A Letter to the Editors: A Philosophy Professor Responds

Larry Cahoone

Professor and Former Chairman of Philosophy

Long ago, in a college far away, a female student told me that her Philosophy professor was pursuing her romantically, even showing up at her part-time job. I told her I would help her do whatever she wanted, like initiating a formal investigation. But she said she just wanted never to see him again. So I did a directed readings with her in the same subject enabling her to drop his course. It did not change the world, but it was what she wanted. And in my profession, my students are my second priority.

My third priority is my coworkers. In Spring 2017 a student brought a Title IX charge against a Professor. (Hereafter “the Professor.” I have been told I can’t use names even if they have already been made public.) The Professor was raised to an administrative post. The Title IX investigation went on for 20 months, during which he continued to teach a reduced schedule (I was told gendered pronouns are okay). The investigation found him culpable and in September 2018 he was removed from that post, put on a one semester leave (Spring 2019), and prohibited from advising independent study. That is how things stood for four months.

Then on Thursday January 24 Worcester Magazine published an article on the case. The journalist connected this story with that of James Christie, accused of having sexual relations with multiple music students. The article claimed the Professor was accused of sexualized conversations, giving gifts, making inappropriate comments, suggesting “drinks” and “dates,” and thereby making the student very uncomfortable and interfering with her academic work.

A cascade of events followed. Next Tuesday, the Academic Governance Council announced the formation of a subcommittee to address the professor’s “reprehensible” acts. Hundreds of posters appeared in Stein directing students to “Google Professor —— Sexual Misconduct.”  That evening the President put him on indefinite leave, severing him from all contact with Holy Cross students or personnel, present or past, pending investigation of “new allegations.” More posters were put up attacking the President’s decision as inadequate. February 4 to 6 demonstrators called for the Professor’s summary firing and revocation of his decade-old teaching award. Students who had never met him called a “predator” and a “monster.” Remember, no students or faculty could have any knowledge to support these judgments except the article. Details of the completed investigation and the uninvestigated “new allegations” are confidential. 

Let’s be clear: indefinite leave means that the Professor is being fired, just not fired all at once. The summary firing of a tenured professor on the basis of charges that havenot been fully investigated is antithetical to principles of due process and would likely be illegal. But why all this fuss about firing tenured professors? Because if tenured professors can be fired or suspended without due process, anyone can be. In this case there was due process, when the Title IX investigators had the accuser, accused, facts, and witness depositions in front of them. They judged the Professor’s acts not to warrant termination. 

Now I have some questions. Is the published article true? Several women tangentially involved in the investigation have written letters stating that the article is at least misleading. This is not a reflection on the accusing student; remember the article was written by a journalist.  I myself have no personal knowledge either way. But suppose everything in the article is accurate. That would mean the professor was never accused of propositioning the student, of touching, or trading grades for sexual favors. If “drinks” and “dates” were discussed, they never happened. This does not mean the Professor did not break our rules or harm the interests of the student. The Title IX investigation already found that he did. But some feel the punishment was far too weak, and call his continuing to teach while being investigated “horrifying.” Well, what is the right punishment for what he did – not the predator Christie, not the miscreant who punched a student last Fall – but this Professor? It is possible that the magazine article caused “new allegations” to arise – it certainly caused past students to come forward to defend the Professor – but are the new allegations of a character that justify suspension before being investigated? I have been told by faculty that the degree of violation is impossible to adjudicate and so does not matter. Would anyone like that standard applied to his or her owncase? Simply put: are we saying that any faculty, staff, or student, accused of any Title IX violation of any severity, should be suspended before any investigation?  

On the Friday after the demonstration ended, another tenured Professor suddenly came to be on leave (not “puton leave, I was instructed). He was required to visit Human Resources under escort, kept far from students, then expelled from campus and forbidden to contact Holy Cross personnel or students, past or present. The pattern of these “disappearings” is now becoming clear: summary removal and suspension; no one in the community may know the precise charges; the disappeared is prohibited from contacting anyone at Holy Cross; and any pubic self-defense by the accused is a newoffence, a “retaliation” or a violation of confidentiality. (You can Google Catch-22.)

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the AGC’s decision, the posters, the President’s decision, and the demonstration were not caused by the Title IX investigation, nor by faculty or student deliberation, nor by new charges or even the original two-year old complaint. They are the result of a story appearing in a magazine. That is, publicity.

Which leads to my final question. Do we want to have rules and procedures by which faculty, staff, and students hold each other accountable, protect themselves from sexual mistreatment and from public vilification, treating accusers and accused with respect? That might be called “justice.” Justice is connected with seeking the truth, which happens to be my first priority – even above my students’ interests, because truth-seeking is what they need from me. So, shall we have a system based on truth-seeking instead of rumor? Or do we want to take another step down the road toward becoming Evergreen State College? (You can Google that too.)

Larry Cahoone

Professor and Former Chairman of Philosophy

Cover photo by Jake Bucci ’21

Categories: Opinions

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2 replies »

  1. Post scriptum: A few weeks ago, I went to a conference. When I returned, I learned that several faculty (not from my department) had reported that I had been expelled from campus for misconduct.

    They even knew the charge! You have to admire the level of detail.

    Nevertheless, I remain Professor of Philosophy. At least for now…


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