Here is a story I reported a while ago, but which the business of life prevented me from publishing until now. It is still an important story about a recent incident in the history of professional philosophy. The past year has seen an increased awareness and discussion of the poor climate for women and minorities in the field of philosophy. I offer you another story about a struggle to diversify this field that remains woefully mostly white and male. *A note to the reader: the reporting for this story ends in October 2012, and so some statements or facts may now be obsolete.
Professor Linda Martín Alcoff stared wide-eyed at the computer screen. It was the end of July 2011, and she had recently been elected vice-president of the American Philosophical Association’s eastern division, which is the largest and arguably most influential of the three divisions. Barring any catastrophe, she would automatically assume the presidency next summer. Of the 102 presidents in the division’s history, only 11 have been women. She would be the first Latina.
A friend had emailed her a link. She clicked. Up on the screen was a poll asking whether Alcoff should be disqualified from becoming the president. It was posted on the blog of Brian Leiter, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago who is considered by many to be one of the most powerful political players in the field. Leiter thought Alcoff should be ousted.
The blogosphere lit up. As she sat at the computer, Alcoff read the streams of comments. “It was getting to be a feeding frenzy,” she says.
“It was hard to watch,” recalls her friend and collaborator William Wilkerson of the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
A couple of weeks earlier, Alcoff, who teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center of Philosophy, Wilkerson and another philosophy professor Paul Taylor at Penn State University, had published the Pluralist’s Guide to Philosophy Programs, an online rating of Ph.D. programs in philosophy.
Since the mid-1990s, one ranking system for philosophy graduate programs has dominated the field: the Philosophical Gourmet Report, which was founded by Brian Leiter. It began in 1989 with an informal list Leiter circulated while a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Now, with an advisory board of over 50 philosophers, over 300 philosophers who participate in the annual survey, and Leiter at its helm as editor, the Gourmet Report’s influence is difficult to underestimate. Graduate students use it to decide which departments are worth applying to, and deans use it to decide whether to make hires and to invest more money into current programs. Philosophy departments have risen and fallen on the basis of its rankings. Leiter has been called the “philosopher king-maker.”
The Gourmet Report brought transparency to a field where a program’s reputation had been based primarily on word of mouth. Every year, he collects the opinions of philosophers in college and university departments throughout the nation, and then quantifies programs on the basis of such variables as department size and publishing output. Until the Gourmet Report came along, the University of Berkeley was considered by many to be the best program. Today it is tied at 14th with four other schools, and New York University is number one.
Not everyone thinks the Gourmet Report is fair. Critics argue it favors departments that focus on the philosophy of mind, and that it does not give much weight to programs that emphasize a plurality of views, such as those held by scholars in feminist philosophy, Africana philosophy, critical race theory, and Latin American philosophy.
“It attracts a Cartesian person, where one is disembodied from history, where one’s gender, sex, race, and sex identity are not considered as constitutive,” says George Yancy, a full professor of philosophy at Duquesne University, about the Gourmet Report.
Leiter disagrees. In his view, there is only good philosophy and bad philosophy, and most pluralist programs recognized in the Pluralist’s Guide are “generally inferior,” he wrote in an email in October 2012. “This is a judgment on the merits of work, a judgment based on considerations like argumentative and dialectical sophistication and perspicuousness, historical and cultural erudition, and knowledge of the history of philosophy.”
He also does not agree that the Pluralist’s Guide is really pluralist, “the guide is just a survey of teachers of philosophers who belong to two organizations, SPEP and SAAP. I think it’s a great idea for the philosophy teachers in SPEP and SAAP to present their view of the fields they are interested in. Prospective students need to be aware, of course, that they are getting a minority viewpoint, and that the programs recommended will limit their job prospects,” he stated in an email in April 2012. Leiter’s guide sets the tone for departments throughout the English-speaking world, and it has become a kind of gatekeeper for what matters in philosophy.
The Pluralist’s Guide is intended to be a corrective to Leiter’s report. Where The Gourmet Report restricts what counts as philosophy, Alcoff, Taylor and Wilkerson see themselves as broadening it. Leiter’s report, says Taylor, “tends not to register the breadth of opinion in philosophical circles about what counts as good philosophy.”
Alcoff, Taylor, and Wilkerson also see the Pluralist’s Guide as more inclusive because it evaluates subfields that Leiter’s report does not, including Latin American Philosophy and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Philosophy. “Let us not give assistance to the border control,” Alcoff writes on the Pluralist’s Guide website in reference to individuals who limit what counts as good philosophical discourse.
Alcoff thinks that by showcasing the intellectual diversity of philosophy programs, the Pluralist’s Guide will help diversify philosophers. “People of color and white women do all sorts of philosophy but if you look at who is doing feminist philosophy or critical race theory, it is mostly women doing the former and people of color doing the latter,” she says.
Philosophy is not a diverse field. Only 21 percent of professional philosophers are women, just ahead of physics (12 percent) and astronomy (17 percent). Minorities fare worse in this field. Of all professional philosophers, only 1.2 percent are Hispanic, 1.1 percent are black, and 0.1 percent are Native American.
Lionel McPherson, a prominent black philosopher at Tufts University who attended Princeton and Harvard for his undergraduate and graduate training, declared on Leiter’s blog in June 2011 that he would dissuade any black undergraduate from pursuing philosophy. He explained that he had simply experienced too much discrimination in his own career to recommend it to his black students.
“So what does that say about philosophy, half a century after the civil rights movement, decades after we’ve seen progress in other disciplines?” asks Professor Charles Mills of Northwestern University, another prominent black philosopher.
The Gourmet Report rankings provide further evidence that philosophy is a field of white men. Of the faculty at the top 50 programs in the Gourmet Report, only 18.5 percent are women. Generally, the higher the program is ranked, the fewer women faculty there are. Only nine of the top 20 ranked programs in the Gourmet Report have a black faculty member.
The story of the controversies that arose around Alcoff and the Pluralist’s Guide is, in a way, a story about a power struggle over the nature of philosophical inquiry. Is thought pure, or does it have a gender, race and historical location? Have women and minorities largely not participated in this field because the questions that interest them or the ways they ask questions are considered unacceptable to mainstream philosophers who are mostly white and male?
Whatever the answers may be, one thing is certain: when the Pluralist’s Guide made its debut in the beginning of June 2011, Leiter and his allies in top philosophy departments were not happy with it.
“Linda is the best known of the three of us,” says Taylor, “and so she was the lightning rod that attracted most of the vituperation.”
Alcoff, 54, who has an easy smile and good sense of humor, has learned to overcome opposition. She was born in 1955 in Panama City to a Panamanian father and an American mother. Her parents were children of sharecroppers and mechanics who valued higher education. Her mother got an office job to support herself through school, and her father studied at the London School of Economics and became a professor at the University of Panama.
At age 3, her parents divorced, and Alcoff immigrated to the United States with her mother and sister. She says that compared to her sister, she had an easier time adjusting because English came easily to her and her skin was lighter.
Her mother remarried, but the family was poor. Despite their economic challenges, Alcoff’s mother still encouraged her to aspire to something greater. “Girls can be anything,” Alcoff says her mother repeatedly told her.
Alcoff did well in high school and became president of the student association. But then things changed for the worse. Two weeks after she turned seventeen, she got married and then dropped out of school. She describes the marriage as “pretty rocky,” and it lasted for 4 years.
Still, she went on to get her GED and then to Florida State University. She majored in philosophy, but by senior year her marriage was crumbling and philosophy was losing its appeal. She was more inspired by the civil rights movement and its efforts to end discrimination. She found it hard to focus on theory, she says, “when the world was burning.” She dropped out of school and moved to Atlanta where she knocked on the doors in the rural south to speak out against the Ku Klux Klan.
At age 22, she remarried and soon after had a baby. To make ends meet, she worked in a factory sewing shirt collars. She was paid for how many collars she made, and so she worked fast. As she threaded needles and mindlessly followed patterns, she found herself daydreaming about Sartre. She decided she wanted to return to philosophy.
In 1980 she earned her B.A. in philosophy from Georgia State, and then a couple of years later earned her master’s there, too. She enrolled at Brown University as a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy.
By the time she arrived at Brown, she had two children and her husband supported them by working at a local factory where he punched holes in the metal interior of dryers. He worked 10 hour days six days a week. Fortunately, she made some good friends in the philosophy program who made spaghetti dinners for her family.
At one point during her doctorate work, her sons contracted chicken pox, one after the other. She was out of school for two weeks, and could not complete all of her work on time. An adviser encouraged her to lie about why she was out for so long. She says, “I asked for an incomplete and was instructed to lie on the form or risk not getting further support in the program, because some faculty doubted a mother’s ability to stay in grad school.”
When it came time to picking a dissertation topic, she knew she needed to steer clear of her true passion. “I knew that feminist philosophy would hinder my opportunities to get a job,” she says. She was probably right. Sally Haslanger, a professor of philosophy at MIT, found in 2008 that 2.36 percent of content in top philosophy journals was devoted to feminist topics. Haslanger found roughly the same percentage of space was devoted to issues of race. Alcoff had broad interests, and so instead wrote her dissertation on epistemology.
In 1987, Alcoff landed a job right out of graduate school at Kalamazoo College, a small Midwestern college atop rolling hills. She was the first woman ever hired by the department. She left the following year and got a job at Syracuse University. Alcoff and another person were the first women hired in more than 20 years. She says the early years at Syracuse were sometimes rough, because she and the other woman in the department were often the subject of ridicule. She recalls one incident when she was checking her mail in the department. There were a few secretaries and graduate students around. In walked a male colleague who noticed her “Yale” sweatshirt she had picked up at a yard sale. George H.W. Bush was president at the time. The colleague said to her, “Oh look, another bush from Yale.”
“That level of stuff happened all the time,” she says.
It’s hard to say when the original idea for the Pluralist’s Guide first came about. Alcoff and Taylor believe that it was something already in the air in the field at large. But they do remember the moment their ideas became concrete. It was October 1, 2008, and they were seated by a window in an Ethiopian restaurant in Pittsburgh, awaiting their entrees. Alcoff remembers Taylor saying “Let’s do this!”
They were a diverse crew. A Latina (Alcoff), an African American (Taylor) and a gay man (Wilkerson, who joined them later). Rather than providing an overall ranking, as the Gourmet Report does, they decided to rate only subfields. They each picked a specialty area to oversee, Alcoff took feminist philosophy and Latin American philosophy; Taylor critical race, American Philosophy, and Africana Philosophy; and Wilkerson, LGBT philosophy.
Then came the question of how to rank the programs.
“I wanted our method to make it difficult to fetishize numbers,” says Taylor. The Gourmet Report quantifies all departments numerically, which Taylor said felt too arbitrary. The Pluralist’s Guide ranks programs on a scale of one to five with five being the best. Rather than ranking them on their raw score, where a school that scored 4.8 would be better than one that received 4.7, they chose what Taylor called a “Consumer Reports model.” Those departments that received a score between 4 to 5 were “strongly recommended,” and those that earned 3.5 to 4 were “recommended.” All others went unranked.
In the next few years, they recruited board members to oversee each subfield, and found a Web designer. By July 2011, they were ready to publish the first batch of ratings. The results showed a trend: programs that the Pluralist’s Guide tended to rank highly were not ranked as highly by the Gourmet Report, and vice versa. For feminist philosophy, the Pluralist’s Guide strongly recommends the University of Kansas and De Paul University, but the Gourmet Report puts the University of Kansas in the bottom tier, and does not even list DePaul as a contender. Princeton University, which is listed by the Gourmet Report as one of the two top schools to practice the philosophy of race, is only “recommended” by the Pluralist’s Guide.
But it was not the results of these ratings that enraged the philosophical community. The Pluralist’s Guide also set out to rate programs on their quality of life for women and minorities in philosophy graduate programs. Alcoff and her colleagues sent surveys to faculty members throughout the nation. They were unable to derive enough statistically significant data on minorities or members of the LGBT community, but they did get enough on women. The survey on the Climate for Women in Philosophy included questions about the number of women in the department and more serious questions about the presence of sexual harassment.
What they found was shocking.
The programs that fared well in the climate survey tended to be programs that did not make the top 50 programs in the Gourmet Report: Penn State, Duquesne, the New School, and the University of Hawaii. But there were some programs that did very poorly. Alcoff decided to create a new category for these schools called “need improvement.” There were only three schools to make the list, and they happened to be the top three overall departments according to the Gourmet Report: New York University, Rutgers University, and Princeton University.
Women graduate students at Rutgers were quick to respond. “My department’s bad reputation may have been deserved a while ago, but it’s not now,” said Lisa Miracchi, 24, a graduate student at Rutgers University. She calls herself “a feminist and a philosopher, but not someone who happens to do feminist philosophy.” She and many of her female colleagues were stunned when they got news that their department needed to improve its climate for women.
Days after the Pluralist’s Guide’s publication of the Climate for Women in philosophy survey, Miracchi collected opinions from the women in the philosophy program at Rutgers, and at the end of July 2011 drafted a statement that is now posted on both Leiter’s blog and the Pluralist’s Guide. “In numbers we are still the minority,” she wrote, “although it does not feel that way.” The letter closed with a request to remove Rutgers from the “needs improvement” list.
Alcoff chose to keep Rutgers on.
Meanwhile, another controversy arose. An anonymous student informed Leiter of a serial sexual harasser in the philosophy department at the University of Oregon, and said that a feminist faculty member was suppressing the information. The Pluralist’s Guide rates the University of Oregon “strongly recommended” as a women-friendly department.
Professors at the University of Oregon stated that the accusations were a result of a misunderstanding. Alcoff chose to keep Oregon on the list of recommended programs.
Leiter and others found Alcoff’s refusal to take Rutgers off the list but to keep University of Oregon on to be irresponsible. At the end of July, Leiter raised the question of whether Alcoff should be deposed as president of the eastern division of the APA. The poll was taken down a few weeks after it went up, but Leiter stated recently this spring 2012 that she is not suited for the job.
“My own opinion is that she should be removed from office, given that she can’t possibly represent the departments in the Eastern Division that her Guide defamed,” he wrote recently in an email. No president has been removed from office in the history of the APA, and there are no bylaws explaining how one would do it.
Deborah Achtenberg of the University of Nevada-Reno says that the desire to remove Alcoff from office is political. “I think it is interesting that there is a poll to exclude a Latina philosopher. Just when the APA is more inclusive, there seems to be an effort to undercut it,” she says.
Alcoff defends her decisions. She says there was a lot of conflicting information about the scandal at the University of Oregon, and she believes that there are enough supportive faculty members at the University of Oregon for a woman to do good work there. With respect to Rutgers, she says that faculty members and students at Rutgers told her in confidence that there were recently problems there. To remove Rutgers from the list, she believes, would be irresponsible.
“I felt an obligation to share the information,” says Alcoff.
Despite the controversies, Alcoff became president this July and will address the entire eastern division at a conference this December. Although the Pluralist’s Guide is no longer administering Climate Surveys, it offers suggestions on its website for how departments can do their own. After it’s rough start, the Pluralist’s Guide has had a positive impact, some philosophers say.
Gaile Pohlhaus, assistant professor of philosophy at Miami University, says her masters students find the guide very useful. “I have seen more talk about the degree to which philosophy marginalizes certain topics and certain persons,” she says, “and about what we can do to make it better.”
Rutgers University now has a webpage devoted to the climate for women in their department, and Miracchi and a few female faculty members are devising ways to ensure that the working environment remains favorable to women. She credits the Pluralist’s Guide for it. “I think the Pluralist’s Guide spurred a renewed enthusiasm for climate issues,” she says.
The Gourmet Report has added a critical race section since the Pluralist’s Guide was published.
On the West coast, at a conference on race in February 2012, Alcoff was approached after her talk by a black woman, Alisa Bierra, 38, who is a graduate student in philosophy at Stanford University and also associate director for race and gender at the University of California, Berkeley. Bierra thanked Alcoff for the Pluralist’s Guide. Bierra says she did so because the Guide’s focus on typically overlooked areas in philosophy is like a “breath of fresh air.”
Alcoff says comments like Bierra’s are what keep her going. “That’s why,” she says, “we’re never stopping.”