“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” the saying goes. It also causes sunburns.
What to post on, what to allow discussion about, and how to manage that discussion—handling these decisions is part of the job of running Daily Nous, and just when I think I’ve got a sense of the rules that will make these decisions easier, something comes up that hangs question marks on them.I’ve received a fair amount of feedback on this week’s post about the Department of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University (BGSU), especially over my decision to allow the discussion in the comments to proceed as it did. Some of the feedback was public, in the comments themselves and on social media, and some was in the form of private messages and emails.
I turned off comments on the post last night and will likely keep them off. Further information related to the post may be relayed to me directly for consideration for inclusion in a possible future post.
Some people were grateful for the discussion, thinking that it brought to light relevant events, facts, issues, and perspectives that my post and the Chronicle of Higher Education article on which my post was based failed to.
Others thought that the discussion should be shut down or deleted because it had become a forum for unsubstantiated accusations of malfeasance or that it subjected innocent parties to punishing scrutiny.
I tried to counter some of the negatives. This involved mainly removing some comments or preventing them from being published in the first place, and attempting at one point to clarify a matter. Since that attempt may have been missed in the 200+ comments on the post, I’ll say something on that now. Part of the discussion about BGSU’s Department of Philosophy concerned whether proper procedures were followed and whether there was adequate transparency regarding their hiring of Brandon Warmke in 2016. One aspect to these concerns was whether Dr. Warmke’s area of specialization (AOS) matched what the department was looking for in this hire, and so there was discussion in the comments as to whether Dr. Warmke was “qualified” for the position into which he was hired. Since “how good a professor of philosophy so-and-so is” is usually not a topic I want discussed at DN (unless it’s like “look how good a professor so-and-so is!”), I tried to emphasize that the discussion of “qualifications” was not about how good Dr. Warmke is at the things he does. By all accounts he is a talented and accomplished philosophy professor, and earned tenure this year. Rather, it was just a way of talking about Dr. Warmke’s AOS. Further, even if it turns out that there were procedural irregularities with his hiring, Dr. Warmke did not do anything wrong by applying for the job, accepting the offer, and keeping the position. Despite these distinctions, it must have been rather unpleasant to be subject to this, and I regret not doing more to manage the discussion in a way sensitive to this fact.*
That said, I stand by my decision to let the conversation proceed. I had reason to believe there had been some problems in the department which were not fully or clearly discussed in the CHE article, and which did not appear to be being handled well internally by BGSU, and it seemed that providing a space for public discussion might bring some needed attention and reveal new details. Perhaps this was less like “sunlight” and more like a series of camera flashes, but at least we have some more pictures now, and we can see what develops.
This thinking won’t convince everyone. Just this morning, I received an email from a philosophy professor objecting to my allowing comments on the post. Here is an excerpt:
I know of many bitter department fights over hiring at different institutions, where some players do outrageous things. In that sense, this fight isn’t unique, nor is the (very bad) practice of not letting all faculty peruse all the applicant files for a position in the department. These things happen and the fighting is horrible.
Since others may share these thoughts, I’ll respond. First, the more vaguely we describe things, the more likely it is that those things will appear similar. Sure there are probably lots of “bitter department fights over hiring,” but they don’t all involve procedural irregularities, lack of transparency, and the complicating temptations of large-scale private ideological funding. Second, the commonality of a problem doesn’t speak all that strongly against drawing attention to it. In fact, it would seem in many cases to speak in favor of doing so. Now, this professor wasn’t defending these problems; as he says, they can be “horrible.” His real complaint was about my allowing public discussion of a particular example:
But it is so much worse for all of this to take place in front of others in a venue as public as your blog, giving it a permanent searchable record on the internet.
It is indeed worse for some: for those accused of wrongdoing (whether the accusations are correct), for those subject to unwanted attention, for those who make themselves look bad in public discussion, and for some of those who are innocently associated with the people and places involved. I don’t think there is any denying that.
He adds that upon reading the discussion, he “felt bad for those involved at BGSU (on both sides).” I did, too. Leaving aside whatever happened at BGSU and speaking generally: no one’s perfect, we all make mistakes, and bad situations are often no less bad for the people who are responsible for making them bad (and sometimes the responsibility makes it worse). Despite what some people think, I’m not out to get anyone, nor do I have a particular political axe to grind here.
But to the extent to which public discussion can help shine a light on serious allegations, and to the extent to which problems elsewhere are averted or deterred by it, there are reasons to allow it to proceed. Sometimes those reasons will clearly be overwhelmed by countervailing ones concerning the harm such public discussion can do. And sometimes it will be a tough call. This case seemed like a tough call to me, and I went with my default position, which is to try to counter the bads of speech with more speech, rather than less. I appreciate that others may disagree with this.
My correspondent’s concern about a “permanent searchable record on the internet” is a reasonable one, and I am open to deleting the comments at some point in the future, once they’ve had some chance to do whatever good they may do.
Regarding discussion on this post: I’m going to start with comments open, for the purposes of talking about, in general, suggestions people have about how I should decide whether to allow comments on particular posts and how I should manage discussions, as well as criticisms of how I’ve done these things. Discussion here is not for talking about what happened (or what people have said about what happened) at BGSU. I do not want to pointlessly reproduce any harms of the previous discussion, so please try to avoid mentioning specific names and instead speak generally about types of cases or comments. I’ll close comments if too many people can’t abide by these requests.
Someone will invariably say: “never allow comments!” That’s not an option. I think it is important that there be some “public squares” for philosophers, and providing one of those is a central aim of Daily Nous.
Thanks for reading.
* I did write to Dr. Warmke prior to publishing the post, asking if he wanted me to redact his name from it. I didn’t think he would want to avail himself of this option, in part because his name was already in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which has a much greater readership than Daily Nous. Still, some people have requested something like this in the past. I didn’t hear back from him over the course of several hours (not much time, admittedly), and so went ahead with the post. When I did hear from him afterwards, he did not express interest in me redacting his name.
As a minor point: at least the last time I looked, DN comment threads don’t provide a permanent *searchable* record on the internet: DN’s robots.txt settings mean that original posts show up in a Google search but comments don’t. Most of the time I find that annoying but here it’s probably for the best.Report
Hmm. Google “Most of the time I find that annoying but here it’s probably for the best” (with quotes).Report
By the way, I don’t think this has much to do with robots.txt settings. DN comments were not searchable on Google when DN used the old comments plugin. Back then, comments were not part of the html page but were fetched separately once the page was loaded. Such content is typically not indexed on Google. With the current plugin, however, comments are part of the html page (this can be verified with “view source”) and are indexed on Google along with the rest of the html content. Perhaps this can be changed with robots.txt settings (I don’t know), but the default behavior is to index everything on the page.Report
ehz is correct. With the change to the new commenting system a few months back, the comments did become part of what is indexed and searchable by Google, etc.Report
I stand corrected! (The ‘last time I looked’) was before the new comments system.)Report
The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine records the original article and 244 comments, as of their fourth snapshot of 28 May 2021.
From “Using the Wayback Machine”
“How can I exclude or remove my site’s pages from the Wayback Machine?”
“You can send an email request for us to review to [email protected] with the URL (web address) in the text of your message.”
How often is political money tied to hiring lines in academia? I’m at a poor and small college, and nobody ever gives us money for hiring lines. Just wondering at bigger, more prestigious schools how common this is. I know the word “political” is open to interpretation. If it’s the Koch brothers or George Soros, then it’s obviously political money in the relevant sense of the word “political,” I assume. But outside of obvious cases like that, I’m not sure what to say. Does the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation count as political money? Does Templeton count as political money? Kroc? Gates Foundation? Bill Miller money? Just curious how people view these things.Report
Obviously the answer is that every money is inherently political, but more fundamentally, is the goal of the grant to deeply alter the current world towards what wants the originator of the grant, usually the answer is yes so here you go, most grants are political money. The answer is usually yes because even the goal is only to support like minded ideas or even only delivered to like minded people, it amplifies the donor’s worldview’s grasp on real life, and what is politics but that incarnation of ideas into our world (controversial I know).Report
Grants for cancer research count as political on that definition.Report
on the one hand it depends, can we say that they advance a particular change if it’s a blanket grant compared to one for a specific technique, more broadly though yes, money for cancer research does not go somewhere else, it might also desincentivize removal of carcinogenic pollutants policies.Report
I don’t think the ‘blanket vs. specific’ point is relevant. Your definition of political was that the goal of the grant is ‘to deeply alter the current world towards what wants [sic] the originator of the grant’. A world with more curable cancers would be deeply altered, and the goal of cancer research is to cure more cancer; assuming that the originator of the grant wants more curable cancers, then the grant is political by your definition.
… which, in a sense, is fine – words mean what we want them to mean – but it makes pretty much any grant for applied science political, which is at least at variance with how the term is usually used.Report
As a follow-up clarification, I was not assuming in my above comment that there is necessarily anything wrong with political money being tied to hiring lines in academia. I am noting this clarification because I don’t want people who have taken such money to think that I intended to criticize them. I did not. I was simply wondering (without making any kind of value judgment) about (a) how often political money is tied to academic hires and (b) how best to construe the word “political” here.Report
I have no opinion on the matter other than to address your correspondent’s concern about a “permanent searchable record on the internet” is a reasonable one, and I am open to deleting the comments at some point in the future”
The horse has left the barn.
The Internet Archive’s Way back Machine has already archived the original post and many comments.
If archived but currently deleted comments (244 archived at last count, linked above) are a concern, site administrators may find this helpful, from “Using the Wayback Machine”, at the Internet Archive Help Center:
*How can I exclude or remove my site’s pages from the Wayback Machine?*
You can send an email request for us to review to [email protected] with the URL (web address) in the text of your message https://help.archive.org/hc/en-us/articles/360004651732-Using-The-Wayback-MachineReport
If you’re concerned about a comment you write on the internet being around for a long time, maybe you should think twice before you write it.Report
I think the concern is more what comments do to other parties rather than the commenter themselves.Report
That’s why there are defamation laws! 🙂Report
As a lawyer, I’d note that suing people is expensive, time consuming, and often extremely frustrating and unsatisfying for everyone involved. It’s (usually) good that it’s an option, but if it’s an option you have to take, things have gone very wrong, and most likely won’t be put right even if you’re successful in a suit.Report
But threatening to sue seems to be a favorite modus operandi of some people. It’s good that the option of suing exists, because observing the situations in which people resort to the threat to sue, and the frequency with which they do it, gives valuable insight into their character.Report
Always popular on this blog to take a veiled shot at Brian Leiter.
In this case, if someone who is currently employed by BGSU defamed another faculty member at BGSU, and that person who was defamed can show that s/he has actual damages, BGSU will probably move to terminate the defamer. If I were any of them, I’d be treading very lightly here and making sure I wasn’t saying anything that couldn’t be backed up by actual evidence.Report
Maybe this was a “veiled” shot at Leiter, but given that there was at least one threat of a liable suit in the thread that prompted this one, that seems just as likely:
Jason Brennan to Christian Coons:
You need to be careful not to slander or libel me, because I will sue you.
I leave it to others what inference to draw from this.Report
Just as both the situations and the frequency (note both former and latter) of threats to sue can give valuable insight into the character of the threatener, so can attributions of motives or intentions, “hidden”, “veiled”, or otherwise, to the words or actions of others, and the evidence, or lack thereof, with such such attributions are made, tell us interesting things about the attributor.Report
This is tricky. And your questions are difficult to answer. I’ll try my best.
From a rights-based perspective, you’re not obligated to bend to demands of the commenters or viewers since it’s your blog.
From a moral perspective, you may have an obligation to shut it down if it causes harm to innocent people.
From a prudential perspective, you may want to shut it down as it might end up harming you or your reputation.
From a proceduralist perspective, you might or might not have an obligation to take it down depending on whether or not it conflicts with the mission and rules of your blog.
From an epistemic (justice) perspective, you may have an obligation to keep the comments to let Coons and who else are involved clarify things and tell their stories, and allow some truth to emerge.
Is there a way to reconcile these considerations? It seems futile. Personally, I would have deleted any comment that did not ask a question. In high-stakes situations like this, querying would be better and let Coons or whoever else is in involved answer those questions.
Assertions, statements, attacks, and even judgments can be and usually are harmful to innocent parties in these situations. To take an analogous case, journalists often asks questions after a controversial high profile criminal trial or even at press conferences where the White House Press Secretary tries to answer the journalists’ questions about controversial topics. Public querying is also a sign of an epistemically responsible democracy and civilians.
I think this middle way approach is fair to both proponents and opponents of commenting in these kinds of situations since it’s what we’ve been doing already in our culture especially during high stakes or controversial issues. It’s also more epistemically responsible and sensitive since it aims at the acquisition of knowledge instead of having certain truths be drowned out by harmful or fallacious assertions or judgments.
These are my ideas. They might not be that great, but I’m interested to know what others think!Report
It was a tough call, and you do a good job explaining why it was tough in your post. Reasonable people will disagree on what that call should have been. Personally, I think there should be a strong presumption against allowing comments that contain accusations of moral impropriety made against a specific individual in the profession if the alleged immoral behavior was private. An individual’s public behavior, on the other hand, is normally fair game for moral criticism on this blog.Report
If you work for the state of Ohio, and you are on a hiring committee, and your job is to hire someone whose salary will be paid by the state of Ohio, then I believe you are engaged in public behavior. (But please correct me if I am wrong.)Report
that would still be (un)professional behaviour, it is not public facing in any meaningful sense, note I did not say private because work conduct is not that either, I also do not think that it is wrong for commenters to do so precisely because it is work related, workplaces can be harmful because of their secrecy and the asymmetry of the power of knowledge needs to be rectified which accusations do in a sense.Report
I don’t think you are wrong–hiring someone in such circumstances is public behavior. I didn’t mean to suggest that the whole discussion yesterday should have been shut down, if that is what you are thinking. I guess I found Justin’s post interesting and was puzzling about what he should have allowed to be posted and what he shouldn’t have allowed to be posted. The principle I suggested struck me as worth considering, but I probably should have thought more about the issue before posting. I certainly have no objection to anyone who has suffered abuse calling it out. But as Justin points out, sometimes he might have good reasons not allow certain kinds of accusations of abuse in the comments of Dailynous.Report
Whoops! I think my comment had the wrong tone. I didn’t mean to sound like I was suggesting you’d disagree! I think we agree–or at least I am inclined to agree with the principle you articulated, and so I applied it to the case at hand. (And it sounds like you agree with how I applied it!)Report
oh, I did misunderstand. thanks for clarifying.Report
My tentative thought on the larger discussion is that specifically for a post like the one we’re discussing (not just controversial, but extremely tied to individuals in this way) there is a case for reverting to DN’s older comment structure, where posts were pre-moderated. Of course I appreciate that’s a lot of work for Justin. (And I don’t know if it’s technically possible to pre-moderate for only one comment thread.)Report
It seems to me that the most worrying thing about the situation at Bowling Green got buried in the Chronicle story and almost entirely erased in the Daily Nous post. And that was that the level of fear and suspicion among the graduate students. Bad blood after hires is normal. Allegations of unfairness, bias, and corruption by those whose favored candidates lose out in the process is thankfully a little less common but hardly remarkable. Graduate students leaving programs because they think they’ll be punished for their political views isn’t normal and it is remarkable. The same goes for 22 graduate students being concerned enough about bias in the speaker series to sign a petition. Graduate students being openly suspicious that undergraduates mean them ill in any way beyond writing a snotty course eval is just utterly bizarre. Something happened at Bowling Green and to be fair it’s not something that seems to have happened at many other schools that have taken Koch money. My own graduate program took Koch money and I even adjuncted a class there that was, I’m sure, at least partially funded with that money and I never in a million years felt I needed to conform to any political orthodoxy nor did any other graduate students to my knowledge. I’ve known people who either did graduate work or worked as NTT faculty at other schools that have taken more Koch money like Arizona and UNC and they’ve never reported anything like this. So granted it won’t do to say that this is the norm. But something untoward clearly happened at Bowling Green or the graduate students wouldn’t report the experiences they did. They sure as heck wouldn’t get together and sign a petition about the speaker series. And whatever happened there clearly seems linked to the Koch grant. Even if you think Koch grants and other grants by billionaires on the whole do good I think you need to face up to that and ask some questions so something like this doesn’t happen again. And that’s really what the DN should have focused on to my mind rather than the more gossipy bits about hiring. It certainly shouldn’t have been relegated to one sentence at the end.Report
This take seems right. What happened at BGSU seems unrelated to the Koch Foundation being the donor of the funds, and Christian seemed to say as much in some of his comments on the other thread. The grad student issue is concerning, but, again, that seems like something else going on. The whole thing is weird, but it’s not clear to me that “we” really need to be the ones who get to the bottom of it. But if I were the dean or provost there I’d certainly want to do so.Report
Well I don’t agree with “What happened at BGSU seems unrelated to the Koch Foundation being the donor of the funds…” In fact, I do think, though I could be convinced otherwise, that the problem at Bowling Green is very much related to the Koch Foundation being the donor of the funds. I can’t imagine a situation where grad students felt persecuted for their political views or were so strongly convinced that the speaker series was politically biased that they’d put their name on a petition complaining about that if the grant was from a source with a less obvious political agenda.
Look I don’t want to demonize the Koch Foundation. I think doing so is equal parts stupid, sanctimonious, and naive. We should approach this with some nuance. And I do think that it is clearly true that some schools take Koch money without anything untoward happening. I’d even admit that in many cases Koch grants do quite a bit of good on balance. At UVA they made possible a PPE program that was pretty great for a lot of students and we got a few more speakers in political philosophy. I also got paid a pretty good salary for a class that was fun to teach and not an onerous amount of work when I was an adjunct short on money and time. I’m a bit more skeptical of the claim that “On balance Koch grants do more good than harm in higher education.” I think it may well be true but I just don’t know. My first hand experience and the experience of people I know suggests that it is, but that experience is from a very small and not at all representative set of schools. UVA, UNC, and UArizona are flagship state universities with political pull and considerable resources beyond the Koch grants. They don’t in any real sense *need* those grants. If they dried up tomorrow none of those schools would have to ditch their PhD programs. Nor would they even fall out of magic 50 on the Leiter’s list. My suspicion is that the Koch Foundation money had what seems like such a damaging effect at Bowling Green because they absolutely did need the money in a way that none of the other schools I’ve named do. And that’s what concerns me about Koch Foundation funding and indeed other billionaire donors: I really worry that this sort of funding will have effects at smaller, poorer, less politically powerful schools that it doesn’t at schools that are much less dependent on it or have more of a range of donors with more ideological diversity. Now I could be wrong about this–this is just my read on a situation where I have less than perfect information– but I think there’s enough that’s worrying here that we shouldn’t just say “Move along nothing to see here.”Report
Are these things that unusual nowadays? Petitions are becoming de rigueur in academia; I can think of multiple petitions that students in my graduate department signed protesting various actions on the part of the administration (though I don’t recall any that were specifically aimed at the philosophy department). I also know of graduate students in several universities who have left complaining of a hostile departmental climate, and some of them perceived themselves to be ostracized because of their politics.
The reported conflicts in the BGSU department, and the shape they took, may be unusual by the standards of the 2000s, but I am not so sure they are unusual by the standards of the 2010s or 2020s.Report
I think that comments that present unverified (or unverifiable) reports of people’s (actual or factual) conduct, often including conjectures or statements of their purported intentions in so acting, and do so (explicitly or implicitly) in ways that imply wrongdoing or blameworthiness (legal or moral), should not be allowed. SAme goes for institutions – we can debate, in abstract, the pluses and minuses of taking or receiving money from, say, Koch or Templeton Foundation – but we should not be, in comments, talking as if we knew what their intentions are and how their conduct is legal or moral. I think this goes for not only mere commentators but also those who post comments and were involved. This is not only because of the dangers of defamation but also (at least for me) simply because this is potentially harmful to those involved and so in a number of ways, including their mental well-being (i.e., we are turning comments into philosophy celebrity tabloid). I would also suggest at least careful if not heavy moderation of comments by people who are directly involved in (the discussed) difficult situations with legal (and employment) ramifications. This is not just to protect those their comments target but also themselves from inflicting (unwittingly) self-harm.Report
Geez, I’ve really got to stop these meta-comments before I make a thing of it. But, on this sunlight issue, it seems one of two things is being tried here:
1. Something about Bowling Green in particular is to get the sunlight treatment. I make no comment about whether there’s good grounds for thinking that something really egregious is apt to be going on there. But let’s suppose there are such grounds. An investigation is then warranted. But what should be the proper forum and method for such an investigation? Whoever does the investigating will need access to a number of private files that the public doesn’t have access to, and will need to bring in a number of possibly reluctant people to be interviewed, after making them a credible promise of confidentiality where appropriate. Does it really seem plausible that that sort of thing can be done profitably in the comments section of a philosophy blog? I don’t see how. It just seems like a recipe for a mess. People’s reputations will be harmed, possibly for no reason whatsoever, and we’ll hear most from those who are most interested in doing such things in the most public way possible and nothing from many of the others, and speculation will abound about things that investigators could see but that commenters can’t. I don’t see why that would be a good thing to pursue.
2. Something broader is to get the sunlight treatment: the issue, in that case, seems to be about the need to guard academic work from the pressures of influential political partisans. Is that what needs the sunlight treatment? But then why focus only on the Koch brothers and not on the remarkable pressure that seems to be exerted by those of opposing political perspectives? There seem to be all sorts of cases of this, and even high-level university administrators now make all sorts of statements about the values of their institutions, and support new politically partisan centers and programs where those values and presuppositions seem to inject considerable ideological bias into what should, I agree, be a space for free inquiry.
In fact, given the strong and rapidly increasing dominance of one political ideology among the professoriate and students at all major universities — an ideology at odds with the Koch brothers –, it seems that professors and students will already be much quicker to unite against Koch influence than against the much more dominant political pressure that one routinely sees even from high-level university administrators (who are perhaps selected because they share the views of many big-pocketed donors today). That presumably means that minority viewpoints on today’s campuses are even more in need of protection against this sort of influence. But so far, this has scarcely been mentioned here. Why not, if the point is a general one about the importance of safeguarding academic inquiry from partisan pressure? Or is the real source of concern here not the fact that the Koch brothers may have an influence, but that it’s the wrong kind of influence? It would be good to have that clarified.
I can already imagine some people responding, “Don’t be naive or disingenuous, Kalef: of course we’re being partisan here, as we should be. Let’s throw away this ridiculous view that academy should strive for balance: we’re dealing here with the Koch brothers’ ideology, which is nothing but dangerous, hateful emptiness, on one side — it’s more or less pure evil — and on the other side, we have more or less pure goodness, in the form of a worldview that needs to be developed and then shouted from the rooftops. So, hell yeah, we need to be partisan about this!” But then it seems that *that’s* the case that needs to be made here, and it’ll be a difficult conversation to have given that it nearly always starts with assumptions rooted within the ideology that is meant to be pure goodness, and based on the partisan research conducted primarily by those working in a context in which dissent from the new orthodoxy seems unthinkable. But even so, the discussants in this thread and the last one don’t seem to even try to make the case that Koch brothers’ money is uniquely or especially harmful because of their views: instead, all the apparently more powerful influences from the other side just seem to be ignored without explanation.
I’ll leave it for others to discuss this if they find it interesting.Report
Readers might be interested in my post on the ethics of taking money from billionaire philanthropists: https://biopoliticalphilosophy.com/2021/05/30/billionaire-philanthropy-immoral-epistemically-corrupt-and-undemocratic-guest-post/?fbclid=IwAR3RFoCN3ZOk_ctmOKOye5piVZyvID4Nw_zPBw2U1pL6DF6j6qm_hWLR9c8Report