When it comes to professional advancement, such as tenure and promotion, more and more philosophy departments are giving faculty credit for public philosophy—usually as service, but sometimes, depending on its form, as research or teaching. Does this institutionalizing of public philosophy come with problems?
Of course it does, because everything does.
Are these problems particularly worrisome? Yes, argue Scott F. Aikin and Robert Talisse (Vanderbilt) in a recent essay at 3 Quarks Daily. Noting recent trends and developments such as the American Philosophical Association’s statement on valuing public philosophy, they write:
Enthusiasm for public-facing work among professors has recently begun percolating up into university administration. This, in part, has been fueled by the insistence among the professoriate that public scholarship ought to be “institutionalized,” counted alongside strictly academic work for purposes of promotion, merit assessment, and other forms of advancement.
Aikin and Talisse think public philosophy is very valuable—they do quite a bit of it themselves—but, they note,
not everything that’s valuable can be assessed in terms of professional advancement. And not everything worth doing as an academic can be transferred into the currency by which colleges and universities recognize and reward faculty.
Their main concern is that institutionalizing public philosophy increases the amount of power administrators have to assess faculty work or distribute resources and opportunities according to inappropriate criteria, such as whether in their estimation the public philosophy in question helps or hurts the university’s image:
Most public-facing scholarship is not subject to peer review, and thus its content often does not have the endorsement of the scholarly community to which the faculty member belongs. What this means is that, in crediting public scholarship, administrators will need to apply their own conception of the relevant metrics for evaluation. The danger is that, once it is introduced into the formal channels of professional advancement, one’s contributions to public philosophy will be assessed according to administrators’ ideals concerning the branding and public face of the university… the movement to introduce public-facing scholarship into the usual scheme of academic evaluation and credit risks commodifying that work in ways that make it hostage to the commercial interests of colleges and universities.
So, because of a lack of disciplinary standards for assessing public philosophy, if public philosophy becomes increasingly relevant to a faculty member’s institutional advancement, administrators will step into that void with their own possibly irrelevant or arbitrary or misguided criteria. To avoid this, Aikin and Talisse recommend we try to keep public philosophy out of the institutional processes in which administrators will do that.
I’m curious what people think about this problem? Is it worth taking seriously? Is it widespread, or likely to become so?
We might also wonder whether the solution Aikin and Talisse put forward is the best one. To what extent does keeping public philosophy out of official tenure and promotion criteria actually protect faculty from the kinds of administrative manipulations they’re worried about?
If it’s the lack of professional standards for public philosophy that make room for administrative inappropriateness, then another strategy would be to develop some general broad guidelines by which letter writers and supporting departments can assess public philosophy work. This might be a local effort at first, but perhaps it is the kind of thing the APA could help coordinate.