The Man Who Ranks Philosophy Departments Now Rankles Them, Too

Steve Pyke

Brian Leiter: "I don’t pull punches. I never have."
September 26, 2014

Brian Leiter may be a law professor, a philosopher, and the editor of an influential report that ranks universities’ philosophy departments. But when it comes to dealing with people he regards as being out of line, a different feature comes to the fore: "I’m a New Yorker."

Over the past year, for example, the Manhattan native has told one fellow philosopher that she is "a disgrace" who works for "a shit department," has threatened to sue another he dismissed on Twitter as a "sanctimonious arse," and has suggested on one of his three blogs that still another professor should leave the profession "and perhaps find a field where nonsense is permitted."

"I don’t pull punches. I never have," said Mr. Leiter, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values, in an interview on Thursday.

Over the past week, however, his pugilistic style has drawn cries of foul from a growing number of philosophers. And the intense criticism has cast doubt on the future of his influential rankings publication, The Philosophical Gourmet Report.

The publication, which Mr. Leiter established as a University of Michigan graduate student, in 1989, ranks the nation’s top 50 philosophy departments and is widely used by students in the field to decide where they will seek graduate degrees. Mr. Leiter initially based it on his own research and impressions, but in response to complaints that it viewed the field too narrowly, he recruited a board of advisers and developed an online survey that asks philosophers to rate the scholars that various departments have assembled.

This year more than 270 philosophers have signed a statement in which they refuse to complete the surveys or otherwise to assist Mr. Leiter in assembling his rankings as long as they remain under his control.

The statement specifically protests Mr. Leiter’s treatment of Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia who was the target of his "sanctimonious arse" tweet. It argues that Mr. Leiter’s "derogatory and intimidating remarks" to Ms. Jenkins have damaged her health and her ability to work, partly due to the power he wields as editor of the report.

"We don’t find what has happened to our colleague acceptable," the statement says, "and don’t wish voluntarily to help provide Professor Leiter the power that makes it possible."

Calls for Change

Other criticism has come from closer to home. Of the 56 members of the advisory board for The Philosophical Gourmet Report, 24 have sent a letter to Mr. Leiter urging him to turn the publication over to new management.

The board members have not made their letter public, but they described its contents on a philosophy blog. Mr. Leiter on Thursday characterized his critics as "good philosophers" who have helped him a great deal in the past and now are concerned that the controversy surrounding him "is going to damage the report."

Mr. Leiter has indirectly acknowledged having such concerns himself, partly by setting up two online polls asking whether he should proceed with the philosophy-department rankings for the current year. Well over half of the respondents to each have answered "no," a result he plays down as "only one data point." The polls have limitations, he said, and the results could have been distorted by people who answered twice or responded as part of an organized campaign.

In recent days, Mr. Leiter has appointed Berit Brogaard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Miami, as a co-editor of The Philosophical Gourmet. In addition to Ms. Brogaard, he said he had offered another co-editor position to a scholar who has yet to give an answer. On Thursday he said he had created the new editing positions partly because, given "the nasty smear campaign against me," he does not want the report associated with him alone.

In addition, the 51-year-old scholar said, "I have been thinking about the future, because I am not going to do this into my old age."

Despite those steps, Mr. Leiter remained dismissive of the recent wave of criticism of him, which he attributed partly to feminist philosophers irritated by his defense of the due-process rights of scholars accused of sexual harassment, and partly to philosophers who periodically rebel against The Philosophical Gourmet because their own departments rank poorly.

"There has always been a certain amount of hostility to the rankings," Mr. Leiter said. On the other side of the debate, he said, he has received hundreds of supportive emails from graduate students who appreciate his report, which he maintained "has democratized the philosophy profession" by divorcing judgments of philosophy departments’ quality from perceptions of the prestige of the universities where they are housed.

Online reaction to the uncertain future of this year's report demonstrates the ambivalence many philosophers feel about the rankings. For example, Catarina Dutilh Novaes, an associate professor of theoretical philosophy at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, condemned Mr. Leiter's behavior in a blog post as "aggressive, offensive, and intimidating."

"This being said, Leiter has been running the PGR diligently for years," she continued, "and for this he should be thanked (at least by those who think that the PGR has had an overall positive effect on the profession, and there seem to be many such people)."

Mr. Leiter attributed some of the criticism of him to a "cultural gap" that he said had developed in his argumentative field as younger philosophers had become heavily involved in social media and engaged in what he called "tone policing," denouncing online comments they see as offensive or uncivil.

Mr. Leiter said that he had not made a decision about his continued involvement with the rankings report and that he had yet to hear a compelling argument for his stepping down. "What I am not going to do," he said, "is capitulate to a cyber mob that is exercised about issues that are irrelevant."

A Question of Context

Mr. Leiter argued that much of the backlash against him was being ginned up by scholars he accused of publishing his emails and other comments out of context.

He portrayed his clash with Ms. Jenkins, for example, very differently than it has been portrayed by his critics.

It began in July, when Ms. Jenkins wrote a blog post in which she vowed to treat other philosophers with respect and to speak up when she saw them being mistreated.

Ms. Jenkins’s post made no reference to Mr. Leiter, but he said he had no doubt it was about him, given that at the time he was under fire on blogs in his field for his recent harsh rebuke of a critic of his rankings.

In an email Mr. Leiter sent to her the next day, he asked if she planned to spit at him or chase him with a baseball bat the next time she saw him at an American Philosophical Association meeting. He also suggested she may have defamed him with her blog’s reference to unprofessional behavior, and he asked if she was among the "sanctimonious assholes" in their field.

"So what should I expect going forward?" he asked. "I’m trying to plan out my litigation strategy for the next year!"

Mr. Leiter said on Thursday that his email was "intemperate" but provoked. He said he was only joking this month when he tweeted to Ms. Jenkins, "I only called you a sanctimonious arse." In an email on Thursday, she said she had not heard from him since that latest incident.