MOVING TO FRONT FROM JAN. 29--AN EXCELLENT DISCUSSION THREAD, ONE THAT HAS CERTAINLY CONVINCED ME OF THE IMPORTANT OF A NATIONAL ORGANIZATION AND NATIONAL MEETINGS FOR THE PROFESSION. MORE COMMENTS ARE, OF COURSE, WELCOME
Peter asked me to share with the readership the following reflections:
Camus famously wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”
Camus’ problem has been on my mind since I was recently appointed to the American Philosophical Association (APA) Task Force on Development – one of four new committees charged with rethinking the structure and operations of the APA. My refection on Camus’ problem isn’t driven by the fact that committee assignments drive me to despair (which they do), or even that attempting to fix the APA is a lot like rolling a stone up a hill over and over again for all eternity (though it is kind of like that). Rather, my reflection has been driven by a structurally similar question: is there any reason why the APA should not dissolve itself?
In this note I want to make the case for dissolving the organization, not because I’m convinced it ought to be done, but because I think it is a question that needs to be seriously entertained. Right now, as I write, dozens of philosophers are expending valuable energy trying to think of ways to repair the APA, but this may well be a waste of intellectual labor. Maybe it is time to pull the plug on an organization that is dysfunctional, no longer serves a useful purpose, and is in an untenable position financially.
Let me begin with the financial situation, because that is the charge of the Task Force on Development – finding a way for the organization to be financially viable. Here are the depressing details. The APA has pathetic amount of income for a professional organization, some of the sources of income it does have are (in my opinion) morally questionable, and the possible sources of additional income are (again in my opinion) morally questionable as well.
First of all, let’s put the APA financial situation in the context of how it relates to other professional academic organizations. In the financial period ending June 30, 2011, the APA had operating revenue of around $1.2 million, but operating expenses of around $1.3 million, meaning that it was digging a financial hole. An operating budget of a million dollars might sound like a lot of money, but in comparison to other professional organizations it is not. The APA’s operating budget allows it to maintain a staff of eight individuals (the budget line for those staffers is $640,000), while according to the APA’s David Schrader, the American Anthropological Society has a budget of $5 million and a staff of 20, The American Historical Association has a staff of 18, The American Political Science Association has a staff of 27, The American Sociological Association has a staff of 32. All of this is a reflection of the fact that these organizations are better funded. And the rich organizations get richer because they can afford to put (multiple) people on full time development, allowing those organizations to raise more money etc.
As I said, the charge of the Development Task Force is to envision ways by which the APA can raise more money, but the options on the table are not particularly appealing. Currently, the main source of revenue for the APA is dues, which bring in around $704,000. The next budget line is a category called “Publication, Items and Services” at around $460,000. This includes the revenue from “Jobs for Philosophers”, which remains a cash cow for the organization (although revenue from ads has been slipping in recent years because of the weak job market). So what are the potential sources of future income?
One option is to have a full time development person working senior APA members (and charitable organizations) for donations. But assuming a world of finite resources would we really prefer that people donate to the APA rather than many other important causes? Another option on the table is to generate more revenue off of the APA divisional meetings (in effect this would involve higher fees for attendance; the APA currently loses money on its conventions). Finally, one option under discussion is the idea of establishing a journal that will be the “flagship” journal in the profession. How one creates a flagship philosophy journal by fiat is quite beyond me, but the real question is, flagship or not, why would anyone buy it? I know that some societies require members to subscribe to their flagship journal, so would we make buying the journal a requirement of members? Required or not, I find it odious to think that a philosophy journal would be established solely to keep a professional organization afloat.
So those are the options: get charitable organizations and wealthy members of the APA (if there are any) to give money to the APA rather than other causes, get more money out of members at the divisional meetings by charging higher fees, create a journal (and force people to buy it?). All in all it is not a very appetizing slate of options. Maybe there are other options for fundraising out there, but the question has to be asked: What is the point? Is there some intrinsic reason why the APA ought to survive? Is it even worth saving?
As it stands the two main functions of the APA are to support the job market and to organize the three regional APA divisional meetings. Discussions of the role of the APA in the job market have been all over the internet for the past several years, and the reviews have been largely negative, but quite apart from the performance of the APA, is there any reason why it should be involved at all? Do job interviews really need to be conducted at a hotel in a distant city over the holidays? Is there any reason to think that Skype interviews are inferior to interviews in hotel suites or to interviews at tables in noisy cavernous hotel meeting rooms? Do they need to be conducted at all in order to come up with a short list of three or four candidates? Is there some reason why there is not enough information contained in the dossiers of the job applicants? We are given the applicants’ grades, their writing samples, letters of recommendation, teaching evaluations, and statements of purpose. What exactly is missing that could not be gleaned from a Skype interview? Are we trying to find out the firmness of their handshake? Whether they know which fork to use? Maybe size up the cut of their jib by evaluating their fashion sense?
It is puzzling to me that philosophers want to continue the practice of APA interviews, but if some feel compelled to do so, it is far from obvious that the practice should be sanctioned and supported by a professional organization, much less that we should be scrambling to find the financial resources needed to perpetuate the existence of an organization that supports this practice.
It might be argued that the APA’s Jobs for Philosophers serves an important role in the job search cycle, but this assumes that the APA is needed for such a publication. In fact, matters are currently backwards. Jobs for Philosophers has become a critical cash cow for the APA, it is doing more for the APA than the APA is doing for it. I would suggest that an independent organization could publish this information just as effectively, without exploiting it as a device to tax schools and job seekers in an effort to keep the APA afloat.
This leads to the role of the APA in organizing the three divisional meetings. Again, the question is, do we really need the APA to organize and put on large philosophical meetings? For that matter, do we even need large philosophical meetings? I know that the argument is that one has the opportunity to hear talks on a range of topics that one wouldn’t otherwise, but my personal experience is that one often ends up going to talks by friends to provide them moral support. A broad range of topics are on offer, but we end up going to talks in our individual areas. There are other options for philosophical breadth, not least is the World Congress of Philosophy, which is offered every few years. If you are an analytic philosopher interested in what is happening in recent French philosophy, then go to a meeting of SPEP (the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy). There is no barrier to organizing meetings with a broad range of topics if that is the goal. We don’t need a professional organization to make this happen.
In sum, we find ourselves in a situation where the APA is badly in need of financial resources if it is to be functional. There are options available for raising this money (fundraising, higher meeting fees, a “flagship journal”) but all of these options raise the question of why we should bother. Are we doing all of this just to keep the APA alive? What is the point? I’m asking because I would honestly like to know and because, barring good arguments to the contrary, it looks very much to me like it is time for members of the APA to consider dissolving the organization.
John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy
Evanston, IL 60654
Jan. 28, 2012
Thoughts from readers? Signed comments will be strongly preferred; unsigned comments that have a valid e-mail address will be considered.