Faulty Forecast?

New analysis of "climate" for women in graduate philosophy programs -- conducted without input of actual grad students -- has infuriated many.
August 19, 2011

Many experts agree that some graduate programs do a much better job of encouraging and graduating women than do other departments. But can you really tell which are the better ones?

A new ranking -- The Pluralist's Guide to Philosophy Programs -- thinks it can. Beyond ranking programs over all (itself controversial), the guide has released ratings on the climate for female graduate students. And that has prompted an uproar within the discipline over whether climate can be measured, whether the method used by the guide was up to the task, and whether programs are being identified as deficient not for how they treat women, but for having a scholarly outlook that differs from that of the guide's creators.

In short, the guide is accused of equating a good environment for women with strong support for feminist philosophy, even though plenty of women in philosophy don't work on that subject. Many also question how a guide designed to measure the climate for female graduate students could fail to base its analysis on actual interviews with or surveys of those students.

Drawing more attention to the debate: The three departments identified as needing to improve their treatment of women in graduate programs -- New York, Princeton and Rutgers Universities -- are programs that in many circles (and in other rankings) are considered to be among the very best. Further intensifying the discussion is that many in academic philosophy (including some who find the new climate report irresponsible) agree that the discipline has a problem attracting and retaining female talent.

Linda Alcoff, co-founder of the new guide and a professor of philosophy at Hunter College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, said in an interview Thursday that some of the criticism was raising valid points. But she also said that the attacks on the survey were "a kind of resistance to change and resistance to thinking about issues of diversity and inclusiveness."

Similar arguments she has made in some of the online discussions have infuriated critics of the survey, who insist that they are pro-diversity, but can't support what they consider to be a dubious effort. In fact, some say that the study didn't uncover real problems facing women at some institutions that weren't identified as problematic.

Matthew Noah Smith, assistant professor of philosophy at Yale University, said via e-mail that he agrees with Alcoff that there are departments that don't treat women well. "If a place is accused of being a terrible place for women, we all ought to act," he said. But Smith added: "Alcoff accuses [critics] of not taking gender injustice seriously, while at the same time she sees herself as free to irresponsibly accuse others of morally reprehensible conduct and, what is perhaps worse, to cover for those who are responsible for a negative climate for women that she claims to be struggling against."

Analytic vs. Pluralist

A "pluralist" in the context of the new guide and this debate is a philosopher in one of a variety of fields, such as continental philosophy, American philosophy, or feminist philosophy, among others. They are usually seen in contrast to the "analytic" approach, considered the dominant one in the United States and Britain, and one with strong ties to mathematics and the scientific method. (While some discussions of philosophy portray analytic philosophy as being strongly in opposition to pluralist or continental philosophy, many scholars say that in fact there are plenty of people who don't fit neatly into one camp, or who may fit in one camp but respect the other.)

Some critics of the new climate report say that they believe it should be taken seriously because undergraduates will find it -- and use it. "[O]ne likely effect of the report is that fewer women will attend NYU, Princeton, and Rutgers. This seems like a very bad result to me," wrote Elizabeth Harman, an associate professor of philosophy at Princeton, in a comment on the blog Gender, Race and Philosophy. Harman identified herself there as someone who shares with the pluralists "a deep concern about the situation of women in philosophy and a commitment to making that situation better." But she added that she didn't fit the pluralist mode: "I am a contemporary analytic philosopher, and I do not identify as a 'feminist philosopher,' although I am a philosopher, I am a feminist, and some of my philosophical work is feminist."

Specifically, Harman questioned whether it was fair to publish these results without saying much about the methodology.

Alcoff, in the interview, said that the decisions about programs were made based on a survey of members of the advisory board created by the pluralist guide. The same advisory board evaluated feminist philosophy programs and the climate for women over all -- leading to criticisms that just because someone is a feminist doesn't mean she knows about the treatment of women in every program. Advisory board members -- 45 scholars -- were told to base their analysis on current information and not the past.

The advisory board members responded to four statements (on scales of one to five, for levels of agreement, with the option of skipping programs on which they didn't have knowledge):

  • "In this department, women students face more difficulties because of their gender."
  • "In this department, women students take an equally active role as do men students in seminars, symposia, and the life of the department."
  • "In this department, women students are equally supported as men students in their research, teaching, and job applications."
  • "In this department, sexual harassment of female students is not a present day or ongoing concerns."

A Perspective Ignored

Critics argue that, even if these are good issues to explore (and many critics said that they are), they should have been asked of actual students, not of senior scholars who might well have no firsthand knowledge of the situation. Women who are current doctoral students and recent Ph.D. graduates in philosophy at Rutgers issued an open letter in which they described their positive experiences in relation to each of the questions asked by the pluralists.

The Rutgers women wrote: "Not a single female graduate student was contacted to provide her opinion about the climate for women graduate students at her department. As those who actually inhabit Rutgers’ climate, we believe we are valuable sources of information about it and do not understand why our perspective was not taken into consideration. It would be very sad, and against the mission of the guide, if prospective students did not apply to our department or visit it as prospectives because they had the erroneous conception that this is not a good place for women."

Don Garrett, NYU's philosophy chair, and Béatrice Longuenesse, the department director of graduate studies, sent Inside Higher Ed a joint statement in which they expressed concern about the treatment of women in the discipline. "[P]recisely because the issue is so important, we have been disappointed to discover that the methodology that went into singling out certain programs as having especially bad climates for women was opaque and unreliable. We have also been disappointed that the authors of the guide that arrived at these judgments have failed to respond to various requests for more information about how their judgments were arrived at."

Daniel Garber, philosophy chair at Princeton, said he was less worried than some are about losing potential grad students because of his department being on the "needs improvement" list. He said that Princeton's philosophy reputation is so solidly in the analytical school that he thinks applicants -- male or female -- who want a pluralist approach probably would look elsewhere anyway. He said that "the whole supposed study was just so shoddy that it seems to me that it was sufficiently discredited without having to make an official response."

Alcoff continued in the interview Thursday not to reveal information that critics have been asking for. Asked how many of the advisory board members had to say they had knowledge of an individual program for the guide to put a department on the "needs improvement" list (or the recommended list), she said that there was no need to release such information. "We're not putting out the raw data," she said.

In hindsight, Alcoff said that it might have been good to have separate advisory boards for evaluating the climate for women and feminist philosophy programs, but said that she thought the feminist philosophers were very well connected with climate issues.

As to the question of why graduate students themselves weren't interviewed, Alcoff said that "climate studies are always difficult to do" because "a department may be an awful place for one person and a terrific person for one person." Further, she said that "marginalized groups have a lower response rate" since many do not believe that their confidentiality will be protected.

Even given those limitations, why would it be better to base judgments of departments on the views of senior scholars who could hear only secondhand about most departments, rather than those who are actual female graduate students in the programs? "The reason I trust our guide is that I trust the members of our advisory board. They are people I know personally and I believe have good judgment," Alcoff said.

'Vitriol' or Legitimate Criticism?

The climate guide is not without support -- and some of its defenders are questioning the motives of those who criticize the pluralists.

"For decades now, feminist philosophers have been at the forefront of efforts to address sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and the general climate for women and other minority groups in philosophy, and to develop new and innovative areas of philosophical work. We know from many years of experience how difficult these efforts can be, and how often those who engage in these efforts are attacked, mis-characterized, and preemptively dismissed," says a statement issued by 18 leading feminist philosophers. "In light of this experience, we have been dismayed at the level of vitriol and misinformation being perpetrated against some named and some unnamed feminists."

Some of the defenders of the climate guide mention the view that Brian Leiter, a law professor and philosopher at the University of Chicago, is the source of much of the criticism. Leiter created The Philosophical Gourmet Report, a popular ranking of programs. The level of feelings about Leiter in the pluralist camp is such that one of the questions in the FAQ about the guide is "Do you hate Brian Leiter?" (The stated answer is No.)

While Leiter has criticized the climate guide on his blog (and linked to other criticisms), many of those questioning the guide don't see themselves as his allies, and many question all departmental rankings, including Leiter's, even if they are particularly upset about the pluralist guide. (One philosopher who doesn't like rankings period said that, to his credit, Leiter publishes a detailed methodology, so people know "what's in there," in a way that the pluralists have not.) Several blogs with no ties to Leiter have also featured extensive criticism of the guide.

On Thursday, Leiter's blog featured a poll on the question of whether, in light of having "smeared" three departments "on the basis of hearsay rather than firsthand testimony," Alcoff should resign as vice president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. More than 700 people voted on Thursday, with 40 percent saying that the current controversy is "irrelevant" to her assuming a leadership role in the association, 35 percent saying that her leadership of the women's climate ranking was "disqualifying," 16 percent saying she should keep the position only if she apologizes and removes the climate survey from the web, and 9 percent undecided.

Alcoff said that the climate guide is already succeeding, since it is promoting so much discussion about women in philosophy. And she said critics have been unfair. "It's not a survey attempting to provide a statistically comprehensive account of all women's views," she said.


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