Money and the Academy

What are the appropriate limits on how outside contributors to a university may shape what gets taught and who gets hired into a dept? This is an interesting and complicated question. I’ll offer some thoughts but mostly I’d like us to hear each other’s thoughts on the topic. I’ll admit I have not thought about this topic a lot so what I say here are initial impressions. While a descriptive discussion of what happened in the past has its place, so too does the more general and normative discussion of the topic of the sort I encourage here. Here I ask us to not focus on the question of what has and has not happened, but rather what should and should not.

I assume we think that if a private citizen fell in love with her philosophy of science undergrad class and wanted to fund an endowed position in philosophy of science at her alma mater, we would think that terrific. However, if she wanted a say, or influence over who got say, over who got hired for the position, that would be unacceptable. Further if she wanted to create an endowed position in which the person who takes the position must be favorably disposed and publicly advocate for a particular ideology, that would be, I assume we think, problematic. (Of course, it often goes unspoken that not embracing, at least as a research focus, certain outrageous ideologies, e.g. white supremacy, is, legitimately, a precondition for positions.) But if she wanted to fund a position dedicated to thought, for and against, a particular ideology, that would be fine so long as the dept retained complete control over who filled the position. Further, we also don’t want money to be able to determine what counts as a reasonable area for a philosophy dept to cover. Some rich but misguided fool probably ought not to be permitted to create a chair in Sobel Studies or the philosophy of the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, even if no particular attitude towards these subjects is mandated. Experts in the field get to determine what is important enough to be taught in their field.

Broadly, it seems we want to let money in to further research and philosophical excellence and improve and strengthen departments even if it moves a dept in a direction it would not have itself chosen, so long as that path is one of the paths the dept deems a reasonable direction—a direction they might reasonably have chosen without the outside money. (This seems roughly similar to the role deans may legitimately play in shaping the direction dept’s hire in.) But we don’t want such money to be able to buy advocates for points of view within the academy or subvert control from experts in a field concerning what gets taught in their field. Professors in a particular field have, and are often seen to have, a kind of expertise which rationalizes, for example, requiring students to take classes in some areas or public attention to views of those within the field (think, for example, about climate scientists in the academy). If professorships and their views could be bought, that would have a tendency to kill the goose that continues to lay such golden eggs.

An interesting sort of case would be where a dept might itself be willing to accept a deal where it gets control over 2 new lines so long as the funder gets control over one. In a world like ours with incredible concentrations of wealth, higher ed increasingly unaffordable, and many colleges and universities under such severe financial stress that some predict nearly a quarter are threatened with becoming insolvent, such cases might confront us with poignant choices.

11 Replies to “Money and the Academy

  1. I think this is a good thing to try and think through a bit. I’ll offer a few possible boundaries, but I don’t have a settled view.

    I think it’s pretty clearly bad if outside parties (folks not in the relevant academic unit like a department or a program potentially hiring) get any decisive decision-making ability for who the hire is. That said we clearly have instances where departments make a choice, and someone in the university hierarchy rejects that choice for one reason or another. Sometimes that’s good (it’s a useful check on nepotism or other improper favoritism), sometimes it is questionable (the dean thinks that the hire is not in step with broader goals), and sometimes it is clearly problematic (someone being rejected because non-expert weigh in as being opposed to their work or their speech).

    In less-decisive cases, I think it gets tricky quickly. Letters of recommendation are meant to do this, whether they are formal or informal. I’m sure there are other mechanisms for weighing in on a hire from the outside.

    Sometimes departments get offered a partner hire (and may feel nontrivial pressure to say yes). As someone who was a partner hire, I’m pretty happy that this exists. But it’s not hard to imagine situations where a dept gets someone that doesn’t really match what they are up to.

    Sometimes departments get hires based on their internal business model rather than the research agenda of the faculty or a vision of a good training in philosophy. Philosophy departments often offer business ethics, medical ethics, environmental ethics, or other courses that are service to other departments rather than part of the department’s core interests, and staff up on that basis. This can again be more or less imposed on a department.

    Sometimes a university decides to stake out a new school-wide strategic direction and backs that with X hires that can go to any department that makes a good enough case for why they should get one of them, so long as it feeds into that research direction. Departments can not bother, or they can try to go after a hire (both to play ball with admin and to get an extra person) with the knowledge that there are constraints on what kind of research profile can get approved for the hire.

    Sometimes a department gets a TT line from the university, but wants to make sure it is maximizing its changes of moving up the rankings, and so goes after a hire from a certain kind of department or with a certain AOS not for “internal” reasons but because they believe a hire such as this will raise the prestige of the department within the profession.

    Sometimes a faculty member can get a large enough grant from, say, NIH or NSF that funds postdocs, but sometimes that can get converted into a down payment on a TT line that the dean picks up. In virtue of the funding, it will meant that the hire is serving some particular research call set by the NIH or NSF.

    Sometimes a faculty member threatens to go to another university unless the university grants a TT line in some area so that person has a colleague. Most likely that person would also be in charge of the search committee, and so has a hand in determining what sort of person fills the position.

    An Alum really got a lot out of class X and decides to fund a chair not merely in, say, philosophy of science, but in Philosophy of Biology, or Skyrms-style evolutionary modeling, or (pick some more specific thing). Here I assume our intuitions on whether this is a good or problematic thing depends on what we think of that area of work.

    A foundation wants to promote work in some area and offers a university a chair in X. Again, I assume this is just dependent on what we think of the area. Relatively few people are going to blink at Kant studies. My department has one for pragmatism (though it was funded by an individual and not a foundation).

    My general view is that it would be nice if my university (and others) gave my department a lot more TT lines to do with as we saw fit, and we all more or less ignored the various ways departments get ranked against each other, but we’re clearly not in that world. So, with the other possible ways of getting a hire, I’m generally of the view that it is fair game so long as the department has the normal say in who gets hired and who gets tenure. The more the merrier.

    As a further consideration here, it’s worth remembering that there are still a *ton* of professional filters that this newly-hired person has to go through. They need to publish in normal journals, or get books with good presses. They have to build up a reputation, give talks that people find interesting, and perform service to their department, university and profession in a way that merits tenure, and so on as the person’s career progresses (or fails to). Plenty of people don’t succeed at this stuff. Likewise, plenty of people who seemingly work in weird or out of favor areas do a lot of great work. Others muddle through.

  2. Ryan,

    That is a lot of cases to consider! But in most cases it seems to me the general framework I tried to outline, where the outside forces (whether dean or outside money) can have legit sway only within the bounds that the dept itself deems reasonable. Now there are cases, such as a dept under receivership, where it might be purported that a particular instance of a dept has itself lost proper contact with their own field and then, where the admin can demonstrate this satisfactorily, it might be appropriate to use the opinion of experts in the field in other U’s to make hiring and firing decisions.

  3. I don’t fully agree. We know from the campaigns of misinformation funded by tobacco, fossil fuel, and more that these interests often valued researchers who were independent. They were more credible. Isn’t your “within the bounds of what the dept itself deems reasonable” akin to a researcher who agrees to take a grant from X because X doesn’t tie the $$ to research outcome? But that’s what X may want, for there are still many ways to shape a field to their interests without outright fraud. For instance, tobacco could fund (good) research into hard-to-prove cancer links rather than easy-to-prove cancer links, fossil fuel (good) work on bird deaths and wind power, and so on. This biases the pool of knowledge, like how pharma did by not reporting negative trials. Fossil fuel money also made many schools vote against divestment because faculty were afraid to anger their benefactors. Even without fraud, you can be part of a network that leads to misinformation and outcomes contrary to the public good, as O’Connor and Weatherall show in their models in The Misinformation Age. Whether a person, department or school should accept money from X is a very hard question, but I think one needs to look past just whether the source directs research or hiring outcomes. I’d say one needs to zoom out and see if one’s good research, hiring decisions, etc, is likely being used for no good.

  4. Craig,
    I see what you are saying, but worry that implementing a fix for such worries would prove very difficult and contentious and be unavailable in the short term. At least until such patterns are visible, I’d prefer a more easily implementable principle.

  5. I see. So you’re imagining a case where we don’t know anything (much) about the donor’s motive, network, etc… It’s not Big Opioid, Big Tobacco, etc. What should we allow in terms of influence? I’m involved in a case like this right now for the institute I direct, so I can put myself in this position. Like you, I think a department can be open to opportunity. Maybe they didn’t plan on building in area X but are open to it. Hence the money might generate a path forward that the department otherwise would not have taken. Absent evidence that this kind of path-dependency is being used for nefarious purposes, it seems fine. But I would still draw a sharp line around academic content, hiring, and so on, as I thinking you’re suggesting (except in the imagined deal at the end, which I would turn down). Because the donor *might* be creating a bad network, I guess I’d be in favor of some kind of principle that was a bit risk averse on allowed influence.

  6. Many European Philosophy depts are heavily dependent on external grants for their vitality. There’s a lot of regional variance but a significant chunk of research outputs and teaching gets done with external grants used to hire personnel (grad students, postdocs, and more senior research personnel) on temporary contracts. Some of those grants come from (seemingly) impartial sources, such as national and EU-wide sources of funding which however have their strategic priorities that shape the scope of research. Other foundations are private and have their own emphases. These are research heavy positions but some teaching is typically expected.

    Compared to externally funded TT positions, the main difference seems that grant-funded positions are temporary: typically, one to six years. However, from that perspective and compared to that baseline, externally funded TT positions seem to me an improvement: it’s equally, or even less, constraining than repeatedly applying for funding from sources with strategic emphases and/or tailoring your CV to consistently be the ideal candidate for those sources of funding. It leaves more time for actual research and teaching. This however is subject to the funder’s role being within the scope of good scientific and grantmaking conduct, e.g. the impact of the funder on the hire is transparent and there is little reason to believe that the funders would seek to use your contributions to philosophy for nefarious purposes.

  7. Polaris,

    Your very helpful comment raises the topic of how to think about the appropriate limits of state-based influence on hires and teaching within an academic field–in addition to reminding us how common it is. (Perhaps there are also separate appropriate constraints on, for example, a private donor or the state creating a new field within the academy.) This is an excellent topic. I initially had in mind only issues concerning private or corporate donors. My initial reaction to the broader question your comment raises is to think the constraints similar across the private/state divide, but that certainly merits more thought. Some, for example, presumably will think that state based funding must pass a public reason test that one might well not think that private donation need not pass.

  8. I think that a lot depends on where the money comes from (is it dirty money?), what it’s supposed to do (launder the reputation of a despicable businessman?), how it influences the department (does it undermine democratic decision-making?), and how it influences higher education in general (do these types of donations collectively normalize privatization?). I would add that if you look closely at some privately funded research, you will find that it’s thinly-veiled corporate propaganda. I say more here: https://biopoliticalphilosophy.com/2021/05/30/billionaire-philanthropy-immoral-epistemically-corrupt-and-undemocratic-guest-post/

  9. Here’s a comment from another perspective. I recently made a non-major (below $1 milllion) but sizeable donation to the philosophy department at my undergraduate alma mater. I had wanted the money to go toward improving undergraduate philosophy education (my theory, in part, being that the better work done there, the better future the field will have). But figuring out how to do that got too complicated and I had no interest of getting in the weeds of the department — plus the gift would have to have been much larger to have a meaningful impact, and I didn’t want to give that much. So I left it to the judgment of the chair of the department what to do. I have low confidence that the money will be put to effective use, but think it likely something worthwhile will come of it. (The gift was kept anonymous, FYI).

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