The week the 'bat-sex lecturer' story flew around the world

 

An encounter between UCC academics has become a global media story – but is that because of its implications for academic freedom or because we all love a bat-sex story?

IT WAS EARLY on a Monday morning in November when Dr Dylan Evans, a behavioural scientist working in the department of medicine at University College Cork, dropped in on a female colleague, Dr Rossana Salerno Kennedy, to mention an interesting new academic paper he was reading. As far as Evans was concerned it was a friendly exchange. For the other party, however, the incident was deemed offensive enough to initiate a formal complaint of sexual harassment against Evans, resulting in the university’s president, Dr Michael Murphy, imposing sanctions on Evans, including counselling and a period of monitoring.

The peer-reviewed paper, as we almost all know by now, was about the unusual sexual habits of fruit bats, which Evans felt shed light on an ongoing discussion he’d been having with colleagues, including the complainant (who is married to UCC’s vice president for research policy and support, Prof Michael Peter Kennedy). In any case, the episode was extraordinary enough to spark an unlikely story that in the space of a week became the latest cause celebre in the ongoing debate about the erosion of academic freedom and the rise of political correctness.

Distinguished academics weighed in to defend Evans, who has written a number of successful popular-science books. In an online petition seeking to reverse the sanctions, signed by more than 3,000 people so far, the renowned Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote: “It runs contrary to the principle of intellectual freedom and freedom of speech, to say nothing of common sense.”

But it was not only academics who took an interest in this case: in certain sections of the media there is an enduring appetite for cases of political correctness run amok, and a similar relish for stories about “bizarre” scientific research. Add the fruit-bat-fellatio ingredient and it was clear that this was a story born for headline writers.

Evans has been called the “Bat-sex lecturer” by the Irish Independent, and, as well as being picked up by the Huffington Postand New Scientist, the story featured on India’s largest website. “No modern woman should be bothered by a fruity fruit bat,” went one piece in the Timesof London, while the Telegraphwrote that UCC “provoked international condemnation” for disciplining Evans.

All the parties involved – Evans, Kennedy and UCC – must be wondering how a low-key meeting in Cork ended up becoming a case study in the curbing of academic freedom.

Evans says that he first knew the story was going public on Friday, May 14th, when he was forwarded a link to the online petition – he hasn’t revealed who forwarded the link, and says he is uncertain about who started the petition. “I passed on the link to six of my colleagues, not in UCC, including Steven Pinker at Harvard,” says Evans. “He then forwarded it to a friend of his called Greg Lukianoff, who blogged about it on the Huffington Post, and the rest is history, so to speak.”

Lukianoff is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire), which advocates for academic freedoms in the US. Was it the fruit-bat-sex element that prompted him to blog about the issue on the Huffington Post? “Pinker passed the material on to me because of the regard he holds Dr Evans in, and if Steven Pinker sends something on, it’s going to catch my attention,” Lukianoff says. “That’s why I posted the e-mail.”

While Fire does not campaign on international cases, Lukianoff does see parallels with some of the cases he has worked on in American universities. “It is consistent with the use by universities of an overly broad definition of harassment,” he says. “What makes universities so different is that they have to have an especially strong commitment to freedom of speech, because in so many disciplines they will be dealing with material that some people might find offensive.”

In the few days after Lukianoff’s blog post the story attracted worldwide attention, and Evans made himself available for plenty of radio and newspaper interviews. Evans appears to be a savvy media operator, with plenty of experience both writing for newspapers and discussing his research on the radio. Articulate and self-aware, he doesn’t fulfil the stereotype of a bullying, insensitive academic. But in the vacuum created by UCC’s unwillingness to discuss in depth a case that is due to go to the Labour Relations Commissioner, and Kennedy’s apparent wish to retain her anonymity, Evans was the only party giving his side of the story. Little wonder it was interpreted as a cut-and-dried instance of excessive political correctness.

Further complicating, and prolonging, the story was the leaking of a number of confidential documents related to the case around the same time as the petition went online. UCC’s response to the leak was to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Evans, who emphatically denies he was responsible (though he does admit to making a short video clip featuring the documents after they were made available, which he posted on his YouTube channel). A statement from the university read: “It is imperative, in the interests of fairness to all sides involved, and for such procedures to work effectively, that the university and the parties to procedures of this nature maintain the confidentiality that governs them.” A spokesman said they were unwilling to discuss the case beyond their statements.

“What UCC is doing is something that universities here in the US have learned not to do, which is complaining about the release of the documents rather than defending the substantive nature of the complaint and their findings,” says Lukianoff. “When you go forward with a petition, in particular, it’s important that you summarise it in the most accurate way possible, and back it up with evidence. When Fire takes cases public we let people decide for themselves about the merits of the dispute.”

The documents reveal some of the circumstances that culminated in the complaint,including a pattern of behaviour by Evans that the complainant felt was inappropriate but which an independent investigation deemed to be acceptable. However, the development of the story erased the context of two colleagues obviously operating at crossed purposes, and became exclusively about the willingness of a university to sacrifice academic freedom at the altar of political correctness.

“A number of very prominent commentators have been noting that there does seem to be a worrying global trend towards the curbing of academic freedom,” says Evans. “If I showed that article in a law firm or a supermarket, then you would raise questions, but this is an academic article in an academic environment. It’s not an absolute freedom, of course – academic freedom isn’t a trump card that excuses any kind of misconduct. But the context of this is very specific, and it was not a joke – I wasn’t leering in any way, I was perfectly professional.”

It will be of little consolation to Evans that, in an ironic piece of timing, Thursday was International Academic Freedom Day, but it’s safe to say that the peculiar story of the bat-sex harassment claim generated more publicity for the issue of academic rights than an international day ever could.