The battered and beleaguered APA: What now?

As many of you know, Michael Kelly, the executive director of the American Philosophical Association, recently resigned his position.  This is just the latest evidence that the APA, the principal organization of American philosophers, is in crisis:  The immediate precursor of Kelly’s resignation appears to be the APA’s handling (or perhaps, more succinctly, the Pacific Division leadership’s handling) of the controversy concerning whether to honor a local union’s call to boycott San Francisco’s Westin Hotel, the scheduled venue for the 2005 Pacific meeting.

But this is only another indication that a common impression within the field is correct: that the APA, at least at the national level, is adrift, and is failing to represent philosophy and the interests of philosophers well.  (Indeed, by my count, Kelly’s resignation makes three executive directors in five years, not exactly what an academic organization needs in the way of stable leadership.)  Indeed, my own informal survey of friends and colleagues within philosophy yielded few compliments of the APA and many concerns.

Since it seems like a critical crossroads for the APA, I ask: What ails the APA?  What should the APA do to represent philosophy and philosophers better? What do those of us in the field expect out of a national organization?

A few thoughts to stimulate conversation:

• Should the APA retain its three divisions, with their respective annual meetings?  My understanding is that this is a historical byproduct of a merger between the APA and the Western Philosophical Association, a byproduct that may have outlived its usefulness. Many people I’ve spoken with believe that the APA has a structural flaw: the national office is too weak to address systemic issues within the field (the status of philosophy in the eyes of the public, the growing use of part-time faculty, etc.), and the divisions largely devote their energies to their annual meetings, not to larger issues within the professions. 

• Does the APA represent the interests of all those in the field?  It’s hard not to notice that those who serve as national and divisional officers are largely senior faculty at Ph.D.-granting institutions, those with the best research pedigree.  Does the organization give short shrift to the interests of younger faculty, graduate students, those teaching at junior and community colleges, etc.?

A note regarding replies to this post: I’m not aiming to criticize anyone in particular with this post, nor am I inviting anyone to criticize anyone in particular.  In order to keep things civil (and non-libelous), please talk about the APA as an organization, and refrain from criticism of particular individuals, the perpetuation of rumor, and the  general grinding of personal axes. Thanks!

16 Replies to “The battered and beleaguered APA: What now?

  1. Michael, an excellent set of questions. I think we may be witnessing the demise of the institution myself. You might add to this litany of bad signs regarding the APA its complete failure to adequately address the issue of Brian Leiter’s rankings. The ‘we oppose all rankings’ stance was ill-considered, and left many of us scratcching our heads. There are clear differences in the quality of departments; it is equally clear that the APA, not any individual or department however well-intentioned, had an obligation to collect and transmit that information to those who wish to enter the profession. In the spirit of this blog, I feel this was a moral failing by that institution. The APA lost an enormous amount of credibility by trying to distance itself from Leiter and pretend it wasn’t its job to take over those rankings. It could have rehaped them or broadened them or done whatever it felt might be necessary to ameliorate any concerns among members. But ducking for cover as it did was not an option.

  2. Here, here for Robert!
    The primary benefit that the national office could provide is information about the profession in terms of statistical data (including, of course, reputational rankings of departments, though probably with a different methodological basis than Leiter uses). As a department chair, there is almost no information that I need when I go the Dean for resources for my department that I can get from the national office. In nearly every case, I have to piece the information together myself, or gather the data directly.

  3. Oops–should be: hear, hear…, the abbreviation for “hear, all ye good people, hear what this brilliant and eloquent speaker has to say!”

  4. Yes, great questions, Michael. I think we should separate at least three issues here.
    1) Should we have three divisional meetings, as opposed to one “super-conference”? One advantage of a super-conference is that it allows for greater publicity. When the Amer. Psych. Assoc. (among others) has its super-conference, we often hear reports of what’s cutting edge in psychology. We don’t hear such reports about philosophy, perhaps in part because reporters can’t find one “official,” centralized source of information. Perhaps this contributes to the popular, mistaken view that nothing is cutting edge in philosophy.
    2) Should the centralized executive branch have more power, such as the power to change a meeting that seems to violate a moral obligation (such as, perhaps, the recent Pacific)?
    3) Should the centralized executive branch have more control over APA finances? My understanding, which is informed by hearsay and is even then largely uninformed, is that a significant cause of the national office’s weakness is that it has little budgetary control, vis-a-vis the divisional branches. If we learn anything from our government and our universities, it should be that the power usually goes to those who control budgets.
    One other question: Robert, do you know who the “it” was that made the decision to duck for cover on the Leiter Report? Was it put to a membership vote, or was it an executive decision?

  5. I don’t know how exactly these decisions were made. The ‘statement on rankings’ was written by a committee. That committee was appointed. Those on the committee had a view on these things, which I respect. It was not put to a vote of the membership as far as I remember, but I’m not sure that’s important. In any case, that’s just the sort of stuff we see in much of academia (have a problem? appoint a committee and hope it goes away). This is a question of leadership, really: Someone with prestige in the APA should have, and I suppose could still, grab the bull by the horns figure out a way to incorporate a widely acceptable form of ranking into the APA. Lots of people disagree with the nature of Leiter’s rankings, but that is a red herring, irrelevant. I’ll bet a lot of those selfsame people (I’m one) think that there should be some public, standardized information of the sort his provides. And even if all rankings are imperfect, that ignores ‘facts on the ground’, viz., an up and running report that has come to have an enormous influence on graduate education in philosophy. The APA cannot seriously maintain that the Leiter rankings are insane or reckless.
    I have half-joked often that it would not be surprising to wake up one day and see the Leiter Association of Philosophy Eastern Division meeting, where Gourmet ranked deparments deliver papers, interview, and so on.

  6. Thanks for the background, Robert. Just as a side note, if we’re accusing the APA of moral failing, I think it does matter whether that moral failing falls on the executive branch or by the general membership. And, whichever is true, if the more basic question is whether the existing institutional structure is the best possible, it’s important to find the root of the APA’s various problems.

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone.
    Robert- I agree that the organization looked bad when it was wrestling with the Leiter report in the “early days” (say 2000-2001!). But I guess I don’t see where the wiggle room is for the APA regarding rankings such as Leiter’s. The 2003 statements on rankings is non-commital: that the APA doesn’t sponsor or endorse any ranking scheme. It’s hard to see how the APA could “incorporate” the Leiter Report without in some sense endorsing it. I suppose they could invite others to submit alternative rankings, but I don’t see that happening. Like you, I find Leiter’s rankings imperfect but not illegitimate, whereas many of the rankings’ critics believe them to be methodologically unsound, intellectually biased, and illegitimate. (I don’t endorse those criticisms, but they’re out there.) So where’s the middle ground: How can the APA recognize the status that Leiter’s rankings have clearly achieved without, at least in an indirect sense, endorsing them?
    Re: meetings and divisions. I kind of like the ‘local feel’ of the Pacific meetings myself, but I agree with Josh that if one of our goals is to give philosophy a more public face, then a single annual meeting might do it. It also seems possible to dismantle the division structure while retaining the three geographically situated meetings. We’d just call the Central REGION meeting, say, instead ofthe Central Division meeting. (Another possibility I like is to go to one large general annual meeting and then have the APA sponsor annual topical meetings on, e.g., ethics, epistemology, history, etc.) It seems to me that the division officers, because they control a lot of the purse strings, are more powerful than the national office. The APA has many well-meaning “statements” about vital issues in the profession: the use of part-time faculty, placement practices, journal policies, and the like. But lacking a strong organizational structure at the national level, these statements are just statements, with the result that the APA is comparatively weak among similar academic organizations.

  8. Michael, I understand your worries, but the very thing I find frustrating about the APA’s position on rankings is that it sees boundaries within which it thinks it must wiggle, especially on endorsing the Gourmet report. What are they up against that makes them feel that they’re hidebound? Leiter has proven himself right that such a ranking was and is needed. Indeed, by bringing in such a large chunk of the profession into his report–those listed on his advisory board, those who fill out the surveys–it seems to me that he’s also made the point that the mainstream of the profession agrees with thim. I assume that Leiter himself would like nothing better than to have the APA take over such a time-consuming service to the profession. As long as the APA stands on the sideline on issues such as this, it risks irrelevance. Again, it is one thing to think in the abstract about the desirability of a ranking; but once the facts are on the ground–the ranking isn’t going anywhere, and it is associated with an individual at a particular institution–that seems to me to make it an obligation for the APA to incorporate it or at least be involved in its production, to bring whatever legitimating features to it that are appropriate.

  9. “Leiter has proven . . . that such a ranking was and is needed.”
    I’m sympathetic, but doesn’t “was and is needed” seem a bit strong? Do we need the Leiter-style ranking, while chemistry, medicine, and south asian studies can make do with the gov’t and magazine alternatives just fine? Or is it that such a thing is needed in every discipline, and only philosophy is lucky enough to have it? Both of those options sound a bit arrogant to my ear.
    As for an annual “superconference”: that’s not a bad idea. I don’t think I’d enjoy attending such a thing so much, and switching would put us in competition with much wealtheir organizations for the appealing hotel options and dates. But the switch would make the discipline a little more noticeable, at the very least to folks in the cities we’d invade once a year.

  10. Rankings are needed, for some disciplines. The problem is that existing rankings, such as the NRC, are better suited to the sciences, where there are more easily measurable achievements (e.g., funding amounts). Also, there are many disciplines in which it doesn’t matter so much where you go because your degree will make you employable outside of the academy. Philosophy is, along with a few other humanities, odd in that way. So, yes, we are in a special position, and yes, the other ranking systems are fine for many other disciplines.

  11. That’s a very helpful reply–thanks. And perhaps I’m just being hypersensitive about the use of the word ‘need’.
    However, I still think it is interesting that the Leiter-style rankings are not recognized as something “needed” in the “few other humanities” that share with philosophy the features you note that make the discipline “odd.”

  12. Why have an APA when we can have a number of different organizations?
    Perhaps multiple organizations and sources of information would be superior. One such organization could be called “Jobs for Philosophers” (not so original, I know) and could organize the meat markets. Another could arrange one (or a few) big annual meeting(s). Another might function as an advocate for philosophers or do “PR” for philosophy. Another might seek to publicize the best philosophy done at non-PhD-granting programs. And so on.
    As for rankings, again I say the more the merrier. I think Leiter provides a valuable service for those considering graduate school in philosophy, but some others are understandably aggreived. The solution is different organizations/individuals providing different rankings. For a comparison, look at the world of wine. There’s Parker, Robinson, and a thousand others in between (and outside!) who are providing information about wine. And though one critic may be dominant (Parker/Leiter), that dominance is neither total nor permanent. No wine lover would argue that the world would be better off with one organization and one critic; why, then, should we think such a suggestion is appropriate for something even more complex: philosophy?
    I know the analogy is not entirely apt, but I suppose my question is: what can an APA do that a number of other, perhaps smaller, organizations, can’t do?

  13. I’m producing at least one television show for national distribution on “The Future of American Philosophy.” Part of the program will feature professors of philosophy commenting on the state of the APA now, and what they want it to be. One issue will be the consideration of alternative, perhaps more democratic ways of selecting the leaders of the APA. We’re looking for people to be interviewed for this program.
    The APA is not American philosophy; indeed, professional philosophy is only one part of the general philosophical community in North America. Does the present chaos and infighting among scholars have any larger implications for philosophy in America?
    Ken Knisely
    No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed

  14. I’m producing at least one television show for national distribution on “The Future of American Philosophy.” Part of the program will feature professors of philosophy commenting on the state of the APA now, and what they want it to be. One issue will be the consideration of alternative, perhaps more democratic ways of selecting the leaders of the APA. We’re looking for people to be interviewed for this program.
    The APA is not American philosophy; indeed, professional philosophy is only one part of the general philosophical community in North America. Does the present chaos and infighting among scholars have any larger implications for philosophy in America?
    Ken Knisely
    No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed

  15. I think probably the words ‘chaos’ and ‘infighting’ are too strong. There is some dissatisfaction, but there is also some satisfaction, with the APA. It’s healthy for a professional organization to rethink itself from time to time, in any case; I just hope it comes soon enough to keep the APA viable for representing and advancing the interests of philosophers.
    BTW, who is this ‘general philosophical community’ you’re talking about if not primarily those teaching and doing research in colleges and universities? Sure, there is a penumbra around that group, and I realize that lots of people have some interest in philosophy. But lots of people have some interest in economics, too. I’d not really think of them as part of the economics community. If you mean that there is no monolithic thing called ‘American Philosophy’, I agree. But then there nothing to have a future to speculate about. There are just philosophers thinking about the things that puzzle them. I don’t see an end in sight for that.

  16. I’d encourage everyone interested in these issues and in the future course of the APA to look at the ‘letter of support’ from the APA’s Committee on the Status of Women (available on the front page of the APA site), which lays out very nicely some of the difficulties that befall the organization thanks to the relatively small influence of the national office.

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