Thomas Pogge stands in the doorway of a classroom in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, surrounded by a gaggle of students. He’s just finished teaching “Global Financial Integrity,” a Yale college seminar that meets Mondays at 3:30 p.m., in style: ten minute late, to rousing applause.
On a Monday afternoon like this, well into Yale’s fall semester, it’s easy to forget that just a few months earlier, Pogge was publicly accused of sexual misconduct.
Last spring, in a Buzzfeed News article entitled “Ethics and the Eye of the Beholder,” Yale graduate student Fernanda Lopez Aguilar alleged that Pogge used his position to manipulate her into a sexual relationship, punishing her professionally after she resisted his advances. The article reported that this incident was just one example of Pogge’s misconduct, an “increasingly open secret in the international philosophy community.” After Lopez Aguilar filed a federal Title IX complaint in October 2015, Yale reviewed the case, finding evidence of “unprofessional conduct” but not enough to support claims of “sexual harassment.”
On June 20, 2016, more than 150 professors and colleagues in the field signed an open letter condemning Pogge’s behavior. “Based on the information that has been made public, we strongly condemn [Pogge’s] harmful actions toward women, most notably women of color, and the entire academic community,” it reads. As of its last update on 9:40 PM EST on July 13, 2016, the letter has 1,013 signatures.
Should students consider allegations like these as they decide to take certain classes? Is there a moral calculation involved, and are students making it?
Esteemed English professor Harold Bloom has faced similar accusations to those mounted against Pogge, most publicly in Naomi Wolf’s explosive 2004 New York Magazine cover story, “The Silent Treatment.” “I was the object of an unwanted sexual advance from a professor at Yale,” she wrote, naming Bloom. She recounted a strange candle-lit dinner he’d insisted upon, during which he had placed his hand firmly on her inner thigh. Wolf insisted that Bloom’s advances also seemed to be part of an open secret, and wrote that she and other former female students had come forward with allegations of their own, and condemned Yale for not taking the complaints seriously. But because the public accusations were made twenty years after the private transgressions, Yale again did not take action. Critics argued Wolf’s claims were based purely on hearsay; Meghan O’Rourke wrote a column in Slate vilifying the testimony, called “Crying Wolf.”
The University has not removed Bloom or Pogge, because however much media attention their lapses received, neither professor has been found guilty by Yale—and in Bloom’s case, Yale never investigated. This semester, students are again offered the opportunity to study under these professors, both of whom are widely regarded in their fields. Pogge and Bloom’s upper-level seminars are both application-based, and Pogge’s intro level course is just one of three options to fulfill the Political Philosophy requirement in the Ethics, Politics, and Economics major. All three classes are small, but every student sitting there made a conscious decision to do so.
The complicated nature of the professors’ public personas introduces a graver consideration to the course-selection process: Should students consider allegations like these as they decide to take certain classes? Is there a moral calculation involved, and are students making it?
“The idea that it might be morally wrong to refrain from taking a class for the reason that its instructor has been accused of sexual misconduct—this idea is pretty bizarre,” Pogge wrote to me in an email. An article like the one I am writing, he argued, participates in the propagation of sexual misconduct charges that may be false. “To be sure, any undeserved harm your story inflicts could be outweighed by e.g. a compelling public interest. In the present case, however, the public interest served by your story seems miniscule: the ethical question you pose is barely worth discussing and could be discussed equally well in generic terms, without alerting readers to the accusations against me.”
It’s not surprising Pogge would be willing to look at this philosophical question more abstractly—he is a philosophy professor. But given the allegations against him, some find his ethical focus troubling. This semester, his seminar is focused on “Global Financial Integrity”; in the spring, they are titled “Ethics & International Affairs” and “Recent Work on Justice.”
“I feel like humans hate hypocrisy instinctively,” said Grace Paine, a senior majoring in Political Science who considered taking Pogge’s class before realizing who would be teaching it. “And so the idea of tacitly showing my respect for this person of authority—who speaks from his position of authority on morality and has a documented history of behaving immorally toward young women and abusing his position of power—when he talks about global abuses of power didn’t sit right with me.”
However, Pogge’s area of philosophical expertise actually has little to do with the kinds of personal and professional morality that have been called into question, argued Shelly Kagan, a colleague of Pogge in the Philosophy department. Pogge studies global poverty alleviation, and argues that wealthy countries like the United States should help developing countries not in the name of “charity,” but out of obligation.
It’s not surprising Pogge would be willing to look at this philosophical question more abstractly—he is a philosophy professor. But given the allegations against him, some find his ethical focus troubling.
“Despite the fact that [Pogge] might have behaved in ways that seem distasteful and unprofessional and even immoral,” Kagan said, “the forms of misconduct are not forms of conduct that have anything to do with his area of teaching.”
Lopez Aguilar, who grew up in Honduras, argued the opposite. In addition to accusing Yale of violating Title IX, which concerns sex-based discrimination, she also filed a Title VI complaint, which concerns race. “He has a taste for women, most ironically, who hail directly or recently through their lineage from developing and non-Western countries,” she wrote. “Most disturbingly, his choice of victim precisely parallel the very countries’ consent he purports, in his well-known academic theory, to defend as invalid in light of human rights abuses.”
The race dimension exacerbated the already uneven power dynamics between Pogge and his student, Lopez Aguilar wrote. Linda Alcoff, a Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College who signed the open letter, said that while one might think Pogge’s specialty would require him to be sensitive to intersectional identities, an awareness of structural injustices does not always translate into an understanding of identity-based injustices. Professors like Pogge, she said, “take the structural stuff as a macro framing. It doesn’t always cause them to feel that they need to understand racism, sexism, heterosexism.”
Even if you were able to separate the question of Pogge’s philosophical pursuits and his behavior, she added, it wouldn’t make a difference. “Anybody who is a professor in higher education has taken on a morally bound obligation to assist his students and to do his scholarship with integrity and with responsibility to others,” she said. “That’s true whether you’re doing higher energy physics or ethics.”
At 86 years old, after having taught at Yale for sixty-one years, Harold Bloom’s complex reputation precedes him. If you believe the rumors, he’s sexist and inappropriate. A womanizer. But he’s also a world-renowned literary critic; preeminent in his field. Bloom’s alleged offenses have settled behind a historical haze in a way that Pogge’s aren’t. Every year, students still jockey for spots in Bloom’s class.
“[The class] was attractive to me because one of the things this school professes to be is a collection of experts like that,” said a male junior taking Bloom’s course, “Poetic Influence: Shakespeare to Keats,” who spoke under the condition of anonymity. He had read Wolf’s piece before coming to Yale and, after signing the open letter condemning Pogge, also carefully considered the moral implications of studying under Bloom, who did not respond to requests for comment. “I was wondering, thinking about the article, not knowing how to let that enter in my decision matrix,” he recalled. How is it possible to reconcile Bloom’s prestige with the specter of what he might have done?
Ultimately, he said, he outsourced the calculus to Yale. “There’s this tendency to politicize choice here,” he explained. “But if you buy into this institution—and you do…—to me, these questions are always a slippery slope.” By attending the university, he argued, students are already complicit in funding a faculty project which is inherently based in a “totally gendered power structure.”
For men, it’s often easier to speak in abstract terms about the philosophical and moral implications of a choice like this. But for women, it’s more complicated—it becomes a choice about whether you are willing to risk harassment yourself.
“I’m hesitant to take any rumor as truth, but I’d rather be safe than sorry,” said Kas Tebbetts, a freshman enrolled in the Political Science equivalent of Pogge’s lecture, also called “Intro to Political Philosophy,” but taught by Bryan Garsten.
Paine, the senior who chose not to take Pogge’s class, was more critical. “The idea in general of having a professor who is alleged to have preyed upon undergraduates who he’s teaching makes me kind of sick,” she said. “Just sitting in lecture and thinking about all the allegations…”
Bloom’s alleged offenses are obscured by have settled behind a historical haze in a way that Pogge’s aren’t. Every year,students still jockey for spots in Bloom’s class.
Taking a class with someone who allegedly fits the trope of a “male cultish academic figure who feels like their brilliance gives them impunity, using power to get young women into bed,” as Alcoff described Bloom and Pogge, may be a risk.
Nicole Bokat, the mother of the managing editor of this publication, studied at New York University in the 1980s, when Bloom taught in the English department. There were rumors even then, Bokat said. “For example, he made a comment that he was so happy to be at NYU because the students were so much more attractive than at Yale,” she recalled.
Bokat did not take a course with Bloom because their literary interests didn’t seem to align—she wanted to study female authors, and knew “he wouldn’t be interested in that”—but, she said, “in the old days, if you couldn’t take class with any sexist professors, you wouldn’t get your degree.”
Women that do take Pogge’s classes also have grounds to hesitate for professional reasons. Kagan mentioned a rumor that Pogge has written letters of recommendation for women with whom he’s had romantic but not academic relationships. Regardless of whether the rumor is true, female graduate students who may have turned to Pogge for mentorship might now worry about how that association will damage their reputation in the long term.
“Yale should take a hard look at its own history in regard to professors like Bloom and Pogge and rethink the criteria of excellence,” Alcoff said. Hiring scholars who have major influence or who have published esteemed books means little when their students cannot work at their optimal level for fear of harassment. “Institutions often separate the quality question from the moral question, but you can’t!”
But it is no more the responsibility of women than of men to make a political statement in their course selection. The opportunity to study under literary or philosophical genius is attractive to many—so of course, some female students have considered these professors’ reputations and chosen to take their classes anyway.
I counted five female students in Pogge’s “Global Financial Integrity,” and at least three in “Intro to Political Philosophy.” The five I asked declined to speak with me. Only men would comment.
“Although there may be questions about morality, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them, especially if they have shown themselves to be very good at teaching,” said Miles Betterson, a sophomore taking Pogge’s lecture. “I did debate over taking it or not, but the be all end all was: I’m going to learn a lot.” Besides, he needs the humanities credit, and another section didn’t work.
Jacob Malinowski, a freshman, agreed. “I don’t endorse anything he’s done in his personal life, and I don’t condone the allegations. I just think the class is interesting.”
When I ask Gaurav Pathak why he chose to take Pogge’s “Global Financial Integrity,” he was quick to defend his decision. Pogge’s an incredible speaker, an esteemed scholar—and he is only one of three co-lecturers who team-teach the course (the other two are professionals from Price Waterhouse Cooper and McKinsey). “He’s practically a section participant,” Pathak said.
Of the nine female students who have taken or are taking Bloom’s class I contacted, none agreed to speak on the record.
Should a vegetarian boycott a professor for eating meat? Should monogamists avoid learning from an adulterer? These hypothetical comparisons are pithy and easy to swallow. And they miss the point.
The idea of boycotting a class based on a professor’s beliefs might seem counter to the project of a liberal arts institution, a place that’s supposed to challenge assumptions and shape informed, reflective opinions through exposure to dissenting discourse. Taking classes from professors whose politics differ from one’s own expands these boundaries—as does, one could argue, taking a class from a professor whose lifestyle or personal choices seem distasteful.
But here, the stakes are different; higher. The question of whether to take a class from one of these professors is not always an abstract moral choice. It’s also a very concrete question of a teacher’s power over his students, and whether or not you can learn from someone who might abuse that power in the classroom.
Either way, it’s impossible to remove the burden of individual responsibility. If no one showed up to “Intro to Political Philosophy” on the first day of shopping period, Pogge wouldn’t be teaching a class.