In this post, I’d like to discuss three recent episodes which seem at odds with the usual standards of academic behavior, in connection with the sometimes conflicting desiderata of freedom of expression and what I will refer to as ‘professorial responsibilities’. I will argue that university professors, as well as other professions involving public presence and authority, are (or must be) subjected to stricter norms regulating freedom of speech and expression, but that there is a sense in which this is not entirely ‘fair’. (Last week we had a related post on whether philosophers live up to the ethical principles they endorse; my observations here are intended to apply in principle to university professors in any area.)
In 2003, an academic scandal erupted in the UK national press: Cambridge philosopher and logician Peter Smith had been receiving female sex workers (in their professional capacity) in his chambers at Jesus College – the same chambers where he presumably also received students and administered tutorials – and then ranking their ‘performances’ on a dedicated website, which entitled him to discounts for their services. In consequence, he lost his college fellowship, but retained his position as lecturer at the Cambridge Philosophy Department after a suspension of three months. Thus, he continued to have regular dealings with undergraduate and graduate students, both male and female. (That he was later convicted of child pornography consumption is a much graver matter, but I will leave this aside for now.)
In 2010, Berkeley mathematics professor Edward Frenkel directed and starred a short movie named Rites of Love and Math, inspired by Nishima’s The Rite of Love and Death. The movie depicts the sexual interactions between a man (Frenkel) and a (presumably Japanese) woman, culminating in him tattooing a mathematical formula on her stomach, allegedly the ‘formula of love’. The movie is highly erotic, and both characters often appear naked; the tattooing scene depicts the woman in great agony. The movie was scheduled to be screened in Berkeley with the support of the local Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) in December 2010. But before the screening, letters of protest were sent to MSRI, claiming that the movie was sexist and detrimental to women in many ways. Given the poor gender balance in mathematics despite the systematic efforts that have been made to redress the situation by mathematical professional associations in recent years, the protesters deemed it incongruent that MSRI would sponsor the screening of what they claimed to be a sexist movie that had been directed by and that starred a renowned mathematician. MSRI withdrew its sponsorship of the screening, which went ahead anyway, and the whole episode created considerable pain and animosity among different parties. Despite the protests, Frenkel’s professional webpage at Berkeley features a link to material related to the movie, where in particular the trailer can be watched. The link is listed right above ‘Fall courses’.
In 2012, Vincent F. Hendricks, professor of formal philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, did a photo shoot for a men’s magazine where he is depicted in a classroom situation with an entourage of scantily clad young women, dressed as school girls (see here). He then added the photos to a webpage announcing his upcoming intro to logic course. The philosophical community reacted with outrage in the blogosphere, deeming it to be utterly unacceptable that sexist images be used in connection with a course to be offered by the professor, in particular given the well-known gender imbalance in philosophy. Hendricks removed the pictures and issued public apologies. (An interview later published in a Danish newspaper and translated here seemed to suggest that he still did not quite understand why so many people were outraged by the episode.)
These three episodes illustrate the difficult line between professional and private spheres for academics. In the first case, what seems particularly shocking (at least to me) is that Peter Smith received sex workers in the same chambers where he conducted a large chunk of his professional activities as a lecturer. It is well know that in the Oxbridge college system, private and professional spheres are highly intertwined, with many fellows (still) living in the college premises, which makes matters more delicate. But while it is arguably an entirely private business if a person solicits the services of sex workers or not (although I’m told that prostitution is illegal in the UK), receiving them in his college chambers betrays a worrisome lack of judgment and potentially a failure to distinguish between professional and private spheres. It is not too far-fetched to imagine that this failure might manifest itself in other aspects of student-professor interaction (see here for similar concerns).
In the Frenkel episode, it is not immediately clear that by ‘branching out’ into artistic/erotic film making as such Frenkel is to be condemned; after all, what should prevent someone from expressing themselves artistically while not breaking the law in any obvious way? And yet, Frenkel also has a public role as a mathematics professor, and thus arguably a duty towards his students. How conducive is it for a well-functioning interaction with his students that some of them may have seen him naked, performing in an erotic movie? (Unsurprisingly, some of the students hoping to see the movie at the Berkeley screening gave as their main motivation “to see the professor naked”.)
Finally, the Hendricks episode need not be discussed extensively yet again, given how much blogging space and time has already been devoted to it. But we seem to have a similar pattern: in principle, it is anyone’s rights to participate in a photo shoot, with or without sexist undertones; no law is being broken. One might question whether it is a sensible thing to do, but had Hendricks not published the photos on his professional site, it is quite possible that no one would have been particularly bothered. But he did transpose this aspect of his private life to his professional sphere, and this is what was seen as particularly problematic (at least this is how I understood most of the objections that have been voiced).
Are we, as academics and university professors, subjected to stricter norms than other people, regulating our freedom of speech and expression? I submit that we are: we have a duty to maintain a respectable public persona which is conducive to the successful performance of our professional activities vis-à-vis our students. This is not exclusive to university professors: anyone holding a position of public responsibility – a politician, a school teacher – must arguably also observe stricter norms of expression (to various degrees), insofar as these positions entail significant public contact and a high level of accountability. (By contrast, an academic who focuses exclusively on research in a laboratory and has no significant teaching duties, for example, is arguably not bound to the same stricter norms of expression.)
And yet, at times I feel that this requirement is not entirely fair. Why shouldn’t Ed Frenkel be in a position to explore his artistic inclinations as he sees fit? (Whether the result is aesthetically valuable is a different question.) On a much more modest level, I confess to struggle myself with balancing the thin line between my ‘professorial responsibilities’ and my freedom of expression when it comes to blogging. Whatever I write must not be detrimental to my relationship with my students, should any of them actually read my posts. In particular, I sometimes write on sensitive, delicate or polemic topics, and wonder whether there isn’t the risk of compromising the respect (I hope!) they hold me in. To some extent, I resent being constrained in this way, but I view it as something that comes with the package; it’s part of the job, and no job is perfect.
As I am not an ethicist, I’d be curious to hear what others may have to say on the general idea of a conflict between freedom of expression and positions of responsibility. I’d also be interested in hearing how others negotiate these conflicting desiderata in their professional and private experiences. Do you experience the conflict at all? Have there been aspects of your private activities that were in any way detrimental to your contact with students?