Something completely new here at the Semi-Spew: a guest post. Dr. Nora Bensahel puts the Lebow Elevator controversy into perspective. She is a Distinguished Scholar inResidence,School of International Service, American University, and Contributing Editor, War on theRocks.
When I first heard about The Elevator Incident, I started thinking, like most of my female colleagues, about what I would have done in that situation. Lots of ink has now been spilled about whether Simona Sharoni did the right thing in filing a formal complaint against Richard Ned Lebow about the sexist comment he made in an elevator at the 2018 ISA Convention. But then I realized that this debate, while important, has overlooked a deeper question that also needs to be asked: to what extent does the profession as a whole bear responsibility for this and other similar incidents?
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot, because I was one of Lebow’s students many years ago and was utterly appalled by his unprofessional behavior. This is not a #metoo story; I’ve already written one of those. To be crystal clear, I do not recall Lebow saying anything in class that could be interpreted as gender discrimination or sexual harassment. But it is a story about the larger themes of the #metoo movement. It’s about a professor who took advantage of the students in my class and failed to meet one of the most basic obligations of the profession, and yet remains among the most highly regarded scholars in the profession. And that means it is a story about the profession itself, about the questions we should be asking ourselves – including whether the fact that he has never been held accountable for his behavior helped create the sense of entitlement that led him to dismiss Sharoni’s complaint as “frivolous.”
In the spring of 1992, I was a junior at Cornell University, and as an eager IR-nerd-in-training, I enrolled in Lebow’s course on the transformation of the international system since 1989. My enthusiasm for the course quickly dissipated, however, as my classmates and I witnessed the astonishingly unprofessional behavior of our professor. The class featured many guest lecturers, but Lebow failed to attend some of those class sessions. He arrived to lecture one day clad in a sweaty running t-shirt and shorts, and spent the class doing cool-down stretches while he lectured. Even as a student, I could overlook those things as among the (gross) eccentricities common to university professors. But with three weeks left in the semester, Lebow crossed the line into absolutely unacceptable territory: he abruptly announced that he was done teaching the class, and that we should not bother showing up again until the final exam.
My classmates and I were utterly outraged, and I remember calculating how many of my parents’ hard-earned tuition dollars had just been wasted. Our fantastic TA, Marc Lynch (now one of the foremost scholars of Middle Eastern politics) pulled together a final lecture to at least try to tie up the mess that Lebow left behind. The Cornell Daily Sun published a blistering editorial denouncing Lebow and calling for some sort of clear punishment, and I was stunned that the university did not respond (at least in any public way). I then learned that it was Lebow’s last semester at Cornell, and that he was about to move to the University of Pittsburgh. In my naivete, I was sure that this abuse of his power over his students would lead Pitt to pull his job offer.
But of course that did not happen. Lebow went on to teach at Pitt. And at Ohio State. And at Dartmouth. And at LSE. And now at King’s College London. Even more universities considered hiring him, which means that they all implicitly condoned his behavior. He has continued to be rewarded throughout his career, winning some of the most prestigious awards in the field, and was even named a Fellow of the British Academy. I’ve watched these developments from afar over the years, angered anew with each public recognition. But it wasn’t until The Elevator Incident, occurring within the context of the #metoo movement, that I started thinking about the story I told above as one of power and privilege, and about the role of the profession in fostering a culture of entitlement and impunity. I realize that it is one anecdote that happened a long time ago – but I suspect that it may not be the only such story in his lengthy career.
Nothing that I’ve written is explicitly about age or gender or race. But it is absolutely about power and entitlement, which cannot help but be related to those things. Replay the story I told above, but replace Lebow with an untenured junior colleague. Or a woman. Or a minority. Or a minority woman. Or a junior minority woman. Does anyone believe that the story would have the same ending, without any sort of censure or professional consequences? I hope not, because that shouldn’t be the end to the story. The problem isn’t that a junior or female or minority professor would face consequences. The problem is that this senior white male professor didn’t face any. How many other Lebows are out there, colleagues who have benefited from the same culture of privilege and yet are not making news headlines – who would have had the good sense to apologize, even in the most insincere way possible, just to make the story go away?
Maybe that’s why this story, in the end, may be a #metoo story after all. Maybe what happened in that elevator, and the sense of entitlement that Lebow displayed, isn’t solely about one man being a jerk. Maybe it’s the type of behavior that partly results from spending your entire career having your behavior being excused or overlooked by your peers, without ever being held accountable even when you abuse your power by failing to meet some of the most basic requirements of the profession. And maybe that’s why the broader debate about l’affaire Lebow needs to extend beyond the (legitimate) questions about sexual harassment and grievance procedures, and to also debate the extent to which the profession itself bears responsibility for the bad behavior of members who operate in the culture of privilege and entitlement that it has created.