Justin Kiggins

Sexual harassment is not your academic freedom

May 16, 2010 | 3 Minute Read

Recently, Professor Dylan Evans has launched a petition campaign to fight his two-year “close supervision” order which was issued in response to an incident where he approached a female colleague to discuss an academic paper on fellatio in fruit bats. She interpreted this as an unwelcome incident of sexual harassment and filed a formal complaint. As he has been telling the story, the HR department dismissed the complaint. Nonetheless, the president of the university placed him on “close supervision” for two years. Unfortunately, the details of this are solely coming from Dr. Evans, who has launched a petition and a youtube video of select documents and has even made up a twitter hashtag, all portraying this as an academic freedom issue. A full posting of the documents challenges his claim of academic freedom, however.

First, a this is not an issue that random people on the internet should be petitioning. There is quite obviously more going on to the story that a random person like myself doesn’t know about.

Second, Dr. Evans seems to be hiding behind the “but, it’s science” argument, ignoring the fact that science has interpretations that are socially relevant. Indeed, the study in question is meant to highlight that things we consider to be uniquely human are not necessarily so and the the very first line of the study mentions human oral sex. In any normal work environment, it would be considered sexual harassment to approach a colleague of the opposite sex and try to engage in a conversation about fellatio. Would the case have been as easily dismissed if Dr. Evans had presented the YouTube video of bat copulation instead? Heck, just check out the list of “similar videos” for that to see the kind of thing that people associate with bat fellatio. The scientific facts are the same in both the video and the paper, so both would be equally appropriate to show a colleague, right? Undoubtedly, there should be more room for such discussion in academic circles, but one should not be surprised that this act was interpreted as harassment.

Third, most discussion has said that the Prez reprimands him despite that HR did not consider the complaints to be sexual harassment. This seems inconsistent with due process, but I’m not going to sign the stupid petition (which is also inconsistent with due process) because there is likely much more going on and much more history to the reprimand than the immediate complaint. Indeed, a closer reading of the letters Dr. Evans has posted indicates that there were *two* formal complaints made against him, one upheld and one dismissed (regarding the bat paper) and that the disciplinary procedures the president instituted were consistent with this. The complaints were not only about the bat paper, but about repeated discussions of sexual topics, unwelcome compliments, and inappropriate touching. Apparently, Dr. Evans skipped these parts of the complaint on his Youtube video and petition.

Academia allows a lot of BS that other sectors don’t (nepotism, sexism) and allows way more discrimination than would be acceptable in industry or government. I could make a long list of TMI profs who would share inappropriate details about themselves… details which would have them kicked to the curb in an industry setting. It is particularly disconcerting that such discrimination and inappropriateness can be so easily twisted into an “academic freedom” issue, with parties claiming “anti-science.”

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