The Student-Professor Problem No One Talks About

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It sounds like the punchline to a tasteless joke: A renowned ethicist who advocates for the world’s poor is accused of sexual misconduct against female students from developing countries. But, unfortunately, there’s nothing funny about the story BuzzFeed’s Katie J.M. Baker published earlier this month.

Thomas Pogge directs Yale’s Global Justice Program. His work, which argues that wealthy nations are morally obligated to eradicate poverty around the world, has impacted real policy debates. And, as Baker’s lengthy investigation reveals, multiple women have accused him of sexual harassment or other misconduct since the 1990s.

Baker’s article — which is essential reading — spotlights one particular case: Fernanda Lopez Aguilar’s maddening account of a relationship that began while she was a senior at Yale and extended past her graduation in 2010. According to Baker's report, Pogge called Lopez Aguilar, who grew up in Honduras, “the Monica Lewinsky to his Bill Clinton,” touched her inappropriately in a hotel room they shared at a conference, and rescinded a fellowship he’d promised when he became displeased with her. A Yale arbitrator and hearing panel cleared Pogge of the sexual harassment charge, but years later, Lopez Aguilar hasn’t given up her quest for justice. Last fall, she filed federal civil rights claims against the university for neglecting to protect her and other female students from Pogge.

Sex, sexual identity, and sexual assault have dominated media coverage of university life in recent years — to the extent that it can seem like colleges exist primarily as human sexuality labs. And that makes a lot of sense. Just as they were during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, openminded, unattached young people are the vanguard of sexual politics. They’re the ones renegotiating boundaries for the next generation, at a time when ideas about gender, sexual orientation, and consent are evolving so rapidly in the culture at large.

Student-faculty sex has had its place in this conversation. Last year, Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis was investigated for (and cleared of) violating Title IX after merely questioning in a February 2015 essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” whether these relationships should be prohibited. In a New Republic essay following that controversy, the critic Laura Miller articulated why students are so often attracted to their professors: “Perhaps it’s possible to separate the thrill of encountering a fascinating mind from the fizz of libido, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to. That species of desire makes ideas feel more vitally connected to our bodily lives and tells us that passions can be spurred by qualities deeper than six-pack abs.”

Consensual relationships between professors and adult students occupy a moral gray area, despite millennia of historical precedent. As Miller notes, in ancient Greece, when (male) teachers courted and slept with their (male) students, the practice was seen as “at least partly an initiation into manhood.” But there’s also an uncomfortable power imbalance built into even the most innocent of these relationships. The professor controls the student’s grade, or has the ability to ensure they get or lose a job, or is simply older and more experienced. For that reason, feminist scholars such as Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner have argued that it’s impossible for a student to consent to a relationship with a professor. Though I wouldn’t go that far, it does seem obvious that it’s not easy to establish equality when one person sees the other as an authority figure at school or in their professional field. And yet…what constitutes an abuse of power on the professor’s part can still sometimes be an electrifying experience for the student.

What constitutes an abuse of power on the professor’s part can be an electrifying experience for the student.

But what’s striking about the accusations against Pogge, both the allegations of sexual harassment and the milder stories of manipulation, is how little they resemble the dreamy interaction Miller conjures. That even goes for the starstruck graduate student he met at a conference and briefly dated in 2014. Eventually, Baker writes, the student “told Pogge he was a hypocrite” and wondered, “How could he advocate ‘gender-sensitive’ solutions to global power imbalances while exploiting the power imbalance between himself and the much younger, non-Western women who idolized him?”

The allegations against Pogge are a moral universe away from the complicated questions raised in campus novels like Susan Choi’s My Education. In fact, they bring to mind nothing so much as the political sex scandals of the mid-2000s. Remember Mark Foley, the Republican congressman who was known as an advocate for children before it came out, in 2006, that he’d sent X-rated messages to an underage staffer? Or Larry Craig, the pro-“don’t ask, don’t tell” senator caught soliciting sex in a men’s bathroom the next year? Like these politicians, Pogge is accused of behavior that dramatically departs from the beliefs he champions in his work.

But those stories differ from Pogge’s in an important way: the politicians’ admitted misconduct ended their careers. Foley resigned from Congress less than a week after his explicit emails appeared online. Though Craig refused to step down, he didn’t run for reelection and largely disappeared from public life after his term ended.

Pogge, meanwhile, spent Monday and Tuesday speaking at a British philosophy and music festival. Although he purportedly ignored (and a Yale spokesperson declined) BuzzFeed’s requests for comment prior to the article’s publication, Pogge has denied wrongdoing: The professor later responded to Lopez Aguilar’s accusations with a six-page message making the case that “none of the alleged misconduct ever took place.” Nine days after the piece went live, the university was still refusing to go on record.

The Ivory Tower is supposed to be a realm of idealism, but it’s starting to look as though accused sexual predators and hypocrites may get even more support there than in the cutthroat world of D.C. politics. In her piece, Baker explains why this might be:

"Because of the contracts that govern their employment, tenured professors who face sexual misconduct claims are much harder to discipline than students accused of similar offenses. This discrepancy can make for complicated proceedings, especially as the federal government has put pressure on universities to investigate and resolve sexual harassment cases without giving much guidance about what to do when the accused is a tenured faculty member."

But, as activists like Emma Sulkowicz and reporters like Baker (who often investigates campus sexual assault) have demonstrated, the problem isn’t limited to students’ complaints against faculty. Survivors of all kinds of sexual misconduct face endless institutional bureaucracy and inconsistent outcomes.

Often, administrators greet students’ complaints with apathy or outright hostility. Columbia president Lee Bollinger reportedly refused to shake Sulkowicz’s hand the day before her graduation. (A spokesperson for Columbia denied the move was on purpose, telling The New York Times that the "the mattress had been between Ms. Sulkowicz and Mr. Bollinger and that no snub was intended.") My own alma mater, Johns Hopkins, embarrassed itself in 2014, Jezebel reported, by appointing “two administrators who were highly implicated in [a] federal complaint for mishandling sexual assault allegations” to its Sexual Violence Advisory Committee. Jezebel’s coverage of that incident is a sort of greatest-hits compilation of defensive or incompetent university responses to students’ pain. As for Lopez Aguilar, Baker reports that Yale gave her $2,000 in exchange for her silence.

The allegations against Pogge are particularly egregious — because he’s a professor and his accusers are students — and the hypocrisy they imply lends the BuzzFeed article unique philosophical undertones. But we can’t forget that the accounts in the story are also examples of a much more common, systemic problem. As of February, the federal government was investigating no fewer than 167 colleges and universities for sexual-violence related Title IX violations. These cases are finally getting the national attention they deserve, in articles like Baker’s, documentaries like The Hunting Ground, and books like Jon Krakauer’s Missoula.

Gone are the days when a hasty cover-up could save any school from scandal. Now, the only sure way for universities to save face is to treat survivors with respect and investigate their claims as thoroughly as possible. Yale may never address the allegations against Pogge to our satisfaction, but here’s hoping all this bad press will eventually lead to real changes on more than one campus.

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