UM Sued Over Colin McGinn Philosophy Department Sexual Harassment Scandal

Three years ago, a female graduate student at the University of Miami accused her professor — the most prominent member of the philosophy department — of sexual harassment. Her case against Colin McGinn, a world-renowned author, grew into a contentious battle detailed by New Times earlier this year, with UM declining to charge the professor with sexual harassment but instead forcing him out.

Now that student is named on the record for the first time in a new lawsuit filed against the school. Monica Morrison says she wants to bring the university to account.

"It completely mishandled her sexual harassment complaint contrary to law and its own policies, with results that have derailed her career and hurt her personally,” Ann Olivarius, one of her attorneys, tells New Times. "Monica feels very strongly about protecting other women.”

UM counsel Eric Isicoff, however, says Morrison does not have a valid claim. “It was a fast resolution in the best interest of the student. That’s what the complainant wanted: him to resign and relinquished tenure,” Isicoff tells New Times. “It was the best scenario to happen.”

McGinn, meanwhile, has denied harassing his student. He told New Times in April that his correspondence with Morrison was not sexual harassment and that the university never accused him of sexual harassment. He chalks up the erotic connotations to banter and related to their work. “We were getting into a relationship," he said. "I was in no doubt that she was enthusiastic."

Morrison's case centers on McGinn, a married, Oxford-educated author of 25 books. She says he'd sent her sexually charged emails that made her uncomfortable — repeatedly using terms like "slight erection," "handjob," and "Lolita," which he said was his favorite book, and even asking her to have sex.

Her 66-page complaint, filed last week in Miami-Dade civil court, details the allegations, quoting text messages, emails, and blogs that McGinn wrote or sent to Morrison. McGinn is accused of sexual harassment and civil assault.

Morrison accuses UM of neglecting its Title IX responsibilities by not launching a full investigation of her sexual harassment claims and to prevent McGinn from retaliating against her in a series of blogs posted on his personal website. Morrison says the school's investigator did not ask to look at additional text messages and emails McGinn sent or interview her boyfriend, who she told authorities was a witness.

Morrison also claims neither the investigator nor anyone else in the Office of Equality Administration explained the process of lodging a sexual-harassment complaint. She says she wasn't told about the possibility of hiring outside legal help or that counseling services were available to her. Nor was she informed that her claim would be classified as "informal," which lessened the university's responsibility to investigate.

Indeed, the university never accused McGinn of sexual harassment, instead claiming he was guilty of “failure to disclose a consensual, romantic relationship.” Instead, he was strong-armed into an early retirement. UM president Donna Shalala, who retired in August to lead the Clinton Foundation, considered removing a tenured professor so quickly a “good deed” and successful resolution. 

School lawyers say McGinn's quick removal from the faculty shows Morrison's complaint was taken seriously. "However we word it, it was investigated," Isicoff told New Times in April. "Her concerns, however they are characterized, were brought to the university and investigated."

The accusations led to a spate of high-profile stories in Slate, the New York Times, and Chronicle of Higher Education. The student declined to speak to those publications but earlier this year spoke to New Times for the first time about the harassment. Ben Burgis, a former philosophy graduate student at the time, supports Morrison. “I think her outing herself like this is really brave,” he says of the court filing. “A lot of people would be tempted to try to hold onto whatever anonymity they had left, so it’s really impressive that she’s giving that up to pursue justice.”

The new lawsuit is already making waves on UM's campus. This afternoon at 4 p.m., Katharine Westaway, a Women and Gender Studies lecturer, will hold a news conference about the court filing. She says she hopes it sparks dialogue about gender-based misconduct on campus and the ways to report it.

“Her act of bravery seems to be starting an avalanche,” Olivarius says. “Philosophers around the country, professors in other disciplines, and now University of Miami’s own students are standing up to expose a culture that is harming women and their education.”

In April, Morrision — who no longer lives in Miami — told New Times: “I am hoping I can help others avoid similar situations in the future and to let people know that UM and President Shalala have not behaved properly or in accordance with the law.”
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Jess Swanson is the former 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

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