things, the report includes the following statements:

“Moreover, we find that there is a lack of ownership from top to bottom regarding solving the problems and addressing unprofessional (or worse) behavior.”

For the department to recover, recovery “will involve taking drastic action.”

By making the report public on January 31, 2014, the administration has indeed taken drastic action.

Your guess is as good as mine as to whether or not this drastic action will lead to the department’s supposed recovery.

I would like to contribute my two cents to the wished-for recovery of the Department of Philosophy by undertaking to examine and discuss here two other points in the report.


Among other things, the report says, “Some faculty are unaware of how much their incivility towards one another and other types of unprofessional behavior harm their graduate students.”

Because “other types of unprofessional behavior” could include the report’s allegations of inappropriate sexualized behavior discussed elsewhere in the report, I want to skip over this wording here and focus instead on the alleged incivility. Incidentally, I agree that inappropriate sexualized behavior is unacceptable.

Now, if certain faculty members engage in incivility towards one another, I can understand that their behavior might not edify their graduate students. But the report claims that their alleged incivility harms their graduate students. However, the authors of the report do not explain how this alleged harm to their graduate students comes about.

Moreover, the report explicitly claims that some of the faculty members involved in incivility are unaware of the alleged harm of their behavior on their graduate students.

Evidently, the faculty members in question are not setting a good example for their graduate students, and they are not aware that they are not setting a good example for them. Instead of edifying their graduate students, certain faculty are disedifying them, because the graduate students deem the faculty behavior to be unedifying. Clearly the graduate students would prefer to be edified by the faculty, instead of being disedified. So the expectations of the graduate students regarding faculty behavior are being disappointed.


Among other things, the report says, “however, we do believe that those engaged in this behavior [bullying] are largely unaware that they are perceived as bullies.”

Now, bullying sounds like a stronger charge than incivility. By definition, bullies are not to be praised.

But note the qualifiers: (1) “largely unaware” and (2) “perceived as bullies.”

Surely such perceptions are in the minds of the beholders.

However, I would argue that the word “perceived” here is not exactly accurate — we’re clearly discussing judgments, which may be based on sensory perceptions but are different from sensory perceptions as such. For a fuller discussion of this difference, see Bernard Lonergan’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding.

Also note that the report seems to leave open the possibility that the people who are doing the perceiving/judging here may include more than just graduate students.

In other words, the alleged culprits apparently do not perceive/judge themselves as being bullies when they engage in whatever their behavior is that is being perceived/judged by others as bullying.

Gee, I have to admit that I don’t feel like trying to defend alleged bullying. The charged term bullying is designed to discourage bullying behavior.

However, because of the report’s qualifier about somebody else’s perceptions/judgments of alleged bullying behavior, I am going to jump in here where angels may fear to go.

Instead of referring to the behavior in question as bullying behavior, I will refer to it as agonistic behavior. The ancient Greek word “agon” means contest, struggle.

In his book Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness, the published version of his 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University, Walter J. Ong, S.J., discusses male agonistic tendencies.

Subsequently, Ong delivered a plenary address to the American Catholic Philosophical Association titled “The Agonistic Base of Scientifically Abstract Thought: Issues in Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness.”

Ong’s plenary address appears in the Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 56 (1982, pages 109-124).

Ong’s plenary address is reprinted in An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry (Hampton Press, 2002, pages 479-495).

In his lengthy introduction to Milton’s Logic (1672), Ong discusses how the male agonistic spirit has influenced the history of logic. His introduction appears in volume eight of Yale’s Complete Prose Works of John Milton (Yale University Press, 1982, pages 139-407).

Now, for the sake of discussion, let’s say that I am right in saying that the behavior in question is male agonistic behavior.

Does my characterization of the behavior in question help clarify anything?

Remember that the report says that the alleged culprits are largely unaware of how their behavior is being perceived/judged by others.

So if we were to use the report’s characterization of the behavior in question, we would be asking the members of the Department of Philosophy to figure out for themselves when they have been bullying one another.

However, if we were to use my characterization, we would turn their reflection into a two-step process of reflecting (1) on how they engage in contesting behavior with one another and (2) how their contesting behavior with one another might come across to others as bullying.

Now, isn’t contesting behavior central to how philosophical debate proceeds?

You bet it is.

I have taken enough philosophy courses and known enough philosophy teachers to understand that philosophical debate tends to engage what Plato and Aristotle refer to as “thumos” (or “thymos”). Plato and Aristotle see the virtue of courage as the quality one needs to cultivate in oneself in connection with one’s “thumos” (or “thymos”). In addition, they defined the virtue of courage as the mean between the extremes of being brash and being cowardly.

Engaging in live philosophical debate usually requires a modicum of courage to stand in there in the give-and-take of philosophical debate.

But there may be certain work-place contexts in which philosophical debate is not appropriate. In other words, in the work-place, there probably should be rules of engagement regarding when and under what circumstances philosophical debate is appropriate, and when it is not.

Next, it strikes me that a word is in order here about the people who are characterizing the behavior in question as bullying — and the people engaging in it as bullies. These characterizations are rather heavy-handed, to say the least. These charged characterizations are meant to silence discussion regarding the charges, it seems to me. But it appears that faculty members in the Department of Philosophy need to discuss the issues involved.

Next, I want to reiterate that I have not discussed the report’s allegations regarding sexual harassment and inappropriate sexualized behavior.

Finally, I do think it was a drastic step for the administration to make the report public. However, had the report not been made public, then I would not have read it, and I would not be publishing my reflections on certain points in it. Nevertheless, I hope that other universities do not follow the example set by the administration of the University of Colorado-Boulder in making the report public — unless the administration has stipulated well in advance that it plans to do so. TC mark


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