Sex Discrimination in a Philosophy Job Search at BGSU (guest post)

Last week we reported on how Christian Coons, associate professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University (BGSU), is facing disciplinary proceedings that may lead to his termination from the university (here). This development has its origins in Coons’s complaints about irregularities in a job search conducted by the Department of Philosophy during the 2015-16 academic year.

In the following guest post, Molly Gardner (University of Florida), who was assistant professor of philosophy at BGSU from 2015-2020, describes that job search, arguing that the search was not fair, and specifically that it involved discrimination against women candidates.

(I am aware that some readers may object to the public discussion of a problematic job search, thinking that matters like this are better handled “in house”. The problem is that “in house” procedures appear to have failed in this case; investigations appear to have been superficial at best, and substantive institutional responses appear to have been limited to disciplining the whistleblower.)

[“Knot 2” by Anni Albers]

Sex Discrimination in a Philosophy Job Search at Bowling Green State University
by Molly Gardner

In this article, I want to take up the following question: Was the 2015-16 job search at Bowling Green State University (“the search”) fair? I will first provide some context to help readers understand why this question matters. I will then distinguish this question from some related questions. Finally, I will offer some considerations to support the conclusion that no, the search was not fair.

Some Context

Why does this question matter? First, it is relevant to whether Christian Coons, currently an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University, ought to keep his job. In early February of this year, Christian was removed from his teaching responsibilities and barred from campus in a letter that informed him that his “continued electronic communications to colleagues, administrators, and students have prompted safety concerns and elicited intimidation, fear, and disruption.” He is currently waiting to find out whether his job will be terminated on the grounds that his emails allegedly violated the Code of Ethics and Conduct Policy, the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and various written and oral directives issued by Dean Ellen Schendel. What were his emails about? Every one of the emails that has been cited, either as grounds for removing Christian from campus or as potential grounds for terminating his job, was an attempt to elicit some acknowledgment from colleagues or administrators that the search was deeply flawed, that he had suffered retaliation for reporting wrongful practices related to the search, or that investigations related to the search had also been deeply flawed. Even though the question of whether the search was fair is not the only question Christian has raised, and even though he confirmed to me that, in his mind, it is not the most important question he has raised about the wrongfulness of the search, the question of whether the search was fair still matters to him.

Second, the question of whether the search was fair also matters because, even after seven years, it has not been settled. Two Associate Deans, Dena Eber and Marcus Sherrell, investigated and then issued a report about the search in 2019. Since then, there have been other investigations related to the search. However, in their report, Eber and Sherrell did not make any overall pronouncements about whether the search was fair. Instead, their main finding, based upon their interviews with philosophy department faculty members, was that there was “no provable conspiracy, manipulation, or intention to disrupt the search.” (The references to “conspiracy, manipulation, [and] intention to disrupt the search” were a response to Christian’s allegation that Kevin Vallier had manipulated the search committee to get us to offer the job to a specific candidate whom Kevin had planned for us to hire before the search had even begun.) The Eber and Sherrell report did not cite any evidence other than their interviews with faculty members, even though emails would have served as useful, independent evidence. (I also found some emails that appeared to contradict some of the statements in the report.) Moreover, none of the subsequent investigations related to the search attempted to re-litigate the findings in the Eber and Sherrell report. For example, an investigation carried out in 2020 by independent lawyer Jennifer McHugh found that “allegations regarding the 2015-16 search process … are outside the scope of this investigation, moot, and untimely.” Thus, the 2015-16 search was only officially investigated once; the final report did not cite any email evidence; and the question of whether the search was fair was not explicitly addressed.

Fairness Versus Other Questions

Having provided some context for the question about whether the search was fair, I would next like to distinguish that question from some other questions. A related but distinct question is whether the search was all-things-considered unjust. Someone might argue, for example, that although the search was unfair, it was not unjust. Maybe the unfairness was too slight to qualify as an injustice. Or maybe almost all academic job searches are unfair, and they are usually unfair in virtue of discriminating against a particular kind of candidate. Therefore, the proponent of this argument might say, insofar as the search discriminated against the opposite type of candidate, the search balanced out some of the unfairness elsewhere in academia. And when an unfair job search helps to counterbalance the unfairness of other unfair job searches, this brings us closer, in the end, to justice. I don’t find this argument to be particularly plausible, but it is not my focus; I am simply stating it to distinguish its motivating question from the question about fairness.

Yet another set of questions concerns what has transpired in the years since 2016 and what should be done now. Did BGSU officials respond to Christian’s and my allegations about the search appropriately? Should Christian be classified as a whistle blower, and should some of the harms he has suffered be classified as retaliation? Because I was perceived to be a supporter of Christian, was I also subjected to retaliation? Should Christian be fired, or should he be permitted to keep his job? These questions are important, and I encourage people to take them up. But to keep this post manageable, I will not take them up here.

Why the Search Was Not Fair

Having provided context for the main question of this essay and having distinguished that question from other questions in the neighborhood, I now want provide some considerations that support the answer that, no, the search was not fair. First, I take it to be true that if an academic job search discriminates against candidates on the basis of sex, then the search is not fair. The search discriminated against female candidates. Therefore, it was not fair.

Here is how the discrimination played out. Between January 7 and January 9, 2016, the search committee conducted phone (conference call) interviews with somewhere between 11 and 14 candidates we had selected from the pool of everyone who had applied for the job. (I am providing a range because I can’t remember whether some of the candidates withdrew their applications before or after their phone interviews, or whether we might have informally eliminated some of the candidates even before we officially voted on who to fly out.) On January 10 at 11:37 a.m., search committee member Kevin Vallier emailed the other committee members and the department chair and asked us to vote on which four or five candidates we wanted to fly out to campus for job talks and more extensive interviews. He wrote,

We will bring at least four, one will be a woman. I think we can consider the top three independently on [sic] the female candidates, given that the good female candidate was too narrow, and the broader ones were worrisome. I think most people think [female candidate’s name] is 1 or 2. And I think we can settle that fairly quickly. So that means we have to place seven people in three or four spots.

He then listed the names of seven male candidates, made a few remarks about them, and asked us to send him our rankings.

Although the email is ambiguous, I interpreted him as saying we had one flyout interview to allocate to one of our three female candidates and three or four flyout interviews to allocate to three or four of the seven male candidates. In other words, I took him to be asking us to rank the female and male candidates separately. In response, I sent him a ranked list of the male candidates only. (Contrary to something I mistakenly said on Twitter, I did not rank any of the female candidates at all, perhaps because I took it to be a foregone conclusion that the female candidate he had named was the one we would fly out.) Search committee chair Sara Worley seems to have interpreted Kevin’s email the same way I did; she sent him a ranked list of eight male candidates and a separate ranked list of three female candidates. Christian sent Kevin only one list in which he had ranked thirteen female and male candidates together, and so did department chair Michael Weber, who was not officially a member of the search committee.

Later that day, at 6:37 p.m., Kevin emailed us again. He wrote,

Folks, I’ve just finished with my church group. I haven’t had time to compile everyone’s rankings and I am driving at the moment. So I may be a bit late turning them out. As a result, it might be worth starting the conversation with the female candidates, while I set up and score the other candidates.

I take this 6:37 p.m. email to confirm that my interpretation of Kevin’s 11:37 a.m. email was correct; he wanted us to consider the female candidates separately from the males. As further confirmation of this interpretation, at 7:35 p.m. Kevin sent us a spreadsheet in which he had compiled everyone’s rankings. He compiled the rankings separately for the women and the men; in one section of the spreadsheet, he listed the voters (Michael, Sara, Christian, Kevin, and me) horizontally and our respective rankings of eight male candidates vertically. In another section of the spreadsheet, he again listed the voters (Michael, Sara, Christian, Kevin, and Me) horizontally and our respective rankings of three female candidates vertically. He had entered the female candidate I had already assumed we were flying out as my first choice, and he didn’t list any other female candidates as my second or third choices.

You may be wondering why there were eight ranked men when Kevin’s 11:37 a.m. email listed seven. This is because he had forgotten about one of the men he took to be in the top eight; he reminded us of that candidate in a follow-up email at 11:52 a.m. You may also be wondering why the total number of candidates on the spreadsheet was eleven, even though Christian and Michael had each sent Kevin ranked lists of thirteen candidates. My guess is that Kevin did not think we needed to include two of those thirteen candidates in the vote at all. One of the two was a man and one was a woman.

At 9 p.m., the five of us met over Skype to finalize our list of fly-outs. Over the course of the discussion, we changed our minds about how to rank the eight male candidates, and Kevin once again compiled our rankings. At 11:15 p.m., he sent us a spreadsheet with the new results. The new results on the spreadsheet were for men only; this time, there was no ranking of the women at all. In the body of the 11:15 p.m. email, Kevin wrote, “It appears that we have collectively settled on an on-campus list:” [emphasis in original]. He then listed three men (which he numbered 1, 2, and 3) and one woman (numbered 4) and speculated about how the men might fare in future deliberations. Finally, at the end of the email, he wrote, “If one of the top three bombs, I would support bringing [another male candidate] in.”

The reader may wonder why this 11:15 p.m. email seems to include a ranking of the top four candidates, rather than a mere list of the top four. After we had determined who our top male and female candidates were, had we then ranked the top woman against the top three men? This certainly didn’t happen over email, and I have no memory of it happening over Skype. My best guess is that Kevin inferred, without taking a formal vote, that putting the woman in fourth place was the will of the committee. Indeed, he had seemed to be relying on a similar inference when he had written, in the 11:37 a.m. email, that “the good female candidate was too narrow, and the broader ones were worrisome.” I believe he formed these judgments about the will of the committee on the basis of informal conversations we had been having about the candidates over the past month or so. And to be sure, we had had lots of informal conversations about the candidates. For example, I remember that in early November at the BGSU graduate workshop, Kevin had asked me, before I had even looked at any of the applications, whether I would favor hiring the particular candidate who we eventually ended up hiring. In any case, putting the female candidate in fourth place in the body of the 11:15 p.m. email shouldn’t have mattered too much; this list was supposed to determine who we flew out to campus, not who we were going to offer the job to after the candidates had completed their visits. On the other hand, Kevin’s comment that “if one of the top three bombs, I would support bringing [another male candidate] in” indicated that in his mind, at least, the numbers he had assigned to the candidates carried some significance: they seemed intended to reveal who the “top three” candidates were.

My memory of what happened next is a little hazy. I believe there were more emails exchanged between Sara and Michael. There may also have been other emails exchanged between members of the search committee. However, the spreadsheet that Kevin had sent around at 11:15 p.m. on January 10 was the last record of any rankings being compiled. A later public records request showed that at some point (the email is not dated), Sara sent Michael the official recommendation of the search committee. She wrote,

As we have discussed, the search committee has arrived at a set of recommendations for on-campus interviews. We have an ‘A’ list and a ‘B’ list. … (The purpose of the ‘B’ list is to provide a back up in case we lose some of the candidates from our ‘A’ list before we are in a position to extend offers.)

The A list contained three male candidates and one female candidate, and the B list contained one male candidate and one female candidate. The public records request also shows that the “request to interview” paperwork Michael filed with the university—which he signed and dated January 11—followed the recommendation in Sara’s email: there was one woman on the A list and one woman on the B list.

I take it that the documents and emails I have summarized so far indicate that the search was biased against the women. Although we had had many informal conversations about the candidates, Kevin’s inferences about the collective will of the committee were not based on any formal votes. Specifically, the judgment that “the good female candidate was too narrow, and the broader ones were worrisome” was never explicitly put to a vote. Yet that judgment seemed to serve as the justification for ranking male and female candidates separately. And the decision to rank male and female candidates separately virtually ensured that even the top woman would come out below the men, as Kevin’s 11:15 p.m. email seemed to confirm. Moreover, even if the top female candidate was still assured a flyout, our ranking system, alone, would have guaranteed that none of the other female candidates had even the slightest chance of getting a flyout. Perhaps that is the worry that motivated Sara and Michael to add a second woman to the B list before Michael submitted the request to interview to the university.

At this point, a reader might raise the following objection: even if our ranking system discriminated against the female candidates, the search process on the whole did not discriminate against the female candidates, for Michael and Sara seemed to have noticed the problem with the ranking system and addressed it by adding another woman to the B list. The reader might then object that, on the whole, the search process discriminated against men, rather than women. After all, not one, but two women made it into the final six, and they made it in without having to compete against any of the men.

It is certainly true that the two women who made it into the final six were never officially ranked against the men, at least in a vote that included every member of the search committee. As I noted above, I didn’t rank any of the women at all, and neither Sara nor Kevin ranked the women against the men. Christian and Michael ranked the women against the men, but they constituted only one quarter to two-fifths of the search committee (depending on whether you count Michael as an unofficial member of the search committee). Therefore, there is some prima facie plausibility to the objection that both the woman on the B list and the woman on the A list had an unfair advantage over the men.

However, being on the B list was never ultimately to the second female candidate’s advantage. Although we ended up flying out the male candidate who had made it onto the B list, we never flew out the woman from the B list. When we were considering whether to fly out the man from the B list, Michael sent an email to the Executive Associate Dean asking, “If we would like to invite candidates from our ‘B’ list, must we invite all candidates on the ‘B’ list? We have just two on the list, but wish to invite only one.” This email suggests that not only did we never actually fly this woman out to campus, but we never even wished to fly her out to campus.

What about the female candidate on the A list? Did she gain an unfair advantage over the male candidates? My answer here is also no; bringing her to campus did not boost her chances of being hired in any significant way. I suspect that the negative opinions that some committee members had formed of her candidacy before we flew her out were not altered by her on-campus job talk and interviews. This is not to say that her flyout went badly, or even that everyone on the search committee had started out with a negative opinion of her. To the contrary, even though I had never voted on flying her out, I had been a strong supporter of this candidate since December 20, when I had originally rescued her dossier from a folder of applications that other committee members had rejected. And once all the candidates’ campus visits had concluded, I formed the opinion that this candidate’s job talk was the best of all the job talks, and so did Christian. The graduate students were impressed by both her job talk and her meeting with them, and they reported that they favored her over all the other candidates we had flown out.

Nevertheless, in informal discussions about the candidates, other faculty members cited a number of reasons not to hire her. For example, the consideration that her work was “too narrow” was mentioned again. Her marital status was also mentioned. Faculty argued that if we offered the job to her, she would want us to hire her spouse as well. (Here it should be noted that this candidate had never told us she was married—we had discovered this independently—and she had never asked us to consider hiring her spouse.) In previous years, the department had hired another married couple, and that couple had left relatively soon after being hired. Kevin argued that this was likely to happen again with the female candidate and her spouse. In an email dated February 13, 2016, he wrote, “And don’t even get me started on another dual offer to Princeton PhDs. That, to me, is the worst option of all. We will get royally screwed out of two faculty members again.”

Perhaps the strongest evidence against the claim that our female candidate received an unfair competitive advantage is that she was entirely excluded from the final vote. To explain how this happened, I need to provide some more details about how the final few weeks of the search unfolded. Recall that on January 10, Kevin sent us the email in which he listed the four candidates we would bring to campus. On January 11, Michael signed the official paperwork to request to interview those four candidates, plus two additional B-list candidates. Campus interviews of the four A-list candidates were conducted on January 26, February 1, February 5, and February 10. At the conclusion of the fourth visit, the search committee (and possibly some other faculty members, although I do not recall exactly who was there) met in person to rank the candidates. On February 12, Sara sent an email to Michael with the ranking. Brandon Warmke was ranked first, and the female candidate was ranked third. Sara wrote, “There was lively discussion and a variety of views expressed about each of the candidates, since they each have different portfolios of strengths and weaknesses. The rankings of the first three candidates were fairly close together.”

But because the rankings were so close, tensions in the philosophy department began to build. Some faculty members voiced strong opposition to offering the job to Brandon. Many worried that it would be imprudent to extend an offer in the face of so much disagreement. Someone then suggested that we bring out one of the candidates from the B list. Yet this was going to be difficult: Brandon had informed us that he had a job offer elsewhere, and we inferred that he did not want to reject that offer unless he had an official offer from us. Michael expressed our dilemma in a February 15 email to Sara in which he wrote, “I feel very much in a bind. … Bringing in more candidates risks losing Warmke.” Sara replied to Michael, “I agree on all counts. … I suppose we could try to get [B-list candidate] in this week, but that risks losing Warmke, and, as [another faculty member who was not on the search committee] says, there are risks with [B-list candidate] too.” Michael then replied to Sara, writing, “How about this (if it is kosher, and approved by the dean): invite [B-list candidate], and get him here as soon as possible; if Warmke tells us in the meantime that he must either accept or reject his other offer, then we go ahead and offer the position to Warmke. This might not be kosher because we are not allowed to make an offer until we have completed on-campus interviews with all those invited. I am meeting with [administrator] later today and will raise this issue.”

Michael’s suspicions proved to be correct: he was informed that the department could not make an offer until we had completed on-campus interviews. Nevertheless, it was decided that we would try to bring the B-list candidate to campus anyway, as quickly as possible. The candidate was invited to campus, and he delivered his job talk on Friday, February 19. Then on Saturday, February 20, the department conducted their final vote. For this final vote, the voters consisted of the search committee members as well as other faculty who had not served on the search committee.

The pace of things felt chaotic. One faculty member who had not been on the committee expressed his confusion about the final vote in a later email, writing,

The way this was done was mystifying to me. I received an email from Michael on Saturday saying that I need to vote right away, so my assumption was that the vote was [male candidate from the B list] or Warnke [sic]. I thought the only thing I could do was abstain since … I hadn’t had time to read the paper or listen to the talk and hadn’t been able to meet [male candidate from the B list]. After I sent that, I immediately thought what exactly did I just abstain on? I emailed for clarification but didn’t receive any for some time, by which time presumably it was too late to change anything.

Sara replied to this email to assure the faculty member that his later, post-abstention vote had been taken into account. But for the faculty members who were in the room at the time, it was clear that there were three candidates they could vote on—not two, but not five, either, even though we had by then flown five candidates out to campus. The names of the men who had been deemed our “top three candidates” were written on the white board. These “top three” candidates consisted of the two men who were ranked first and second in the February 12 email from Sara to Michael and the B-list candidate. Even though Sara’s February 12 email indicated that the top three candidates were “fairly close together,” the name of the woman who had been ranked third in the February 12 email was not written on the board. Faculty members in the room then stated their rankings of the three men, and the rankings were written on the board. In a later March 16, 2016 email, Michael wrote that the candidate to whom we ultimately made the job offer “was selected from a pool of the three top candidates who came to campus.”

I think it was unfair to exclude the female candidate from the final vote. I think it was unfair to rank the female candidates separately from the men when we were determining who we would fly out to campus. I think that both of these actions—and some of the other, subtler actions that I described above—stacked the deck against all of the female candidates, including the woman we flew to campus. None of the women who applied for the job that year had a real chance of getting the job, no matter how well they might have done on their phone interviews, or, in the case of the woman we flew out, her campus interview. The search discriminated against candidates on the basis of sex, and for that reason, it was unfair.

Note: comments on this post are closed. Those who have firsthand knowledge of what has been happening at BGSU philosophy are welcome to email comments to [email protected] for possible inclusion in an addendum to this post.


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