Sunday, September 28, 2014

On the future of Leiter's Relationship with the PGR [Updated]

As you may have heard, there have recently been a growing number of suggestions that Brian Leiter relinquish his position as editor of the PGR. A bunch of philosophers have signed a pledge authored by Stanley, Jonathan Schaffer, Susanna Siegel, and David Chalmers [numerous people]*, not to volunteer their services to the PGR while it is under his control. According to Jason Stanley, (at least) 24 members of the PGR's advisory board have signed a letter [authored by Stanley, Jonathan Schaffer, Susanna Siegel, and David Chalmers]* urging him to turn the Report over to new management. (I seem to recall reading that that number is now bigger, but I can't remember where.) Leiter has invited Berit Brogaard to serve as co-editor, and an additional invitation is pending.

This is, obviously, an extraordinary development. However, and I realize I'm not the first to make this observation, this is not what people are asking for. Some further observations:

  • It would be nice if whoever edits PGR was in the habit of responding more graciously to criticism.
  • As Brian Weatherson points out, it would be nice if whoever edits the PGR weren't openly hostile to the existence of other ways of ranking philosophy departments.
  • As Jon Cogburn reminds us, Leiter himself is not above publicly posting private emails
  • I agree with the point, as far as it goes, that Leiter engages somewhat routinely in behavior that is abusive and nasty, and that the harmfulness of this behavior is enhanced by his position as editor of the PGR. 
    • However, I think it enhanced even more by his position as owner, moderator, and principal author of Leiter Reports, which, it is often noted, is by far the most widely read philosophy blog on the internet, and which I'm pretty sure makes it the most widely read philosophy publication of any kind. I don't think removing him as editor of the PGR would have much of an impact on that, or to mitigate the harmfulness of his abuse. 
  • I also agree that the issue is not so much "civility" as it is that his behavior is harmful to the people he targets. 
    • I also, also agree that he's basically been like this forever. However, it seems to me that a) it's been an especially bad year for him, invective-wise, and b) it's totally okay to reach a point where enough is enough even in the absence of any important qualitative changes.
  • I've read arguments to the effect that the fact that Leiter is the owner of the PGR might have some impact on the prospects for removing him as editor. I don't know if that's a good argument. I don't know who owns the Report. I know Blackwell publishes it, and that they pay him (not much, I understand) in exchange for his services as editor. But I don't think it matters that much in any case. He's the founding editor of the PGR, and he may be its owner, but he's not its king. There's an advisory board, and this board votes on matters of substance, and the results of these votes set policy. This really ought to include determining who will be responsible for carrying out the duties of editor. If the Report is to have any legitimacy whatsoever, its editor must be answerable to its advisory board. 
  • Similarly, it also seems to me that although the PGR is not an official ranking, if it is to have a modicum of legitimacy, the Report and its leadership must be answerable to the profession at large. 
  • And so, it seems to me that the most powerful argument against Leiter's continuing as editor (or co-editor) of the PGR is that he seems to have lost the confidence of the advisory board. I suppose I'd like to see the letter before I register agreement or whatever. But if a substantial portion of the profession finds Leiter's abusive behavior unacceptable to the point where they are unwilling to work with him on the PGR (and the September Statement seems to indicate that this is the case), then the advisory board would be duty-bound to replace him as editor--either for the good of the Report, or because they themselves aren't willing to work with him anymore, either. 
--Mr. Zero

*edited to correct false/mistaken attribution of the September Statement to Stanley, et al. My apologies.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just a note that this post confuses the pledge (authored by 20 people, not including the four named here) with the letter Chalmers reports was given to Leiter, drafted by the four named here and cosigned by other members of the PGR board.

Scylla said...

Wow, I disagree with a lot of what you're saying here. But maybe it doesn't matter. What do you think of this: if the board is satisfied with BB co-editing, then that should be fine?
Because you say the most powerful argument is that he's lost the confidence of his own ed board. (And I do agree with that.)

Anonymous said...

But is BB much better? She has a history of trying to get a grad student expelled from a PhD program for sock-puppetry on one of her NewApps threads. And now on FB she keeps repeating that she doesn't see how editing the PGR will give her any power. I find that disingenuous, and not a good sign of things to come if she takes over.

Mr. Zero said...

Thanks for the correction, 9:38. I apologize for the error, and have edited the text to correct it.

Mr. Zero said...

Hi Scylla,

I don't have a worked-out opinion about the Brogaard promotion. I'll admit that I wasn't super excited to see her name rather than someone else. Like everybody else, I thought her behavior in the incident that led to her leaving NewAPPS showed poor judgment and was appalling.

However, as far as I know that was an isolated incident, and I don't really know anything else about her, and so I think I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I'm thinking about this the wrong way, but that's how it seems to me right now. At the very least, I'd like to hear from people who are better informed than me before making any firm judgment.

I'm also not clear on how to interpret the phrase, 'that should be fine'. If it's to be interpreted as, "I, Mr. Zero, will be happy and content and have no objections," then no, not necessarily. If it's to be interpreted as, "there would be nothing I, Mr. Zero, or anyone else not on the advisory board could directly do to change it," then yes, I think so. Of course, that wouldn't mean there's literally nothing we could do about it: we could draft and circulate an October Statement to the effect that we're not happy with Brogaard,either. I think the PGR needs to be accountable to the profession at large as a necessary condition for any level of legitimacy, and said so in the original post.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the real problem with having Leiter as editor of the PGR isn't that it gives him some special platform for criticising people. Mr. Zero is right that his widely-read blog provides such a platform anyway. I also don't think there's any special problem -- even if his behavior is unpleasant or regrettable -- with him using that platform to criticize people. That's within his rights. Indeed, it seems to me that while civility is surely a virtue, so is emotional stability in the face of even unjust or unkind criticism, and I think both have recently been in short supply in the internet blogsphere. (Of course, Leiter himself is probably guiltiest of over-reaction to criticism.)

Instead, the problem with Leiter editing the PGR is that he has an established track record of threatening, intimidating, and retaliatory behavior that in principle could (and perhaps does) affect the rankings themselves. There is a clear silencing effect, here, insofar as there is a perceived risk that speaking out against Leiter, even as tenured faculty, may affect your institution's ranking. Whether Leiter in fact fiddles with the rankings in this way or not, even the appearance or plausibility of retributive manipulations, given the way these rankings are used by students and university administrators, makes him an inappropriate editor. (Just consider how surprising -- and effective -- the recent criticism by faculty at top-ten schools has been.)

Anonymous said...

Let's bear in mind that the BB promotion is just a move in BL's attempt to maintain his position. The fact that BL finds BB acceptable is no reason to infer that anyone else does, or will. If anything, the fact that BL is using her in this capacity (and that she is willing to be so used) is a reason to doubt her acceptability!

Scylla said...

Oh, right, I wasn't clear about "that's fine".

Look, anyone can have an opinion about who would make the best editor of the PGR, of course. I guess I'd be pleased if Dave Chalmers did it. And anyone can have an opinion about who's not going to be very good, and I guess a lot of people do think Brogaard won't be. But that's not really what I was asking.

I think it takes some pretty dramatic reason to justify the September Statement, to justify collecting a lot of bad shit about BL and posting it in a central place, and to justify the ed board telling him things have to change. The fact that someone else might be better at it is not such a reason. So, presumably people who do think all this shitstorm is justified think things have got terribly out of hand. And what I'm asking is whether the addition of Brogaard, if the editorial board is satisfied, means that it's no longer a situation that requires Jason Stanley's benign intervention.

I do think so, irrespective of my personal opinion of BB. (Or of BL, for that matter.)

Anonymous said...

I agree, Scylla. It does take a pretty dramatic reason to justify such action. For my part, I think we have a sufficiently dramatic reason.

Anonymous said...

PS: Jason Stanley is on the board. His intervention (benign or otherwise) is qua board member.

Anonymous said...

If Leiter owns the PGR, he is king of the PGR. It's his right as owner to decide what powers the advisory board has or does not have. I would assume that the advisory board does't have the power to assign editors because it looks like Leiter, not the board, gave coeditor status to Brogaard. If the advisory board can't replace editors, I have a hard time seeing how they might be duty-bound to replace the editor, because you can't be duty-bound to do something you cannot do.

Regarding legitimacy: I have a hard time understanding why a publication needs to be "answerable to the profession at large" to be legitimate. The US News and World Report is not "answerable to the profession at large," but if they used good data and methods, their rankings would be perfectly legitimate.

Anonymous said...

As if the timing of this rebellion is not suspicious? If the political environment in Illinois were not so cantankerous, it would seem less suspect.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand anon 7:23. Is the idea that Haslanger, Velleman, and others are retaliating against Leiter on behalf of the administration at the University of Illinois, or the pro-Israel lobby, over his support of Salaita? That seems implausible to me.

Mr. Zero said...

The US News and World Report is not "answerable to the profession at large," but if they used good data and methods, their rankings would be perfectly legitimate.

I'm not sure this analogy makes your point. The US News and World Report is an independent news organization, and its Rankings are supposed to be likewise independent. It is not the case that the USN ranking organization has a king--I don't know the details of the organizational structure of the USN Rankings Team, but I don't get the idea that there's any one person who has the kind of authority/responsibility that the title of 'king' would suggest.

However, if there were, and that editor-king ran the USN Ranking Team the way Leiter runs the PGR, I think there would be significant questions concerning the legitimacy of the rankings it produced. There are a number of reasons for this.

For one thing, the PGR, unlike US News, is not at all independent. It is of, by, and for the profession (or, more precisely, of us, by us, and for our students). And so, if the USN Rankings were operated in a way analogous with the PGR, the editor-king would have a permanent day job at one of the schools ranked by the Report. This constitutes a clear conflict of interest, insofar as the Rankings are intended to be independent--if you don't care about independence, then this is no big deal.

For another thing, it is not very clear what role the advisory board plays, or what specific powers it retains, or if the editor-king is free to simply ignore the will of the advisory board if he doesn't like how the vote comes out. (I don't know that Leiter has done this, or even if he could, but that's kind of the point. Additionally, what will Leiter do if/when the Stanley Letter is signed by the majority of the Advisory Board? Will he be obliged to step down? Can the Board appoint a new editor?)

For another, nother thing, it is well-known that USN's data-collection and methodological procedures are highly controversial (to say the least) (as are the PGR's--there is no such thing as an uncontroversially unobjectionable way of generating data of this sort, or of transforming that data into an ordinal ranking). If the editor-king responded to methodological criticisms with the kind of hostility that Leiter regularly employs, for example by sending emails to the critics in which he mocked them and threatened them with legal action (which would almost certainly be unsuccessful in the United States, anyway, but which would nevertheless be expensive, time-consuming, and highly unpleasant to respond to), that would be very bad.

For yet another thing, there are other organizations that produce other rankings that compete with those produced by USN. If the editor-king used the magazine (as Leiter uses his blog) to impugn the intelligence, competence, and motives of the authors/editors of these other rankings, I think that would be very bad.

In sum, it seems to me that if the US News Rankings Department were organized, and its editor-king behaved, in the image of the PGR and its editor, I'm not sure it would be worth taking the resulting rankings seriously. At the very least, I think there would be a lot to complain about.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Leiter has been using the same nasty tone and derogatory style for years. But as long as "moron", "imbecile", "know-nothing", etc., were directed at folks to his political right -- those who expressed reservations about the tenure system, or who didn't share his views about Israel, or ... -- the many philosophers who visited his site seemed not to have any problem with his tone. It sure feels as if it was only when he dared to extend that same style to members of a group closer to their own hearts (other philosophers, especially young female philosophers) was any protest raised.

Anonymous said...

5:24, you raise a good point. Leiter's conduct has been obvious for a long time. Many have not seen it for what it is before now. Perhaps it wasn't obvious from their epistemic standpoint? I don't know for sure.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure this analogy makes your point. The US News and World Report is an independent news organization, and its Rankings are supposed to be likewise independent. It is not the case that the USN ranking organization has a king..."

This is beside the point. The analogy was made simply to challenge the idea that legitimate rankings must be "answerable to the profession at large."

"For another, nother thing, it is well-known that USN's data-collection and methodological procedures are highly controversial (to say the least)"

That is why there was a conditional in the statement of the analogy.

Mr. Zero said...

The analogy was made simply to challenge the idea that legitimate rankings must be "answerable to the profession at large."

Ok, so it sounds like we agree that rankings produced by independent organizations need not be answerable to the profession at large as a condition for legitimacy. What do you think of rankings that are not independent, but rather are produced by interested parties from within the profession, as a service to it?

That is why there was a conditional in the statement of the analogy.

I get that. I was trying to suggest that your conditional is vacuous because its antecedent is statistically impossible. So, anyways, although I think it's important to strive to data-collection and statistical methods that are as sound as they can be, I think that how the editor-king responds to the inevitable criticisms is also important. There's always going to be room for improvement, but that improvement is unlikely to happen if the editor-king habitually responds to criticism with belligerence.

So, I continue to think that, when you add it all up, a ranking system organized and operated in the image of the PGR is going to be of questionable legitimacy, even if it uses "good" data and methods. (Not that I don't think it would be better to use good rather than bad methods.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you, 5:24!

The plain if ugly truth of the matter is that Leiter's critics didn't give a damn about his public abuse of his political opponents, as long as the targets were dirty reactionaries who don't deserve better. Now they've got the vapors because he's picking on someone with whom they sympathize. Moreover, a lot of them -- and certainly Jason Stanley, I know from personal experience -- engaged in that kind of abuse as well.

It's not exactly an argument of principle on the part of the critics. More like an exercise of power. A coup.

None of this is to excuse Leiter for his online behavior, which is just as bad as his critics have suddenly realized (or rather suddenly started to care about).

Anonymous said...

"Mr. Leiter has been using the same nasty tone and derogatory style for years. But as long as "moron", "imbecile", "know-nothing", etc., were directed at folks to his political right...."

Anyone paying attention knows that this claim is misleading. Leiter's tone and style also gets applied to "centrist" and "liberal" types, depending on the issue that riles him. Anyway, rightists and reactionaries, or their proxies, complaining about "derogatory" tone and style is kind of embarrassing.

Anonymous said...

@6:18

Of course, centrists and liberals are to Leiter's right, politically, so that stands as confirmation not counterexample. But moreover:

Anyway, rightists and reactionaries, or their proxies, complaining about "derogatory" tone and style is kind of embarrassing.

This statement so undermines your whole point that it's just amusing.

Anonymous said...

http://dailynous.com/2014/10/10/leiter-to-step-down-from-pgr-the-new-consensus/

Mr. Zero said...

thanks, 3:09. I'm working on some commentary on this, but I don't think I'm going to finish today.