4 Professors Involved in Philosophy Brawl Find Feces in Their Mail

Four philosophy professors who were involved in a dust-up with Brian Leiter, an influential figure in the field, received packages of excrement in the mail last summer, and critics of Mr. Leiter are accusing him of being at the bottom of the fecal attack, reports BuzzFeed. Mr. Leiter, a professor at the University of Chicago and founding editor of the Philosophical Gourmet Report, a powerful ranking of graduate programs, is known for his combative style and caustic judgments of colleagues and programs, but he has forcefully denied the accusations.

“This is about trying to embarrass me,” he told BuzzFeed. “This isn’t about the recipients.”

The four professors — Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins of the University of British Columbia, Sally Haslanger of MIT, J. David Velleman of NYU, and Carolyn Dicey Jennings of the University of California at Merced — said the poop packages were unequivocal threats and attempts to silence them. The incident presumably stems from Ms. Jenkins’s criticism two years ago of philosophers who don’t treat their colleagues, especially “professionally vulnerable” junior scholars, with respect. She denied her criticism was directed at Mr. Leiter, who had just attacked Ms. Jennings, an untenured professor, as well as of his Philosophical Gourmet Report. But he and others assumed it was.

Mr. Leiter responded with a scathing attack that eventually led hundreds of scholars to say they would refuse to contribute to the report as long as Mr. Leiter was its editor, an effort led by the two other professors who received feces in the mail. Soon after, Mr. Leiter agreed to step down, although its website still lists him as a co-editor.

Mr. Velleman informed Mr. Leiter of the fecal mailings in late August, writing in an email, “I assume it can’t be you — which means that someone is trying to embarrass you.” Mr. Leiter said on his blog that he had not planned to write about the incidents, “since publicity tends to encourage lunatics,” but that he had changed his mind in order to warn potential victims.

The controversy could not have come at a worse time for philosophy, which was already in turmoil over the widespread sense that it is unwelcoming to female and minority scholars, as well as a series of sexual-misconduct scandals.

Clarifications (10/10/2016, 12:28 p.m.): This post has been changed to clarify the sequence of events in the 2014 controversy. Mr. Leiter’s criticism of Ms. Jennings for her criticism of him set off the dispute, she says, but she was not involved in efforts to force him out as editor of the report. It also has been clarified to note that Ms. Jenkins denied that her criticism was directed at Mr. Leiter, even though he and others assumed it was.

Return to Top