Also from Kent Bach, this NY Times Op-Ed on hiring practices by top universities is well worth a read. The main example used is the NYU philosophy department. The author, David Kirp, doesn’t really seem to approve of the hiring they’ve been doing.

What’s good for a university’s reputation, however, isn’t necessarily good for its students’ education. Since the standing of top-rung professors, their bankable asset, depends on what they write, not how they teach, their main loyalty isn’t to their students or their institution.

While Mr. Sexton says he is determined to turn this trend around at New York University, some recent initiatives there have reinforced this professorial narcissism. Take the university’s philosophy department. In 1995, the department didn’t even have a Ph.D. program. Just five years later it was rated as the top department in the web-based publication “The Philosophical Gourmet,” the philosophers’ version of the U.S. News & World Report college ranking and the bible for prospective graduate students.

A bevy of star hires has elevated the department’s academic standing, and with it the university’s. But the new recruits have only modest teaching responsibilities; especially in big undergraduate courses, the burden of teaching falls on graduate student instructors and adjunct faculty, higher education’s replaceable parts. What’s more, the newcomers are narrow-gauge specialists whose intellectual insularity a disengagement from both the classroom and the common public sphere presents a formidable obstacle to the neighborliness that Mr. Sexton now asks of his “blue team.” (My emphasis.)

That’s rather unfair as a comment on some of the NYU hires, especially Kit Fine and Hartry Field, who have made significant contributions to many areas of philosophy. What might be fair to say is that they don’t do work that has an immediate public impact, but then again I suspect one could say the same thing about many top-notch physicists.

8 Replies to “Superstars”

  1. The article mentions USC’s plans to hire a bunch of big guns. Is there any word about whether or not hiring more philosophers will be included in this plan?

  2. The claim of “narrowness” at NYU does indeed seem false. But I would bet that the complaint about “disengagement from the classroom” is the one people take most seriously. I have no idea how many of the NYU stars (and non-starts) have significantly reduced teaching loads (or worse: no undergraduate teaching ever) and if the op-ed writer knows he doesn’t say, so it’s hard to know what to make of the charge.

    About USC: my understanding, though I’m not as “in the know” as perhaps some others who read this blog, is that as part of the hiring mentioned in the article, philosophy is trying to make some Senior moves. This is consistent with their JFP ads in recent years (including this year). My sense, however (open to correction of course), is that they have to this point failed to make any significant senior appointment through several years of effort. Perhaps this is the year…?

  3. I think the criticism about the NYU superstars being “narrow guage specialists” is just part of widespread misunderstanding about the nature of analytic philosophy that equates high standards of rigor and argumentation with “narrowness.” And I wouldn’t take that seriously, except that I do think that within the academy, philosophy has done itself a disservice in some quarters by letting that mistaken understanding dominate the perception of philosophy especially in more “humanistic” quarters. We need to do more to help people understand the centrality of philosophy, as currently practiced at the highest levels of the American academy, to the deepest intellectual engagements and projects of contemporary culture. But I really view this as a public relations sort of challenge.

    But there is another point in the piece that does deserve to be taken seriously, that’s not just a matter of public relations. It’s one that Fritz touches on and one with which, as a department chair of a department that has made a lot of offers in recent years to very high-profile people — some successful, some not — I’ve had lots of close up experience. That has to do with signficantly reduced teaching loads of so-called superstars at institutions “on the make,”

    Frequently, good but not quite elite Universities with reasonably strong, but not yet “dominant” departments often try to move up in the pecking order these days by offering truly cush deals to a few “superstars”. The result, in my experience, is often something like a two-tier department, in which the superstars do less of the teaching, especially of undergraduates, and sometimes less of the general work of the department.

    There are obvious upsides and downsides to this arrangement, for the students, for the non superstar faculty, and for the relevant university as a whole. The obvious upside is that it raises the profile of the department and by association even the non-superstar faculty in the department. One thing that the superstars do is to act as “rainmakers,“by bringing in better graduate students and everything that goes with that.

    The downsides are a little more subtle and a little more insiduous. Sometimes it happens that lesser lights start feeling a little less like equal citizens. Sometimes, ironically, there is less intellectual community.

    My own university and department have pretty firm policies against anything that would create such two-tier departments. The thought here is that we have too many people in too many departments that might be candidates for such superstar treatment. If we went down that road the teaching just woudn’t get done and the faculty share of the broader work of the University would be much harder to carry out.

    Admittedly, this determination has been something of a problem for us both in our efforts to lure people we want and in our efforts to respond to counter offers from places that treat a certain thin-to-not so-thin sliver of their faculty substantially different from everybody else.

    I don’t actually know if we can hold out against what I see as a rising tide of “two-tierism” (if I can coin a phrase) that seems to me to be sweeping academia. But we’ll see. Anyway, I do think it is a very real and growing phenomenon. There exists an increasing number of decent Universities that are willing to pay their very best faculty substantially more than their rank and file faculty, while asking those folks to do substantially less teaching and also while requiring them to be substantially less engaged with the wider work of the faculty.

  4. Ken, (and anyone else that has an opinion) do you think that there is a tendency of philosophers to not want to work in California? Is it harder to get them to come out here than to come to the northeast? And is that, at least partly, for geographical reasons (as opposed to the respective quality of programs in Cali vs. programs back east. (I’m assuming that it would be since there are some seemingly wonderful programs here in the Golden State. But I get the impression that UCLA and Stanford and Berkeley have a tougher time getting people than, say, Harvard, MIT, and the New York area programs.
    Am I off on this one? (I hope I am.)

  5. Luka:

    It’s hard moving senior people, period. It’s harder still moving superstars. We’ve had good success in recent years. After all, we’ve hired Allen Wood, Michael Friedman, Elliott Sober, Mark Crimmins, all of whom have had very nice jobs elsewhere.

    We have had offers spurned, but not all of them in favor of people going East. For example, all of Jay Wallace, Sam Scheffler, Alan Code either went, returned to or chose to stay at Berkeley, just across the Bay, consequent to an offer from us.

    On the other hand, we’ve made offers to several east coast types or to people who ended up accepting a competing offer on the East Coast, including let’s see, Gidoen Rosen, Ned Block, Hartry Field, Michael Smith. Francis Kamm, and also a few others.

    What I think is that it’s just very hard to recruit senior people. What makes it especially hard for us is (a) the Bay Area is very expensive; (b) the people we want almost invariably have amazing set ups where they are; (c) everybody we want other people want as well.

    But again, it’s not as though we haven’t won our fair share. We’ve also succeeded in warding off attempts to hire several of our best people away — though not every retention is successful — witness the luring away of Peter Godfrey Smith.

    Anyway, I think sometimes we, and others here in California win, sometimes we lose. But the nice things is that we always keep trying.

    I do think we are at somewhat of a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis New York and, to a lesser extent, Boston, because of the density of academic institutions there. Lots of people have the idea that NYC is the center of the philosophical universe and want to be there.

    But the big thing relative to this particular discussion for Stanford is that the University is reluctant in the EXTREME to do long term reduced teaching loads or part time appointments. Again, university-wide we have too many really top people to make that a viable strategy. So that makes some folks who have (or are offered) such deals at certain “on the make” institutions very hard to move here (or very hard for us to hold onto).

    One of the consequences of that is that we try very hard to “grow” dsitinguished senior people from within. But even success at that endeavor is far from guaranteed. Of the five most recent people — and this is stretching back to the early eighties with Dupre and Forster — to come here as assistant professors and get tenure only two are currently on our faculty. So even when you home grow them, keeping them is not assured.

    But that’s life. All you can do is keep trying.

  6. Ken,

    Thanks for the response. By the way, just in case it wasn’t clear, I didn’t mean to imply that the west coast schools don’t have amazing and wonderful people on their faculties. I’m sure they do.

    I guess you keyed into what I was saying when you mentioned the high density of academic institutions in the NYC and Boston areas. And also with your identification of the fact that NYC is considered the philosophical center of the world, at the moment.

    Maybe part of it is that I think so highly of California and have trouble understanding philosophers not jumping at the chance to do their thing in the year-round comfort and beauty of our great state…

    But I think I take your points. (And I’m quite proud of myself for getting through this post without multiple punctuation or grammatical errors! Yea me.)

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