Leiter to Step Down from PGR / The New Consensus

Leiter to Step Down from PGR / The New Consensus

Brian Leiter (Chicago) announced that he will be stepping down as editor of the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR), a highly influential reputational ranking of philosophy Ph.D. programs he created in 1989 while he was a graduate student, and which has been published on the Internet since 1996. The 2014-15 edition of the PGR will be officially co-edited by Leiter and Berit Brogaard (Miami), after which Leiter will move from editor to advisory board member and Brogaard, who was selected for the editor’s position by Leiter, will take over. From a post at his blog:

“The Advisory Board and I have agreed on the following statement regarding the plan for the PGR: The 2014-15 PGR will proceed as planned, with Berit Brogaard joining Brian Leiter as co-editor and taking over responsibility for the surveys and the compilation of results, with assistance as needed from Brian and the Advisory Board.  At the conclusion of the 2014-15 PGR, Brian will step down as an editor of the PGR and join the Advisory Board.  Berit will take over as editor until such time as a co-editor can be appointed to assist with future iterations of the report.  After 2014, Berit will have ultimate decision-making authority over the PGR.  Upon completion of the 2014-15 PGR, Berit will appoint a small advisory transition committee that she will consult on possible improvement, both substantive and operational, in the PGR going forward.”

Leiter’s agreement to resign from the editorship was negotiated with the PGR’s advisory board after a majority of the board, in a letter drafted by David Chalmers (NYU), Jonathan Schaffer (Rutgers), Susanna Siegel (Harvard), and Jason Stanley (Yale), requested that he turn over the rankings to new management. This letter was delivered to Leiter shortly after the posting of what has come to be called the “September Statement,” an open letter from philosophers “declining to volunteer our services to the PGR while it is under the control of Brian Leiter.” The September Statement currently has over 620 signatures.

The September Statement begins by referencing an email Leiter sent Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins (UBC) containing “derogatory and intimidating remarks,” including telling her she comes off as a “sanctimonious asshole.” Jenkins and Leiter had had no email correspondence prior to this message. The occasion for Leiter’s remarks were the publication on Jenkins’ blog of personal resolutions of hers regarding the respectful treatment of other philosophers. Though the resolutions contained no mention of Leiter nor any threats, Leiter accused Jenkins of having “issued… threats aimed at me on your blog” in his email, which was posted on a website as part of a “Statement of Concern” by Sally Haslanger (MIT) and David Velleman (NYU). (See previous coverage of some of these and related events here, here, and here.)

Jenkins’ posting of her resolutions followed a series of exchanges between Leiter and Carolyn Dicey Jennings (UC Merced). Jennings had been developing a way of assessing philosophy Ph.D. programs by job placement record as an additional source of information for prospective graduate students (see here). As I detailed in a previous post,  Leiter responded on his blog, Leiter Reports, by calling her work “nonsense” characterized by “perverse ingenuity” and insinuated that she is not “smart enough” to be a philosopher. He added that her refusal to remove her analysis from the internet raises “a serious question about her judgment.” When questions were raised about the appropriateness of these remarks, Leiter updated his post to indicate that she was one of many “fools” worthy of criticism. A few months prior he had used the widely-read platform of his blog to call another young philosopher, Rachel V. McKinnon (College of Charleston), “singularly unhinged” and “crazy,” and to refer to her comments as demonstrating “stupidity.” Around the same time, Leiter had sent emails to a former student he knew from his days at the University of Texas, Noelle McAfee (Emory), calling her “a disgrace” and threatening that “If my e-mails to you ‘get around,’ rest assured that other things will get around. I am tired of your sick nonsense. You are lucky to have any academic job, let alone a job at a nominally serious university.” And so on. And that was just 2014. 

We have been observing behavior like the above from Leiter for over a decade. Why was he so rarely called on it by other philosophers? Why did so many of these events have to take place in order for the profession to finally take the action it has taken recently? Different answers have been bandied about. Some of his previous targets have been advocates of views unpopular with philosophers, and perhaps could not find a sufficient number of sufficiently powerful allies. Some philosophers disapproved of his outbursts but did not want to cross him for fear of being excoriated on his widely-read blog. Some were worried that their departments’ standing in the PGR rankings would be jeopardized if Leiter turned against them. Some considered Leiter a torchbearer for high standards, or the right politics, or for a kind of anti-elitism particularly embodied in the first years of the PGR. And some may have just enjoyed the show (from the bleachers, of course).

Whatever the reasons, things are now changing. Over the past couple of years, philosophers have witnessed the emergence of a new consensus—one that rejects acquiescence to abuses of power in philosophy, one that seeks to overturn rather than turn away from the profession’s problems, one that seeks to support rather than silence the vulnerable. At the same time, the consensus reinforces two very traditional pillars of philosophical practice: first, it recognizes that criticism is the currency with which philosophers pay respect to one another while insults are just cheap counterfeits, and second, that we should go wherever the arguments and inquiries take us, putting aside philosophical prejudices and erasing boundaries if need be.

The new consensus did not emerge by magic, nor is it complete. There are still many with legitimate personal and structural complaints about our profession. Progress has been, and will continue to be, the result of courageous and creative persons struggling against complacency and convention. We are lucky to have such people among us, and we are lucky to be a part of this exciting slice of the history of philosophy.

I think we should be appreciative of the hard work and countless hours that Brian Leiter has put into both the PGR and Leiter Reports over the years. Both have been, and may continue to be, valuable resources for the profession. In his post, Leiter says he was influenced by the suggestion “that it’s just not appropriate for an editor of a professional journal or a professional ranking to also be an outspoken polemicist and critic as well.” Since, as he says, he values his right to express himself “in ways some others may find offensive,” then it seems that the current result may be a win for all involved.

UPDATE: Leigh M. Johnson, who has been archiving many of the recent articles and documents related to the events described (here),  has created an interactive timeline of the past month’s developments here.

Related: “Should the Philosophical Gourmet Report Continue?“, “Insults and Obnoxiousness

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