Dartmouth Professor’s Remark Draws Rebuke

  • Ned Lebow

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, May 07, 2018

Hanover — “Ladies lingerie.”

When Ned Lebow, 76 and a professor of government emeritus at Dartmouth College, spoke that two-word phrase on a crowded elevator at a professional conference in a San Francisco hotel, he meant it as a joke.

But when Simona Sharoni, 56 and a professor of women’s and gender studies at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, heard the comment from within the confines of the elevator, she interpreted it as harassment.

That basic disagreement, which carries with it all the baggage of both zealously applied political correctness, and the persistent deleterious effects of discrimination against women, has led to a sanction against Lebow, and a public backlash against Sharoni.

After Sharoni filed a complaint with the International Studies Association, which was hosting the April 5 conference, the group agreed with her.

The group found that Lebow had violated a clause in the organization’s code of conduct against “unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of people or individuals.”

Mark Boyer, the executive director of the ISA, sent Lebow a letter that called the comments “offensive and inappropriate,” and ordered him to submit an “unequivocal apology” to the executive committee for review.

On Monday, with only eight days to go before the group’s May 15 deadline for the apology letter, Lebow, a part-time resident of Etna, doubled down on his refusal to comply with the sanction.

“If I say, ‘I’m sorry,’ I legitimate her claim to being offended,” he said, adding, “I refuse to do that because it only encourages people to be speech police, to act this way.”

Sharoni spoke only reluctantly on the issue on Monday, she said, because media coverage, some of which has been instigated by Lebow, has resulted in a torrent of hundreds of hateful emails and online comments that have included attacks on her appearance, sexually aggressive language, and, in at least one case, a threat of violence.

“He is a distinguished professor. He should know better. It’s not rocket science, (it’s) basic civility,” she said. “If you say something that others find inappropriate, you apologize. I continue to be amazed at how many male faculty are unaware of what constitutes inappropriate and unprofessional behavior.”

Sharoni and Lebow have slightly different versions of what happened, but they agree on the basics.

At about 10:20 a.m., Lebow stepped into the Hilton’s crowded elevator a moment before Sharoni. Someone near the front of the elevator (he says it was a man, she says it was her) asked what floors everyone wanted, so that they could push the appropriate elevator buttons.

He responded with the comment (he says it was “ladies lingerie,” but she heard “women’s lingerie”), resulting in a chuckle from some of the elevator passengers.

Sharoni says she froze, and did not respond in the moment, but that she made note of his name tag.

Then, Lebow and the male passengers exited the elevator, leaving Sharoni and another woman, who she did not know, to acknowledge to each other that they both had felt the comment was inappropriate, and wish that they had corrected Lebow in the moment.

A few hours later, Sharoni filed a complaint with the ISA in which she said that “as a survivor of sexual harassment in the academy, I am quite shaken by this incident.”

After the ISA notified Lebow of the complaint, he sent Sharoni an email in which he described himself as an advocate for women.

“It seems to me to make sense to direct our attention to real offenses, not those that are imagined or marginal,” he wrote.

“By making a complaint to ISA that I consider frivolous ... you may be directing time and effort away from the real offenses that trouble us both.”

In the email, Lebow did not apologize, but said he had “no desire to insult women or to make you feel uncomfortable. I am struggling to understand why you were offended, and perhaps you can enlighten me in this regard.”

Sharoni said on Monday that the email was unwelcome; she characterized it as being “both offensive and threatening in tone.”

In its letter sanctioning Lebow, the ISA said that Lebow’s email to Sharoni “is a more serious violation than the elevator incident itself,” and took particular issue with his characterization of her complaint as frivolous.

Lebow, dissatisfied with the ISA’s decision, went public with the story, which has been reported in several national media outlets, beginning with the Washington Post.

He says the comment was a reference to the days when department store elevators used to have human operators, who would announce each floor by listing the goods on offer there.

Though that practice has not been common for decades, the listing of goods and services associated with a particular floor on an elevator is a popular culture trope that’s been repeated to comic effect in everything from the Harry Potter book series, to the television series Mythbusters.

Lebow said that he was, as he occasionally has done in other elevators throughout his life, repeating the “ladies lingerie” line that he’d heard elsewhere.

But to Sharoni, the comment presented as harassment, in part because, in a confined space with a group of men she didn’t know, it conjured images of women in a vulnerable state of undress.

She also said the comment implied that she, as a professional academic, was being characterized as an elevator operator, a less prestigious occupation.

Supporters of Lebow say Sharoni’s formal complaint was an overreaction, while supporters of Sharoni say simply apologizing would bring a welcome end to the dispute.

Both Lebow and Sharoni agreed that, at its core, the issue is whether a comment should be judged by the intent of the person who says it, or the harm it causes to the listener.

“When it comes to guidelines concerning behavior in the workplace, the issue is not the intention of the person whose words or actions offended others, but rather the outcome,” said Sharoni.

She said the comment is made worse by the context of continued sexual discrimination against women in the workplace.

“There were two women in the elevator,” she said. “We didn’t know one another and we were both offended. Why? Because even old workplace policies include sexual innuendo as an example of inappropriate behavior in the workplace.”

The ISA code of conduct sides with Sharoni. To define harassment, the code reads, “the key is that the actions or comments are experienced as demeaning and unacceptable by the recipient.”

Lebow said on Monday the remedy to resolve disputes should generally be public discourse, not sanctions.

“Neither a speaker nor a listener has an absolute right to determine what is right and what is wrong,” he said. “Most often what is said, unless you say something particularly clearly obnoxious, ... is ambiguous.”

Though Boyer declined comment on the range of possible disciplinary sanctions against Lebow, the code of conduct says resolutions to complaints can include a formal letter of censure, or a suspension of membership.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.