Q&A with Anita Allen

Anita Allen

Peter Tobia

Swirling all around Anita Allen, a child of the ‘60s, were the country’s most divisive social issues: racial conflict and African Americans’ demand for civil and human rights, the feminist movement and women’s fight for gender equality, a War on Poverty, and a deadly and controversial war in Vietnam.

A curious little girl with her ears to the TV and her eyes to the newspaper, she marveled at the procession of protests, riots, and marches that populated her itsy bitsy world, and contemplated the questions of value, equality, fairness, and justice that had so riled the public ire.

“I think that’s why I got interested in ethics,” says Allen, vice provost for faculty and the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at Penn Law School. “I don’t exactly know why I became interested in values and ethics as a child, but I literally did. I wanted to know what’s right. What ought we be doing to solve these problems?”

For the past 25 years, Allen has been an internationally respected expert on ethics, philosophy, women’s rights, and race relations, and one of the world’s foremost privacy scholars, having literally written the book on privacy and the law.

In 2010, President Obama appointed Allen to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, of which Penn President Amy Gutmann is chair.

Allen, the author of seven books and more than 100 academic articles, began her term as vice provost for faculty on July 1, and oversees all aspects of faculty life at the University.

The Current sat down with Allen in her office in College Hall to discuss faculty affairs, privacy and ethics, government surveillance, encountering a young law student named Barack Obama, and a former classmate named Madonna (yes, that Madonna).

Q: What are your responsibilities as vice provost for faculty?
A: I am in charge of the faculty affairs dimension of life at the University. I oversee the hiring, retention, promoting, and tenuring of Penn faculty across all the schools. I also am very involved in the implementation of the University Action Plan for Faculty Diversity and Excellence, and oversee the periodic Minority Equity Report and Gender Equity Report. In addition, I’m involved in any number of other activities that relate to all phases of the life of Penn faculty.

Q: Do you find that since you were a Penn faculty member for 15 years, it gives you more insight into how to better help faculty?
A: I’ve been a professor at Penn since 1998 and I have been teaching in the Law School primarily, but I do have a secondary appointment in the Philosophy Department, and I’ve had strong ties in recent years with Africana Studies and with Bioethics. My experience as a faculty member at Penn has been varied—I think more varied than a typical faculty member—and it has given me certain appreciations for the problems and joys of being an academic teaching member of the Penn community.

Q: Philosophy was your first academic love. Where did your interest in philosophy come from?
A: I developed an interest in philosophy when I was in high school and began reading philosophy on my own, so I was a self-taught philosopher for many years. When I went to college, I began studying philosophy systematically and became especially interested in early 20th century Anglo-American philosophy. In high school, I read existentialism, as I think most philosophically inclined kids of my generation did. We all read Sartre, and Camus, and Kierkegaard.

Q: Was there something about philosophy that piqued your interest in high school?
A: I think that the way in which philosophers ask and try to answer very difficult questions in a systematic way appealed to me. The task of trying to figure out things about the world, especially matters of value as opposed to matters of fact. What makes something good or bad, or just or unjust, or fair? Those kinds of questions have always fascinated me.

Q: You received your bachelor’s degree from New College in Sarasota, Fla. New College has been described as ‘intellectually experimental.’
A: Yes, it was an experimental college. It was a college in which there were no grades, in which the dormitories were coed, including the bathrooms. We had to decide what we wanted to do and contract to do it. Our contracts could include academic classes, building a sculpture, or taking a trip, but every semester we had to find a professor to sign a contract with to perform a certain set of self-determined educational activities. It was a bold experiment to put education in the hands of the students in this way. New College did not work for everybody, but for students who were self-motivated, it was a great way to really underscore the point that ultimately it is up to the individual student to map out their own intellectual agenda, and to find mentors.

Q: What brought you to the University of Michigan for graduate school?
A: I had a very good set of philosophy teachers at New College, including professor Bryan Norton, who is now a professor of environmental ethics at Georgia Tech, and professor Gresham Riley, who went on to become the president of Colorado College and the president of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Those two men really helped me to develop into a thoughtful young philosopher, and helped me decide which graduate school to apply to. I was delighted to go to Michigan. I went to Michigan on a Ford Foundation fellowship designed to enable African Americans to get their Ph.Ds. without having to worry about funding. At that time, schools were willing to admit minorities if they had their own sources of money, but were reluctant to allocate their precious student stipends to a student about whom they might have some doubts. Even though I was a strong applicant, I was very non-traditional. I was lucky to have my own funding. I loved Ann Arbor, I loved Michigan, I became a graduate student leader in the philosophy department. I did quite well there, and it was a great launching pad.

Q: Your Wikipedia page reads, ‘Allen received training in analytic philosophy at the University of Michigan, where she also studied modern dance, alongside classmate Madonna.’
A: This is true. Madonna was a freshman at the University of Michigan when I was in grad school, and we were students in several dance classes, I think Afro-Caribbean, modern, and ballet, maybe. She was a dance student on a dance scholarship, and at that time she was not planning to become a punk or rock diva. Her aim was to become either, she told me, a dancer with the Alvin Ailey company or a fashion model. Because she’s only 5’2’’, the fashion model idea was never very plausible. But she was a decent dancer. She went to New York and discovered that she wasn’t competitive in the high-powered dance world, but she could really rock the music scene, so she went in that direction. The comedic actor David Alan Grier was at Michigan at the same time Madonna and I were. It was wonderful to see him recently on Broadway in ‘Porgy and Bess.’

Q: You studied law at Harvard Law School. What lured you from philosophy to law?
A: I got my Ph.D. and I taught philosophy for a couple of years at Carnegie Mellon University, but I felt that my philosophy training had left me with some gaps in my knowledge. I didn’t really know how the world worked. I knew a lot about obscure philosophers from the 1920s, but I didn’t know very much about insurance companies, and banks, and how government worked. I wanted to teach social and political philosophy, and the question on my mind was, ‘How could I teach social and political philosophy unless I’d studied how the institutions that impact politics, government, and social welfare operate?’ So I went to law school with the intent that I would absorb more information about how the world worked, and then go back to teach philosophy, or do something different tied to social justice. I considered being a judge or being a civil rights lawyer. I guess I was feeling a little unfilled by philosophy and thinking that at the very least, if I was going to do it, I needed to have more of an information base. I tell you, I tell my law school students this, too, I did not like law school at Harvard. It was not even close to graduate school at Michigan in terms of enjoyment and personal fulfillment. However, the law degree that I have has been a wonderful thing because it has enabled me to achieve my goals of being a more interdisciplinary person who does know both about the world and has some insights into the methodologies and ideals that are reflected in academic philosophy.

Q: What didn’t you like about law school?
A: There were some very difficult political battles being fought at Harvard Law School at the time, which made it difficult for students to focus on learning the law. We, instead, spent an awful lot of time bickering over the politics of legal education. That was unfortunate. It’s not a great thing if students have to focus on the politics of legal education instead of on the law itself and the grave societal problems the law must address.

Q: Am I correct that you were a visiting law professor at Harvard when President Obama was a Harvard Law student?
A: When I was a visiting professor at Harvard in 1990-91, Barack Obama was in his last year of law school. He was the outgoing editor in chief of the Harvard Law Review. He was the first African American to be the president of the Harvard Law Review. There had been several other black students in the past on the Harvard Law Review staff, but not very many, believe it or not. So it was a big deal. At the end of the year, in the spring of 1991, there was a big banquet to celebrate the end of Obama’s law review reign, and I went to the banquet. Professor Derrick Bell and I were, I believe, the only two Harvard professors who went to this banquet. It’s funny now because people like to talk about how great a student the president was and how great it was to work with him, but at the time I actually felt like there were not as many public shows of appreciation for Barack Obama’s achievement as there should have been. Some folks now are a bit disingenuous when they talk about how much they could see the potential in this extraordinary man.

Q: Could you see his potential when he was at Harvard Law?
A: I didn’t have a crystal ball. There are a large number of incredibly talented African-American law students across the country, at Harvard, at Yale, at Penn. I’ve taught some amazing African-American law students here at Penn. President Obama is an amazing and path-breaking individual, but he is not the only exceptional African-American law student I have encountered. So while I am one of the president’s greatest fans, I constantly tell my law students that they too have the potential for making extraordinary contributions. We should not allow ourselves to think that there is one and only one African American who is slated for greatness. There are many African Americans who are competent and qualified, and ready and willing to serve their country, not just one or two.

Q: Why were you interested in coming to Penn?
A: I was teaching for over 10 years at Georgetown University Law School, which I absolutely loved. It was for me, for many years, the dream job. And I got the dream job and I was very happy. But there are certain problems with teaching at Georgetown. One of them is that the law school is a freestanding institution separate from the main campus. If you want to do anything interdisciplinary, you have to get in a taxi and spend 45 minutes in Washington [D.C.] traffic getting to the Georgetown section of town, going from Capitol Hill, where the law school is, to Georgetown, where the university is, so I felt very isolated. As someone who wanted to do law and philosophy and gender studies, it was very difficult to do that kind of thing at Georgetown. In addition, Georgetown, which, again, is a wonderful university, is a Catholic university, and at the time there was a tradition of strong, male clerical leadership, and I felt that if I ever wanted to do something administratively in the university, it would be difficult. The reason that Penn attracted me is because it was exactly the opposite of Georgetown. It’s a unified campus all in one place. It’s a campus with a strong history of leadership that includes women. And it’s a place where I could easily integrate my interdisciplinary interests without sacrificing convenience. So it just seemed like a really good place for me.

Anita Allen

Peter Tobia

Q: Can you talk about your work on the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues?
A: This Commission has been one of the highlights of my career. I was delighted to be selected. It was actually my secret desire. I really wanted to be on this Commission. I had no idea how it could happen. It seemed very unlikely, but I was so thrilled when I got the call from the White House inviting me. The Commission has already produced some incredibly good reports on important issues. We’ve done a report on synthetic biology, we did a report on human subject research, we’ve done a report on medical countermeasures for children, and we’re working very hard on privacy issues tied to genomics, and genetic clinical care and research. We’re going to be working on some neuroscience issues soon. I’ve learned a lot, I’ve met great people. It’s given me a chance to get to know Dr. Gutmann and to see her in a different role. I’m a huge fan of Dr. Gutmann, and I’m just beyond thrilled at having a chance to work with her on this Presidential Commission.

Q: In 2011, the Commission released its report on STD research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948. What did the Commission find?
A: This was one of the really important things the Commission has accomplished. President Obama asked us to look at the ethics of a case in which the U.S. Public Health Service had engaged in human subject research in Guatemala in the 1940s that involved intentionally infecting people with STDs, some of whom were never treated afterwards. This is a very shameful episode in American history, for our doctors, our Public Health Service to be involved in a gross violation of the informed consent standards, the benevolent standards that govern biomedical research today. We thoroughly investigated that case, wrote a report, our staff went to Guatemala. President Obama apologized to the president of Guatemala. The United States faced litigation over this case. Although there are procedural reasons why the lawsuit brought on behalf of the survivors of this incident and their families against the United States failed, the United States has offered to set up a fund to recognize our moral obligation to in some way compensate for what was done.

Q: As someone who values ethics, what were your thoughts about the unethical behavior of some members of the U.S. government?
A: I was horrified when I learned that very, very vulnerable people—who included men in prison, sex workers, people in mental hospitals, orphans in orphanages, people in leper colonies, the most vulnerable people in Guatemala—were selected to be involved in this research. Not all of the subjects were infected with STDs, some were subjected to other testing horrors. [The U.S. government] used sex workers to further research by asking them without informed consent to have sex with men in prison in an attempt to infect the men in prison in order to study the benefits of penicillin and to compare penicillin to more traditional treatments and prophylaxis. But the research protocols were sloppy and the science was bad and the people were abused. The research subjects were very uninformed about the research, and they were not well-educated generally. I formed the opinion that the U.S. doctors had acted wrongly and cruelly and even violently in some cases against these people. We considered whether we should use today’s moral standards against people in the 1940s, but learned that informed consent and respect for vulnerable populations was considered an ethical mandate already in the 1940s. It was not inappropriate in this case to use contemporary values to criticize people in the past.

Q: The Current recently interviewed you about your latest book, ‘Unpopular Privacy,’ in which you make the case that people should be protected from giving up too much privacy—whether they want these protections or not.
A: I am incredibly pleased that I had a chance to publish my book, ‘Unpopular Privacy,’ that does make some provocative claims. I try to defend the thesis that privacy is not to be seen as a purely optional value; rather, it’s something more basic, so it’s a big deal if people choose to voluntarily give it up. We should look past the lack of interest or volunteerism and ask ourselves whether privacy is so important that sometimes we should, as it were, impose it on people who don’t value it. And my answer is yes. I try in the book to show how this idea of imposing a degree of privacy through legal regulations can be reconciled with the values of a liberal democracy. I compare the lack of privacy to slavery and privacy to freedom. We don’t let people sell themselves into slavery. Even if a person could make a lot of money selling themselves into slavery, we say, no, those contracts will not be honored, that’s not ethical, it’s not legal, it’s not constitutional. I think that if you understand the relationship between people’s privacy and their autonomy, privacy needs to be given more protection than it often is through our current law. I also have been, since that book, giving a lecture based on a paper that I’ve written for the Meador Lecture in Law and Ethics at the University of Alabama. This paper is about whether individuals have an ethical responsibility to protect their own privacy. I argue in this paper that not only should the government be more aggressive in protecting our privacy, we ourselves should be aggressive in protecting our privacy. There’s a great temptation to use social media carelessly and thoughtlessly. People are going to pay a huge price if they don’t take more responsibility for protecting their own privacy.

Q: What’s your take on the recent revelations about government surveillance of American citizens?
A: I teach a course on privacy law and I have published a 1,200 page textbook called ‘Privacy Law and Society,’ so over the years I’ve developed quite a bit of knowledge about American privacy law and policy. There are a number of different features of U.S. law that are not well-known to the public, but are well-known to people who know about privacy law. For example, most people don’t know that we have a federal statute called CALEA [Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act] that prohibits anyone from developing a mode of communication that is inaccessible to law enforcement. So if you invent a new kind of telephonic communication, if you invent Skype, for example, it must be possible for law enforcement to, in principle, get through to that communication through a back door—of course with an appropriate court order or warrant—but there must be a way to get in. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has been around for a long time. Many Americans were not aware that there is a special court to secretly approve surveillance programs brought to it by the government through approval by the Justice Department. Many people still don’t even know that there are surveillance cameras on the streets in various cities that monitor what’s going on all around them. As unhappy as I am to learn that even more retention of personal communications data was happening than we experts knew, the basic point that the whole Edward Snowden episode underscores is that the public needs to be better informed about government surveillance, and the government needs to be accountable to the public for its surveillance to the extent possible and consistent with rational, well-thought-out national security. President Obama is on the right track when he suggests that there should be changes in the functioning of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and that there may be more accountability steps along the way to ensure people that the average person’s telephone calls are not being listened to. We can make the government more accountable, but educating the public about how we deal with national security and what kinds of privacy they do and don’t have is important alongside the government becoming more accountable. People need to know the extent to which law enforcement and intelligence agencies can already get access to their information. We’ve only recently begun teaching privacy law in American law schools. One of my goals as a law professor has been to help lawyers better understand the privacy laws. Penn is one of only a few law schools to offer comprehensive courses on privacy law.

Q: What are your goals as vice provost for faculty?
A: I am still in the transitional phase from faculty member to administrator, so my goals are not solidified. I can say that I want to help make sure that President Gutmann’s and [Provost Vincent] Price’s strategic priorities are met. In the arena of faculty affairs, I want to make sure that men and women who are up for their promotions and tenure decisions get treated fairly. I’m going to give a lot of attention to gender equality and minority inclusion and equity. One of the things that I want to do is to look in a more creative way at the kinds of advantages that a diverse faculty bring to the University, and to look more carefully at the ways in which we are achieving diversity goals that may not be so obvious. I like to point out that diversity breeds diversity. So, for example, our faculty of color often go abroad to other countries. Eve Troutt Powell [a professor of history and associate dean for graduate studies in the School of Arts & Sciences] and her involvement in the Middle East means that she, a person of color, is bringing new diverse insights and experiences to the University through her research. [Sociology and Africana studies professor] Tukufu Zuberi’s experiences in Africa bring new experiences to the University, diverse global perspectives. I’ve traveled abroad to the Middle East. I’ve taught in Israel and Japan; that brings new diverse insights to my classes and research. I could go on and on. [Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor] John Jackson’s involvement with the black Jews in the southern part of Israel has brought a more diverse perspective to campus. When diversity comes to a university, I think it breeds additional diversity and additional globalization. I want that kind of contribution to be more emphasized when we talk about why having a diverse faculty is beneficial. It’s not just that we are reflecting our nation; it’s also that we’re bringing on board people whose interests oftentimes are cosmopolitan, multi-cultural, global, and are sensitive to the importance of integrating knowledge across disciplines.

Originally published on September 12, 2013