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Academics' Letter Blasts Ranking of Graduate Philosophy Programs

January 07, 2002

A national ranking of graduate philosophy programs is under fire this week -- the target of an "open letter" signed by 170 philosophy professors from across the country.

The letter charges that the "Philosophical Gourmet Report" misleads students and harms the profession "by promoting a narrow and inappropriate standard of departmental excellence."

That critique prompted a scathing, 19-page reply from the report's author, Brian Leiter, who holds a joint appointment in law and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. Mr. Leiter has produced the report annually since 1989. It is widely read by college students considering graduate study in philosophy, as well as administrators concerned about their department's reputations. (See an article from The Chronicle, September 26, 1997.)

"It's a somewhat depressing spectacle when you have some very able philosophers signing on to a pretty feeble letter for what looks like self-serving reasons," he said in an interview.

Critics, led by a Harvard University philosopher, Richard G. Heck Jr., say the report has taken on too much significance, playing a major role not only in students' choices of graduate programs, but in faculty hiring and promotion decisions, as well.

"We have seen more and more students making decisions about where to apply and, later, where to study that strike us as badly mistaken, even bizarre, and which can only be explained as a consequence of their relying upon PGR," Mr. Heck wrote in remarks posted on a section of his Web site that is aimed at "counteracting the excessive influence" of Mr. Leiter's rankings. "Some of us have now passed from being concerned to being worried."

He says students often use the report as a measure of overall educational quality -- not simply the prestige of a program's faculty members.

Mr. Leiter calls that worry "condescending" and says students are capable of understanding what the report does and does not measure. Besides, he says, the report itself cautions students that it "only measures the philosophical distinction of the faculty, not the quality of their teaching or their commitment to educating young philosophers."

He argues that at least some of the criticism is motivated by sour grapes. Harvard, for instance, has slipped from third to sixth place in Leiter's rankings over the past decade, with the retirement of several prominent faculty members.

Mr. Leiter defends his emphasis on faculty reputations, saying well-known professors are more likely to help their students find good jobs.

Philosophy professors have weighed in on both sides of the debate.

David Velleman, a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, says the sections of the report that discuss faculty comings and goings amount to "professional gossip" that doesn't serve the profession.

However, Julia E. Annas, a professor at the University of Arizona, counters that the report makes philosophy departments "more scrupulous and open."