Academic Freedom

Professor's Rhetorical Question About Rape Draws Firestorm of Protest

Wyap91, Wikimedia Commons

Steven Landsburg (shown speaking at a meeting last year) says he does not question the "ghastliness" of rape. He defends the use of hypothetical examples as "attention focusers" in intellectual debate.
April 05, 2013

Last month Steven Landsburg, an economist at the University of Rochester, published a post on his personal blog laying out a series of hypothetical public-policy "dilemmas." Anticipating the usual abstract debates with his community of regular readers, he set forth three rhetorical queries.

Question 3, after a few days, went viral. Should rape be illegal if the victim is unconscious, the professor wrote, and if no physical harm results?

This week students and alumni are urging the university to censure the professor based on those remarks; others beyond the campus have called for him to be fired. The outcry has zeroed in on a particularly provocative statement: "As long as I'm safely unconscious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault," Mr. Landsburg wrote in the post, "why shouldn't the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?"

The professor says the questions were nothing more than loosely formed intellectual ruminations. "Idle noodling," he called them in a follow-up blog post this week. But the discourse has unleashed a torrent of angry comments and renewed heated discussions about the scope of academic freedom—particularly at a time of heightened concerns over campus policies on sexual misconduct.

On Monday, a petition began circulating. It calls for the university's president, Joel Seligman, to censure Mr. Landsburg; as of Thursday evening, it had nearly 600 signatures.

A university spokesman, Bill Murphy, said in an e-mail that at this time there was "no intention to take disciplinary action."

'A Line Has Been Crossed'

Daniel Nelson, a doctoral student in the university's English department who drafted the petition, summed up the angry reaction this way: "We feel like this is just too much. A line has been crossed."

The professor's comments are offensive, Mr. Nelson said. But more troubling, he added, is that they could be harmful: "We're worried that a professor who teaches hundreds of students, who was voted professor of the year, and is in a position of great power and influence, is telling the community at large that rape might be OK."

In an interview, Mr. Landsburg—who indeed was voted a professor of the year in 2007—said the post was never meant to be about rape. On the day he wrote it, news was widespread about two teenagers in Steubenville, Ohio, who had been convicted of sexually assaulting a teenage girl while she was unconscious.

"It happened to be on my mind," the professor said. "Had I been writing this an hour later or an hour earlier, I might have used a completely different example."

Other, less-provocative ideas would have sufficed, he added. "I could have replaced the whole thing with somebody who steals your car while you're sleeping and returns it without your knowing," he said. "That would have been just as good."

On Wednesday, Mr. Landsburg published a lengthy note on his blog about the controversy. He explained that the original post had been meant to raise the concept of "psychic harm" and discuss when it should be relevant in policy making—and when it shouldn't.

"This is an issue I raise from time to time, because I find it both perplexing and important," he wrote, adding: "I can't seem to figure out what the good arguments are on this subject, and I was hoping for a little help from my readers."

A Flair for Provocation

This is not the first time Mr. Landsburg has drawn the ire of students and put campus leaders on the spot. Last year, after the conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh derided Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student, for her Congressional testimony advocating that health insurance cover contraception, Mr. Landsburg chimed in.

"Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being," he wrote, but her position on subsidizing contraception "deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked, and jeered." He also took issue with Mr. Limbaugh's description of Ms. Fluke as a "slut."

"A far better word might have been 'prostitute' (or a five-letter synonym therefor)," Mr. Landsburg wrote, "but that's still wrong, because Ms. Fluke is not in fact demanding to be paid for sex." In the end, he settled on the term "extortionist."

Thirty students reportedly demonstrated in his classroom shortly afterward. Mr. Seligman, at that time, issued a statement saying the professor was entitled to express his views under the university's "deep commitment" to academic freedom, adding: "No reasonable person would ever assume that he speaks for the University of Rochester."

This week a staunch advocate of academic freedom bristled at Mr. Landsburg's most recent argument but defended the professor's right to make it.

"It's a disturbing example because it seems to be in search of a kind of trivializing of rape," said Cary R. Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors (and no relation to the Rochester graduate student). With a personal blog, though, unless an instructor makes a personal threat or shows incompetence in his or her job—say, a geologist asserting that the world is flat—no sanction is warranted, said Mr. Nelson.

"Can one condemn what he said? Yes. Can you organize protests against it? Yes," said Mr. Nelson, who is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But that's all. "We have to tolerate foolish and disgusting things said under the protection of academic freedom," he said, "or academic freedom doesn't exist."

Talking About Rape

The best recourse at Rochester or any college in a similar situation, Mr. Nelson said, is to encourage a robust discussion of the issue at hand. Campuses especially need to talk more about rape, he said.

That already seems to be happening. On Wednesday the university held a previously planned conference on issues related to sexual assault. Mr. Seligman gave the opening remarks, and while he did not name Mr. Landsburg he emphasized two points: Sexual violence is not a hypothetical, and academic freedom is a messy necessity.

Also on Wednesday, Daniel Nelson, the graduate student who had drafted the petition, sent an e-mail to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to call attention to the campaign for Mr. Landsburg's censure. In it, he stated that the professor's remarks subvert attempts at Rochester and other institutions to "redouble" their efforts to prevent sexual assault, and asked for guidance on whether to file a formal complaint. On Friday, he said, he plans to meet with the university's Title IX coordinator.

Mr. Landsburg, for his part, said he's not questioning the "ghastliness" of rape. Instead, he maintains that the use of hypothetical examples as "attention focusers" in intellectual debate is one of his tools as a scholar, "to get people thinking."

"It seems like such a gap between the horrible reality of rape and the sterilized example I put in my piece," he said. After a pause, he added: "Maybe I'm wrong about that."

Sara Lipka contributed to this article.