Politics In Academia: Sauce For Both Geese And Ganders?

[NOTE: This post has been UPDATED. 2/23/19]

Inside Higher Ed has a disturbing article today, “Will Me Too Activism Cost Professor Her Job?” BethAnn McLaughlin, an assistant professor of neurology and pharmacology at Vanderbilt, “is a hero to many women in academe, especially those in science [and also obviously to Inside Higher Ed].”

She founded a nonprofit called #MeTooSTEM to draw attention to the harassment of women in academic science, much by prominent men who are considered leaders of their fields.

She has spoken out against “harassholes” and has named names in public speeches, asking why some scientists are still showered with honors for their science despite the way they have treated women. She has urged members of the National Academy of Sciences to resign unless all harassers are removed from its ranks.

As McLaughlin’s activism has grown, some of it has struck close to home. A faculty committee that had endorsed her tenure bid reversed itself, Science reported. The action came amid investigations of McLaughlin for allegedly posting anonymous derogatory comments about colleagues, and the complaint reportedly came from a professor against whom McLaughlin had spoken in a sexual harassment investigation. While Vanderbilt never found her guilty of violating any rules, the tenure process went from moving to not moving. She is in danger of being out of a job at the end of this month.

Vanderbilt strenuously denies the allegations that McLauglin’s tenure bid has been affected by her #MeToo activism, issuing a statement asserting that

[r]ecent news reports and subsequent social media conversations and posts related to an ongoing tenure review have created a grossly inaccurate picture of the culture and values of Vanderbilt University. We share genuine concern about the real and pervasive challenges facing women in science around the world and are working to address them here at Vanderbilt. We do not tolerate sexual discrimination and misconduct, or retaliation against those that stand up against it, and we work to foster an environment that encourages reporting and protects those who do so. Our community holds diversity, equity and inclusion as bedrock values and any suggestion otherwise is false.

I have no opinion about Professor McLaughlin or Vanderbilt’s treatment of her tenure application, but I do think there is a valuable lesson lurking in this mess that, alas, is all too likely to go unheeded: Politics and scholarship do not, or at least should not, mix.

A petition supporting Professor McLaughlin states that “because of her courageous stance against sexual harassment, Professor McLaughlin’s [sic] is poised to lose her job on February 28.” If that’s true, if Professor McLaughlin is denied tenure “because of her courageous stand against sexual harassment,” that’s wrong, and what the petition goes on to state is right:

The tenure process is the means by which a professor’s contributions to the academic community recognize the scholarship, teaching, and service to their peers. When administrators pressure faculty to reverse their decision on tenure, they bring politics and fear into a process that should be objective and independent. Even the appearance of administrative interference strikes a blow against academic freedom and the expectation of scholarly independence.

I agree with this argument. My problem is that most outspoken activists — of whatever persuasion — don’t. On the contrary, they insist that political considerations should be part of academic decision-making. See, for example, the spreading requirement for all and sundry to provide “diversity statements.”

Does anyone doubt that those statements “bring politics” into “a process that should be objective and independent”? Well, you say, someone, somewhere must doubt that? Fine. Go find such a person, if you can, and ask him or her to predict the fate of a tenure applicant in sociology or history whose diversity statement proudly listed a host of activities in support of affirmative action as defined in Executive Orders by Presidents Kennedy (10925) and Johnson (11246), both of which declared that it is the obligation of the federal government to promote and ensure equal opportunity for all qualified persons, “without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin.

As I’ve already mentioned, I am not familiar with Professor McLaughlin or the nature or content of her #MeTooStem activism, but unless she differs from other #MeToo activists — for whom “Believe Women!” is the rallying cry — she herself is introducing politics into scholarly settings when she demands the exclusion of “all harassers,” not presumably just those who have been found guilty of harassment in some proceeding.


Academic institutions and related organizations (scholarly societies, etc.) increasingly have to deal with the problem of colleagues and members who engage in behaviors — or sometimes, merely express opinions — that are, or at least are regarded as, obnoxious. In the old days that was usually regarded as evaluating “comity,” i.e., whether Candidate X played well with his or her peers. Although that concept, or standard, was clearly susceptible to abuse, it is not on the face of it unreasonable for, say, a department to want to avoid constant agitation and disruption, especially based on matters not essential to its function.

Today, however, things are more complicated, as evidenced by Prof. McLaughlin’s urging members of that National Academy of Sciences “unless all harassers are removed from its ranks.” O ther examples, alas, abound. Should a lecturer at UVa’s business school have been forced to resign unless he recanted his opinion stated on Facebook that Black Lives Matter was like the Klan? Or take an example from just this week: a video shows a Berkeley undergraduate, Hayden Williams, being punched in the face several times by a black-shirted thug who objected to the conservative organization for which Mr. Williams was handing out information.

Now consider one Yuvi Panda, who tweeted (subsequently privacy protected): “OH MY GOD THE MAGA PEOPLE ON UC BERKELEY CAMPUS YESTERDAY GOT PUNCHED IN THE FACE BY SOMEONE THIS MAKES ME FEEL EMOTIONALLY SO MUCH BETTER.” Then, according to Campus Reform, “he thanked the ‘random stranger’ for ‘not letting it go unchallenged.’”

It turns out that Mr. Panda is on the staff of UC Berkeley’s Institute for Data Science. Should he be fired? Should others refuse to associate with the Institute unless he is “removed from its ranks?”

Or might it not be a good idea to base academic and professional decisions on academic and professional criteria alone, letting the legal process deal with criminal matters?

Say What?