One thing that attracted my attention in the Colorado situation was the university’s use of the APA’s Committee on the Status of Women Campus Site Visit program. Judging from the description of the program on the Committee’s website, campus visits are normally advisory. Departments request site visits in which a team investigates climate issues, with the purpose of “offering practical suggestions on how to improve the climate for women.” (The Committee also says: “The team will be attentive to issues beyond gender, e.g., race, sexuality, disability, and will make an effort to collect quantitative data on these groups.” Apparently, no practical suggestions, though, about these matters.)
In this particular case, the context was rather different. It is clear that the Department, Dean, and Provost must have decided that they needed to know and do something about the spate of complaints from Department members (including students) to Colorado’s Office of Discrimination and Harassment. So the advice being sought was not general, but highly specific. In other words, the investigation of climate was not motivated by general concern but by a specific bad situation.
Judging from the boilerplate, the committee seems to have conducted its visit in its usual advisory mode. It met with various groups in the Department and gave individuals an opportunity to meet with them (but does not say whether any did). It met with the Director of the Office of Discrimination and Harassment, and may or may not have reviewed details (whether redacted or not) of specific complaints.
Documents released by the University of Colorado suggest that the report of the site visit team had a very serious effect: the replacement of the Department Chair by a non-philosopher (the Chair of Linguistics) and suspension of graduate admissions for 2014. (They are also instituting a "process for the Department to expand its current concepts of sub-disciplines within Philosophy," and initiating "bystander training" for all.) The Dean says that the actions were “based on the report and input from the Department.”
Note that the report does not recommend these actions. Presumably, the Dean concluded that they were the best response to its findings. But this suggests a context wider than just the report. Deans don’t usually place departments in receivership for the simple reason that an outside committee found problems. Usually, they only act this way either when there are quite specific and concrete problems (e.g., particular cases of wrongdoing) or when departments fail to address serious generalized problems even after they have been brought to their attention.
(A parallel situation occurred at the University of British Columbia nearly twenty years ago: accusations of sexual harassment and racism were made by a graduate student against the Political Science Department. The Department’s graduate program was suspended, but only after an ad hoc [one-person] outside committee was commissioned to investigate wrongdoing. See the second part of THIS for a recounting of that tale.)
In any event, it strikes me that the site visit committee made comments perhaps appropriate to its normal advisory function, but inappropriate to the more forensic role in which it found itself. Take as an example the statement: “the department has a reputation in the international philosophical community for being extremely unfriendly to women.” First of all, this is difficult to parse—does it mean that committee members already knew of this reputation? (I didn’t. Brian Leiter also says he didn't.) What does ‘international’ mean? (Are people talking about it in Spain? India?) Secondly, it is unacceptably imprecise and informal for this context—“extremely” unfriendly? How do you quantify that?
Another example is the claim that the department used “pseudo-philosophical analyses to avoid directly addressing the issue,” commenting that they “spend time trying to get around regulations.” (OK: I have to say that I am a little amused by the image of this “high quality” department rampantly peddling pseudo-philosophy.) These attributions of motive are unsupported. We are given no reason to believe that the Department was being shifty in this way. The committee is being casual where, if a department's administration is being held to account, it ought to be a lot more exact.
The report is also very unclear about the level of infractions. For instance, it speaks of an "environment with unacceptable sexual harassment and inappropriate sexualized unprofessional behaviour." The 'and' suggests that the harassment goes beyond sexualizing the atmosphere. Inappropriate sexualized behaviour is certainly bad, but it isn't as bad as inappropriate touching and inappropriate advances and of course (God forbid) sexual extortion.
So is the committee saying that there was sexual harassment of kinds even worse than "sexualizing behaviour"? Perhaps: they say that "perpetrators were given a slap on the wrist," which suggests that serious offences were overlooked. On the other hand, the worst specific complaint they make is that "some male faculty have been observed ogling undergraduate women students." If seriously bad stuff was going on, it is trivialized by this kind of puritanical lip-pursing. Given the ambiguity inherent in conversational implicature, we should expect that whatever is said is said precisely and directly. But then the committee might not have known the broader administrative context in which they were operating.
The University made this report public apparently because it falls under freedom of information regulations. But when they released it, the Administration decided to hang its hat on the report. It seems unlikely that the committee realized that it was producing a blueprint for major action of the sort we witnessed. They would have produced a different, much more juridical, kind of report had they known this. But it's also possible that the report itself played far less centrally in the events that took place last week.