Kristina Gehrman’s Reflections in the Wake of the Searle Case

Kristina Gehrman (Tennessee, Knoxville), who was a public figure in the case against Searle, offers some reflections. Here now is Kristina:

I want to share a couple of thoughts, mostly geared towards my fellow philosophers and academics in the wake of the Searle case.

I don’t regret sticking my neck out back in 2004, and I definitely don’t regret doing it in public again now. But I did it for a very specific reason, which is that I firmly believe that professors, administrators, and others in positions of power in academia are responsible for creating INSTITUTIONAL barriers to the kinds of predatory, undermining, and alienating behavior that John Searle’s undergraduate research assistants have been subjected to for years and years. We are supposed to be mentors and educators with firm and healthy boundaries even in our closest relationships with our students and mentees. And our mentoring and teaching relationships are supposed to be geared towards the intellectual and professional development and growth of our students/mentees. In philosophy, we by and large fail at that *as a matter of institutional culture*.

Of course, there are many wonderful, mature, thoughtful mentors and educators in the discipline. I’m still in philosophy because of the support of several such people while I was in graduate school – the inimitable Rosalind Hursthouse and Alva Noe at Berkeley, and then Barbara Herman and Gavin Gavin Lawrence and Pamela Hieronymi at UCLA. But for the most part in philosophy, this kind of support happens because individuals value it, are good at it, and make an extra effort to do it. We still mostly lack disciplinary and departmental cultures of mentorship and careful respect for power structures that would establish these kinds of support as the norm.

So my point is that it’s not enough – in fact, I would go so far as to say it’s not RELEVANT – to condemn John Searle, or others like him, for being slimy creepers. What’s relevant to me is the question of what made it so that the rest of the faculty at Berkeley – themselves, not slimy creepers and generally nice, decent people — were passive in the face of the full knowledge of Searle’s behavior. How many young women were lost to philosophy or had their self-confidence or sense of intellectual belonging undermined as a result? It’s absolutely unacceptable. Obviously there are many different possible explanations for people doing nothing in this kind of situation – shyness, naivete, indifference, obliviousness, complicity, being stymied by administrative indifference, reputational considerations, fear of repercussions, etc. But a strong departmental culture and relevant array of institutions and policies can overcome most of those things.

So I’m here to say to my fellow academics: if you respect what I did and you want to back me up, then turn your attention to whatever department you’re a part of right now, and start thinking about developing policies and structures and practices that will result in a culture of healthy boundaries and structured, effective relationships between those in power and those whose intellectual and/or academic careers are just beginning. Start doing research about best practices in these areas. Start talking to your colleagues about getting policies about appropriate relationships across power positions into your bylaws, including disclosure requirements. Do whatever you decide is best, but don’t just keep on waiting for the one bad apple to retire, and don’t think that you and your peers are not vulnerable to committing similar abuses of power just because it’s 2019 and now we all know better.

Last thing. I’m obviously not going to name the eight women who co-signed that letter with me. But I’m glad to have the chance to say publicly that you are wonderful, gutsy, no-nonsense people and I am so grateful to you.

12 Replies to “Kristina Gehrman’s Reflections in the Wake of the Searle Case

  1. This is as good a time as any to remind people that we don’t permit anonymous comments unless the author contacts us and explains to our satisfaction why anonymity is needed in a particular case.

  2. Entirely agree with Kristina Gerhman’s statement, with two comments: [1] My understanding is that UC Berkeley has had an institutional policy prohibiting Searle’s sort of behavior at least since 2004. Apparently the university-wide prohibition did not filter down to the Philosophy Department. [2] At least some of the Phil Dept faculty, certainly its chair, are mandatory reporters under Title IX, legally obliged to report instances of sexual harassment. It seems they ignored this obligation. At some universities, perhaps Berkeley also, they could be charged with failing to notify about these matters.

  3. Perhaps who counts as a “mandatory report” varies from private to public universities. It is typically supervisors who are mandatory reports. Perhaps regular faculty in non-administrative positions do not count at public universities … though I would be surprised … since they do, at a minimum, supervise graduate student TA’s and have a vote on tenure. (On the hand public university faculty have the right to collective bargaining and private university faculty don’t … so maybe that’s enough of a different.) At my university ALL faculty are mandatory reports. And failure to report is a serious breach of professional responsibilities that can lead to serious discipline even termination.

  4. I would like to hear from some UCB philosophy faculty who were present during Searle’s reign of horror and who can explain the lack of action. Perhaps, there are truly mitigating considerations, although from a distance it’s hard to see what they might be.

  5. To Ken–these policies do differ somewhat between universities. Here is the UC policy on mandatory (here termed: responsible) reporting:
    “[1] All UC employees who are not designated as confidential must inform the Title IX officer if they become aware that a student (undergraduate, graduate, or professional) has experienced sexual violence, sexual harassment, or other behavior prohibited by the university’s policy. This includes all faculty. [2] As a Responsible Employee, you must contact your campus Title IX office as soon as possible when you learn of an incident of sexual violence or sexual harassment and share whatever information you have, including the names of any individuals involved, their contact information, and any details of the incident you have. [3] As a Responsible Employee, you should report directly to the Title IX office, even if you are unsure that the incident actually occurred or unsure whether it constitutes sexual harassment or sexual violence.”
    To Michael–agree, it’s hard to see how anyone could have paid attention to this obligation in the Searle case.

  6. Thanks for posting this Kristina – it’s excellent and important. No doubt these actions were not easy, but it’s great you took them and we should all be grateful. I am.

  7. (i) As a lowly, 19 year old undergraduate, I was a student of Searle’s, and told by a graduate student instructor not to apply to be one of his many research assistants because he had a certain type: blond and female. Once visiting him for office hours, I saw a room full of young research assistants matching that description. The ubiquitous jokes about him and young women always had that air of “Well, that’s what rockstars do.” Walking after class, I asked him a serious question from the reading, only to have him ask how I like the black Porsche (his) parked outside the department. He was a flamboyant hotshot with edgy one-liners, so I can see a lot of people chalking it up to the eccentricity of a successful person. But to do so is to betray the values of mentorship that are the cornerstone responsibilities of teachers.

    (ii) Professor Gehrman definitely embodies the principles she espouses. For a B philosophy student (that she has surely forgotten), she probably showed me more respect for the importance of my ideas in one afternoon of working through an essay than anyone in my undergraduate career. Philosophy is better with her in it, and it’s saddening to think of those who have left because of the Searles of the world.

  8. @ John, in fact I do remember you! I would love to hear how you are doing. Your comment speaks very much to the “culture” aspect of the problem we are discussing.

    Regarding the issues raised about mandatory reporting and Title IX, first let me point out that the chair of the Berkeley department did bring my concerns to the title XI office, in an expeditious and principled way, as soon as I raised them with him. To my knowledge I was the first person to submit a written complaint to him, and thus quite likely presented him with his first opportunity slash obligation to do so. At that time I had never heard of mandated reporting, and the unfortunate consequence of his action was not to increase my security in the department, but rather to create a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety on my part about who knew what, who blamed me for what, etc. I was told by the Title IX office that I was not permitted to discuss the incident, which added to the confusion and awkwardness. I also clearly remember which professors made a point to reassure me on that front, and some did go out of their way to do so.

    This is partly why I think it is so important to realize that people fail to respond in effective ways to pattern behavior like Searle’s for such a wide variety of reasons. When, naturally, most of the most egregious behavior happens behind closed doors and without witnesses, it is really hard to know whether you’re going to look like an idiot if you call up some official person and say “my colleague seems to only hire young attractive undergraduate research assistants.” Arguably, that’s quite the opposite of a Title IX violation! You see my point. I chose the list of reasons above with some thought, and I think all of them come into play in most communities where harassment and assault are a problem, and each requires a different kind of cultural and policy response.

    Finally, I would just note that while post-game analysis is important in the wake of a disaster, I think there’s a real limit to how useful it is to look backwards and seek to assign blame. So rather than calling Berkeley faculty onto the carpet and asking them to explain themselves — again, a group of basically well intentioned, decent people, and our colleagues and in many cases our friends — I think it would be much more productive for us to consider whether and how we, individually and collectively, might be currently inadvertently or half- consciously carrying on in the same basic vein: failing to protect against potential exploitation and failing to intervene regarding ongoing exploitation. I’d be very interested to hear from people in this forum who feel that they have developed effective departmental cultures or policies that speak to these matters.

  9. I want to echo and supplement what Kristina has written above. I write as a human being who was wronged and harmed directly (and in ways that are not completely clear to me, at this point) while I worked as an RA for John Searle, as an exchange undergraduate philosophy major from the University of British Columbia.

    My work as RA began in January 2009 (recommended to him, eagerly, by a male Berkeley graduate student who praised my work and whose name still raises eyebrows) and came to an end as I left California to begin my PhD at UNC Chapel Hill in the fall of 2010. I was there, every day in Moses Hall, from 9-5, for more than a year, trying to make sense of this world of “adults” who behaved worse than children, desperately hoping that I would neither lose my job (which my visa depended on) nor be made victim, nor complicit in what I was seeing around me.

    I was as young and as full of desperate hope as some of your undergraduates are. I was made complicit daily, hourly — by the second.

    There is work to be done here, by all of us. I must do my own work – which takes much more than repeating to oneself, like a mantra, that it is irrational to feel guilty for what one is not morally responsible for, as philosophers have a fondness for doing. And while I hope for reconciliation with the particular people who failed in their duties to me and who, professionally, I must maintain some semblance of human relations with, that is all work to be done between *us*. It is private, it is hard, and it is not for either the rank swamps or the sanitizing light of the internet philosophy world to think about or demand.

    The one public statement I will make about this: If you were there, and You Knew (or should have known), and you would like to talk to me, I will talk to you. I will not raise my voice, and I will not demand that you explain yourself. You are already forgiven. But we must look one another in the eye, and you must see me as a human being — as once some of you refused to do. Maybe you think you have forgotten me. Try again. You will see me at conferences and I will look you squarely in the eyes because I have nothing to be afraid of. But still, your recognition may better help me sleep at night, and I think I may help you with this, too.

    For everyone else: please, please, read Kristina’s words again. Don’t post your thoughts. Just read them again and again, and take them to heart. She was ignored once, just as I was. She never lost her voice, her integrity, her sense of herself or her grasp of reality. I will regain all of mine in time.

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