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Universities, Gender, and Paglia

Julia C. Lipman

If you find “Hub of the Universe” a wee bit presumptuous and “Beantown” a little too slangy, you can start referring to Boston as the “PC capital.” That’s our new title, according to no less of a media pundit than Sexual Personae author and Salon columnist Camille Paglia. No, she’s not referring to an abundance of Dells and IBMs. Instead, the antifeminist commentator was talking about university politics, specifically the recent MIT report on discrimination against women faculty in the School of Science.

It’s time to stop taking Paglia seriously as an academic. In the past few weeks, she’s made it clear that she’s a couple footnotes short of a dissertation. If you’re looking for catty remarks about Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar dress (“a mushy pink Hostess cupcake”), look no further than Paglia. But this paragon of the antifeminist movement seems to have run out of ideas on anything more substantial, and she’s trying to make up for it in a truly bizarre fashion.

First, there was her recent column on the Harvard rape controversy, whose conclusions seem contrived solely for shock value. She describes Harvard’s dismissal of an admitted rapist as “paternalistic hand-holding,” completely ignoring the fact that D. Drew Douglas, the dismissed student, is under house arrest after being convicted of indecent assault. Disregarding clear court documents describing the crime to which Douglas pleaded guilty, she pieces together her own scenario in which the “drunken Harvard girl” is “just as responsible for the muddled chain of events” as Douglas. There’s nothing muddled about the court account, which describes Douglas forcing his way into the victim’s room as she tried to lock him out and repeatedly told him to leave. Paglia responded to a letter from Ethan Ard, editor of the Harvard Perspective, which mentioned her disregard of court documents among other things, but she failed to address the issue in her response.

And then there’s her Wednesday column about the MIT report on sex discrimination. Paglia attacks the report as “heavy on verbiage and amazingly light on documentation.” She points out that it provides no quantitative data about salaries, lab assignments, or grants. She’s right, except for one thing: the summary available on the Web, published in the Faculty Newsletter, is not in fact the actual report. The report itself is confidential, since the small number of women faculty would make it impossible for both quantitative and anecdotal data to be anonymous.

So why would the School of Science issue a public release which contained few hard data? I spoke with Robert Birgeneau, Dean of Science, who said that the purpose of the report was to inform the MIT faculty, including those in departments outside the School of Science, of the situation involving women faculty. The committee had no idea that the public release would have a national impact. Paglia is operating under the assumption that the release was meant to convince outsiders like her that MIT is indeed discriminating against women. But the most important people, the people in the MIT administration, have already been convinced by the confidential report and are taking action. Paglia fails to analyze why MIT would take the risk of admitting to sexual discrimination if there was no evidence that discrimination even existed. She just takes it as given that universities like to indulge in “PC breastbeating.”

Her justification for the low number of women science faculty is even more perplexing. According to her partner’s father, an issue of VooDoo, which Paglia refers to as “the MIT student magazine,” included in a packet for prospective students in 1959 contained “sexist and prurient cartoons.” Rather than seeing this as evidence of the kind of sexism that existed at MIT in 1959, she views it as proof that scientists are detached from human relationships and prefer abstractions. While she initially criticizes the women faculty on the report committee for their “tunnel-vision professional focus and insularity,” she now switches gears and assumes that such traits are the sole domain of males. She quotes her partner: “When men complete mathematical equations, there is an ‘ecstatic’ element that borders on sex.” Wow! Not being male, I must be missing out on a lot in my math classes.

In both Paglia’s Harvard and MIT columns, she’s defending someone or something (Douglas, MIT) from charges to which the accused freely admits and about which there is no public debate. At Harvard, no one, even the faculty members who voted against dismissal, denied that Douglas committed rape. Even the Salient, Harvard’s most conservative student publication, editorialized that not only should Douglas have been dismissed, but perhaps expulsion would have been more appropriate. At MIT, there has been no public opposition to the conclusions of the School of Science report. Can we then conclude that the anti-PC movement has run out of steam? How else to explain Paglia’s lone-wolf tirades on such lopsided issues?