About fifteen years ago the New Yorker published a cartoon depicting a late night talk show host at his desk interviewing a bowling ball seated in the cushioned guest’s chair. The bowling ball speaks, and the caption reads “But I’m not here to talk about bowling.”
I’d like to say that I am not here to talk about Brian Leiter. But as the new year has unfolded, in the aftermath of the big news of 2014 in the philosophy world—“Controversial Philosopher Will Step Down as Editor of Influential Rankings” (1)—his relationship to the Philosophical Gourmet Report, along with that of his blog, Leiter Reports, is more problematic than ever. Last fall, the philosophical community was left with the impression that Leiter wouldn’t be involved with the PGR after 2014, with the exception of a seat on the Advisory Board. This was a reasonable inference not only from the agreement he made with the Advisory Board, along with press coverage of the event, but also from Leiter’s remarks on his blog. Here he is on the subject on November 17, 2014:
As I’ve written in the past (see the last paragraph), the PGR has always brought noxious behavior out of the woodwork from alleged “professionals,” and I have to confess to being glad not to have to deal with the PGR after 2014 for this reason in particular.
And in Leiter’s explanation of his decision to step down, he says the following:
But if someone feels editing the PGR means forfeiting certain expressive rights, then I accept that they have a reason not to participate while I remain as one of the editors. And since I value my expressive rights (including my right to express myself in ways some others may find offensive), that gives me an additional reason to dissociate from the PGR so that those philosophers will, I hope, participate in the future (emphasis added).
So, from these and other statements, including those made by Advisory Board members during the controversy (2), it was reasonable to conclude–and many people assume in fact–that he would no longer be involved with the PGR outside his position on the Advisory Board.
But there are more questions than answers about the post-2014 PGR, and Leiter has done nothing to dispel doubt about the situation. According to the Advisory Board’s agreement with Leiter, he was to step down as an editor of the PGR after the finishing the 2014-2015 Report. (3) However, Leiter continues in 2015 to be the public voice of the PGR on Leiter Reports. The PGR site nowhere indicates that Professor Brogaard will edit the next edition of the PGR. At this writing I have been unable to discover any public statement by Professor Brogaard herself, since she agreed to the position, about the PGR, her editorship, or the transition she is supposed to head. On January 25th, 2015 Leiter posted this on the blog: “I also had a chance to have a long talk with my co-editor, Brit Brogaard, about the future of the PGR, and we should have some announcements before too long about plans going forward.” He didn’t say he had a talk with the new editor of the PGR: he still refers to himself as a co-editor.
The ties between Brian Leiter and the PGR are deep and multifarious, and they have a long history. The earliest PGRs included information on the movement of faculty, hires, appointments, tenure, offers, etc. This information was important inside the PGR because it kept readers apprised of the appointments of those scholars whose location and position, in Leiter’s opinion, would have an impact on the rankings. Leiter eventually moved this part of the PGR to his blog, Leiter Reports, and he continues in 2015 to track this information on the blog. The home page of the 2014-2015 Philosophical Gourmet Report itself includes this link: Updates on faculty movements in philosophy, which takes to the reader to Leiter Reports. This tie between the PGR and the blog continues into 2015, maintaining a long-standing feature of the PGR-Leiter Reports symbiosis, namely, that the blog collects and broadcasts information that was a hallmark of the original PGR.
Some other ties between the blog and the PGR, and the issues surrounding them:
- On every page of the PGR (except the privacy page) there is a box with a link to the blog: “Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog” (emphasis in original). Did the Advisory Board agree to continue advertising Leiter’s blog on the PGR site? Is the Board comfortable with the notion that readers of the PGR will see on every page this link between the PGR and the blog?
- Who owns the PGR? As far as I know, Leiter holds the copyright to the PGR, which gives him significant leverage regarding future decisions about the PGR. This is not a trivial matter. The current version indicates that the copyright lies with Brian Leiter, while a line of text indicates that the 2014-2015 content of the Report was “drafted” by the two editors, Leiter and Brogaard. New content would belong to the editor(s), unless they executed an agreement otherwise with the owner of the original creation. As creator of the PGR, Leiter would retain ownership of the brand (the name, the arrangement of the information and any creative content predating 2014), unless he executed any licensing or transfer agreements with Brogaard or the Advisory Board altering his rights in the PGR. (4) If Leiter retains ownership of the PGR brand, his role as a Board member will be unique, to say the least.
- In the October 1, 2014 email from the Advisory Board to Leiter, members acknowledge that the PGR is under Leiter’s control. “It is clear that the majority of the board thinks that the only solution is for you to step down. Of course we recognize that the PGR as it stands is under your control and the decision is yours. But we do urge that you follow the request of the board” (emphasis added). Clearly the Board was aware of the fact that it did n0t have the power to force Leiter to resign. But did members of the Board try to find out whether at all, and if so how, things might change if Leiter agreed to step down as the editor? Did anyone consult an attorney? (They were–and are–dealing with a person who regularly trumpets the fact that he is himself a lawyer, and that some of his best friends are lawyers.) Did anyone do any research to discover what Leiter’s rights would be if he agreed to the Board’s request? Did anyone discuss with Leiter what the relationship between his blog and the PGR would be going forward?
- In an “update” to a Leiter Reports post in late December 2014 (since removed) (5), Leiter asserted that with respect to the litigation he is contemplating against Jonathan Ichikawa and Carrie Jenkins, “damages in the six figures” “is quite probable” and that in the two-year statute of limitations period (running well into 2016), Leiter expects to see “more” “evidence” emerge of Ichikawa and Jenkins’ “bad on-line behavior.” We can only speculate at this point, but what harm might these six-figure damages be based on? Leiter’s lawyer’s letter to Ichikawa and Jenkins asserts that the two “published, or caused to be published” “a direct attack on [his] client [Leiter] and his publication, the Philosophical Gourmet Report (“PGR”),” and that that this action, along with others, “was part of a strategic effort to embarrass Professor Leiter and discredit him and the PGR” (emphasis added). What portion of these six-figure damages does Leiter assign to harm to the PGR (as distinct from his own reputational damage)? (6)
The questions I’ve raised make it especially important that members of the Advisory Board think about the relationship between Brian Leiter and Leiter Reports, on the one hand, and the PGR, on the other. On his blog Leiter continues to exercise his expressive rights in unfortunate ways. In response to criticism, whether academic or professional, Leiter regularly engages in ad hominem attacks, of several varieties, often quite personal and at times callous. Here are Leiter’s own words on how he approaches his critics:
As I’ve noted before, it’s important not to be misled by the volume and persistence of the critics–pay attention to who they are, where they teach, where they earned their PhD, this will usually tell you more about what’s really going on. Not all of them have self-serving motives*, to be sure–some just have no judgment (vide Velleman). [Asterisk in original, see note (7)]
He tries to undermine his critics not only by targeting where they attended school, but their affiliations with certain philosophical organizations. (Are you now or have you ever been a member of SPEP?) (8) He regularly makes arguments that we teach students in Logic 101 to avoid as fallacies. He’s of course free to make these arguments, and to say the other things he does. However, when Leiter uses his blog to attack members of the profession he is speaking through a huge megaphone. People who recognize Leiter’s first amendment speech rights need not, as Advisory Board members and PGR evaluators do, lend their names to Leiter’s exercise of those rights. When Board members, evaluators, and ranked programs stand by silently while he does these things, they ignore the effects of this enormous concentration of rhetorical power on the profession and its members.
Consider what someone attacked by Leiter is up against. He claims for the blog a circulation of more than 10,000 visitors per day (see his figures for 2014, here). How does a member of the profession who has been attacked by Leiter gain traction to refute his claims when he, Leiter, can keep posting whatever he likes for so many readers? Fear is also an issue. Should people consider challenging him in ways that he regards as defamatory or otherwise legally problematic, he has told them two things in advance: one, that he may threaten to sue them for defamation or other wrongs, and two, that unless they have a lot of money, they can forget about prevailing because he has friends. Leiter says on the blog:
This is how the law works: if you say false things intended to damage someone’s reputation, you have acted illegally. U.S. law gives more cover for defamers than elsewhere, but even here there are limits.
In November, I retained one of the leading defamation lawyers in Canada to explore my legal remedies for the misstatements of fact in the boycott statement from September.
Leiter in effect puts a cover charge on discussion of his public activities in the profession, both financial and professional: afford a lawyer and brace for incoming ad hominem, or keep quiet. Some members of the Advisory Board, wishing to continue with the PGR without having to worry about controversy over Leiter’s activities, might consider severing the explicit link between the PGR and Leiter Reports in order to address this issue. But this may not be as simple as it seems. Consider, for a moment, the following hypothetical scenario: suppose that the Advisory Board decides, by a vote of 30-14, to cut the links between the PGR and Leiter’s blog. The editor at the time initially remains neutral on the question. Leiter opposes the move as a Board member, but when the vote goes against him, he asserts ownership of the PGR and refuses to remove the links to the blog. The editor, facing a revolt by a majority of the Board, decides to remove the links anyway, thinking s/he has “ultimate decision-making control.” Leiter, pointing to the loss of ad revenue on the blog from the reduction in traffic coming from the PGR site, sues the Board and the editor over control of the PGR.
Leiter’s influence on the profession is propped up in large part by the personal and institutional prestige that people and departments in philosophy give him and his enterprises. Members of the profession and their institutions who crow about their standing in the PGR, sit on its Advisory Board, and participate in its production are inextricably tangled with Leiter’s expressive opus. This is a professional embarrassment. By their agreement with Leiter that he step down as an editor, members of the Advisory Board of the Philosophical Gourmet Report persuaded their colleagues in the profession and the academic world generally–and perhaps themselves–that future editions of the PGR will be independent of the control of Brian Leiter. With her agreement to serve as editor of future editions, Berit Brogaard has contributed to this perception. The Advisory Board and Brogaard owe us all a public statement clarifying the ownership status of the PGR and the relationship between future editions of the PGR, Brian Leiter, and Leiter Reports. Members of the Advisory Board who are themselves uncertain about these issues should seek independent advice on these questions.
As always, I ask readers who find errors in this post to contact me with corrections. I am grateful to a number of colleagues who kindly consulted and advised on several issues, especially the legal points, raised in this post.
(1) The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 10, 2014. First lines of the CHE piece: “Brian Leiter, the philosopher who has come under intense criticism in recent weeks for his caustic rhetoric, will step down as editor of The Philosophical Gourmet Report, an influential ranking of philosophy departments.” On the same day, the Daily Nous reported the following story: “Leiter to Step Down from PGR / The New Consensus.”
(2) These remarks, along with language in the Advisory Board’s proposals in the weeks running up to the announcement of the agreement of October 10, conveyed the impression, possibly shared by some or all of the Board’s members, that the PGR would in future be controlled by Brogaard and perhaps others to be named later. The Board’s proposals contained language (not adopted) to the effect that the PGR would be “turn[ed] over to new management” [email 10/25] and that “the board rather than any individual should retain ultimate control of the PGR” [email 10/01]. With the announcement of the agreement and Brogaard’s (co-)editorship, many people, including some members of the Advisory Board, appeared to believe that the PGR would in future be independent of Brian Leiter, except in his capacity as a member of the Board.
(3) From the agreement, as reported by Leiter: “At the conclusion of the 2014-15 PGR, Brian will step down as an editor of the PGR and join the Advisory Board. Berit will take over as editor until such time as a co-editor can be appointed to assist with future iterations of the report. After 2014, Berit will have ultimate decision-making authority over the PGR. Upon completion of the 2014-15 PGR, Berit will appoint a small advisory transition committee that she will consult on possible improvement, both substantive and operational, in the PGR going forward” (emphasis added).
(4) Accessible overviews of the issues (and complications) here can be found at the Digital Media Law Project, which addresses copyright, what it covers (and doesn’t), rights granted under copyright, which rights can be transferred or licensed, and the difference between transfers and licenses and the various types. Without any transfer or licensing agreements, Leiter owns the brand and can assert his rights as the property holder of the PGR, should he think that his property is harmed or threatened in some way.
(6) If ownership of the PGR forms any part of Leiter’s claim against Ichikawa and Jenkins, this litigation, should he follow through, will shed some light on the question of the ownership of the PGR. Editors and Advisory Board members will want to know going forward what implications this case may have for the PGR.
Other questions about the ties between Leiter and the PGR and about ownership of the PGR include: What is current status of the Advisory Board? Who now controls its membership? What process governs its business and its internal dispute resolution? With whom (or what) does Wiley-Blackwell maintain its agreement to “distribute” the PGR?
(7) Leiter’s asterisk takes you to the following: “Some are also pathologically dishonest, and are getting increasingly desperate now that the PGR is out.”
(8) I was recently the target of one of Leiter’s posts: “Mitchell Aboulafia: Caveat Emptor” It’s really extraordinary to be on the receiving end of one of these, knowing that everything that Leiter, from his perch as arbiter of the profession, is telling thousands of people a day is either factually incorrect or crassly ad hominem. Leiter told his readers that “many of his [Aboulafia’s] postings contain factual errors, indeed, easily correctable ones if he were at all intereseted (sic) in accuracy. But he is not. And, as I’ve noted before, it’s not worth the time to engage with the lies, falsehoods, and silliness.” Leiter’s claims about me are false. I have made it clear in my blog posts on the PGR and elsewhere that I welcome corrections in the event that I have made any errors. Especially in the posts analyzing the methodology and results of the PGR, I expected to hear from a few people, given the volume of data I’ve relied on. To date I have not received any requests for corrections from anyone: I never heard from Leiter, or from Brogaard, or from anyone associated with the PGR that I had made factual errors about the PGR. The links he supplies as evidence for his claims about me take readers only to his own past posts, that contain more vague, non-substantive, non-pertinent, often, again, ad hominem complaint.
To this misrepresentation of me he adds what he believes, or wishes his readers to believe, is a fatal set of facts: he points out that I was a member of SPEP (a “continental” organization) and its Advocacy Committee, that I taught at Penn State (a “continental” school), and that I received my PhD at Boston College (a “continental” department). Note first the ludicrous ad hominem–presumably my arguments and the evidence for my claims about the PGR are what counts, not my pedigree. Second, Leiter’s relentless philosophical myopia (or wish-fulfillment) not only misrepresents programs and departments–Boston College in the 1970s was primarily a history of philosophy program–it drops out the fact that I work on classical American pragmatism, in particular, George Herbert Mead, 19th and 20th century European philosophy, social and political philosophy, ethics, and philosophical psychology, and that I haven’t been a member of SPEP for a decade. I remain a member of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy.
*UPDATE January 30, 2015: Since this “Open Letter” was posted I have received no requests for corrections and I am unaware of any discussion or any challenges to its claims, with, possibly, one exception. On January 29, 2015, Leiter made the following announcement on his blog. “As a number of readers have noted, the 2014-15 PGR is not yet finished; my co-editor Brit, and her RA, are at work on the remaining content, including the summary of each department’s specialty rankings. Thanks for your patience.” Of course this doesn’t address the most important questions raised in my post: when Leiter finally yields the title as co-editor, how much involvement with, and control of, the PGR will he have? I reiterate my call for the Advisory Board to issue a public clarification of these issues for members of the profession.