Is It OK for a Professor to Burden a Student With Sexual Advances?
Claire was a tall, athletic 26-year-old from the Midwest who boasted a 3.97 GPA, often appeared on the dean's list, and had earned her master's degree in philosophy. She had been accepted by three doctoral programs in philosophy but chose the University of Miami.
Claire was a perfectionist. On top of her own course load, she taught an introduction-to-philosophy class her first semester and worked hard to make each lesson thought-provoking. Her students called her "awesome" and "enthusiastic." She even came to her doctoral classes with notes from her readings, ready to kindle in-class discussions.
Her arm shot up frequently in Professor Colin McGinn's seminar titled "Mind, Brain and Emotion." McGinn, an Oxford-educated and world-renowned author of 25 books, was the biggest name in Miami's philosophy department. Claire's insight intrigued him. Their conversations from class often spilled over into office hours. They had spoken several times about the philosophy of science, specifically how the human hand shaped the way society evolved.
Claire's big break came two days before the end of her first semester, on the afternoon of December 12, 2011, when she received an email from McGinn. "I want you to be my official research assistant (with pay! but not much)," he wrote.
That was at 1:36 p.m. She quickly responded: "I would be absolutely delighted...! It would be great to work with you. I really enjoy our conversations."
For the rest of the afternoon, Claire's thoughts raced. She pictured herself cowriting books and papers with McGinn. Careers in philosophy are hard to come by, but with such a mentor, everything seemed within reach — especially when McGinn said he would turn her into a genius.
Claire couldn't wait. That evening, she began finger-painting. Around 7 p.m., she emailed her new boss, relating the art to their research. "I have started a painting of some hands," she wrote. "More like I am painting the hand using the hand as a tool."
The response came as a shock: "I would love to see your paintings and your messy hands. It sounds somewhat erotic (I have a wide definition of the erotic)."
The word "erotic" glared at her from the laptop screen. The twinge of unease would deepen during the next nine months. In hundreds of messages reviewed by New Times, the illustrious, 63-year-old, married professor repeatedly used terms like "slight erection," "handjob," and "Lolita," which he said was his favorite book. He even asked Claire to have sex with him — "three times over the summer when no one is around."
Claire contends she tried to deflect McGinn's advances by steering conversation to their research. But McGinn wouldn't let up, she says. She lost weight from the stress. Her passion for philosophy waned, and for the first time, she began turning in assignments late.
So on September 14, 2012, Claire did what she calls "one of the most difficult things I have done." She accused the most famous philosopher in the department of sexual harassment. She submitted his offensive emails to Wilhemena Black, the coordinator who oversees the university's compliance with Title IX, a landmark federal statute that prohibits schools receiving financial aid from the Department of Education from discriminating by gender or allowing sexual harassment.
Thirty-five days later, UM officials ruled there was insufficient evidence. Instead, they accused McGinn of the more tepid "failure to disclose a consensual romantic relationship."
McGinn didn't tarry. He resigned before he could be found officially responsible for anything, then took to the internet to proclaim his innocence. This spurred a spate of high-profile stories about the case from Slate, the New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, and elsewhere. Claire — whom New Times has given a pseudonym because she is an alleged victim of sexual harassment — declined their requests for comment but spoke to New Times for the first time.
"I never slept with him or had sexual contact with him. I never even kissed him. So how was his obsession consensual or romantic?" Claire says. "I came to UM to learn and grow as a philosopher, not to have my professor tell me he had an erection when he thought about me and found me a stimulating mental construct to masturbate to."
Claire's story is detailed in interviews with fellow students, university officials, and a trove of emails and text messages (many of which have never been publicized), and documents New Times obtained from an unnamed source. It illustrates the power professors can wield over students. And it shows the awkward way University of Miami leaders dealt with complaints of harassment at an institution that prides itself on its zero-tolerance policy toward gender-based misconduct. UM counsel Eric Isicoff declined specific comment on McGinn's case but said, "The university performed extraordinarily." He cited threatened litigation and an open investigation by the Florida Commission on Human Relations.
Illustration by Pat Kinsella
The wrinkles on Colin McGinn's pink face run deep, perhaps from the stress of maintaining his innocence. He refers to a lawsuit threatened by Claire's lawyers against him and the university. "The messages will exonerate me," he says, adding that they are locked away in his desk.
The eminent philosopher no longer lives in the million-dollar beachfront condo where he dwelled for eight years. He's traded it for a modest home situated ten minutes from UM. This is a problem, he says, because driving past the campus forces him to recall the injustice he experienced two years ago. "She and I should be on the same side against the university's extreme actions," McGinn says, shaking his head, "each telling our different side, but really we should be on the same side."
Born in a blue-collar town in Northeast England, McGinn grew up a coal miner's son who wanted to contribute to the world. One of three boys, he was a bookworm who read Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell.
He also took up tennis, soccer, and excelled in gymnastics. At age 16, he was crowned the school's pole-vaulting champion. It was around this time that he started a rock band with his younger brother, Keith, called the Empty Vessels. ("The emptier the vessel, the louder the noise.") Colin McGinn played drums. They performed Rolling Stones covers on the streets, but McGinn left at age 18 to go to college. His brother still performs in England.
Though his parents found his academic pursuits frivolous, McGinn earned bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology at the University of Manchester and was then accepted to study philosophy at Oxford in 1972. At age 21, he married Marie Page, with whom he was living at the time. "Her parents insisted we get married; it was a different time." Soon after that, he was awarded the John Locke Prize, a prestigious title bestowed to a scholar who writes the most compelling philosophy paper. In 1974, he graduated from Oxford with a bachelor's degree in philosophy.
The couple soon divorced. "She was tired of being called Mrs. McGinn," he says. His relationships since have been unconventional. In 1974, he began lecturing at University College London. Five years later, he impregnated a student, Mary Glynn (who McGinn says was not in any of his classes). Though they never married, McGinn is proud of his only child, Bruno, who grew up to become an ear surgeon. "As far as father-son relationships go, it's as good as it gets," McGinn says.
He spent his 30s juggling various visiting professorships, from California to Helsinki. In 1984, he returned to Oxford and married a philosophy academic, Dr. Anita Avramides. But that relationship ended just like his first marriage. "I've been involved with brilliant women academics for some time," McGinn says. "I don't have trouble with that concept."
In 1989, he left Oxford for Rutgers and moved into an Upper West Side apartment facing the Hudson River. There, he studied Descartes and in 1991 published The Problem of Consciousness, which stated that the human mind cannot understand itself completely.
McGinn quickly rose to fame as the founding father of a movement called the "New Mysterians," a group that included a wide selection of academics like famed linguist Noam Chomsky.
McGinn pumped out more papers about the mind — like Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry in 1992 and the introduction to the well-received Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World in 1999. Some philosophers credit McGinn with reigniting the debate on phenomenology, the study of consciousness.
It was around this time that he married his third wife, Catherine Mortenson, a publicist for Universal Studios and DreamWorks.
In 2006, McGinn left Rutgers for the University of Miami, where he complains the graduate students weren't "as good" as those at Rutgers. In South Florida, he enjoyed paddleboarding and kayaking while publishing articles about Shakespeare's philosophy (2006) and the philosophy of sport (2008). In a book titled Mindfucking: A Critique of Mental Manipulation (2008), he wrote: "The mindfucker will typically play on the anxieties and insecurities of the victim in order to produce a set of false beliefs... The prime point here is that it involves the illegitimate exercise of power. The victim of the mindfuck is exploited, leaned on, invaded, imposed on, controlled, and manipulated."
In classes, students seem to have appreciated what McGinn had to say. They have called him "a funny lecturer" and "brilliant" on RateMyProfessors.com. But one comment stands out. "Don't disagree with him," one student warned in an entry dated October 29, 2009. "I'd stay far far away."
One day in August 2011, Claire packed her belongings and left her home, family, friends, and large, lovable sheepdog for the Magic City. It wasn't an easy choice, and job prospects were limited, but philosophy was her passion.
In high school, Claire had worked multiple part-time jobs but always brought home report cards worthy of being pinned to the fridge. Throughout her studies, Claire says professors — both male and female — cultivated her critical skill. "I loved studying philosophy," Claire says. "I am not comfortable talking highly of myself, but I had the chance at a good career in the field, and all of my professors were very encouraging."
In Miami, she moved into an off-campus apartment. Sometimes, she would lie out by UM's double-Olympic-sized pool with her books. Other times, she'd jog around the campus perimeter to release stress. Early that semester, she began dating Ben Yelle, a smart, self-assured young man with a scruffy beard and a mop of dark hair. He was a fellow philosophy graduate student and her running partner. It didn't take long for colleagues to figure out they were an item. "It's a small campus, a small department, and a small hallway," a former colleague remembers. "They were coming in together, leaving together, going to lunch together. They even shared an office."
That first semester, Claire did well in her classes. She took a seminar with McGinn and piped up frequently, revealing a mastery of the material. McGinn noticed. So when his research assistant, another tall, pretty graduate student named Jane Casillo, stepped down, McGinn asked Claire to replace her. (Casillo declined comment.)
At first, Claire was honored. Then came the "erotic" comment about her painting. But Claire assured herself it was just a one-time slip. She flew home for winter break a few days later, still looking forward to everything McGinn could teach her.
Then, over the holiday, McGinn bombarded her with messages. From December 21 to 27, he sent her 14 emails, which she did not answer. On Christmas Eve, he likened her to the protagonist of Nabokov's Lolita, a 12-year-old who becomes the sexual obsession of a much older literature professor. "[W]arming your hands up would be my pleasure and privilege."
"I didn't want this, but I also didn't want to offend him," Claire now recalls.
She replied on December 27 around 2 p.m., seeking forgiveness for her lack of response. "My apologies, again," she wrote. "The holidays are over, and family obligations have relaxed."
Three hours later, McGinn answered: "I think you owe me unlimited hand strokes and full body grips for abandoning me over Christmas."
When Claire returned to campus in January, the gap between their expectations grew, Claire recalls. She wanted to spark philosophical debates, but he seemed fixated on her body, particularly her left foot.
"Sometimes when I hold your foot (or your hand) I get a slight erection," McGinn wrote at 4:04 a.m. on January 27, 2012.
Claire was speechless. "He became intently obsessed with me and kept pressuring me to get closer," she says. "He began sharing sexual messages and thoughts with me that were unsolicited and undesired. It felt like he was stalking me."
"Any comments on my reply?" he wrote seven hours later.
"I'm not sure really what to say," she wrote back.
"He wasn't willing to just be my teacher and supervisor," Claire explains. "He wanted my body."
Illustration by Pat Kinsella
McGinn says he has always been close to his students. Once he invited an entire class to his condo to kayak and paddleboard. He claims that he and Claire developed a close bond; they called their partnership the "Colin-[Claire] Union." A special language even emerged — and grips and handshakes were part of their research on the hand. "She was telling me how delightful our relationship was," McGinn says, "how much it meant to her."
On January 28, McGinn employed a new tactic. "I wonder if you have anything you want to confess to me," he wrote.
"I do not think at this time I have anything to confess to you," Claire wrote the following day. "I tend to be a rather closed-off individual."
McGinn's response: "I was wondering if perhaps you might want to confess that you feel flattered by my attention and even a little vain because I think so much of you."
Claire didn't write back.
Over the next two months, their correspondence pulsed in that same vein. McGinn would make an inappropriate comment, then Claire would try to ignore it. On March 7, he sent a text saying her "essence" gave him a "slight erection."
"Can I borrow your philosophy of physics book... the one by Lange," was her response.
"I spent months living in a terrible limbo, trying not to offend him but weighed down because he would not leave me alone," Claire now remembers. "I really didn't know what to do."
On April 29 at 9:07 a.m., he wrote: "This morning at 6 I had a handjob imagining you giving me a handjob. It was good."
She didn't reply.
"How about those emails?" he texted her later that morning.
"I won't really know how to respond I suppose I should be flattered?"
"You could respond by saying you would like it?"
Claire didn't sext back. But in other emails and texts, she said she would be "devastated" if he lost interest in her and even wrote "sending you virtual hugs" and "you have an incredibly sexy mind." Also in her emails to McGinn: "I send you a hand squeeze" and "thinking of your thumb intertwined with mine." One included a proposal for a "more intimate grip."
"These emails postdate some of those that some believe constitute harassment," McGinn explains. "The relationship seemed perfectly fine."
McGinn sent her hundreds of messages, in email and texts, over the course of the semester. And each time a new one flashed on her phone or computer, Claire cringed in anticipation. The stress was overpowering. She says she was unable to eat and couldn't sleep, her thoughts racing with new ways to avoid running into McGinn. And when she had to see him, she made sure to wear long pants and sneakers, anything to thwart another sexually charged comment about her legs or feet.
"I did my best to ignore his sexual advances while always trying to be respectful and polite," Claire says.
But that didn't help. As the end of semester neared, McGinn was emboldened.
"I feel like kissing you," he wrote in a May 18 text.
"You can't do that," Claire typed back.
Her response didn't deter him. On May 23 at 6 p.m., he wrote: "We should have sex 3 times over the summer when no one is around, but stop before next semester begins."
"I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the situation over the past two days and I don't want to talk in person over it," she texted back the next day.
McGinn contends there was mutual caring. He says he told Claire about his skin cancer and Claire described her insecurities. It is unfair, he says, to read the messages out of context. "We were getting into a relationship," he says. "I was in no doubt that she was enthusiastic."
Summer vacation was Claire's carrot on a stick. "I was exhausted by trying to keep him at bay and went away for the summer to get away from him," she says. "He still pursued me from Miami, many states away, by texts, emails, and phone calls. He was relentless. I hoped he would lose interest."
Perched behind her laptop back home in the Midwest, Claire edited McGinn's fiction novel, Bad Patches. She also submitted his papers for publication and commented on his notes on the philosophy of the hand. She was paid $4,000 by McGinn and the philosophy department.
But certain parts of the novel made her uncomfortable. Page 62 of the manuscript reads: "My cock hasn't smelt girl for centuries... I'll spy some sexy little number letting the pavement look up her skirt. My cock puts in a dirty call: 'Boy, would I like to slide myself up that bimbo or What do you think she would charge to let me check out her asshole?'?"
McGinn says he wrote the story more than 25 years ago on his typewriter in London. In June 2012, he decided to self-publish on Amazon, and Claire was just formatting it. "Most of the characters and situations in it are taken from real life," the author's note states. "Any profundity it possesses is entirely accidental."
But at times, their conversations were professional that summer.
She returned to campus in August. "Let's pick up where we left off," McGinn wrote in an email on August 12. Claire couldn't bring herself to confront McGinn. She says she had witnessed him lash out against well-known philosophers who disagreed with his most recent paper, "The Meaning of Disgust."
Claire struggled with the idea of coming forward. She knew there would be risks but also felt she couldn't survive another semester of his messages. She reached out to one of her former professors, who urged her to report the harassment.
"Being polite and decent to him was not making any dent in his behavior," Claire says. "Finally, I felt I had no choice but to report him, regardless of the risk to my career."
On September 11, 2012, she emailed McGinn to say she was stepping down as his assistant. He wanted to talk it out in person, but Claire declined. Three days later, she crossed six lanes of Federal Highway to file a sexual-harassment complaint against him at the university's Office of Equality Administration on the first floor of the Gables One Tower.
University of Miami guidelines define sexual harassment as "physical or verbal abuse of a sexual nature including graphic commentaries about an individual's body, sexually degrading remarks used to describe an individual, or unwelcome propositions and physical advances of a sexual nature."
Sure that McGinn's messages qualified, Claire provided hundreds of them to UM Title IX coordinator Black, who promised to investigate and support her throughout the process.
According to the university's faculty manual, individuals reporting sexual harassment are "encouraged to seek an informal resolution" within 30 days of the incident. This means reporting first to the department's chair, dean, or the university's sexual harassment officer, who is then supposed to "make every reasonable effort" to gather information. This includes speaking with the complainant, the faculty member, and potential witnesses. This "inquiry" should not take more than ten days, according to the manual.
But Claire claims neither Black nor anyone else in her office explained the process of lodging a sexual-harassment complaint. She says she wasn't told about the possibility of hiring outside legal help or that counseling services were available to her. Nor was she informed that her claim would be classified as "informal," which lessened the university's responsibility to investigate.
"However we word it, it was investigated," responds Isicoff, the university counsel. "Her concerns, however they are characterized, were brought to the university and investigated."
Over the next month, Claire was dumbfounded. She says Black did not ask to see any more emails or look on her phone to verify texts. Though she suggested authorities speak to her boyfriend, Yelle, he was never questioned.
Finally, on October 19, Black informed her there was insufficient evidence to prove sexual harassment. Claire was devastated and cried in her office. "The university has full access to my extensive correspondence with Professor McGinn," she says now. "They included his regular updates on when he had an erection thinking about me, weird poems he wrote me, as well as his demand that we have sex three times. I was shocked by [the decision.]"
But the process wasn't over. In November, Black informed Claire that the faculty senate would hear charges against McGinn of failing to report a consensual romantic relationship.
"That [description of our relationship] was most certainly untrue," Claire says. "I felt as if all I believed in had been turned on its head. I had never allowed a sexual moment with Colin McGinn and was, in fact, sexually repulsed by him."
During this time, McGinn also met with Black and Vice Provost of Faculty Affairs David Birnbach in Birnbach's office. He says he was never informed of the charges or told he could bring a lawyer. He also went in with emails. "To show it was consensual," he explains. McGinn remembers Black seemed hostile and gave the impression she disapproved of their relationship.
McGinn recalls Birnbach commenting, "Who said anything about sexual harassment? But you did not report your relationship."
McGinn then met with the department chair, Otavio Bueno, whom he recalls saying, "They want to know if you're willing to resign. Can you tell me by next week whether you'll do that?" McGinn says he refused and hired a lawyer. (Bueno declined comment to New Times.)
"The university lawyer was saying to my lawyer: 'We are going to take it as far as we need to,'?" McGinn recalls. "They made it clear they wanted to get rid of me."
In early December, he received a letter saying there was going to be a faculty senate hearing on unprofessional-conduct charges. But McGinn believed it was a sham: "[UM President Donna Shalala] made it clear: Either you resign or we fire you."
McGinn says Claire never told him to stop. He claims he often asked how she felt and gave her ample opportunity to speak up. He speculates she only came forward because she was afraid of a bad evaluation.
Claire says: "Which was a total lie."
Illustration by Pat Kinsella
At first, McGinn refused to sign the resignation agreement. He says he couldn't sleep from the stress. But finally, days before his classes were scheduled to start, he agreed to quit if authorities archived his responses to the allegations. "I thought it was garbage," he says "[But] my attitude was, 'Fuck you; I'm not going to work at a place that thinks this is an appropriate response to a minor private matter.'?"
There was also no public announcement of his resignation. He was paid during a yearlong sabbatical and advised two students (one female) on their dissertations. He remained on the faculty website until at least September 21, 2013.
McGinn says the university wronged him. He says he knew the claim, "failure to disclose a consensual romantic relationship," was bogus and has used it in his defense.
So he started posting on his blog, Philospot, about what happened. On June 7, 2013, he denied claims of sexual harassment, arguing the 6 a.m. "handjob" he wrote her about the year before wasn't referring to masturbation. "What kind of hand job leaves you cleaner than before?" he wrote. "A manicure, of course."
"I have never been charged by the university with sexual harassment; nor did the student accuse me of that," McGinn wrote in a blog posting the next day titled "Basic Facts." "The lack of such can be attributed to the simple fact that I have not been guilty of sexual harassment (which I deplore)."
Then in another blog titled "Reporting," he wrote: "Neither she nor I felt at the time that we had a relationship that required to be reported (the existence of a sexual element being the critical factor in such cases)... I acted in good faith and with X's interests at the forefront of my mind."
Colleagues also came to his defense. In a letter posted on the blog, UM philosophy Professor Edward Erwin wrote: "These two people had developed romantic feelings toward each other which deepened as time went on. Theirs was a true romance." Asked for comment by New Times, Erwin declined, citing a "lawsuit."
Philosophers Oliver Sacks, Esa Saarinen, Stephen Schiffer, and Steven Pinker also spoke publicly in McGinn's defense.
Claire was terrified. "They could have easily required McGinn stay silent in return for getting his payout, but that's not what President Shalala did," Claire says. "As long as McGinn was gone from the university, she washed her hands of responsibility... even though he was continuing to attack me."
On June 7, 2013, Claire emailed Vice Provost Birnbach a link to McGinn's blog. "My future career is in jeopardy because I came forward which is exactly what I feared at the beginning of all this," she wrote. Birnbach, she contends, never responded.
After the Chronicle of Higher Education published a lengthy piece on the alleged harassment, 93 philosophy academics signed a petition that stated the university's nonresponse would allow "powerful professors" to get away with bad behavior.
Notably, ten of the signatures are philosophers from Rutgers, where McGinn had worked before. UM Philosophy Department Chair Bueno and UM Professor Amie Thomasson signed. (Thomasson declined comment.)
Isicoff says UM was powerless to stop McGinn: "He was blogging in his own name and in the context of a private citizen outside of the university."
In August 2013, Claire and Shalala spoke on the phone. Shalala asked Claire not to transfer from UM. But Claire explained she had already made up her mind and had paid tuition fees. "After all this, I felt ostracized and unwelcome at UM," Claire says. "I asked her to help pay for my $2,000 U-Haul hire to move out of Miami, but Shalala refused."
That fall, Shalala met with 16 philosophy graduate students. "We have zero tolerance for misbehavior by faculty members in relationship to our students, and I mean zero tolerance... Universities cannot tolerate inappropriate behavior by their faculty, and I don't care how famous or how tenured they are or how old they are or whether it's their first infraction or not."
Claire's boyfriend, Yelle, responded: "If I was a woman in this department or another, why would I go public? If I have reason to think the person I'm making accusations against will then use a public venue to call me a liar, call me a psychopath, insinuate there was a romantic relationship — unless there's protection in making these [complaints], why would you come forward?"
Why wasn't he just fired? another student asked.
"Because firing would've taken longer," Shalala shot back. "You have to go through a process... The most important thing to me is to get the individual away from the students as fast as we possibly can... We live in a time where the academy has set up these rules and won't be changed very easily."
The meeting lasted 49 minutes. Shalala uttered the words "sexual harassment" once.
On a recent sunny afternoon in March, the bell at the Richter Library tower tolls 3:30 p.m. One of Claire's friends is seated at a green plastic table beneath a palm tree. Egrets flutter above the manicured green lawns, and coeds in jean shorts and backward caps scurry to their next class.
She speculates that Claire would have been better off not coming forward. "If she could go back and grin and bear it, would she? Of course she would. And that alone brings us right back to the 1960s, when women were expected to behave like their mothers and keep their mouths shut no matter what."
McGinn agrees the university didn't act appropriately. "If she stayed there, it would've been hard for her. The [university] should've handled it more sensibly, more discreetly, less hysterically."
McGinn continues blogging. Though a handful of postings have been deleted, he's launched a new website, colinmcginn.net. He's also purchased a professional trampoline that he uses in his backyard. He plans to read books and visit his grandkids in England.
Last August, Eastern Carolina University offered him a visiting professorship, then pulled it after an outcry about the alleged sexual harassment. He doesn't think he will ever teach again. His wife, Catherine, has stayed by him. "I've had an extraordinarily creative last 15 months," McGinn chimes. "I've had more ideas, written over 60 papers in that amount of time on all sorts of topics; books are coming out at MIT Press which I completed."
His most recent book, Philosophy of Language, was published in January. This fall, a volume on the philosophy of the hand is due out. Although he had planned to give Claire an acknowledgment in the preface, McGinn maintains that Claire did not complete the work. "Crediting her would also reveal her identity," he points out.
Shalala is moving on too. In March, Bill Clinton announced that he would appoint Shalala to lead the Clinton Foundation as Hillary runs for president. Shalala was once his health and human services secretary. He called her a "remarkable person" with a "personal touch with people" and a "sense of innate fairness."
Meanwhile, Claire mostly stays home in the Midwest, pining over what happened. "Although more than two years have passed, I am still struggling at my new university and am not sure I will be able to continue in the field where previously I was sure I wanted to make my life," she says. "I still suffer from anxiety attacks and have spent many days in a dark room trying to get away from this nightmare caused by McGinn and UM.
"How could his conduct have been judged appropriate?" she asks. "How could those emails not constitute sexual harassment?... I am hoping I can help others avoid similar situations in the future and to let people know that UM and President Shalala have not behaved properly or in accordance with the law."
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