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Brian Leiter, supporter of Steven Salaita, embroiled in his own civility controversy

Brian Leiter, supporter of Steven Salaita, embroiled in his own civility controversy

U. Illinois at Urbana-Champaign may have lucked out that Brian Leiter is boycotting it

Brian Leiter is the pugnacious U. Chicago philosophy and law professor, whose claim to fame is his blog ranking of philosophy departments, and to a much lesser extent, law schools.  We touched on Leiter before with regard to his attacks on Prof. Glenn Reynolds and other “right-wing” law professor bloggers with whom Leiter politically disagrees.

An interesting side-light is that Leiter has been one of the most vocal supporters of Steven Salaita, the anti-Israel professor whose anti-Israel, and arguably anti-Semitic, tweets caused the University of Illinois Board of Trustees to deny him a tenured position.

Among other things, Leiter wrote a blog post at Huffington Post that got a lot of attention because Leiter declared that UI-UC had repealed the First Amendment.   There are important issues that a court may have to sort out, but to proclaim the university’s concerns a repeal of the First Amendment is pure hyperbole.

In a further post at his own blog, Leiter opined that Salaita had a strong “promissory estoppel” claim, because some unnamed professors told him so at lunch. I guess the legal argument in court would go something like this: Your Honor, you must ignore the contingent provision in the offer requiring Board approval because that’s what some people told Brian Leiter at lunch.

Leiter announced on his blog that he was boycotting UI-UC:

I will join the boycott until such time as the University of Illinois makes things right. I encourage other philosophers to do the same.

Along the Salaita way, Leiter chose to engage in personal attacks on me because he disagreed with my writing about one of Salaita’s tweets, in which Salaita proclaimed that Zionists were partly to blame for the anti-Semitic outbursts around the world. Leiter proclaimed that I was a “hack”:

It’s increasingly clear that the whole discussion has been warped by misrepresentation of Salaita’s tweets, first by right-wing hacks like William Jacobson, the clinical professor at Cornell who is an embarrassment to that university, and then by Cary Nelson [retired UI-UC professor, a leading author on academic freedom, and former president of the American Association of University Professors].

That’s the way Brian Leiter rolls. People who disagree with him are “hacks.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education today has a lengthy article about Leiter, The Man Who Ranks Philosophy Departments Now Rankles Them, Too. (h/t Jonathan Adler) Apparently “right-wing” law professor bloggers are not the only object of Leiter’s ire.

The Chronicle article is a pretty brutal reflection on Leiter’s relationship with the philosophy academic community.  Here’s an excerpt, but of course, read the whole thing:

Brian Leiter may be a law professor, a philosopher, and the editor of an influential report that ranks universities’ philosophy departments….

Over the past year, for example, the Manhattan native has told one fellow philosopher that she is “a disgrace” who works for “a shit department,” has threatened to sue another he dismissed on Twitter as a “sanctimonious arse,” and has suggested on one of his three blogs that still another professor should leave the profession “and perhaps find a field where nonsense is permitted.”

“I don’t pull punches. I never have,” said Mr. Leiter, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values, in an interview on Thursday.

Over the past week, however, his pugilistic style has drawn cries of foul from a growing number of philosophers. And the intense criticism has cast doubt on the future of his influential rankings publication, The Philosophical Gourmet Report….

This year more than 270 philosophers have signed a statement in which they refuse to complete the surveys or otherwise to assist Mr. Leiter in assembling his rankings as long as they remain under his control.

The statement specifically protests Mr. Leiter’s treatment of Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia who was the target of his “sanctimonious arse” tweet. It argues that Mr. Leiter’s “derogatory and intimidating remarks” to Ms. Jenkins have damaged her health and her ability to work, partly due to the power he wields as editor of the report.

“We don’t find what has happened to our colleague acceptable,” the statement says, “and don’t wish voluntarily to help provide Professor Leiter the power that makes it possible.” ….

Mr. Leiter argued that much of the backlash against him was being ginned up by scholars he accused of publishing his emails and other comments out of context.

He portrayed his clash with Ms. Jenkins, for example, very differently than it has been portrayed by his critics.

It began in July, when Ms. Jenkins wrote a blog post in which she vowed to treat other philosophers with respect and to speak up when she saw them being mistreated.

Ms. Jenkins’s post made no reference to Mr. Leiter, but he said he had no doubt it was about him, given that at the time he was under fire on blogs in his field for his recent harsh rebuke of a critic of his rankings.

In an email Mr. Leiter sent to her the next day, he asked if she planned to spit at him or chase him with a baseball bat the next time she saw him at an American Philosophical Association meeting. He also suggested she may have defamed him with her blog’s reference to unprofessional behavior, and he asked if she was among the “sanctimonious assholes” in their field.

“So what should I expect going forward?” he asked. “I’m trying to plan out my litigation strategy for the next year!”

Mr. Leiter said on Thursday that his email was “intemperate” but provoked. He said he was only joking this month when he tweeted to Ms. Jenkins, “I only called you a sanctimonious arse.” In an email on Thursday, she said she had not heard from him since that latest incident.

Read this exchange of emails for some background on the Chronicle controversy.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, you may have lucked out that Leiter’s boycotting you.

Update: I find these words from Leiter several years ago regarding a non-tenured conservative law professor blogging under a pseudonym for fear of tenure implications somewhat ironic in light of Leiter’s position on Salaita:

Mr. Non-Volokh gives as the reason for anonymity concerns about getting tenure. I confess I wonder about the prudence of that rationale: I would think a tenure process deprived of the information that the candidate had been writing about legal matters for years on a very public website would be invalidated once that information became known. But I am not, obviously, much interested in what counts as professional prudence for Mr. Non-Volokh.

There are occasions, to be sure, where anonymity is warranted, but, in general, I am of the view that people should own their words–among other things, they tend to behave better when they must own their words (and when they don’t behave well, they also get to own the consequences, which is only just). The idea that Juan Non-Volokh should get a free pass to be a venal misreader of what others write, as well as a serial spewer of insults, strikes me as deeply unjust. He can insult and misread all he wants, but he ought to own his words, so that he can enjoy their consequences as well.

That anonymous blogger was Jonathan Adler of Case Western Reserve Law School and Volokh Conspiracy, who outed himself (after he had tenure).

More on the current Leiter controversy here.

Is this latest Leiter-related brouhaha the end of Leiter’s reign? Some people think so, like Keith Burgess-Jackson (“I’m going to enjoy every step of his descent into oblivion”) and Paul Campos (“Brian Leiter’s slow-motion car crash accelerates”).

I tend to think not. If nothing else, Leiter has shown himself over the years to have the resiliency of Silly Putty, without the fun.

Update 9-29-2014 — readers have sent me links, I might post some, depending.

Who sends a letter like this?

Scroll through the comments to this.

There’s also another website set up to follow the controversy.

[Featured Image source: Center for Inquiry Video]


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Classy people, these philosophers. In response, I’m dropping the ‘Ph.D.’ from all my signature, stationery, business cards, marketing, etc., and sticking with the innocuous CSAC. God forbid someone consider me a philosopher of any kind.

    That’s OK, Henry. A Juris Doctor, with the exception of a few specializing in proctology, isn’t a real doctor either.

      Henry Hawkins in reply to Anchovy. | September 26, 2014 at 2:52 pm

      You one funny sumbitch, you know dat? Gave me a flash: “So, what kind of lawyer are you?” “Why, I’m in acquisitions and proctology.”

So he is “boycotting” UI-UC, man I bet they are relieved.

Philosophers a pillow fight at a JH sleepover. BTW I’m boycotting UI-UC too, also Harvard and Yale and for good measure Oxford. Of course, I’ve neither applied nor been invited to have anything to do with any of them.

When do they have time to, um, philosophize?

MaggotAtBroadAndWall | September 27, 2014 at 12:01 pm

I don’t think he’s going away. He seems to get masochistic pleasure out of using the internet to denigrate people. He’s like Paul Krugman without a beard.

The link in the sentence “There’s also another website set up to follow the controversy” doesn’t work. I presume the intended site is .