UM President Donna Shalala Responds to New Times Story: "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished"

On Tuesday, New Times published an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Colin McGinn, a prominent philosophy professor at the school and the victim's allegations that the school didn't do enough to protect her. Now, UM President Donna Shalala has responded to the report.

“No good deed goes unpunished,” Donna Shalala writes to New Times.

Shalala's letter to the editor continues: “Most college and university mechanisms for dealing with claims of sexual harassment against tenured faculty are extensive and protracted. The University of Miami is an example of how one institution got it right, resulting in the resignation of this faculty member. The process was lightning speed – a rarity in the history of higher education. UM is a safer, better place for it.”

Shalala didn't respond to New Times earlier requests for comment as we reported the piece; UM, instead, asked its private counsel Eric Isicoff to discuss the allegations on the record. 

Shalala is correct in part about McGinn's case: It is a rarity to remove a tenured professor so quickly. There is usually a long process involving a faculty senate hearing, where university professors and administrators hear charges and recommend a decision to the president. However, since UM is a private university, the president has the power to overturn their ruling. (In a recording New Times obtained, Shalala admitted to overturning faculty senate rulings she disagreed with.)

The proper firing process of a tenured takes a lot longer than three months; it can draw out for years. But McGinn's resignation left it unclear what would have happened had UM taken the proper channels. McGinn argues he would have been cleared. The student argues she would have prevailed, preventing her alleged harasser from continuing to claim that their relationship was “consensual” and “romantic.”

Isicoff told New Times: “The end result was that this tenured professor left the university. It is extraordinarily difficult to get a tenured professor off of the faculty of the university where they hold tenure. It’s lifetime appointment.”

Philosophy departments in particular are notorious for their claims of sexual harassment. In 2011, a male philosophy professor at the University of Oregon repeatedly made sexual advances at his female students and, once, groped a freshman during office hours. Last October the University of Colorado reopened admissions to its graduate philosophy department after putting the program on a yearlong hiatus after an investigation found institutionalized sexual harassment. Last May, Yale University’s philosophy department was implicated in a sexual harassment scandal with professor Thomas Pogge. According to Yale’s faculty page, he is on a “leave of absence.”

Isicoff added: “It was ultimately determined that while professor’s conduct was certainly not appropriate by university standards it was determined he did not violate the law or engage in any conduct that would reasonably be deemed unlawful. Even though that was the case, the university took swift action to resolve this matter to best address the needs and concerns of this graduate student.”

The University of Miami currently lists 42 prevention and awareness programs targeting domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in its most recent Clery Report. The majority of these programs are directed to new incoming students. Not one is intended for new employees. Meanwhile graduate students reside in the liminal area between faculty and student and where and how they receive preventative training and how they come forward with claims of sexual harassment and assault can be equally as murky.

In response to New Times story, The Feminist Philosophers blog posted yesterday: “Far too often universities approach sexual misconduct as if the primary concern is risk management for their own brand, rather than as a matter of community justice and equal educational opportunity, and it seems (unsurprisingly, but nonetheless, wrongly) that’s what happened here. The handling described by the New Times is precisely the kind of response that can severely exacerbate trauma and discourage victims from reporting–it also raises serious questions about Miami’s compliance with the law.”
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Jess Swanson is the news editor at New Times. She graduated from the University of Miami and has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Contact: Jess Swanson