Confronting abuses of power

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[This post was written with input from Emily M. Bender, Claire Bowern, Andrew Garrett, Monica Macaulay, David Pesetsky, Leslie Saxon, Karen Shelby, Kristen Syrett, and Natasha Warner.]

Many linguists, and probably also many regular Language Log readers, will have by now heard about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint recently filed by a set of faculty members currently or formerly associated with the University of Rochester’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. The complaint alleges a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and other abuses of power by another member of the BCS faculty, the mishandling of investigations into this pattern of abuse by the BCS and UR administrations, and evidence of retaliation against the complainants. Some key links, for those who haven’t yet seen them:

[Update, 9/18/2017: here are some more reports.

… plus lots of reporting from the University of Rochester Campus Times, just two links to which Mark Liberman provided in a comment below. (end update)]

While we process the horror and come to terms with the publicity of this particular case, linguists everywhere are also mobilizing both to discuss and to do more to address the widespread problem of academic abuses of power, and sexual harassment in particular. We do not pretend to think that academia is somehow unique in any particular regard, but a key point that is emerging in these discussions is the recognition that its promotion procedures and incentives, its models of supervisory relationships, and its institutional structures may unfortunately serve to play mutually-reinforcing roles in attracting, fostering, and protecting abusers of power. We need to recognize that the whole field suffers when such abuse goes unchecked. Actions taken by those who would protect abusers distort the learning and research environment for victims, their allies, and our entire community.

Among the very first and most productive public discussions was this one initiated by Lauren Hall-Lew on her blog (9/9/2017). We know many department chairs have already addressed all members of their departments to express their strong commitment to working against sexual harassment and other abuses of power, and we think that this is an important discussion to begin in every department. A group of Linguistic Society of America members has been brought together by Claire Bowern to help draft an open letter to the LSA calling for attention and action from the Society, given the failures of our institutions (9/12/2017, with over 700 signatures as of this writing). The LSA, in turn, has responded to calls from both the Committee on the Status of Women in Linguistics and the Executive Committee and has announced a special workshop on “Sexism, Harassment, and Title IX Rights” for the 2018 Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City in January (9/12/2017).

[Update, 9/22/2017: The LSA Executive Committee has now officially responded to the open letter, now signed by over 1000 members of the LSA and broader linguistics community.]

And, of course, there are countless other discussions, some private, some more open, happening everywhere. Personal stories are being shared, from heartbreaking to horrific, and expressions of support for victims of abuse are everywhere. There is now a grassroots movement to foster an environment where linguists can have open discussions of this sort, sharing anonymously (or not) these kinds of stories so that the message gets out to our colleagues and junior members of the field that the problem affects more than just young women, and that there are options for responding.

All of this in just a few days. Linguists are good people. We can and will do better.


  1. Joe Pater said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 6:13 am

    Thanks Eric for putting this together. Here's our faculty's letter to the department – perhaps it will be useful to others.


    September 11th, 2017

    Dear members of our Departmental community,

    I am writing on behalf of the entire faculty of our Department in response to the formal complaint filed by on September 1, 2017 by Richard Aslin and Elissa Newport with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the University of Rochester “for failing to act appropriately against a faculty member who has engaged in sexual harassment and has created a hostile environment for graduate students, and for retaliating against those of us who filed and pursued a complaint through university procedures”, and reported on by Mother Jones in an article of September 8th.

    The behavior described in the complaint document clearly contravenes our own University’s sexual harassment policy:

    It also runs completely counter to our Department’s commitment to providing a safe, inclusive environment for all of its members. We especially wish to affirm that commitment in light of the complaint’s description of the completely inadequate response by the UR Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department to concerns brought forth by students and faculty, which appears to have violated that University’s own policy.

    We will not tolerate harassment of any kind in our Department. Any member of our Department with concerns can discuss them, in complete confidence if desired, with any member of the faculty, including but not limited to the Department Chair (presently Joe Pater), the Graduate Program Director (Lyn Frazier) and the Undergraduate Advisors (Rajesh Bhatt, Ellen Woolford or Kristine Yu). We will do whatever we can to address those concerns, and will act in accordance with our University policy. We also welcome any suggestions for other ways we can work to ensure the safety of the members of our community, and equal access to educational opportunities for all of our students.

    Procedures, and resources outside of the department for addressing sexual harassment and sexual violence are comprehensively listed in the following document:


    Joe Pater
    Professor and departmental chair
    (On behalf of the entire faculty)

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 8:48 am

    Two relevant articles in the University of Rochester's Campus Times:

    "Jaeger to cease teaching undergraduate class", 9/12/2017
    "Seligman faces hundreds as campus outrage peaks", 9/13/2017

    Video of President Seligman's town hall meeting can be found here.

  3. Joe Pater said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 10:56 am

    I need to clarify part of my above letter. Confidentiality cannot be guaranteed for reports of sexual harassment, at UMass Amherst, and at many other places (Sharon Inkelas has mentioned Berkeley as an example). Faculty are required to report incidents to the relevant office, as you can see in the linked document. In the latter half of the document, campus resources that can provide confidentiality are listed.

  4. Livia Polanyi said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 11:09 am

    Odd, that neither of these missives name "the faculty member" and nowhere is there a suggestion that (1) he be fired (2) no linguistics department should hire him (3) colleagues should not publish with him, invite him to edit journals, organize or agree to serve on panels,of any kind should he be a member. No, it's all sort of kicked upstairs as if the problem resided only with the "handling" of the matter and not with the revolting behavior of our linguistics colleague (whom I will not name either, since that see,s to be the way these things ar handled by us Language Folks.)

  5. Stephen Senturia said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 5:03 pm

    I spent 36 years on the MIT Faculty (Electrical Engineering), including a six-year stint as the Housemaster (now called Faculty Resident) of MIT's only women's dormitory, and a 25-year-plus membership in my department's Personnel Committee, a fifteen person committee of senior faculty which acted on behalf of my very large department to advise the chairman on issues of promotion and tenure. Needless to say, gender issues came up often and, of course, were cloaked in confidentiality. That was one reason I chose to write a novel, One Man's Purpose, set in a MIT-look-alike and focused on the inside story of what cab really go on in the mentoring of a female junior faculty member and the associated tenure deliberation process. By making a fictional account based on real experience, I have tried to take the cover off an otherwise secret process. A colleague at Berkeley said he was recommending the book to all his junior faculty colleagues and their spouses. The gender issue, and the effect of the tensions inherent in the promotion and tenure process on both the candidate and his or her family are too important to leave shrouded in confidentiality, but only a fictional account based on reality has the opportunity to unshroud.

  6. Jichang Lulu said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 5:17 pm

    @Livia Polanyi

    It's true that the 'missives' don't name T. Florian Jaeger, but the press articles linked in the post and Mark Liberman's comment do. So I don't think Baković or Liberman is avoiding naming Jaeger. Following those links, or quick googling, will direct you to Jaeger's name, which is Jaeger.

    As is patently googlable, this is T. Florian Jaeger's Rochester homepage, which links to his list of publications and his page, if that's what you were looking for.

  7. Andrew Usher said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 7:20 pm

    Another non-liguistic post: so here we go –

    First, as to the point that he is not here named, his name is in the links provided, is publicly known and accessible to anyone interested. Naming him here would only give him more publicity, which could be considered a bad thing no matter how strenuously you condemn him.

    I suppose it's necessary to point out first, to anyone not acquainted with details, that the alleged behavior here, as is many similar cases, did not include forcing anyone into sexual activity, and that all the claimed victims are old enough that one would expect them to be able to say no or otherwise object, if nothing else stood in the way of them doing so. This is not to justify the alleged behavior, which is in itself indefensible.

    The first claim of interest is that this is a specific problem of academia, and is due to its specific power dynamics. While it is true that ordinary private companies seem to have largely eliminated this, and academia may seem 'behind the times', there are two big reasons for the difference, both of which seem to any decent person favorable to the schools: first, they have not been so completely overtaken by impersonal bureaucracy and legal nonsense as private corporations of any size; and secondly that they are less willing or able to exclude 'weird' people – and those that would commit this type of behavior certainly qualify as 'weird' (not conforming to expected social norms). As to the power dynamics, I think there's not a significant difference. Power is omnipresent and works much the same way everywhere due to human nature; if you think that a boss at a normal company can't exert as much social power as a PR in academia, I would say you're not acquainted enough with the former; and while it may be true in theory that in private industry it's easier to quit from one boss to seek another job, in practice it's really hard, and often feels traumatic, for most people to do so. In both cases the only way usually to complain against a supervisor (or even, often, a co-worker) and be listened to or not fear retaliation is to claim sexual harassment, racial discrimination, or something else about which there are specific laws; no doubt this sometimes (unfortunately) leads people to invent such claims without basis, to avoid dismissal without recourse.

    The truth is, the amount of bullshit that a man must deal with in private employment is often high, and he has no assurance it will be better at a different job – as it is not possible (even more than in the university) to know the character of a company's environment and one's immediate boss before accepting a job. I have investigated the matter of 'workplace bullying' and it is easy for me to see how the power environment of the workplace allows it (though I will never understand why some people are bullies) – because there is no genuine way to complain about such behavior, and be judged fairly, and because of the implicit coercion in that people want to remain and don't feel they can just quit (as above). This is also why bullying is present on some Internet forums (and I've been bullied off several), the coercion here being that users feel that it's the only place online to discuss the pertinent subject, and even if not they may not be able to trace the same people to other forums (this is made worse by the inexcusable practice of hiding members' e-mail; it is as a protest against that that I write mine wherever allowed); so bullying can develop. The originator of a forum seldom if ever is (as his forum will not get off the ground if he shows such behavior), it is rather some other bullying person that over a long period ingratiates himself, so that the owner is unwilling to see his faults – much the same as in this case, and in many cases of bullying.

    Given this analysis, it is not possible for me to see what is called sexual harassment as uniquely bad, unless it includes actual coercion into sexual behavior (rare nowadays) to which men are never or almost never subjected. The reluctance of the university to act against what could at least appear as a minor foible is thus understandable.

    The second point of interest is why anyone would engage in this behavior. Assuming that the person is aware of its being abnormal and not socially acceptable (which is a safe assumption for this case), there seem but two rational explanations. One is that it is simply a kind of fetish; God knows men have all sorts of weird fetishes including 'talking dirty' to people they have no chance of actually getting sex with. This could be considered a close relative of that. The other (which many assume _without_ reasoning about it) is that it's a reaction toward being required to work with females, which such a man would prefer not to. That of course is not rare in itself; I am quite sure that most men at least subconsciously would prefer to work in an all-male environment (this is almost instinctive, and related preferences in women also exist) and feel more stress when they can't. A way to deal with this is to constantly differentiate oneself from these females (with or without ground) and this behavior is certainly a way of doing so, though not one I could approve of.

    It is natural, finally, and not a sign of pathology but of strength, to be extremely unwilling to inflict upon a colleague the ultimate penalty, which seems the only possibility in the circumstances. In a more sane world he would be allowed to continue his academically valuable work but simply not to have any female students/assistants. Both sides could agree on that, were it not that it violates the feminist standard of gender 'equality', which would recognise the most minor indignity inflicted upon women while deliberately ignoring any inflicted upon men.

    k_over_hbarc at

  8. Delaney said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 7:43 pm

    Another voice of agreement with Livia here (and, thus, disagreement with basically everything Andrew said). Excluding women from an influential professor's mentorship is part of the problem here. Limiting the options available to a large sector of your students means those students don't get the advancement opportunities or valuable relationships in the field. Women are and will continue to be part of the student body and they deserve the respect and boundaries afforded to male students. Men in academia don't get to choose not to work with women.

  9. Andrew Usher said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 8:42 pm

    By disagreeing with everything I said, I can assume that you think:

    – There's no such thing as 'workplace bullying', or if there is men aren't harmed by it, because they should be able to deal with anything (how I don't know)
    – Abuse of power is only a problem when women are the victims
    – One of the most important functions of academia to to make women feel equal

    which ought to speak for itself. By the way, while it is argued that academic research is harmed by discouraging any women, as they might contribute – I must point out that the amount of research that gets done is limited by funding (and bureaucracy), not the availability of people. There are countless people (mostly men), that would love to do academic research and would be able to contribute, but have no chance.

    And in any case, the woman at the center of this case did immediately find an influential mentor in Richard Aslin. Is that not enough, and she must be able to have any man on the campus?

  10. Termy said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 8:45 pm

    "The first claim of interest is that this is a specific problem of academia, and is due to its specific power dynamics."
    Who makes this claim? The post above certainly doesn't: "We do not pretend to think that academia is somehow unique in any particular regard…" As far as I can tell, you are the only person making this claim.

    "I am quite sure that most men at least subconsciously would prefer to work in an all-male environment…"
    I am quite sure this is your own projection. I absolutely would not want to work (or study) in an all-male environment, or an all-female environment, nor have I ever got this impression from any of my male academic mentors (in fact, I have always received the opposite impression).

    As for the rest of your post, I have no idea what you are going on about. Are you suggesting that this is really about a man being bullied, or evidence that feminism is opposed to men's rights, or that it is natural for men to be bullies because of the corporate environment, or what? I am genuinely asking because I've read your post multiple times and I am really at a loss.

  11. mt said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 9:56 pm

    I read Andrew's claim as saying that sexual harassment is not meaningfully different from other types of workplace bullying. But of course sexual harassment is discrimination (on the basis of sex, if that needs to be made clear), and this is not the case for every type of bullying behavior.

    Given that sexual harassment is basically discriminatory behavior, we should pay special attention to fighting it. Allowing it to occur systematically excludes a class of people (viz. women) from fully participating in work and society, above and beyond the damage to an individual that all bullying produces.

    I suggest that anyone who doesn't believe or understand this familiarize themselves with the history of sexual discrimination as a legal concept in the US:

    I would also suggest that men holding opinions like "sexual harassment is not particularly bad if it doesn't rise to the level of rape"—even men who are not sexual harassers themselves—are functionally complicit in sex discrimination. We see this very clearly in the allegations submitted to the EEOC; there, multiple people implicitly or explicitly approved of the harassing behavior (some of them peers of the harassed, and some of them in positions of institutional power) and, as a whole, gave rise to an environment that is discriminatory to women.

  12. Andrew Usher said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 10:32 pm

    I am sorry, but I had to omit a lot of pertinent argument even to make that post the length it was. The part you say you are confused about was intended to assert that workplace bullying as a whole is a much larger problem than sexual harassment – indeed, it could likely be said to be the biggest preventable cause of psychological trauma in the developed world today – and yet is ignored, because it mainly affects men. I added the part about Internet forums because I thought still more people would be familiar with that (essentially) identical phenomenon, and if someone with the power only to remove you from a forum can mess with you that much, how much more so can one with the power to remove you from your job, with (and this is key) practically just as little recourse?

    Think for yourself, man, or just trust me. That you wouldn't want to work in an all-male environment is just what I'd expect someone to _say_ today, but that's OK, as I know better; millennia are on my side.

  13. Termy said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 11:25 pm

    You have made a number of claims then that you haven't backed up.

    1) Workplace bullying is ignored.

    2) Workplace bullying disproportionately affects men.

    3) The majority of men would prefer working in an all-male environment.

    The first two are questionable – I receive regular emails and training from both the institution I study and both of my workplaces on bullying and other forms of harassment, and the issue frequently appears in the media, so I'm not certain that (1) is universally true by any means (although I don't doubt there are places where bullying is underreported and tolerated). And I certainly can't see why women would be any less susceptible to workplace bullying than men, nor has it been my experience that they are. The few workplace bullies I have known were equal-opportunity bullies – they flexed their power on men and women alike.

    But your insistence on point 3 still seems to me to be nothing but a projection of your own particular perspective. Where is your evidence that this is the mindset of "most men"? Or, for that matter, most women?

    "Think for yourself, man, or just trust me." Is this a response to me saying that I prefer working in a mixed environment? Are you suggesting that I am NOT thinking for myself by expressing what I think? Or that I should trust YOU on how I feel about this issue?

  14. Termy said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 11:28 pm

    Actually I'm not sure why I'm even responding. mt's comment strikes true: "I would also suggest that men holding opinions like "sexual harassment is not particularly bad if it doesn't rise to the level of rape"—even men who are not sexual harassers themselves—are functionally complicit in sex discrimination."

    I don't really believe your comments are relevant to the original post, and I certainly shouldn't be helping you hijack it to push forward what increasingly seems to be your own agenda.

  15. Lance said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 11:49 pm

    all the claimed victims are old enough that one would expect them to be able to say no or otherwise object, if nothing else stood in the way of them doing so

    It was at this point that I stopped reading the very very concerned trolling. If Andrew thinks that "nothing else stood in the way of" women speaking up against an influential department member with a degree of power over their careers, then he either didn't bother reading the complaints, or else fundamentally misunderstands the entire concept of power dynamics.

    Honestly, at this point I'm mostly wondering why his comments are being allowed through as if they're intelligent and relevant discourse.

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 12:49 am

    If that was why you stopped reading, you have a shaky grasp of English grammar – the passage you just quoted says the opposite of what you make out. The clause 'IF nothing else stood in the way …' does not mean that nothing did, and in fact generally implies that something did, as was my intent. The only reason I added that sentence was to defend against any comparison to Sandusky at Penn State, which I feared someone might make.

    A blatant misrepresentation like that requires an immediate response, as while there is no problem with people opposing me for what I do believe, doing so because of clearly false statements about what I believe is not acceptable.

    To address a couple other matters:

    I know that this post doesn't make the claim of the problem being particular to academia. But the news article linked to does, and as it's pretty certain more people learned about it from that or a similar source than from this place, I was responding to that.

    Also I am not trying to hijack this thread to one on workplace bullying, so I don't mean to say much more about it, but the reason I said it mostly affects men is not that few women are bullied but that (among other things) as I implied, women do have the ability to claim sexual harassment or discrimination, or threaten to, while men practically do not.

    mt was correct in summarising me as saying 'sexual harassment is not meaningfully different from other types of workplace bullying' and while his analysis is reasonable, I can not agree that an action is morally worse if it has a discriminatory effect. If I lose opportunities I think I should have, it doesn't matter to first order whether the cause was discrimination against a group of which I am a part, or against me specifically.

  17. Margaret Wilson said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 2:23 am

    Thank you for this post. It's tremendously heartening to hear that linguists, as a group, are actively and vocally confronting this issue. I'm wondering whether we will see as much collective action from departments and societies that brand themselves as Cognitive Neuroscience.

  18. Biku said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 7:59 am


    To a victim it might not matter whether they lost opportunities because of discrimination against them specifically, or against them as part of some group. But as a society we have a choice: protect a large group that is vulnerable to specific forms of discrimination or not? (While we can't predict and prevent cases of individual harassment.) One result of this protection is a possibility that some women may abuse it or interpret "sexual harassment" in a broader sense than it was intended (Note, I'm not suggesting this was the case in this particular story). Another side effect is that some men would feel this gives women a kind of advantage that they do not have. The question is: is this a tolerable price to pay for protection of a vulnerable part of society? Or is there another, perhaps a better, alternative? Do you suggest that sexual harassment and bullying should be dealt with legally in the same manner and that this would be effective? (I seriously don't know the answer to this question or how to even begin answering it).

  19. Eric Baković said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 10:02 am

    Here is a video of Jessica Cantlon calling out UR President Joel Seligman for bringing up the discredited Rolling Stone story in the context of this case.

  20. Lance said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 10:43 am

    If that was why you stopped reading, you have a shaky grasp of English grammar – the passage you just quoted says the opposite of what you make out

    Yeah, I'd like to correct my earlier post. When I said "concern troll" I meant "sea lion".

  21. Joe Pater said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 2:20 pm

    In reply to Livia Polanyi, I should perhaps clarify that the purpose of the UMass faculty letter was to assure our community that we would not tolerate harassment, to state our commitment to inclusiveness, and to provide pointers to resources. The focus on the department and administration was because we wanted to state that we would do whatever we could not to repeat UR's failings, not because we didn't think Jaeger was to blame.

  22. Andrew Usher said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 8:35 pm


    Those are very good questions. They're interesting practically and not just philosophically. But before we can even really start to ask them, we have to get past certain dogmatic assertions that we're not supposed to question. As to the last question, I think my ultimate answer would be yes, but even more desirable would be to change power structures so that serious abuses can't occur, which I am convinced is possible in most cases.

    As one final point, I'd like to return to my assertion that men would prefer all-male environments. It was perhaps a mistake for me to talk to one particular man here, as that often just causes anger (from cognitive dissonance if nothing else); but the general truth (of which I have no doubt) is best illustrated by specific cases. All recorded history establishes that men do try to exclude women (at least, women that they don't have or desire a relationship with) and even if we concede that that is unjust the truth it shows about human nature is not less solid. It's not going to have changed in a generation, no matter what is publicly said about it; and I refuse to believe that the men that still in some way express such a preference are the pathological ones.

  23. Neal Goldfarb said,

    September 15, 2017 @ 10:54 pm

    I'm confused. Is this Language Log or He-Man Woman Haters Club Log?

    I want my money back.

  24. Lance said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 1:10 am

    @Neal, if it helps, Googling Mr. Usher's email address turns up the Men's Wiki that he's the administrator of as its first hit. Proceed with caution, because the essays there are full of the same…well, to paraphrase Grice, "Mr. Usher produced a series of words that correspond closely with a rational argument."

  25. Andrew Usher said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 5:36 pm

    It is unfortunate that I must reply to this person again. Any benefit of the doubt I provided him the first time is definitely gone; he is here only to harass me, and his posting that link is only to further such harassment. I would not in the least trust such a person to identify a 'rational argument', as none but he has obviously violated its bounds.

  26. Rodger C said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 11:45 am

    I should probably not be feeding the trolls, but I can't resist this. So, Andrew, a regular visitor of this blog is here only to harass someone who just sauntered in out of nowhere? This is very revealing of the meaning you give "harassment" in general.

  27. Andrew Usher said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 8:35 pm

    I have been here, at least as a reader, for quite a long time, and have made many comments mostly related to English phonology. So I did not (any more than he) 'just saunter in out of nowhere' – and, by the way, that's a funny phrase when you say it out loud, isn't it? I don't recall seeing him before, but I was certainly aware of the probability, and that's why I used the deliberately ambiguous 'here' (on this blog _or_ on this thread), and avoided the word 'troll' which is rather a 'fighting word' on the Internet to be used with much discretion.

    As for Lance, I replied to him only as his posts on this thread merited. I think you can take it easy, though.

  28. Eric Baković said,

    September 18, 2017 @ 12:51 pm

    I've just updated this post with some links to further reporting on the Rochester case, and I'm now shutting down the comments. I agree with most contributors to this thread that Andrew Usher's comments have taken this conversation in a direction that is the precise opposite of what was intended with the post in the first place. He's free to do that, of course, but I don't want to continue to host that very different conversation here.

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