Title IX Moments

At my university last week we celebrated the 45th anniversary of Title IX.  Programming included screenings of a film (“The Battle of the Sexes”) and a documentary (NCAA’s “Sporting Chance”), a poetry reading, a basketball game, a Title IX expert panel, and a visit and talk by Mia Hamm.  The anniversary week was sponsored in large part by the Department of Physical Education, Athletics, and Recreation, as well as by the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and the student-run Contact Committee.  As a child of Title IX, I was delighted to hear stories about heroes like Bernice Sandler, Edith Green, Birch Bayh, and Billie Jean King.  As a scholar who works with Title IX issues, I was gratified to learn more about how the legislation came about and how it has survived repeated challenges.  Thank you again to all the organizers.

My mother was famous in our little hometown circle for making an unassisted triple play in a softball game.  We kids haven’t been able to piece together each element of her feat, but we are not at all surprised she was capable of it.  The story goes that her little sister made a hook shot from half court in one of her basketball games.  These were the women who had no Title IX, who effected their athletic feats through the sex-segregated Catholic school system that had softball fields and basketball courts for the girls.  Girls of their age at public school were assured no teams, coaches, fields, or equipment to play their sports, and certainly none of these girls and young women could imagine themselves as scholarship student-athletes at the college level.  As we all know now, this separation of resources for boys and girls and men and women has implications not only for athletics, but for life itself—opportunities to challenge ourselves, compete, understand teamwork, be coached and mentored and opportunities to be treated equally in school, be encouraged to study all the subjects, have women and men teachers, be recognized in the media, see an open horizon.

Title IX tells us that: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

This short text is a really big deal.  We have seen the changes this legislation has brought for men and women in educational settings and specifically in athletics.  Of course, the legislation has been appropriately elastic in its recognition of other limiting factors for women and transgender individuals in the education context.  Title IX is supposed to offer protection against sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and against sexual violence and abuse for all individuals (all students, staff, faculty in the education workplace).  The extent to which it is allowed to offer these protections can vary from state to state and from United States President to United States President.  (*See this 2017 NPR piece about the North Carolina “bathroom bill” and this 2017 Gender Shrapnel Blog post about the current “president’s” pullback on Title IX protections.)  These protections might also be more precarious depending on gender identity, race, religion, and immigration status, which is why Title IX must work in conjunction with Title VI (protects against discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in federally financed programs) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, religion, color, national origin).  In other words, as we celebrate the many triumphs of this 1972 legislation, we also have to be wary of the many ways in which interpretation and application of the law can be diminished.

Of course, no laws are enacted or enforced in a cultural vacuum.  Jim Crow laws were both a symptom of and the reinforcement of racial apartheid in the post-Civil War era, while current stop-and-frisk laws demonstrate a greater targeting of people of color.  The expanded Title IX guidance and enforcement under President Obama contrast sharply with the law’s shrinking applications under the current administration, a clear signal that the Groping Old President wishes to roll back protections for women and transgender individuals.

For these reasons and many more, the Title IX anniversary events at my institution both celebrated the advances made since 1972 and advocated for an awareness surrounding the legislation.  I learned a lot last week.  I learned that federal law (not state-by-state) protects against pregnancy discrimination.  I learned from one young man’s significant question to Mia Hamm, when he asked her, “What has been the role of men in fighting for equal pay in women’s sports?”, and when she answered with several examples of men’s sports individuals and teams that have gone to bat on this issue.  I learned that we need more young men asking this same question in all areas of Title VII and Title IX protections.  Legal and cultural change cannot happen without more support from more of the populace.  I learned that Mia Hamm’s accomplishments, intelligence, thoughtfulness, and generosity make her a true champion, a real inspiration.  When asked who her women athlete heroes were, Hamm said that the only women’s sports regularly on television were tennis and, every four years, women’s track and field.  Her two heroes?  Eighteen-time Grand Slam Champion Chris Everett Lloyd in tennis and USA Track and Field Hall of Famer Jackie Joyner-Kersee.  I should say!

In addition, several concepts were reinforced for me.  Our flagging soccer program for girls in our area, commented upon several times last week, is likely a result of the state of Virginia placing girls’ soccer and lacrosse in the same season—the spring—thereby forcing girls’ sports to compete for players.  The same is true, actually, for boys’ soccer and lacrosse, both offered in the spring.  The Title IX issue enters when we account for this crowding of the spring season: might it be because fields are limited, and the football field is protected from having to share with soccer or lacrosse in the fall?  It certainly seems the case that girls have fewer sports opportunities in the fall than they do in the spring and fewer in the fall than the boys do.  Nevertheless, the Virginia Department of Education has scant information on athletics offerings, which also needs to be rectified.  I also believe that LGBTQIA+ individuals at our local schools are under a greater threat of bullying than their straight peers—also a Title IX consideration.

As I’ve said elsewhere in the Gender Shrapnel Blog, the status quo is a mighty force, and we must be wary of its power.

Dear Colleague
















What is it going to take for a large group of people to believe that women of all races and many individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community have been sexually harassed, discriminated against, and assaulted and then made to believe it was their fault?  We didn’t protest vociferously as we heard cases and allegations against Fox News, our current “president,” and Bill Cosby (2005 and again in 2015).  Do white women actors from Hollywood have a certain clout that is waking people up to the pervasiveness of workplace harassment (hostile work environment and quid pro quo), street harassment, and sexual violence?  We have to hope that the visible and audible outrage about the Harvey Weinstein case expressed in traditional media outlets and copiously on social media raise awareness and allow us to make real incursions into social and legal change.

I wrote last week about how unsurprised we should be about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged 30-year campaign of sexual harassment and assault.  The textbook elements of the case include: predatory and criminal behaviors enacted by those higher in the hierarchy on those lower in the hierarchy (power differential); the person harassed is taken aback by the situation and feels threatened, and therefore often doesn’t respond in a way that she might otherwise have done (she is hit by gender and/or race shrapnel); cronies of the higher-up accommodate the illegal behaviors of their colleague and maintain their own power (male networks of power and boys-will-be-boys attitudes); those who have been harassed and/or assaulted and are brave enough to speak out are silenced in any number of ways (threats; tabloids, black lists; lack of employment; etc.); society reinforces negative responses to the women who speak out (can’t take a joke; nags; drags; exaggerators; liars); the boss preys again.

I dare say that this The New York Times piece, which reports on Woody Allen’s BBC interview about the Weinstein case, reveals again how those accused of these serious crimes rarely understand what they did (or continue to do) wrong.  Allen states that he’s grateful for the work Miramax gave him after his own sexual harassment and violence cases, makes clear that no one should be interested in hearing these types of allegations (“You’re not interested in it.  You are interested in making your movie”), and warns of a “witch hunt atmosphere,” which sounds curiously like the “president’s” words about the Justice Department’s inquiry into Russian involvement in our most recent presidential election. The New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens applauds Betsy DeVos for ending “a campus witch hunt” in her removal of Obama-era Title IX guidance for colleges and universities.  Who are the witches and who are the hunters here?  In this opinion piece in The New York Times, campus sexual violence researchers Miriam Gleckman-Krut and Nicole Bedera insist that “Obama-era policies did not malign men.  What they did was make it easier for victims to come forward.”  The headline asks the poignant question, “Who Gets to Define Campus Rape?”

As I write in Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, many people who are harassed have to change their daily paths to avoid the person in power and often have to turn down job opportunities that would require them to have contact with that person, thus permanently changing the course of the careers of the people who have been harassed.  These acts of avoidance occur in every career and on many college and university campuses.  The power systems set in place are replicated in the social lives of the students, thus demonstrating again the continuum through which sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation are linked to sexual assault and sexual violence.  If we don’t take issues of harassment and discrimination seriously, then we will not get at the enormous problem of sexual assault and sexual violence.

Sexual harassment in the higher education context is important for many reasons.  Turning a blind eye to it reinforces for young men, women, and people of all genders that young men are supposed to have, exercise, and retain power, both during the college years and beyond.  It sets the tone for the workplace, since we presumably are educating students to be the workers of tomorrow.  The blind-eye habit in higher education also sends a message to students in middle and high schools that boys have the power and girls should shut up.  This doesn’t bode well for their futures in higher education and/or the workplace.  The sexual harassment problem in Hollywood, at Fox News, in the White House, and in so many other industries, simply reproduces itself in other power-dependent settings, like schools.

President Obama’s “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011 (now included on the Office of Civil Rights’s website only as “archived information”) sent a direct message to United States colleges and universities that the reduction of sexual assault and sexual violence on higher education campuses was a priority for the Obama administration.  The “significant guidance” included in the letter comes with great detail, and in the second footnote of the document, sexual harassment is directly linked to sexual violence and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is invoked.  In other words, the document recognized the more acute context for people who find themselves at the intersection of gender, race, and/or national origin. These moves, along with the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, reveal the Obama administration’s understanding of the problem and the seriousness with which the administration approached recommendations for adjudication.  I strongly recommend this 19-page document to anyone interested in reducing the incidence of sexual harassment and violence and in understanding links between and among Title IV, VII, and IX law.

Last month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded the Obama-era guidelines.  (*See this previous post on DeVos and public education.)  DeVos has replaced the “Dear Colleague” guidelines with a Q&A document, which arguably creates a “both sides” false equivalency that had been eased by the Obama-era guidelines.  (*See Jeannie Suk Gersen’s and Christina Hoff Sommers’s support of “both sides” approaches. )  One report cites “confusion over specifics” of the interim guidelines provided by DeVos’s office.  The Chronicle of Higher Education’s September 11, 2017, commentary by Scott Schneider analyzes in legal and practical terms “what DeVos got wrong in her speech on the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter.”  Information and clarifications have come out in drips and drabs (e.g. this updated piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education), thus sowing more confusion and making victims wonder whether it is worthwhile to report traumatic incidents of sexual assault and violence.  A reporter from The Chronicle has chronicled his numerous attempts to get straight answers out of the Education Secretary.

DeVos’s replacement of the Obama-era guidelines (both 2011 [“Dear Colleague”] and 2014 [Q&A format for clarification of “Dear Colleague”]) speaks again to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s idea that the current “president’s” “presidency” (quotation marks around these words are mine) “hinges on the fact of a black president” and “has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own” (these brilliant quotes are from Coates).  Recent college graduate Jamil Smith in this piece in The New York Times states that:  “Instead, my experience taught me that we need to be proactive in preventing sexual assault, and much of that involves something that should be a natural fit for college campuses: education. The workshops I taught to captive audiences of fraternity brothers are a start, but even they weren’t enough. Rape prevention education should be more than an hour, and it should be mandatory for everyone, not just those involved in Greek life. And beyond the legal landscape of sexual assault, men should be disabused of the beliefs that lead to it and should be required to understand its effects on victims.”  The United States could clearly use several thousand more Jamil Smiths, young men who understand structural oppression of women and do something to change it.

DeVos has taken her marching orders from this “president.”  It’s time to dance to an entirely different tune.  Let’s get it right here, on campus, the place guided by lofty mission statements that usually assert that we are all people.

P.S. After this blog post was published, I saw Professor Mikki Brock’s excellent piece on witches and witch hunts in The Washington Post.  Check it out!

Education in the Trumpocracy


Oak Plains School (North Carolina; built in late 19th century for white children)

When the “president” appointed Betsy DeVos to the education secretary post on November 23, 2016, and she was confirmed on February 7, 2017, I groaned out loud, along with many of my friends and colleagues who are teachers.  DeVos seemed uniquely unqualified to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education in that her principal experience with education is having been a high school and college (undergraduate) student.  She has no experience as a teacher, administrator, or educational policy expert. On her own website, DeVos describes herself as “a proven leader, an innovator, a disruptor and an advocate.”  She also uses the word “pioneer” in her self-description. This billionaire and former chairperson of the Michigan Republican Party is co-opting revolutionary language to promote herself and to cement traditional platforms that take us back to the 19th century (or probably before, since positivist, pro-science philosophy thrived in the late 19th century).  If she is a “proven leader,” then the direction in which she is moving her followers is most definitely backwards.  If she is a “disruptor,” then it is due to her utter lack of experience in the educational realm.  This Gender Shrapnel Blog post examines damage wrought by DeVos in the areas of public education, education access and affirmative action (also a Justice Department issue, of course), and Title IX protections for women and transgender individuals.  This is a shrapnel cluster, hitting religion, race, class, and gender.

The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of The Constitution of the United States (also linked here through the White House site), taken together and interpreted through centuries of jurisprudence, “[build] a wall of separation between Church & State” (Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists).  Garrett Epps’s article in The Atlantic (6-15-2011) uses abundant textual evidence that the founding fathers never intended to build a Christian nation.  For all that the GOP claims to be the party of “constitutional correctness,” the intentional Christianization of our public school system thumbs its nose at the purpose and practice of the First Amendment.  In 2001, DeVos stated, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom” (cited in this Mother Jones article from March/April 2017).  DeVos & Company must feel a dizzying sense of power as they promote Christian charter schools (see here what DeVos did to public education in Michigan) and funneling public monies into Christian schools.  This 3-20-2017 article from The Atlantic explains the ways in which the Trump-DeVos team might dismantle school integration.

In its Manichean view of the world, does the Trump-DeVos axis realize that the tables could be turned and their own children and grandchildren might have to attend public schools dominated by religions other than Christianity?  As a resident of the United States, I believe in the free practice of religion, which means not having religion of any kind imposed in the public school system.  In our area, the moment of silence built into the public school day, the prayer gatherings on public school buses and at public school flagpoles, and the invitation to Christian “inspirational” or “motivational” speakers already demonstrate the much more dangerous and more slippery slope of the DeVos regime in education.  The ACLU warns the same here.

While Jeff Sessions is at the helm of the Justice Department’s initiative to sue universities over affirmative action (described in this 8-1-2017 piece in The Washington Post), Betsy DeVos is to blame as well.  One of the first hires she made in the new post was that of Candice Jackson as acting head of the Department of Education’s (DOE’s) Office for Civil Rights (OCR).  This NBS News (4-14-2017) piece probes how well Jackson’s disapproval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and her anti-affirmative action stance meshes with the mission statement of the OCR.  DeVos does not seem as riled up about legacy admissions to colleges and universities, perhaps principally because they still favor white people. (See related pieces in The Washington Post; The New York Times; Business Insider; The Chronicle of Higher Education; and another in The Washington Post.) The DeVos regime, as part of the Trumpocracy, is all about accomplishing the opposite of the office’s mission.  Again, this is DeVos, through Jackson, leading us backwards.

While we’re on the subject of the now-infamous Candice Jackson, let’s not forget that she has followed her boss’s lead in advocating for men’s rights over women’s in campus sexual assault cases.  The New York Times (7-13-2017) says about Jackson: “Investigative processes have not been ‘fairly balanced between the accusing victim and the accused student,’ Ms. Jackson argued, and students have been branded rapists ‘when the facts just don’t back that up.’ In most investigations, she said, there’s ‘not even an accusation that these accused students overrode the will of a young woman.’ ‘Rather, the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right,’ Ms. Jackson said.”  Jackson does not even use the term “rape” or “sexual assault,” but rather, “students overrode the will of a young woman.”  Although Jackson later attempted to clarify the statement, she has made it clear that she does not believe campus sexual assault happens and, by extrapolation, does not believe rapists exist.

In the meantime, Jackson’s boss, DeVos, was meeting with men’s rights activists.  As Jon Krakauer and Laura L. Dunn say in this op-ed (8-3-2017) from The New York Times, “The Department of Education is taking a hard look at its policies on campus sexual assault.  The result may make colleges safer.  For rapists.”  (*See Mili Mitra’s 7-18-2017 op-ed in The Washington Post for an eloquent rationale of the need for a strong DOE and OCR to follow up Dear Colleague letters issued under the Obama administration; see Katz’s and Alejandro’s 8-3-2017 op-ed in USA Today; see also this 1-2-2017 Gender Shrapnel Blog post.)

DeVos is also crippling Title IX protections in the realm of transgender rights, as detailed here by the ACLU (3-29-2017), although she is reported to have been initially in favor of maintaining Obama-era protections.  Through DeVos, and of his own accord, Trump is using the transgender community to pander to his base in the face of epically low approval ratings.

None of this is about education (DOE; DeVos) or civil rights (OCR; Jackson).  It is about fake-revolutionary rhetoric and continuing to assert power to the benefit of few and the detriment of many.

Flags and Firecrackers

Here in my parents’ neighborhood, United States flags wave many days of the year, not just on Memorial Day, Flag Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, and Veterans’ Day, but more days of the year than not.  The flags fly from flagpoles at stores and on houses, and they’re also optimistically poked into the ground at what seems like every turn.  They signal a certain kind of patriotism, glowing with the certainty of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and crackling with a blithe ignorance about how many people over the centuries have been prohibited from exercising that very right.  It is worth listening to James Earl Jones read Frederick Douglass’s 4th of July speech, in which Douglass stated: “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me.”

The evolution of the symbolism of the U.S. flag reveals a reflexive patriotism that, as Lindy West so eloquently addresses in this The New York Times opinion piece (7-1-17), promotes freedom of expression for some, but certainly not for all.  In fact, West makes clear that those most fervently promoting freedom of expression are often the ones threatening (or in fact using) violence to silence others.  This post takes a look at United States culture and critiques how we let leaders choose themselves.

I am reminded of the Colin Kaepernick protest against the national anthem (“…gave proof, through the night, that our flag was still there…”).  It opened up a real conversation about what the flag means and for whom.  A quick search of Kaepernick news links reveals the degree to which some news outlets wanted to declare Kaepernick’s protest (and the player himself) a failure (e.g. New York Daily News; National Review; Chicago Tribune). I am reminded, too, of writing with a colleague about sexual assault and Title IX protections and then receiving a voice mail telling us “little ladies” to shut the hell up and what would happen if we didn’t.  Nevertheless, the kind of protest that opens up conversation about equal rights for all matters now more than ever.  Real patriotism might even have us agree that solid educational foundation, critical thinking skills, and welcome debate are the way forward.  History gives us many examples of the dangers of blind patriotism.

Today is the 4th of July and so I’m thinking about fraught founding fathers, fireworks, and the fine mess our nation is in.  I think about our nation’s leader running the government as if we were all contestants on “Survivor” or “The Apprentice” and as if North Korea were simply a little plastic piece on a Monopoly, Risk, or Stratego board.  Our “leader” is self-appointed and self-anointed, propped up by foreign dictatorships and a political party full of opportunistic, spineless slime. I know I’m supposed to use other rhetoric, and in many other posts I have been more measured and patient, but I don’t know how else to say that we have already put up with far too much from our current “leader.” In addition to the race and immigrant rights issues I have addressed in other posts, I will add here that the current leader’s Commerce Department has removed gender and sexual identity from their Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) statement.  His Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights closed a Title IX investigation at Liberty University and then confirmed that Liberty University President Jerry L. Falwell, Jr., “would be a part of a task force …that will look at possible changes in higher-education regulations.”  This United States “leader” is moving us alarmingly backwards, and we’re letting him.

Over two decades ago, a man about five years my junior declared to me that he wanted to “become a leader in education administration.”  I raised my eyes slightly, struck by the person’s youth, self-confidence, and stark articulation of such a goal.  The man was Quaker, and his assertion broke a certain stereotype I had about collective and consensus-oriented forms of leadership in the Quaker tradition.  My instinct back then (and maybe a little bit now) was to distrust self-declared leaders.  It was a weird catechism–“And God said, ‘Let there be leaders in education administration,’ and there were leaders in education administration.”  Back then, I thought of leaders as people who just shut up about leading and led.  They got the job done, consistently well, and, in so doing, led the way.  They didn’t brag, didn’t claim positions that weren’t yet theirs, and didn’t establish unjust labor hierarchies.  They were in the trenches, understanding what that kind of work is, and appreciating it.  It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in naming people to posts and having them do administrative or managerial jobs; it was just that I found it odd when the people themselves named themselves to those posts.  It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized what a luxury it is for some both to view themselves as natural leaders and to be able to declare themselves such.  The young man with whom I had spoken was indeed a competent teacher and solid person, and so maybe his direction and ambition ensured that he would realize his ambition, and maybe (I don’t know) he became an outstanding leader in education administration.  (See this 6-24-17 The New York Times opinion piece to see more about gender and how it can affect our understanding of being right.)

Frank Bruni says of Trump and Christie: “Bold nonconformity can be the self-indulgent egotist’s drag” (The New York Times, 7-5-17).

Even the razor ad that serves as the thumbnail image on this blog post shows who the (self-)anointed ones were (in the portraits on the wall), are (the white man coming to bestow the new job on one candidate), and are about to be (the shaven-head white man who knows he’s the chosen one).  Our media are clearly not being very bold or innovative in their concept of leadership.

Two decades after my conversation with that young man, I am finally accustomed to the term ‘leader’ and to the existence of ‘leadership studies,’ primarily because both came into vogue in the early aughts and because I work in higher education (and because I just live in this world).  Is it not the case that, the more leaders we have, the more followers we need?  Do people need to learn to follow and to discern the moments when it’s best not to follow to be successful leaders?  Is there still merit to working the way up the ladder?  Can we even conceive of different metaphors for the workplace that aren’t so baldly vertical?  Can we set the ladder on its side and work left to right or right to left?  In this interview, Spanish graphic artist, writer, and cultural critic Miguel Brieva tells of his new book, La gran aventura humana, in which he underscores the concept of “the individualism of the masses,” a narcissistic banalization of our ambitions and behaviors, stemming in part from the lack of creative education in our schools.  Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century essay on United States democracy warns of such an end for a culture so focused on the individual and, as stated in this internet summary, so ironically freedom-loving while still waging genocide against Native Americans and enslaving human beings.

One of the themes I write about in Gender Shrapnel in the Workplace is the need for stronger leaders who are honest and generous, but Brieva’s work makes clear that “creative” should be on this list.  We need a new kind of leader in all realms—the arts, business, education, government, labor unions, law, medicine, politics, sports.  Honesty in leadership means setting an example of how you want the work to get done.  Honest leaders do not surrender to superficial branding (as we have seen at the national level and in so many of our colleges and universities), and they do acknowledge their own and the institution’s strengths and weaknesses.  Leaders who share institutional shortcomings and a plan to address them show they’re not afraid of a challenge, and they’re not afraid of the truth. They understand when others’ experiences and talents supersede their own. Generous leaders understand backgrounds and points beyond their own.  They open up opportunities to a greater cross-section of the workforce, share credit for good work, and recognize mistakes and apologize for them.  Creative leaders generate networks of people who discuss vision, collaborate, and think more concretely about the common good.  And they turn the ladders onto their sides.

Frederick Douglass concluded his 1852 Independence Day address with these stirring words, which still speak to us today: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour forth a stream, a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”  Perhaps what we need is not the flag , but the firecracker, from the top on down, from the bottom to the top, and from side to side.

Bill Cosby’s Case


A Philadelphia native, I was weaned on Fat Albert cartoons and grew up watching The Cosby Show.  Bill Cosby’s face called out from billboards lining the Schuylkill Expressway and announced the greatness and accessibility of Temple University.  Bill Cosby’s long and varied career made him a local and national legend.  I’ve read with interest the reception his work has received, especially from different individuals and communities of African-Americans in the United States.  Professor Mark Anthony Neal’s opinion piece in The Washington Post (6-17-17) provides ample cultural context for what Bill Cosby did and did not achieve in terms of cultural representation of family life and, specifically of black family life, in the United States.  Neal declared that Cosby became largely irrelevant once The Cosby Show concluded in 1992 and the concurrent Rodney King decision made even more visible the criminalization and unjust adjudication of black men.  In 2015, journalist Roxanne Jones stated that Bill Cosby had “betrayed black community”.  Journalist Denise Clay takes Cosby to task in this June 18, 2017, piece in Philadelphia Magazine.  In a recent NPR piece, journalist Gene Demby writes: “That’s why it’s worth noting how much the very real political position Cosby himself occupied — the kindly cultural ambassador of Negritude — has become if not entirely outmoded, then at least viewed far more skeptically.”

It is not mine to speak for, against, or in neutral terms about Bill Cosby’s interactions with definitions and interpretations of being black in the United States.  No doubt, he already was a controversial figure in this regard in the 1990’s, and his recent increased visibility has heightened the controversy.  While it is impossible and not desirable to remove the question of race from Bill Cosby’s case, I am going to focus more on the elements of the Cosby case that emerge from power, especially television star power, and decades of obscene privilege gone unchecked.  These alleged actions (and some admitted to in the 2005 deposition; quotes from it at this link) are not unlike the alleged violence perpetrated by the likes of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and other Fox News power players accused of rape, sexual assault, violence, and subsequent cover-up that occurred over decades. (*See this related Gender Shrapnel Blog post from 9-19-16).  In fact, The New York Times’ and other newspapers’ editorial decisions to place much of the Cosby trial coverage in their “television” sections speak to the focus on entertainment and the media circus, rather than to the real-life possibility that a person seemed to have developed a pattern of administering powerful drugs to unwitting women and then doing to them whatever he pleased.  Editors of respected national dailies have made similar decisions with rape cases surrounding athletic superstars—placing the coverage of the case in the sports section, rather than in sections that typically cover criminal and civil lawsuits.  (*See this related Gender Shrapnel blog post from 1-2-17.)  The fame and fortune of these alleged criminals help their stories to be reported as more pulp fodder, more Kardashian-esque gossip, more sensationalized rise and fall, and less of an actual criminal case that reveals cruel and predatory patterns of the dehumanization of women over multiple decades.

When there is a single he said-she said account of a single incident, we experience great difficulty in believing the person who makes the accusation and finding against the accused.  This somewhat dated (2002) Department of Justice report, titled “Prosecutors’ Charging Decisions in Sexual Assault Cases: A Multi-Site Study, Final Report,” reveals that decisions to charge sexual assault cases do still hinge on perceptions of the accused (more likely to be charged if the person is black) and of the accuser (more likely to succeed in going forward if the person fits the “ideal victim image”, i.e. “pure” or “innocent”), thus striking at the core of race and gender shrapnel.  This much more up-to-date 2016 report about prosecution of sexual assault cases in the District of Columbia demonstrates that police officers and prosecutors need better training on collection of evidence, language for interviewing people in sexual assault and rape cases, and shortened processing times and evaluation of so-called rape kits.  The system still favors letting sexual assault and rape cases go, appearing at least tacitly to reinforce that rape is just supposed to happen.  In this The New York Times piece from June 20, 2017, Susan Chira interviews Jeannie Suk Gersen, who says: “We chose to set up our system to be stacked in favor of the defendant in all cases,” she said. “So, in areas where most of the defendants are male, and most of the accusers are female, it’s a structural bias in favor of males. Even if we were to get rid of sexism, it would still be very hard to win these cases. I think this is what we have to live with on the criminal side, because we’ve made the calculation that this is the right balance of values.”

You would think, though, that if 50 or 60 people told their stories, each story with its own specific context and details, but each contributing to a composite indication of malicious intent to disable people and then to violate them, you might be able to believe the 50 or 60 people who were victims of a pattern of violence and privilege and to act on your belief that they are telling the truth.  The pattern was able to establish itself, in fact, because each of the victims over this long stretch believed it impossible to take on the legendary Bill Cosby.  A person rendered an object might believe herself less important and less able to tackle an enormously difficult task, that of confronting “America’s dad.”

Take a moment to review the accounts of the now 60 accusers (there were 50 back in 2015), outlined here by The Los Angeles Times (6-17-17).  The first woman on this long list must wonder if there would have been fewer (or no more) victims had she been able to go up against Cosby and his star power.  In Andrea Constand’s case against Bill Cosby, Cosby is reported (e.g. here) to have claimed to have given Constand an “herbal” pill and later to have told Constand and her mother that it was only Benadryl.  Lili Loofbourow in the same opinion piece from The Week, quotes Cosby’s version of the events: “’I don’t hear her say anything.  And I don’t feel her say anything,’ Cosby says of the sexual contact.  ‘So I continue, and I go into the area that is somewhere between permission and rejection.  I am not stopped.’”  What the hell?  You were never looking for either permission or rejection because you had drugged the person so that you could ensure her silence and temporary ignorance of her own situation.  Cosby here is trying to co-opt consent language to make the case seem more innocent, but instead confirms the worst—a decades-long pattern of administration of drugs, forceful incapacitation of women, and sexual assault and rape.

The power and privilege of Bill Cosby, television superstar and celebrated member of Temple University’s Board of Trustees, has protected him from the full freight of potential conviction and punishment.  Here I give two specific examples.  First, most individuals with multiple charges of sexual assault against them would quickly lose support from high-level institutions (although we have seen time and again that these individuals often do not lose the support of their wives and/or immediate family members).  Cosby’s 2005 statement about drugging women did not get him removed from Temple’s Board of Trustees.  It wasn’t until the multiple charges were issued ten years later that he “resigned” from the Board.  This 2015 Washington Post piece analyzes Temple’s troubled relationship with Cosby.  Cosby’s lawyer from 2015, Patrick J. O’Conner, is still the chair of Temple University’s board of trustees.  This must send a rather fraught message to the university community about Title IX protections, or lack thereof, for students, staff (of which Andrea Constand was a member back in 2004), and faculty in the university community.

The second example of Cosby’s astounding sense of privilege and protection is his plan to offer “a series of town hall meetings this summer to educate people, including young athletes and married men, on how to avoid accusations of sexual assault,” as reported here in a 6-22-17 piece from The New York Times.  (*See this related post in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.) This plan absurdly ignores that the best way to avoid accusations of sexual assault is not to sexually assault.  This fake rehabilitative proposal is insulting, as is the statement by another Cosby employee that “anything at this point can be considered sexual assault” (same piece from The NYT).  As I write this, another Cosby spokesperson has announced that the time isn’t right for Cosby to undertake these town hall meetings.

This is a Trump world in which reality t.v. glitz and glamour override logic, decency, and even the law.

Witches and Warlocks

This week Fox News removed Bill O’Reilly from its roster (reported on by The New York Times here).  Finally.  After multiple complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.  (*See the Gender Shrapnel Blog post on Roger Ailes and Fox News here.)  The New York Times reported: “Mr. O’Reilly and his employers came under intense pressure after an article by The New York Times on April 1 revealed how Fox News and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, had repeatedly stood by him even as he and the company reached settlements with five women who had complained about sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior by him. The agreements totaled about $13 million.”  The New York Times reports that O’Reilly was still able to hold a meeting with the Pope this week and will not lose his book contract with Henry Holt.  Bill also keeps the $25 million (figured cited in this The Washington Post piece) that Fox News would have paid him in the upcoming year. I think Bill is doing just fine, in case you were worried.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has featured for several weeks now Laura Kipnis’ article titled “Eyewitness to a Title IX Witch Trial.”  The article, published in The Chronicle’s Review section, has given ample publicity to the publication of Kipnis’ new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (HarperCollins).  In this blog post, I am addressing only Kipnis’ piece in The Chronicle.  I haven’t yet read the book.  I disagree with the main points of the article, but maybe the book will offer more nuance.

In the lengthy review article (about her own book), Kipnis recounts at great length the process by which Northwestern University adjudicated a case against philosophy professor Peter Ludlow.  The case has been covered in The Chicago Tribune, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Daily Northwestern.  I’m only familiar with this case through reading these articles and therefore am no expert on it.  I understand that Ludlow was accused by an undergraduate student, who had been Ludlow’s student, of forcing her to drink alcohol and making unwanted sexual advances towards her.  Soon after this became a formal lawsuit, a graduate student (from the same department as Ludlow, but not his student) accused Ludlow of raping her.  These are the two cases at the center of this story.  Northwestern University had no policy prohibiting faculty-student relations (called “dating” by Kipnis in the Chronicle piece).

Kipnis takes issue with Northwestern University’s handling of the case in the lengthy hearings of Ludlow, at which were present the faculty panel and “three outside lawyers, at least two in-house lawyers, another lawyer hired by the university to advise the faculty panel…,” (cited here) along with Ludlow’s lawyer.  Kipnis was there in the role of “faculty support person” to Ludlow.  Her account of the hearings is supplemented by Ludlow’s file of e-mails, text messages, memos, and formal university documents.  I appreciate Kipnis’ detailed account and willingness to question Title IX proceedings that are still woefully inadequate on most college and university campuses.  She believes that the university was trying to respond to unclear Title IX guidelines and that this resulted in the “witch trial” of Peter Ludlow.

Laura Kipnis is implicated in the case as well because her earlier defense of faculty-student “dating” had resulted in a Title IX complaint against her at Northwestern.  Kipnis believes that prohibitions on such behavior are paternalistic and remove sexual agency.  I believe we need to understand this entanglement to analyze well Kipnis’ highly public (and well remunerated) opinion on this case.

I would like to examine the language Kipnis uses in this piece. Kipnis remarks, “So when Ludlow’s lawyer called, of course I said yes—I was being offered a front-row seat at a witch trial.” The “witch trial” analogy seems poorly applied in the case of Ludlow, who has enjoyed great privilege and position for years.  I get that “warlock trial” doesn’t do the trick, but I’d rather go in that direction.  I also don’t completely understand the desire to witness a so-called “witch trial” because I don’t wish the pillory upon people, whether they are innocent or guilty. On the other hand, if Kipnis had made clear that her goal in being present at the hearings was to bear witness in the name of justice surrounding fraught Title IX policies, practices, and procedures, then her participation in, association with, and writings about the case to me would be more convincing.

The conflation of the term “sex” with “sexual harassment and discrimination” and “sexual violence” presents problems that weaken some of Kipnis’ arguments.  “Sex” refers to (1) biological determinations that have been appropriately complicated by gender and sexuality studies and (2) physical contact (often officially referred to as sexual intercourse, with reference to genitalia) between and/or among individuals.  Kipnis states, “I soon learned that rampant accusation is the new norm on American campuses; the place is a secret cornucopia of accusation, especially when it comes to sex” (cited in her 4-2-17 Chronicle piece).  The hyperbolic language (“rampant” and “cornucopia”) belies the realities of sexual assault on college campuses, where 2016 statistics (RAINN statistics here) still tell us that one in five women is sexually assaulted during her time at college or university.  The figures are worse for transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming individuals.  Kipnis uses the bald term ‘sex,’ instead of giving it context in the hierarchical layers of colleges and universities.

Nowhere in this lengthy piece does Kipnis deal with actual statistics that speak to a culture of sexual violence, embedded in power hierarchies, on our college and university campuses.  Kipnis claims that “new codes banning professor-student dating infantilize[d]students—this wasn’t feminism, it was paternalism.”  Kipnis’ foray into questions of feminism and sexual agency is interesting and necessary, but becomes much more complicated when the professor-student relationship is added to the mix.

Professors do wield power.  We design syllabi, determine the flow of class, assign grades, vote for assignment of department awards, and write (or don’t) letters of recommendation. Undergraduate and graduate students can develop a type of hero worship (something I detect in Kipnis’ enraptured tone as she describes Ludlow) that might translate as sexual attraction.  No matter an institution’s lack of policy on “dating” (Kipnis’ oversimplified term), or “fraternization” (a charged term in and of itself often used in the workplace), a professor who gets entangled in a relationship with a student in his class or department is exercising power.  Students in the same department are often nominated for the same awards, scholarships, and grants, and therefore departments breed competition, a competition that takes on a different look and a less fair landscape if a professor is sleeping with one of the students involved.

When things go wrong in the relationship (however we choose to define it), and we know they often do, this power piece is at play.  College students are often trying to figure out sexual desires and identities, and, so, yes, questions of power and sexual agency are more than just a little complicated.  If and when students and professors sleep together, structural systems of power become even more apparent.  Kipnis’ use of the term ‘sexual paranoia,’ in this review piece and in the book title itself, trivializes this important developmental stage for 18-22-year-olds and conflates sexual exploration with sexual discrimination and violence.  Kipnis also reduces real concerns about rampant sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and about rape and sexual violence to one oversimplified, offensive phrase, ‘sexual finger-pointing.’

Kipnis praises Jessica Wilson, a philosophy professor and former student of Ludlow, and Wilson’s character defense of Ludlow at the hearings.  Kipnis writes, “Like a great teacher, Wilson flipped the question [about Wilson’s own account of “unwelcome behavior” from a different former professor] around.  She’d been speaking from her own experience, she pointed out.  Yet didn’t the panelists have to ask whether she was telling the truth?  They hadn’t been there, so how would they know?  And if she were being entirely honest, she herself wasn’t sure if the disturbing thing was a professor trying to kiss her, or simply that she was getting unwanted attention that she ‘wasn’t participating in.’”  Kipnis neglects to make clear that “getting unwanted attention that you’re not participating in” can be or can easily lead to real violation.  In addition, Kipnis replicates sexualization and hero worship in her description of Wilson: “Here was a smart, attractive, successful woman from one of the top philosophy departments in North America who revered Peter Ludlow.”  She later remarks that, after Wilson completed her testimony, “it felt as if there were an erotic current in the room.”

Kipnis also tires of “exhausted clichés about predatory males and eternally innocent females…”  I think it’s fair to say that anyone who follows the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and the major national dailies might find these “clichés” to not be exhausted enough.  Of course it makes sense to get away from the polarized language Kipnis critiques, but college and university campus statistics and the underlying realities of sexual violence on campus are still acutely bad.  The tone Kipnis uses when speaking of the two complainants is condescending at best.  When Kipnis blames herself for not coming to Ludlow’s defense in a particularly tense moment in the hearing, she wonders if she hadn’t done so because she was “so shaken [her]self, so frozen and appalled” that she couldn’t.  This is exactly what happens to many people who have experienced aggression and assault (and to some who have witnessed it), just like the two complainants in this case had claimed themselves.  If the two complainants are deserving of scorn, I would like more information to understand why.

The strength of Kipnis’ article (and, I surmise, her book) lies in the legitimate questioning of the efficacy of legal processes in Title IX hearings on college and university campuses.  She rightly criticizes Northwestern for running hearings soaked with lawyers from all sides, hiring an outside lawyer to advise the university panel, and worrying more about image than justice (Kipnis writes: “Ludlow was bad for the brand.”).  Kipnis also says that she “was being warned off the subject,” and I am certain that was the case.  Universities have many direct and subtle means to silence unpleasant subjects and cases that sully the brand.  My simplified view of the stance that universities adopt is that they support the side that brings the fewest monetary and public relations risks.  Oftentimes this means that complainants are silenced and run off campus, and, on far fewer occasions, it means that alleged perpetrators are.

We should all be wary when a university hires outside counsel to “advise” an internal panel.  The advice provided stems from whatever is in the university’s best interest.  At that point, the university can be considered wholly separate from the complainant and the alleged perpetrator.  Kipnis points to the fraught intervention of universities in their own processes when she writes, “The university was set on getting rid of Ludlow, and the hearing was a formality.  I also knew enough about the procedures to know that the faculty panel’s vote was merely advisory; the provost would make the final call, and it had been the provost’s decision to put the dismissal machinery in motion to begin with.”  Exactly!  This is a profound problem not only because it is evidently unjust, but also because it exploits student, staff, and faculty labor and their potentially sincere belief in the benefits of university adjudicative processes.

No matter where we readers fall on matters of sexual agency and exploitation of professional power, we can certainly question the Big Brand Machine of colleges and universities, whose students and employees have become little more than additional institutional risks.

The Chronicle has featured Laura Kipnis on several occasions and for several weeks running.  It might be a good moment to consider other editorial decisions that take into account real statistics and violations of actual people.


Here is just a smattering of recent battering headlines:

“The Rise, Then Shame, of Baylor Nation” (The New York Times, 3-9-17)

“Sexual harassment:  Records show how University of California faculty target students” (The Guardian, 3-8-17)

“Inquiry Opens into How a Network of Marines Shared Illicit Images of Female Peers” (The New York Times, 3-6-17)

“Why So Few Women in State Politics?” (The New York Times, 2-25-17)

“Donald Trump remains silent as white men continue to terrorize America” (New York Daily News, 2-17-17)

“How a Fractious Women’s Movement Came to Lead the Left” (The New York Times, 2-7-17)

“Report that Trump Wants Female Staff to “dress like women” Sparks Movement on Social Media” (The New York Times Live, 2-3-17; reported by MSN here)

“The Trump Administration’s Dark View of Immigrants” (The New Yorker, 2-2-17)

These are national headlines that clearly speak to the white supremacist heteropatriarchy in charge of our nation.  I usually soft-pedal my language a little more, avoiding such charged terms as “white supremacist heteropatriarchy,” but let’s call things as we see them.  The photo above, from Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal,” speaks more than a thousand words.  The “president” has effectively created a boys’ club (almost all white) of men between the ages of 55 and 80.  He has sent the message that all people who aren’t part of this group are unworthy.  We know, though, that this group only survives through its attempt to appear strong by making others weak.  Groups like these are doomed to fail.

In the meantime, I wish I could say that the United States were just stagnating.  The unfortunate fact, however, is that we are moving rapidly backwards.  The world can see it, we know it, and only the little Trump pumpkins continue to prop up our stupid dictator.  *Check out Mexican surrealist painter Antonio Ruiz’s painting “El líder/orador” to understand this reference to the people I would like to officially dub the “trumpkins.”  Take note, too, that Ruiz painted “El orador” in 1939, a significant year in dictator history.


There is no room to breathe now as we play defense on behalf of the First Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX, and the Affordable Care Act.  At the same time, we are reasserting what we thought were core values, such as welcoming individuals and groups from other nations, understanding that often it is better to keep families together, rather than wrench them apart, body autonomy, and loving our neighbors.  As the stags run (and ruin) our nation, they eliminate from their path anyone and everyone who is unlike them.  Those who are unlike them is a large and ever-growing subset of people.

Nevertheless, high-level business people know that well-run organizations encourage expression of divergent opinions and the cultivation of healthy debate.  These elements keep the organizations on their proverbial toes—innovative, collaborative, comprehensive.  (See Section III of Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace for data and practical solutions on this issue.)  Isn’t democracy at its very core the idea that the people—in all of our differences and commonalities—will learn about the issues, educate others to be part of a well-informed citizenry, debate wholeheartedly, and then make decisions together about the best courses of action for all?

The national examples of stag-nation that I’ve provided here are replicated at the state and local levels.  In my state, Bob Goodlatte for decades has honed a dictatorial machine fed by national, white, male supremacist machinations.  (See previous posts in the Gender Shrapnel blog for examples of Goodlatte’s scary-ass brand of government.  Also check out Chris Gavaler’s Dear Bob Blog and Gene Zitver’s Goodlatte Watch.)  At the regional level, Ben Cline has consistently supported policies that are dangerous to all women.  (See last week’s blog post for more information.)

At the University of Virginia, where women comprise 56% of the student population, less than 30% of the presidential search committee is comprised of women, with two of those women being students.  In daily life, I watch my children perform in concert after concert whose playlist includes only male composers (some of whom, at least, are of color).  They participate on an official school academic team, for whose competitions they are asked questions primarily about Western civilization up to the year 1800 (i.e. not many women included, unless they are mythological figures or real-life muses).  They play on sports teams for which the girls teams are still playing in the smaller gyms or swimming in the shallower lanes.  They learn at school that transgender people will be forced into a bathroom not of their choosing.  In other words, we as a culture are not even moving forward on the smallest of everyday issues that affect us all (or many of us, at least).  We are seeing and experiencing how draconian governmental restrictions are severely limiting self- and group-definition and freedoms at the national, regional, and local levels.  This will affect our culture for decades to come.

What are Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Bob Goodlatte, and Ben Cline so afraid of? Why must we who live in this country cater to their bizarre fears?  If they’re afraid of nothing and simply want unquestioned power, then why are we letting them have it?  We need fewer trumpkins and more resistance.  After “Willly Wonka”’s Veruca Salt, we need more resistance, and we need it NOW.