“The depth of the conflict in the department is disturbing.”
This comes from a report by Jennifer A. McHugh, an outside lawyer appointed by the Ohio Attorney General’s office to investigate allegations of corruption, harassment, intimidation and bias in the Department of Philosophy at Bowling Green University, according to an article by The Chronicle of Higher Education (Login required).
McHugh “did not find any” infamous fault “or acts of bad faith”, but wrote that “the divisions within the department ran deep and could at times be toxic.”
The trouble started when putting together a shortlist of candidates to fill a junior position in 2015:
Christian coons, an associate professor, estimated that there was at least one person in the basin who did not belong. Brandon warmke was not as well versed as some of the other candidates in the history of philosophy, the subject the new recruit would teach, Coons said. In an email, he told a colleague that he thought another candidate was better….
“The application alone leaves out critical information that is very important,” replied Kevin Vallier, associate professor.
It’s a strange thing to say in the context of a college hire. The the Chronicle does not report what else, if any, was said in this response, or to what extent someone clarified what this “critical information” is in a subsequent discussion. The the Chronicle the article continues:
Warmke was hired in 2016. Three years later, Bowling Green announced that he had received a $ 1.6 million grant for his Philosophy, Politics, Economics and Law program. This meant that the philosophy department, which had shrunk in recent years, would be able to hire two new tenure-track faculty members and support two graduate scholarships. For a small department, it was a liferaft.
The infusion could have meant a new era of stability for the department. This is not what happened. Instead, Bowling Green’s Philosophy Department has turned into a war zone. Professors who edited books together are no longer on good terms. Colleagues filed complaints against each other, which sparked investigations. At least one faculty member has left Bowling Green for another job. Graduate students felt uncomfortable in the department.
The grant came from Charles Koch Foundation, an organization that promotes (right-wing) libertarianism by funding university programs that educate students about it and by supporting professors and researchers whose work defends or improves the academic reputation of libertarian ideas.
Coons suspected that the “critical information” about the candidate Vallier was referring to was the candidate’s connection to the Koch Foundation or his willingness and ability to seek funding from them. The Chronicle reports:
Coons tried to find out what happened to an investigation that was launched after sending his account to the Dean about the 2015-2016 research, but said a request for open cases was only very little. He said he was never able to submit evidence for the investigation and that he did not know when it was over. Later, the outside attorney’s report into the Coons allegations referred to the previous investigation and a report that revealed “misunderstandings, inconsistencies and procedural errors in the research process”, but ” no conspiracy, manipulation or provable intent to disrupt research ”.
Looking back, president of the department Michel weber stated that the 2015 research “had problems”, and The Chronicle relays that “several faculty members, including Coons, were unhappy with the way the process had unfolded, for various reasons. [Assistant Professor Molly] Gardner voted for Warmke, but said The Chronicle she had felt compelled to do so. Gardner left Bowling Green last year for the University of Florida.
According to The Chronicle, “the agreement between the Charles Koch Foundation and Bowling Green explicitly states that the selection of program directors, assistant professors and graduate scholarships will follow normal university procedures, ”and Weber“ saw no way that the foundation can exert an influence on the department. “
Yet when the time came to fill the grant-funded positions:
Coons wasn’t the only philosophy professor who feared the department was intertwining, intentionally or not, in the Koch network. Gardner, who served on the hiring committee, said: “I got the impression that some candidates whose values were not aligned with the values of the Charles Koch Foundation were taken out of consideration.”
In addition, concerns were expressed about the way opportunities were distributed in the department. Gardner, says The Chronicle,
feared that graduate students would have to censor their political views or risk losing professional opportunities. “Students who adhere to conservative values are offered opportunities for scholarships, seminars and other networking opportunities that students with more liberal values seem less likely to receive,” she said.
The article contains quotes from graduate students complaining about the climate in the department.
For more information see The Chronicle. The image that emerges is that of a department which seems to suffer from a lack of transparency and an excess of acrimony. What is missing from this picture is a sufficiently clear description of the details that could allow us to conclude much more than that.
UPDATE: Christian Coons, on Twitter, calls The Chronicle article “inaccurate for its glaring omissions”, saying: “it is so much worse than what is described here, and our students are not conspirators at all, and neither am I. “
[Disclosures: The Koch Foundation has been an advertiser at Daily Nous. I also took part in a workshop hosted by the BGSU Philosophy Department in 2014.]
Related: “Untangling the Strings: The Limits of Acceptable Donor Influence in Academia”, “Private Money in Political Philosophy”
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