This is not an official statement from Black Mountain Institute or The Believer. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of all of the staff at either workplace. This is an open letter written by individuals who experienced or witnessed harmful working conditions at these institutions and who disagree with the reporting published by the Los Angeles Times.
On Friday, the LA Times published an article describing the resignation of Joshua Wolf Shenk from his positions of executive director of the Black Mountain Institute and editor-in-chief of The Believer magazine after he exposed himself on a staff Zoom call in February. The version of events described by the article paints a picture of an unfortunate accident for which Shenk graciously apologized and offered his resignation. The article goes on to celebrate Shenk’s professional accomplishments, and concludes with note of atonement: “I’m off to do all I can to be a better person,” it quotes Shenk as writing.
Some of us were on that call, Shenk was our boss, and this is not how we would tell that story. Our experience of Shenk is that he was an inattentive and negligent boss who created a fractured workplace rife with pay and labor inequalities, and whose behavior on the Zoom call matched a pattern of callousness and abusive disregard for the staffers who worked under him. In other words, though the exposure on the Zoom call may not have been intentional, it was not a random accident.
Let’s say directly what happened on the Zoom call: Shenk exposed his genitals to about a dozen of his employees.
The details of this staff meeting as described by Shenk’s advisor to the LA Times don’t align with the experiences of the staff members who were present or with accounts that Shenk provided to staff members immediately after the incident. Regardless of the details, however, we do not view Shenk’s act of exposure as an isolated incident or rare lapse in judgement. We view it as an act of sexual harassment. We see this act as the culmination of a years-long pattern of inappropriate and disrespectful behavior that belies a chronic lack of care and concern for the comfort, boundaries, and safety of the staff — not to mention that of students, fellows, and others in BMI and The Believer’s communities. This pattern of behavior resulted in a workplace culture that was difficult and at times painful to operate within. We worked, in spite of this, to create the successful programs and publications BMI and The Believer are known for — work for which Shenk is credited throughout the LA Times article.
Shenk was well-known inside and outside the workplace as someone who made women uncomfortable. Many employees felt pressured to have casual, personal relationships with Shenk, and it felt as if he was unaware of others’ attempts to set boundaries. In our organization, we knew that the only way to get Shenk to care about us — to even be able to distinguish us from colleagues or learn our names — was to foster an emotional relationship with him, so he could feel “connected” to us. This often manifested as an expectation to divulge personal stories of trauma. Those of us who were unwilling to do this felt as if we would forever live at the periphery of his awareness, with our work going unacknowledged or unnoticed.
Shenk’s tenure at BMI and The Believer was also marked by breathtaking pay inequity and tokenism. He has a record of hiring young women and people of color, but paying them little — fractions of his own salary. At The Believer, he primarily employed editors on independent contracts and for years denied some of them living wages, raises, benefits, or any path to advancement, all while extolling their contributions to the award-winning magazine. Discontent was widespread at both organizations.
After Shenk’s self-exposure in February, he was placed on paid leave. From then until now, UNLV — the university BMI is embedded within — has demanded our silence about what happened to us. The LA Times piece has effectively ensured that silence by neglecting to include our voices or experiences alongside Shenk’s. We cannot stand by while the institution that employed him, and the press, refuse to hold him accountable.
We ask UNLV, a public institution and place of learning, to officially comment on the abusive and unhealthy nature of the workplace environment Joshua Shenk created and on the nature and circumstances of his resignation. Instead of silencing those of us who experienced harm, we ask that UNLV take real action towards building healthy, equitable workplaces for part-time staff, lower level employees, contractors, and those who have the least power and are the most vulnerable to mistreatment in any of its departments. We ask that UNLV value its workers with the least power, rather than enable and protect the most powerful.
Although many of us feel it’s important to speak up, many of us also fear retaliation from UNLV. As such, we have decided to sign this letter anonymously.
Anonymous Current & Former Employees