UPDATE: An anonymous poster (I’m pretty sure I know who) wrote a comment accusing certain people of conspiring to destroy Oregon philosophy out of spite and personal grudges. The post was defamatory. I’m disabling comments on this topic now.
The climate for women in philosophy could and should be much better. Reading What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy has opened my eyes. I knew second-hand of one egregious instance of sexual harassment, but I didn’t realize how bad things are.
However, wanting to make things right is not itself an excuse to do wrong.
Prof. Linda Martín Alcoff is the Vice President and President-Elect of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. She is both an official leader of the largest division of the APA, as well as a representative of our profession to the outside world. By taking office in our professional organization, she has incurred special obligations to conduct herself in a fair and judicious manner.
Prof. Alcoff has recently helped to create and publicize the so-called “Pluralist’s Guide” to “The Climate for Women in Philosophy.” This guide has come under heavy criticism, and for good reason, as far as I can tell. Here are some of the worries and complaints:
1. The recommended programs are nearly all SPEP-dominated departments, or departments that are otherwise outside the so-called “analytic” mainstream. Given Prof. Alcoff’s involvement with the SPEP, this creates the appearance that the guide is self-serving and disingenuous.
On this point, one anonymous graduate student said:
The only conclusion I (and, I imagine, many others) am able to draw from the exasperating refusal by you, the authors of the “pluralist’s guide”, to engage even in the most rudimentary way with serious criticism is that despite the title of your “report” you are not in fact guided by the concern that informs the comments in this thread – the climate for women in philosophy – but rather by an undisclosed private agenda that abuses this concern as a cover.
Another commentator wrote:
You published a ranking survey that effectively accused three of the top ranked programs of institutionalized sexism; and at the same time lauded a very specific subgroup of institutions that you yourself are associated with. Even without the ghastly stories coming from Oregon, or the methodological problems that seem to underlie the survey itself, did you really think people would take such accusations (and self-flattering praise) in stride and not question your motives?
Perhaps these worries are mistaken, but they are certainly reasonable in light of the available evidence. Is it really that case that the good departments for women just happen to be the prominent SPEP programs (and almost no others)?
2. The three programs listed as “Needs Improvement” just happen to be the top three PGR-ranked programs in the United States, departments which just happen not to include many SPEP philosophers.
3. There is now strong evidence of serious sexual harassment at the University of Oregon, one of the recommended programs. In light of this, one would expect Oregon would be removed from the strongly recommended list, at least while the issues are investigated and resolved. It has not been removed, even after frequent complaints. Another recommended program, Penn State University, has also had past problems with sexual harassment. The former department head appears to have been demoted for raising concerns about the problem. (He sued the university, and the university settled out of court.) It appears one of the alleged harassers remains in the department at Penn State. (See links at end of post.)
So, as it stands, the Pluralist Guide recommends that talented undergraduate women attend Oregon or Penn State (but not NYU) for graduate school, even though we have positive public grounds to believe these schools are unsafe for female graduate students, but no evidence to believe that NYU is unsafe.
4. Female graduate students at Rutgers wrote an open letter of support for their program. They claimed to be treated as equals to the male graduate students, and expressed concern that the pluralist guide would push talented women away from Rutgers. (Let’s be frank: Anything that discourages talented women from attending Rutgers would thereby tend to reduce the number of women who land prominent positions in philosophy.)
5. In response to the Rutgers graduate students’ letter, Prof. Alcoff revealed that no current graduate students (female or otherwise) were surveyed when creating the climate for women guide. (The explanation? Their survey responses would be unreliable because the students would be afraid to answer anonymous surveys truthfully.) Instead, only members of the Pluralist Guide’s Feminist and Gender Advisory Board were asked to rate departments. No one has revealed to us what the response rate was. Raw data hasn’t been shared.
6. It is unclear why the members of the advisory board should have any expertise in rating the climate in other departments. Writing on feminist philosophy does not make you an expert on what goes on at other schools.
7. Prof. Alcoff’s responses to these and other criticisms have been evasive. As the Vice President/President-Elect of the Eastern APA, she is responsible for answering criticisms directly.
8. Worse, in Inside Higher Ed, Prof. Alcoff accused critics of the Climate for Women in Philosophy of showing “a kind of resistance to change and resistance to thinking about issues of diversity and inclusiveness.” This is how Prof. Alcoff—our elected representative to the outside world—represents her critics to the outside world.
So, in short, as far as I can tell, Prof. Alcoff has help to create and publicize a potentially harmful and misleading guide (one that directs women away from departments that would boost their career potential and towards departments with predators), on the basis of an unreliable and questionable methodology, which publicly condones her ideological allies and condemns some of her ideological opponents. She has also accused her critics in public of something close to sexism.
If she were just another philosopher, that would be bad, but within her prerogative. But she is not just another philosopher. She’s an office-holder and public spokesperson for our profession.
On its face, this is serious public misconduct. We should expect and demand better from our vice president and future president. Perhaps some facts will come to light that excuse this behavior. Unless these facts come to light, I believe Prof. Alcoff should apologize and resign her position.
I do not expect this to happen, though. Instead, I expect that certain members of the SPEP will directly or indirectly harass me for writing this, and that at best some evasive response will be posted somewhere.
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