From Ragan Fox and Mohan Dutta – This statement reflects the collective view of our working group toward these statements from Distinguished Scholars.
Dialogic responses by some Distinguished Scholars have acknowledged implicit problems with the letter that they originally signed, removed their names from the letter, and offered pathways for structural transformation of the discipline. For instance, Professor Stan Deetz, apologized explicitly for the letter and hurt that it caused. He went on to note structural changes that are necessary in the discipline and processes to address issues of diversity and inclusion. On a similar note, Professor Barbie Zelizer removed her name from the letter and noted the importance of diversity and inclusion over questions of organizational decision-making. These letters depict the vitality of owning problems in the initial DS letter as the basis for a collaborative imaginary that is diverse and inclusive. In contrast and disappointingly, several DS issued statements that minimized the elitism embodied in the letter, highlighted process issues, and deflected from pain invoked by what many in the field, and particularly scholars at the margins, read as exclusionary discourses.
Some of the Distinguished Scholars who signed Dr. Zarefsky’s troubling letter have spent the last few days singing the same, problematic refrain. Some members claim they attached their name to the document because 1) NCA’s Executive Committee did not consult with the group and 2) the nomination process is responsible for 99.04% of their members being White. These claims are troublesome for several reasons.
First, it is now common knowledge that the EC contacted the DS about their lack of diversity multiple times and over the course of several years (see https://www.natcom.org/distinguished-scholars). Suggesting that the EC blindsided the DS perpetuates a falsehood.
Second, the Distinguished Scholars have known for two decades that, until 2007, only White people joined their ranks. Accepting one man of color in the past decade is racial tokenism, not inclusion. The Distinguished Scholars have done nothing of consequence to address structural, racist issues at play in their protocol. Racism isn’t about intention, racism is about consequence. Claiming you signed a letter because your INTENT was to address the flawed nomination process reframes racism as a matter of INTENTION instead of CONSEQUENCE. That strategy is implicitly racist.
Next, people responding to structural racism in our organization are unmoved by the suggestion that some Distinguished Scholars have just now created a solution to make the group more diverse. For example, Dr. Medhurst claims that he has a solution to the alleged nomination problem but will not publicly share his proposal. The presumption is that a White man complicit in the group’s structural racism and a man who just proudly pre-released a racist editorial, is the same person who has the insight to fix the group’s race-related exigencies without transparency or direct input from the very people of color who forced the DS’s hand on this issue. Again, the DS has known about its Whiteness predilection for two decades and failed to do anything of CONSEQUENCE. The EC took away the DS’s power to exclusively ordain excellence and distinction because their exclusive governance IS the problem. Again, racism is about consequence (99.04% White members), not intention (“I thought signing the letter meant…”).
Finally, cherry picking nominations as the problem shifts blame onto people of color. The implication is that 1) people of color are not included in a club that is 99.04% White because they are not actively pursuing nominations, and 2) the people of color nominated are presumably not excellent enough. This rhetorical trap fails to account for the DS’s hand in encouraging nominations. The argument also does not address the group’s failure to consequentially modify the nomination process over the course of two decades. In short, several members of the DS rationalize signing the letter because they felt the EC’s move stripped them of agency. That claim willfully ignores decades in which the DS had exclusive agency to address the problem and did nothing that resulted in demonstrable change. Suggesting that people of color aren’t nominated re-inscribes the racist assumptions that have culminated in this moment.
Martin J. Medhurst, Martin_Medhurst@baylor.edu via CRTNET
The following editorial was originally scheduled to run in volume 22:3 of Rhetoric & Public Affairs. Because the NCA leadership has now made public the documents concerning the decision to remove the Distinguished Scholars from their role as electors, the chief purpose of the editorial has been achieved.
The secondary purpose-to open a dialogue on issues of diversity, identity, ideology, and scholarship–has begun. I am, therefore, pulling the editorial from the journal. Instead, I am pleased to announce that in place of the editorial R & PA will devote a special issue to the topic of “The Politics of ‘Merit’ in Academic Disciplines,” to be guest edited by Dr. Kirt H. Wilson of Penn State University. Please direct all inquiries to Dr. Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over the past 22 years, I have seldom used the pages of Rhetoric & Public Affairs to make editorial statements. I have not done so because I wanted to avoid the politicization that inevitably accompanies strong positions on important issues. The pages of our journal have been open to all perspectives-left, right, and center-and scholars of all identities-gay and straight, men and women, black and white and brown, believer and atheist, Christians, Jews, and other faith traditions, graduate students and full professors, and even a couple of undergraduates.
We recently received a submission from a scholar who identifies as trans. That scholar will receive the same consideration as any other-her scholarship will be judged on its merits, not on the identity category of its author. And that’s the way it should be.
Unfortunately, a recent policy change by the Executive Committee (EC) of the National Communication Association (NCA) is based on precisely the opposite premise-that identity ought to control in areas where it has historically not been prioritized. The change is being pursued under the banner of “diversity,” which is, of course a god-term of our age, and rightly so. I believe in diversity, and you probably do, too.
But there is a difference in trying to promote diversity within a scholarly consensus about intellectual merit and prioritizing diversity in place of intellectual merit. There is a difference in running an issue of a journal that features two female scholars, a black scholar, and a graduate student, all of whose work has been accepted through the process of blind review versus saying to oneself, “I need to publish some female scholars and black scholars and graduate students so everyone will know that I believe in diversity.” Along that pathway lies disaster, for once we substitute identity for scholarly merit as the first consideration, we have lost our reason for being academics.
This is precisely what the EC of NCA is currently in the process of doing. It began with an attack on the association’s own Distinguished Scholars. Since the establishment of the Distinguished Scholars Award in 1991, every year nominations have been solicited and new Distinguished Scholars selected from among those nominated. There are now 70 living NCA Distinguished Scholars. Since 2015, the nomination process has been open to the entire NCA membership.
Prior to 2015, the NCA Distinguished Scholars made the nominations. The nominations were then voted on by the Distinguished Scholars, and anywhere from one to five new Distinguished Scholars were selected annually. For more than a decade, there has been a shared concern that the nomination process was not yielding many people of color. Expanding the nominators to include all members of NCA was one of several efforts made to expand the pool of nominees. Yet only a handful of people of color were nominated and only one was elected as a Distinguished Scholar of NCA. These are the facts.
Unfortunately, the EC has chosen to react to these facts not by enthusiastically encouraging more nominations but by scapegoating the entire group of NCA Distinguished Scholars, blaming them for the lack of diverse nominations, and implicitly accusing them of racism for not selecting more people of color. The problems with these accusations are multiple.
First, for the last four years the Distinguished Scholars have not been the primary nominators-the entire NCA membership has been. Yet even that expanded nomination base has not produced the desired results-very few people of color have been nominated-so why lay all the blame on the Distinguished Scholars?
Second, the EC has chosen to strip the Distinguished Scholars of the responsibility for selecting the new scholars, thus taking away their one and only remaining responsibility and removing from the selection process the field’s most qualified judges of scholarly merit. Since 1991, only the existing pool of Distinguished Scholars has selected the next group of scholars to join their ranks.
Now, the EC has decided to remove the Distinguished Scholars as electors and replace them with a group selected by NCA leadership. No scholarly credentials are apparently required for this new group of electors-at least none has been announced.
The new selection committee will be guided by “diversity,” not intellectual merit. Third, the EC, in attacking their own Distinguished Scholars, has apparently overlooked the fact that most of the current group come from Research 1 and Research 2 institutions, where most of the minority, female, and other diverse populations obtained their doctoral degrees. It is the very group that the EC is attacking and implicitly accusing of racism that mentored, and taught, and advised, and published with the scholars they are now being accused of abandoning. What nonsense! But this is only the beginning.
The EC chose to attack the Distinguished Scholars first because that group is the epitome of intellectual merit. The attack currently being waged is not just on the Distinguished Scholars. The attack is on using intellectual merit as the chief criterion, not only for the selection of Distinguished Scholars, but also for the selection of journal editors, and presumably, the selection of what those newly diversified journal editors will choose to publish-it is an attack on the very foundations of Communication as a research discipline.
Most of the Distinguished Scholars, under the leadership of David Zarefsky, have protested these attacks and the removal of the Distinguished Scholars’ chief responsibility of selecting their own membership. Some 66 of the 70 living Distinguished Scholars have signed a letter of protest, including seven members of the R & PA editorial board, all of whom I consulted during the preparation of this editorial. I, too, was one of the signatories.
As important as the Distinguished Scholar issue is, the far more important issue is what sort of organization the NCA will be. One where selections are made on intellectual merit or one where identity is prioritized over intellectual and scholarly merit? One where new journal editors are chosen on their background, publication record, vision, and experience, or one where the color of one’s skin or one’s gender trumps everything else?
Will we be a field in which journal submissions are judged by competent reviewers who are blind to the identity of the author, or a field where editorial boards are filled with the “right” number of people from the “right” categories. The EC has already issued a document that calls for populating editorial boards with more “diverse” people, whether they are scholars or not.
Let me be clear: I strongly support diversity and recognize that social, cultural, and racial perspectives make a difference in what is studied and how it is studied. The work of the field has been enriched as it has become more diverse. That is a belief, I am sure, shared by the Distinguished Scholars as a group. We support diversity, but not at the price of displacing scholarly merit as the chief criterion for selecting Distinguished Scholars, choosing journal editors, and evaluating research.
Only the concerted effort of the entire NCA membership can stop identity from displacing scholarly merit as the governing norm of the discipline. To register your concerns write to NCA president Star Muir (email@example.com) and the members of the Executive Committee, whose names and addresses can be found at (https://www.natcom.org/about-nca/what-nca/leadership-and-governance). We can have diversity within scholarship, but only if scholarship is our first priority.
Martin J. Medhurst
All are posted in the spirit of transparency.
Patrice Buzzanell Chair’s Response to Distinguished Scholars Selection Process
The top article of Inside Higher Education today is “When White Scholars Pick White Scholars” (see also CRTNET, June 12, 2019, Number 17193).
In terms of the main points, the article and recent posts are right—the Distinguished Scholars (DSs) are mostly white, the nomination process is open to everyone, and the DSs select new DSs. Zarefsky’s letter pointed out the frustrations that the DSs felt in not being consulted. I signed that petition. In contrast, Medhurst acted on his own in crafting and publicizing his views.
There is no doubt that the system needs to change. The DSs have argued that they can’t elect someone who hasn’t been nominated. That’s true but it’s more complicated than that. The nomination process is very simple—basically a CV and a one page nomination written by anyone including self-nominations with no identifiers as to who generated the nomination. There are no letters of support needed. The DSs themselves made this change a few years ago to encourage more nominations. The problems with the system are (a) that few seek nominations—this happens with awards across associations—and (b) that the winnowing procedures produce such a small number of winners. There need to be committees who actively seek and construct nominations and there need to be other changes to produce higher numbers elected. For example, in ICA the Fellows changed the requirements to requiring a simple majority of positive votes. The result is more women, international scholars, and scholars of color.
It’s well beyond the time when we should have been having this conversation about the DSs. Our department is well versed in politics of difference. Many of us have worked toward inclusivity over the course of our careers and I am proud to be in a department where I have colleagues, including our students, staff, and advisors, who work on these and other significant concerns. That doesn’t mean that we get everything right all the time. Having been on the NCA Task Force for Inclusivity for several years in which we gathered data and encouraged structural and other changes to transform the face of our association to reflect current and future membership, changes in the DS and other procedures are incontrovertibly necessary.
Please note that these are my own views. I am neither speaking for the other DSs nor am I speaking officially on behalf of our department.
From Celeste Condit, who is not on Facebook.
I wish to join Mary Stuckey, Gerard Hauser, and any others who have made public retractions of their signing of the now-infamous letter from the Distinguished Scholars to the NCA Executive Council with regard to the issue of the lack of diversity in the NCA Distinguished Scholars. As those who were party to the on-line “discussion” (an email thread) will tell you, at the time of its drafting, I objected to the sentiments of the letter. I urged that instead of expressing anger at the Executive Committee over retraction of our rights or privileges that we propose an alternative means to accelerate the diversity of the DS’s. Other women Distinguished Scholars also expressed their concerns. David Zarefsky incorporated my proposal as a possibility, although he did not rewrite the document to fit the emphasis we would have preferred. Although I still found the overall sentiment of the letter objectionable, I felt that I needed to sign the letter to have a “place at the table” to participate in what I (naively) hoped would be future positive discussions between the Distinguished Scholars and the Executive Council.
It is now obvious that I was mistaken about the possibility of future positive discussions. Having been made aware of the errancy of my hopes, I withdraw my support of the letter. I apologize for what may seem to others as perceived slowness in doing so. I am not on CRTnet or social media, and my dear, caring former students have had to make me apprised of the context that makes it imperative for me to take this public action.
I look forward to a rapid increase in diversity among the Distinguished Scholars of NCA. I thank Mary Stuckey for posting this letter on my behalf and for her leadership in modeling withdrawal of support for the letter by Distinguished Scholars.
A STATEMENT FROM THE CAS (PENN STATE) DISTINGUISHED SCHOLARS OF THE NATIONAL COMMUNICATION ASSOCIATION:
Earlier this year, the Executive Committee of the National Communication Association changed the process for selecting the association’s new Distinguished Scholars. That decision was based on the fact that existing institutional practices throughout the academy and the discipline have excluded scholars representing diverse intellectual communities from the ranks of the Distinguished Scholars. In response, almost all of the NCA Distinguished Scholars signed on to a complaint about the unilateral change of policy by the Executive Committee. In doing so, the Distinguished Scholars called out a technical or procedural error in what is instead a moral issue.
We, the NCA Distinguished Scholars of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State, are committed to learning from our colleagues and students and to understanding the implications we previously failed to appreciate.
First and foremost, we are learning that the experience and assertion of privilege shapes much of what we do in ways we do not realize. This is a lesson we cannot comprehend without listening to our colleagues who embody diverse experiences and perspectives.
We are also learning that there are various approaches to a problem, and our vision of what is a good or feasible is shaped by privilege.
We are learning that efforts to improve access to an academy, as conceived of by the people who got to create it, isn’t the same as embracing diversity and inclusion.
We are learning that our discipline is stronger when we recruit, include, and celebrate all of our strengths, because intellectual diversity leads to more rigorous, complex, and textured argument.
We are learning that celebrating excellence throughout our discipline means we have to enable people to imagine that they can be part of our discipline’s definition of excellence.
We are learning that this problem belongs to all of us. We are undermined as a discipline when we diminish perceptions of excellence in any of our diverse intellectual spaces. We are undermined as a discipline when our most taxed scholars – those who embody excellence and diversity – are called upon to devote their energy to fighting a fight that belongs to all of us.
We are learning that we have a lot to learn if we are going to help our discipline mitigate power differences and develop an appreciation for diverse lived experiences, for complicated personal and scholarly paths, and for the sacrifice and commitment that leads to excellence in all its forms.
As NCA Distinguished Scholars, we should have engaged this discussion differently from the start. It was not a moment to critique the actions of NCA’s Executive Committee; it was a moment to support diversity and inclusion within our discipline. On that latter issue, we have no ambivalence. We stand ready to serve the entirety of the NCA community, and we are committed to listen and to learn how to do so.
Statement from RSA/Gerard Hauser:
June 14, 2019
The last few days have witnessed controversy over a letter written by the Distinguished Scholars of the National Communication Association, of which I am one, in response to a change in the process for selecting its Distinguished Scholars, of which I was a signatory. Some of you may not be familiar with NCA’s DS designation, so permit me to provide a brief background.
NCA established its DS designation in 1991 to acknowledge career achievement in the study of human communication. To be considered, a scholar must be in the discipline at least 20 years. The designation recognizes career achievements as a researcher, mentor, and influence on the study of human communication. Candidates are nominated with a cover letter and a separate unsigned one-page statement that provides a context for the candidate’s accomplishments. Self-nominations are disallowed. Candidate CVs and the one-page anonymous contextualizing are distributed to the DS group. Unlike RSA, whose Fellows are selected by the Society’s Awards committee, heretofore DS selection was made by the extant DS group, which ranked up to half or fewer the candidates under consideration. To become a DS, one must be ranked by 50% of the voters, with the highest ranked, up to a maximum of 4, selected in any given year.
At the time I was named a DS, 2005, the 52 honorees included only 8 white women and no scholars of color. Several measures were adopted to address this imbalance, including opening the nomination process to the entire membership. The results have been positive but not stellar in the case of women scholars, with 14 of the 50 selected since then being white women, but only one male scholar of color. To address this glaring absence, NCA’s Executive Committee determined that in the future the DS would not be selected by the DS group, as in the past. It established a selection committee to be named by NCA’s Leadership Development Committee (i.e., a committee on committees). The DS group took this action of being informed without consultation as a vote of no confidence in its ability to address the problem all agree exists. It responded with a letter to refute the action. There were two key responses to the DS letter—a letter by Star Muir, NCA President to the DS and one by Marty Medhurst, a DS and editor of Public Affairs, in the form of an editorial intended to run in his journal. Medhurst’s intended editorial, unfortunately, instantiates how a position of privilege can make us blind to the consequences of actions that reproduce that privilege. That letter has led me to reflect on my own commitments and, because I signed the DS letter and also have an official capacity in RSA, recognize this is an important moment to publicly address RSA’s commitments and my own.
I will start with my commitments. I am a white male in his 70s. That position has consequences. Being a white male in the US, I recognize that every day I must work at reassessing my privilege that comes with being a white male of a certain age. I recognize that I do not always succeed. I did not succeed in this particular case because I lost sight of the problem that transpires when a homogeneous group of predominately male and almost exclusively white scholars assess the impact and contribution of scholars whose work may address issues outside a white person’s experience. As one who has been named a Distinguished Scholar of NCA I am less concerned with how that designation is made than I am that NCA be welcoming, supportive, open, and fair to all its members. That value can only be lived if I learn from scholars whose research reflects the full range of lived experience. My signature on the original DS letter did not reflect that value.
As Executive Director of RSA, it is important that my commitments to inclusivity, to a welcoming Society, and to learning from perspectives beyond my experience are reflected in my own actions and in the exercise of my influence as a person in a position to strengthen RSA in these regards. RSA now has the most diverse board in its history. I work for them and for you to make the board’s composition an opportunity for RSA to embrace more completely and openly the way rhetoric shapes our lives and society. As its Executive Director, I strive to aid the board and officers to make its processes, its committee composition, its events, and its publications reflect these values, and where there are perceived problems, to address them. RSA is not perfect; it is a work in progress. For example, two weeks ago the board charged its president to examine its awards structures to address concerns of bias. The same imperative holds that I strive to learn from its officers, board, editors, and administrative offices about the myriad ways RSA is experienced and how we might continue to improve.
Regardless of my intent at the time, I regret that signing the DS letter was not conducive to expressing the principles that I value or the aims that I seek as Executive Director of RSA.
Gerard A. Hauser
The Rhetoric Society of America
©2019 Rhetoric Society of America
5465 Centennial Trail
Boulder CO 80303-1267
Barbie Zelizer has asked me to share this. Friends, powerful people are listening.
I am a bit late in getting to the conversation, but I am profoundly dismayed and disconcerted at what I am reading in response to the Distinguished Scholars letter that was sent to NCA, much of it from colleagues, scholars and friends I know well and admire.
Like many other DS, I signed the letter to protest a perceived unilateral workaround of the DS’s role and involvement in addressing diversity and inclusion. My commitment to diversity and inclusion is far greater and more important than a perceived irregularity in organizational decision-making. I apologize to all those who were hurt by my signature, and I withdraw my name from the DS letter.
I am invested in helping achieve far greater diversity and inclusion across all ranks of our field. It is the only way forward. Best, b
Edward Schiappa Regarding the new NCA process for selecting Distinguished Scholar Award winners:
To be an ethical communicator, one has to be open to the risk of having one’s self changed. The recent conversation about NCA’s Distinguished Scholar Award has changed me. It is one thing to know, as I have long known in general terms, that I benefit from and am complicit within a system that privileges me while marginalizing others, but it is quite another to have such a vivid and concrete example held up in front of you saying, “see?” I see, and I am sorry. I should have recognized that decisions about diversity must be made in full, empowered collaboration with those who are most excluded and marginalized by existing structures and practices.
The day I received the phone call that I was going be a Distinguished Scholar was one of the happiest moments of my career. When you work really hard for decades, it’s tempting to make an internal attribution to explain your success: I won the award solely because I worked hard and deserved it. But that commits the fundamental attribution error by underestimating the influence of the structural advantages I had in my life and career–being white, being male, participating in academia and benefiting from elite institutions, networking with (mostly) white males in positions of power. I am reminded of how I am implicated in a system of privilege.
I signed the Zarefsky letter because I shared the perception, at the time, that other proposed remedies to the lack of diversity of DSs had not been pursued adequately. I feel it would be dishonest for me to retract my signature now, even though I would not sign it today. I understand and support what the EC’s new DS selection process strives to accomplish. And I am in solidarity with my friend Kirt Wilson and greatly admire his choices.
Diversity is no threat to merit. If at least part of the Distinguished Scholar Award is about discipline-changing scholarship, then this is a moment to recognize and celebrate the ways our discipline is being transformed, made more purposefully inclusive, and for the DS Award to be part of that transformation rather than a potential obstacle. I am looking forward to the future and cheering on the 2019 Distinguished Scholars when they are selected.
From Stan Deetz
As many of you who know me know, my heart always wants to go forward to fix things rather than sort out the past. But I sincerely apologize for the hurt created by the DS letter and my signature and have asked that my name be removed.
Like others, I signed the letter to protest a perceived heavy-handed exclusion of the DS’s role and involvement in addressing diversity and inclusion. I felt that many DS have spent their lives working on their own campuses and in the profession on behalf of fair treatment and inclusion. I thought good steps were being made, but of course always too slowly. And I was hurt and reactive to some of the broad stroke claims made about DS. As well stated in the Penn State DS letter, I/we should have risen above the politics and claims, to engage more deeply, thoughtfully and expediently. I am ashamed of that.
As hard as many of these posts have been, I have been fortunate to be part of good conversations, to see great beginnings of plans that might make a difference and a deep commitment to deal with the more pervasive systemic and structure exclusion and disadvantaging practices. There is hope in hurt.
But again my profound apologies for the hurt caused. I will do my best to move conversations to actions.
John Louis Lucaites
A number of people I respect and care a great deal about have asked me to retract my signature from David Zarefsky’s letter to NCA on behalf of the Distinguished Scholars. I have pondered this carefully, reflecting on my own complicity with the problems that surround the issue of inclusion and diversity in NCA. Here are my thoughts:
1. I was convinced that the process for selecting Distinguished Scholars was flawed and in need of change. I participated in the conversations at NCA regarding how such changes might be enacted so as promote greater diversity and inclusion in future cohorts of Distinguished Scholars. Though I did not think that recommendations we made would solve the problem by themselves I did think that they were an important start.
2. The NCA Executive Committee rejected those recommendations out of hand and without any interest in discussing or negotiating the matter. This was, in my judgment, ham-handed and displayed a measure of political ineptitude that is hard to imagine for people trained in communication. I signed the DS letter to indicate my indignation and with the hope that the Executive Committee would reconsider its position, at least to the point of discussing options for moving forward. President Muir responded with a letter that doubled-down on the original Executive Committee position. Though I was unsatisfied by that response I acknowledged the authority of the Executive Committee and considered the matter closed, assuming that the new policy would be enacted. I do not regret signing the letter and will not rescind my signature on it. That said, I deeply regret Marty Medhurst’s ill-conceived characterization of that letter and the beliefs and attitudes that his letter expresses. But to be clear: I was not asked to sign the Medhurst letter, I did not sign that letter, and I would not have signed that letter if I had been asked. One last thing: It was (and continues to be) my intention to respect the new process, to personally congratulate each of the next slate of selectees, and to welcome them to the community of Distinguished Scholars with every bit of enthusiasm as I have done in the past.
3. I continue to be confounded by the argument that some seem to think that “merit” and “diversity” or “inclusion” are inherently oppositional terms. I certainly do not believe that, and for my part will work hard to help clarify how these concepts might work together in productive ways (both in theory and in practice) to enhance the disciplines of rhetoric and communication studies—disciplines to which I have dedicated 45 years of professional life. What I will ask, however, is that no side in the discussion rest content with the notion that its ideas are inherently superior and correct. I think we have had too much of that on all accounts.
John Louis Lucaites
From Robert Hariman
This is my first public statement in the discussion provoked by Marty Medhurst’s editorial. I’m one of the signatories of the letter by the Distinguished Scholars to the Executive Committee, and on the editorial boards (among others) of Rhetoric & Public Affairs and the Michigan State University Press book series on the history of public address, for which I’m co-editor of the proposed 10th volume.
Despite being asked to retract, resign, renounce, or at least make a statement on the controversy, I’ve been reluctant to speak for a number of reasons. The first is that I am heartsick about the current situation. I have friends on both sides of the generational divide that is at the core of the controversy. I know that recent events have revealed and produced deep pain and anger, as well as frustration, anxiety, and alienation. I have observed arguments by good people and fine scholars that are distorted, incorrect, or otherwise seriously lacked in context. I fear that all are subject to the worst tendencies of the current historical moment, not least its media-driven polarization. Most important, I don’t believe for a minute that there is an inherent choice between diversity and merit, and I do believe that the continuing expansion of the diversity and inclusion in our discipline is essential and a source of strength.
I had thought that the most sensible response in the near term was to say nothing, to take a breath, and to reflect on how much everyone in our intellectual community depends on everyone else. I also respect those who are asking for a statement, so I’ll try to address some of the issues.
Broadly speaking, I believe that the national association should be run by those in their 50s, not those in their 60s and beyond: that is, the center of gravity should with the new full professors and as they are primarily in conversation with those in the ranks below them. My generation has aged out, and that’s as it should be. Once the EC had announced that its decision was final, I assumed the matter was over.
That said, the organization should be run well. Despite having minimal investment in the Distinguished Scholar award (I’ve never attended a meeting of the group), I signed the letter sent to the executive committee for three reasons: First, I thought the EC decision was substantively and politically wrong. The problem was a lack of nominations, not bias in selection. And although the DS had demonstrated a willingness to adjust their procedures to improve diversity—not least by opening nominations to all NCA members four years before—and had requested negotiations with the EC regarding additional changes to be made, they had been rebuffed, which is not exactly the best way to deal with your colleagues. Second, individuals whom I respected for their extensive contributions and leadership within NCA were very upset by the actions of the EC, not least its dismissive response and lack of transparency about what the new arrangement would involve. Some respect and support was owed for that reason. Third, and as stated above, I believe that one need not choose between diversity and merit. It may be that individuals on each side thought otherwise, but I saw that question as settled. Because none of these reasons have changed, I will not retract my signature. Furthermore, retraction draws attention away from the fact that the EC made a botch of a not difficult procedural negotiation. Their mistake probably contributed to what happened next, and the EC should bear some responsibility for that.
And we know what happened next: Marty Medhurst’s editorial. It has become a disaster, and for many or most readers it is the framing device for reading the early letter to the EC. Yes, the two texts are related, but the editorial is a far different statement. I did not sign that document and never would have signed it. Full disclosure: Marty showed me a draft, and I wasn’t thrilled about it, but I figured he had the right to say what he wanted to say: He had founded the journal (which received an award from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals) and run it superbly for decades, along with book series that had published over 50 books, most of them by young scholars. And he’s one of the best editors, perhaps the best editor I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve reviewed for over 50 journals in a half dozen disciplines and several countries as well as multiple book series. The high quality of his work includes publishing many articles he very probably did not agree with, and rejecting articles that he very, very likely did agree with, always because he deferred to merit as he understood it—and, frankly, as many of us in several generations recognize it in practice.
One thing for sure: I underestimated the editorial’s effect. I thought it would be read as a tone-deaf editorial stating positions that are debated throughout the human sciences; as such, I saw it as a regrettable mistake but not a grave moral error. At the same time that I have admired Marty’s editing, I’ve at times rolled my eyes when he would speak on disciplinary issues at our conferences; and I’ve rolled by eyes more than once when some of his critics have spoken, while still recognizing and valuing their important contributions to our community. But it seems that game has changed.
So where are we? Immediate decisions include deciding what to do with the MSUP publications of Rhetoric & Public Affairs and the book series, and with the Distinguished Scholar award. I’m staying on the journal and MSUP boards because decisions need to be made and I believe I have a responsibility to be there. If subsequent editors want not to include me, I will have no problem with that.
Regarding the DS award, there are both procedural and structural issues. As I said, I accept the EC decision, although I think they, too, need to be held accountable, and they may want to rethink how they talk with people when reformulating the selection process.
It also might help to keep in mind how the DS award sits with regard to the other association awards. For entry level scholars, there are the dissertation and Young Scholar awards. The best article and book awards largely go to associate and early full professors. The Distinguished Scholar award is a career award. That means it is unavoidably distorted by the history of the discipline. We do need to atone and compensate for that history, but we can’t change it. The struggles for all those who had been excluded from graduate school, R1 appointments, and so forth are reflected in the disparity between the younger cohorts today and ranks of those in the DS ranks. Other differences are evident as well: there are more in rhetoric and quantitative social science than in critical cultural studies, although that certainly will change over time; here are few ethnographers, although later nominations are likely to reflect that shift; etc. If there is any evidence of current structural or individual bias in selection, that must be identified and corrected, but there is a basic error in confusing that problem with the historical record. Career awards are always going to be out of date in an important sense. That may be one reason not to have them. If we do choose to have them, let’s be realistic about what they can and can’t do.
And so we get back to nominations. Did you nominate someone? That’s a distressing question, isn’t it? One thing we know for certain is that almost everyone who has commented, signed a letter, or otherwise spoken on the current controversy has never nominated anyone for a DS award. I have nominated one person, and sure enough, that nomination reflected a disciplinary history. If the DS did not nominate qualified candidates when they alone could nominate, that’s on them. For the past four years, however, it’s on NCA as a whole. My guess is that the primary causes were overwork and the good habit of not thinking too much about awards; a likely result is not finding the time to make the effort to nominate someone. That is a problem the EC could fix, perhaps even with the help of the DS. If some thought that no nominations would succeed due to biased selection, one can ask whether that had been demonstrated, and it any case it is no way to produce change.
More than once this past week, I’ve been close to checking out of NCA altogether. If the structural problem is as comprehensive as some believe, that would help, so I don’t expect a lot of tears. I mention it as one sign of my heartache, occasional anger, and other difficult emotions as they have been swirling through this controversy. I’m still in, and I’m hoping everyone can take a breath and reflect on how much we have inherited. That inheritance has obvious flaws, which absolutely should not be continued, and some of which are directly evident in the current composition of the DS, but all of us are here in part because of the work of those who came before. We will continue to be here, one way or another, because of the work being done now and in the decades to come. Whether that is done well, with courage and with consideration for one another, is up to us.
The last few days have witnessed controversy over a letter written by the Distinguished Scholars of the National Communication Association, of which I am one, in response to a change in the process for selecting its Distinguished Scholars, of which I was a signatory. I am also the Executive Director of the Rhetoric Society of America. Prof. Medhurst’s intended editorial response to what was a contested internal administrative decision has made it a public issue.
Unfortunately, the intended editorial instantiates how a position of privilege can blind us to the consequences of actions that reproduce that privilege. The Medhurst statement and responses have led me to reflect on my own commitments and, because I signed the DS letter and also have an official capacity in a sibling society, recognize this is an important moment to publicly address these commitments and their intersections with NCA and with the commitments of RSA.
I will start with my commitments. I am a white male in his 70s. That position has consequences. Being a white male in the US, I recognize that every day I must work at reassessing my privilege that comes with being a white male of a certain age. I recognize that I do not always succeed. I did not succeed in this particular case because I lost sight of the problem that transpires when a homogeneous group of predominately male and almost exclusively white scholars assess the impact and contribution of scholars whose work may address issues outside a white person’s experience.
As one who has been named a Distinguished Scholar of NCA I am less concerned with how that designation is made than I am that NCA be welcoming, supportive, open, and fair to all its members. That value can only be lived if I learn from scholars whose research reflects the full range of lived experience. My signature on the original DS letter did not reflect that value.
As Executive Director of RSA, it is important that my commitments to inclusivity, to a welcoming Society, and to learning from perspectives beyond my experience are reflected in my own actions and in the exercise of my influence as a person in a position to strengthen RSA in these regards. RSA now has the most diverse board in its history.
I work for them and for its members to make the board’s composition an opportunity for RSA to embrace more completely and openly the way rhetoric shapes our lives and society. As its Executive Director, I strive to aid the board and officers to make its processes, its committee composition, its events, and its publications reflect these values, and where there are perceived problems, to address them. RSA is not perfect; it is a work in progress.
For example, two weeks ago the board charged its president to examine its awards structures to address concerns of bias. The same imperative holds that I strive to learn from its officers, board, editors, and administrative offices about the myriad ways RSA is experienced and how we might continue to improve.
Regardless of my intent at the time, I regret that signing the DS letter was not conducive to expressing the principles that I value or the aims that I seek as Executive Director of RSA.
As a Distinguished Scholar awardee and a signer of the much-criticized DS letter protesting the NCA Executive Committee’s decision to change the DS selection process, I would like to express my hope that NCA can move forward with the new process without further rancor or further damage to the award’s reputation, and that that the new process will do a better job than we have done of honoring the full diversity of excellent scholarship in our field.
Robert T. Craig
University of Colorado Boulder
Statement from the Distinguished Scholars of the NCA Organizational Communication Division
The last few days have placed in stark relief for us how much anger and distress we have caused many of our dear friends and colleagues in the field. We apologize for the pain that our actions have caused. This underscores for us the systemic exclusion and lack of participatory opportunities that many members of NCA have experienced. By not actively making changes to the DS procedures, we have contributed to the perpetuation of such consequences for the association and its many accomplished scholars.
We recognize the importance of being part of the solution, and no longer part of the problem. We want to be participants in the conversations and structural changes that our field will no doubt engage in moving forward. We rededicate ourselves to doing the hard and (always) ongoing work of helping to create a professional association—in all its manifestations—that is fully inclusive and that recognizes the plurality and multiplicity of scholarly excellence. We are ready and willing to participate in the ongoing struggle to make our field an open and inclusive place to teach, produce excellent research, and serve our broader communities.
As a Distinguished Scholar awardee and a signer of the much-criticized DS letter protesting the NCA Executive Committee’s decision to change the DS selection process, I would like to express my hope that NCA can move forward with the new process without further rancor or further damage to the award’s reputation, and that that the new process will do a better job than we have done of honoring the full diversity of excellent scholarship in our field.
Robert T. Craig
Message from Carolyn Ellis and Arthur Bochner
We write from Copenhagen, Denmark. We arrived here Monday in the midst of ongoing conversations about the March 29th and April 2nd letters sent to the NCA Executive Committee by David Zarefsky, one of which was signed by 66 NCA Distinguished Scholars. The public dissemination of the editorial by Martin Medhurst on June 11th transformed these letters into manifestly different documents than they were when originally conceived.
One symbolic solution that has been proposed is to un-sign the letters. But un-signing may do little more than further divide the DS into “signed/unsigned” or “good DS/bad DS” and create yet another polarization. Un-signing can never negate the fact that we signed. Un-signing is not enough, not nearly enough.
The DS need to be accountable for the brute fact that we signed the letter without raising important questions. We did not seek more clarifying data, take greater responsibility for the lack of nominations, or oppose the overly restrictive criteria and tabulation rules, which inevitably failed to result in the selection of a sufficiently diverse and inclusive group of scholars whom we haven’t ourselves nominated for consideration.
Personally, we (Art and Carolyn) do not want to be taken off the hook. Un-signing can become an empty symbolic gesture unless it calls the un-signer to meaningful moral actions that will make a difference. In the absence of accountability, what we may get is an un-signer who expresses a commitment to diversity and inclusiveness but can’t be counted on when it is time to do something (for example, vote or nominate).
For the past twenty-five years, the two of us—and many of our former students—have promoted the importance of putting pain, trauma, suffering, and social injustice on the pages of our journals in embodied ways that can be felt and calls people to transformative and healing actions. The pain that has been experienced by so many people affected by systemic exclusion is palpable and heartbreaking. We look forward to participating in the hard work to which accountability calls us.
Respectfully, Carolyn Ellis and Art Bochner
Gerry F Philipsen, firstname.lastname@example.org
As one who 44 years ago called (in QJS) for a turn toward the study of diversity of ways of communicating, I am pleased to see calls for an improved and enhanced system of NCA institutional awards for diversity in research, teaching, and practice.
It seems smart, given the way things are, to alter radically the existing awards structure.
But would abolishing the system of awards altogether be a more constructive way to move from the way things are to the way that we want them to be?
Perhaps a culture critic could enlighten us as to the ideology that underpins a system of awarding medals for research.
David H Zarefsky, email@example.com via CRTNET
Diversity, NCA, and Rhetoric & Public Affairs
My writing has not kept pace with the hyperkinetic pace of social media, so I am coming late to the discussion. I think that what I have to say is still relevant. FYI I am not on social media so any replies need to come via CRTNET or e-mail.
Over the past week, my name has been invoked in posts on CRTNET and social media along with caricatures of positions I barely recognize as mine. Like many, I have been in anguish over the events of the week and the division of cherished friends into opposing groups. I have not made any public statement about these matters. This is my attempt to do so. It will take me some space. Please indulge me.
1. About Me and NCA
Let me start by articulating my subject position as I am aware of it. I am a white male in my 70s. I have been conscious of race for much of my life, having grown up under segregation during the 1950s and early 60s and learning from my parents and my own observation how wrong and harmful it is. I am also the beneficiary of several levels of privilege – not just whiteness but also the family environment in which I grew up, my level of education, where I can afford to live, the kind of institution in which I was privileged to work, and my ability to enjoy relatively early retirement, to name a few.
Much of this privilege is unearned. In my personal conduct I have tried to reflect that recognition. I have not always succeeded to the degree that I would have wished. I hope for the day when privilege will be universal and will be seen as a derivative of everyone’s human dignity.
Much of my scholarship has consisted of investigation of two historical periods in which race has been the central cleavage of deep social division: the pre-Civil War years and the 1960s. I have hoped through that work to contribute in a small way to better understanding of race in American life.
I have been a member of NCA for 51 years. I have given much in service to the association, but it has been a stimulus to much of my best work and has bestowed upon me more than my share of its honors and recognition. It was my great privilege to serve as its president 26 years ago. If I have any continuing reputation within the association, I hope that it is for fairness and good will. I shall try to reflect those qualities in what follows.
2. The Distinguished Scholars Selection Process
I was fortunate to be named a Distinguished Scholar in 1994 and have participated in the selection of scholars since, until this year. The original selection process was modified in 2004, 2008, and 2014 in response to changing conditions, in each case through consultation between the DSs and the Executive Committee. For several years the DSs have shared the concern that our honorees should be more diverse, although they have recognized that the pool of nominees will reflect the history of the discipline, since the DS is a career award. Much of the annual meeting of the DSs in Salt Lake City was devoted to generating proposals for how to do this.
The DSs wanted to work on the nominating process. Here’s why: Only three nominations of scholars of color had been made over the past ten years, and none since 2014, when nominations were opened to the full membership. Not a single person in the association, though expressing concern for this issue, chose to make such a nomination. Since nomination is a prerequisite for selection, the absence of nominations necessarily limited the DS’s ability to select scholars of color.
Some have suggested that the DS process is racist and that is why scholars of color avoid being nominated. I am aware of the theory that people can practice racism without intending it or even realizing it. I know there is such a thing as structural racism, and I find myself increasingly double-checking my actions and statements to try to avoid it. I honestly do not believe that it is operating in the Distinguished Scholars selection process. There are some relevant data. The numbers are not large enough to permit much extrapolation, but they are at least presumptive if not conclusive.
Over the past 10 years (the only period for which data are available), just about the same percentage of nominees have been selected for awards among white males, white females, and scholars of color – approximately one-third of the nominees from each group have been selected as Distinguished Scholars. That suggests to me that (1) given a pool of nominees, the Distinguished Scholars do not in fact merely reproduce themselves, but select across gender and racial categories as well as diverse areas of the discipline, without bias, but (2) the Distinguished Scholars need help in generating enough nominees, especially scholars of color.
When we met in Salt Lake City, the DSs began generating specific proposals for affirmatively pursuing qualified nominees. NCA Executive Director Trevor Parry-Giles was present at our meeting. During the meeting, in an unrelated action, I was asked to serve as the 2019 convener of the Distinguished Scholars.
3. The Letter from the Distinguished Scholars
When we left Salt Lake City, I assumed that the National Office would be in touch with the DSs to refine and discuss how to implement our proposals, as had been done in the previous cases of procedural change. Instead, the next communication was a mass e-mail from Dr. Parry-Giles informing us that the Executive Committee had decided to remove us from the selection process while leaving the nomination process unchanged – exactly the reverse of what we had proposed.
When I received this news, I was angry – not because I coveted a role in selection (it is a very difficult task to go through sometimes over 300 pages of CV’s and make very fine distinctions among qualified nominees) but because I thought it was the wrong way to fix a broken process and because it was wrong for this decision to be made unilaterally without involving the DSs. I expressed my anger in a letter dated March 29 and addressed to Messrs. Muir and Parry-Giles.
During the course of writing that letter, I shared drafts with a few other Distinguished Scholars, seeking their advice. Several asked me, in my role as convener, if I would try drafting a statement different in tone but similar in content, that other DSs might choose individually to sign. I did so. The process was iterative; a few DSs wanted adjustments made before they chose to sign. I tried my best to accommodate them without losing other potential signers. In the end, 66 of the 70 living DSs chose individually to sign this letter, which was dated April 2 and addressed to Messrs. Muir and Parry-Giles. Two DSs declined to sign and two never responded to messages.
The Executive Committee declined to adopt either of the options the DS letter had recommended: (1) reconsidering their decision to change the selection process and working vigorously to implement the DS recommendations for modifying the nominating process, or (2) putting the DS selection on hiatus for a year in order to open a wide-ranging dialogue with the DSs and others about the various issues involved.
Instead, the DSs received a letter dated May 8 from President Muir which I think may be fairly characterized as doubling down on the EC’s original position. I was disappointed, though I recognized the EC’s authority to take this action. After a subsequent e-mail exchange with Professor Muir, I wrote that I was ready to move on. I was. The DSs had tried to convince the EC to change course. We failed. That is hardly the first time in my life that I have made what I thought were compelling arguments that failed to persuade.
One of the protest documents of recent days contends that the DS letter appears to have been designed only for the Executive Committee. Exactly. The disagreement, such as it was, was between the DSs and the EC about how best to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion. There was no discussion of the larger moral issue because that was not in dispute. Everyone involved shared the commitment to these goals. But the procedural issues were not trivial.
4. The Medhurst Editorial
Little over a week ago, Martin Medhurst released through social media what purported to be the text of an editorial to be published in a future issue of Rhetoric & Public Affairs. I was one of the people whom Professor Medhurst consulted in advance about the editorial. I advised him that I did not think the pages of a journal were the appropriate venue for a statement such as he had in mind. Thinking that the general thrust of the statement had been decided upon, I did not actively try to dissuade him from sending it at all. Instead I limited myself to correcting some factual errors and commenting generally about style and tone. My greatest regret about this whole matter is that I did not do more to try to dissuade him from publishing the editorial.
Professor Medhurst made reference to the DS letter, but it should be apparent to anyone who compares the two documents that they raise substantially different issues. The DS letter is not concerned with the rights and responsibilities of the DSs; it is concerned with the best way to enhance diversity. The DS letter does not address the selection of editors and editorial board members. And the DS letter does not suggest in any way that there is a binary between diversity and intellectual merit.
Nevertheless, I soon began to receive messages indicating that some people were reading the two documents as if they were coordinated. Several DSs indicated they were withdrawing their signatures from the DS letter. Of course, anyone who has changed his or her mind – no longer agreeing with what the letter says – should feel free to withdraw. Anyone who still believes the letter is correct but is upset that it has been somehow recontextualized by Professor Medhurst’s editorial and withdraws for that reason is also free to do so but, in my opinion, abets rather than corrects the misinterpretation of the DS letter. The well-considered judgments in the letter should not be held hostage to the views in Professor Medhurst’s editorial written later.
Two DSs e-mailed me urging that I withdraw the entire statement from the DSs, in the belief that this would clear the air. One of them wanted me not only to withdraw but to repudiate the statement. I could not do either. Neither I nor anyone else is empowered to speak for all the DSs. Each of the people who signed the DS letter must act on his or her own. The person who wanted me to repudiate the statement warned me that if I did not do so, I would be the next person whose character and reputation would be attacked. This was a prediction, not a threat.
Sure enough, in Monday’s edition of CRTNET I found the statement of one NCA division accusing me of racism and another misquoting the DS letter to have me say that I thought diversity was a red herring, when the letter said clearly that it was uniformity in methods for selecting NCA award winners that was a red herring. I fear there will be more such attacks on my character and motives. I hope that there are far more fair-minded people who will judge me on the whole record of my career, as I would hope so to judge them.
I will not withdraw my own signature from the DS letter because I still believe what I wrote in it, and because it has no connection to the matters that have inflamed people about the editorial by Professor Medhurst.
As for the editorial itself, I found it in parts inartful, in parts insensitive, in parts inadvertently hurtful. But in one central respect I believe it has been widely misread. Contrary to what many of his critics have asserted, Professor Medhurst does not impose or advocate a binary between diversity and intellectual merit. He calls explicitly for diversity within scholarship. That could occur only if the two were compatible. What I read in the essay was Medhurst’s fear that there were people in NCA trying to impose that binary and to throw scholarship under the bus.
I know of no evidence to support that and believe that his claim is wrong. Equally, some of his adversaries have accused him of trying to impose a binary and to throw diversity under the bus. I know of no evidence to support that either and believe that this claim is equally wrong. Taking those claims out of the picture, I do not think the other problems with the article, though serious, justify the harsh attacks that have been launched against Professor Medhurst and the journal he edits.
I will not discuss the editorial further. Professor Medhurst has wisely withdrawn it and it will not, in fact, appear on the pages of Rhetoric & Public Affairs.
5. The Attack on Rhetoric & Public Affairs
Perhaps because Professor Medhurst’s document is labeled “Editorial,” even though clearly signed only by him and sent from his personal account, one reaction to it has been a very strong attack on his leadership of the journal itself. There have been calls for him to resign as editor, calls for members of the editorial board to resign, and calls to boycott the journal and to urge one’s colleagues and students not to send their work there. These various actions usually are justified with claims that the individuals are so acting because they cannot be identified with a journal of such suspect values or reputation
What is the evidence for the journal’s suspect stature? I am aware of two kinds of allegations. One of the protest documents offers a list of people who say they will not submit work to the journal because they fear that it will not be treated well. This makes for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Individuals withhold their work; their ideas do not get published; and they then can state that the journal is not hospitable to work like theirs. That is no way to work for change. No editor can publish manuscripts that are not submitted.
Second, another e-mail message from recent days states that people will no longer submit work to the journal because they have had an experience of mistreatment at its hands. I chaired the NCA Publications Board 15 years ago and, from time to time, there were similar complaints about virtually every journal. Often the alleged experience of mistreatment was having a submission rejected for what the author did not consider good reason. There is no scholar of any kind, so far as I know, who has not had that experience. I do not mean to trivialize the complaints, but much more needs to be known about them before assigning them great weight.
What evidence is there to the contrary? I can offer a personal example. I have been a member of the R&PA editorial board since the journal’s founding, and a member of the editorial board of the R&PA book series almost as long. I have had a similar experience on the boards of a dozen or more other journals. I have read well over 100 of Professor Medhurst’s decision letters, including many rejection letters. Professor Medhurst’s letters stand out for their fairness and helpfulness.
His own views about scholarly priorities do not influence his judgment; he defers heavily to reviewers he has selected for their fairness and their knowledge of the subject matter; and he takes pains to offer extensive and constructive advice, particularly to emerging scholars, about how they might strengthen their work. Every editor will receive submissions on topics about which he or she has not kept up to date; Professor Medhurst is no exception. That does not mean their capacity for judgment is impaired; it means they will find qualified readers on or off the editorial board and then rely heavily on their judgment.
In sum, I do not believe that the mistakes in Professor Medhurst’s editorial are commensurate with the severity of the attacks on his editorship, especially once one has corrected the misperception that he defends a binary between diversity and intellectual merit.
In Monday’s e-mail traffic, there has been a flurry of proposals for reconstituting or reorganizing the journal. I do not know all the details, but I know enough about the relationships among Professor Medhurst, the journal, and the Michigan State University Press, to say that I do not think those outcomes will happen. The danger that is real is that a boycott of the journal could succeed. If enough people withhold their good work and others with equally strong work do not fill in the gap, the journal will die.
But who will be harmed by that? Not Professor Medhurst, who undoubtedly can find other beneficial things to do with his great intellectual energy and commitment to service. Not people like me, who probably already have enough to read to last for the rest of my life. No, the harm will be to the future of the field, to the emerging faculty and graduate students who will lose a respectable publication outlet that has enabled several of our current scholars to qualify for tenure and promotion. Do we really want to be that suicidal?
I will not resign from the editorial board, because I believe in the journal and its mission. I was appointed by an editor and serve at his pleasure. I will gladly step aside whenever the editor requests it or whenever I conclude that I am no longer able to be of service to aspiring authors.
In all of this discussion about the journal, I am impressed that many people have begun by expressing their respect, admiration, and love for Professor Medhurst, and then have proceeded quickly to set aside those emotions in favor of harsh and unsparing criticism. I hope that we all will be treated more charitably than that when we experience moments of personal crisis, when we say or write something that we desperately wish we could take back. We will have such moments. Social media will make them more likely.
6. The Apology
On June 17 Professor Medhurst posted a statement of apology on CRTNET. He mentioned those he had offended, requested forgiveness, and sketched some of the actions he would begin to take to avoid recurrence. Some judged the apology too late; others, too weak. I cannot agree. The Internet has distorted our sense of time. A week is a very short time for a person, especially one so publicly exposed, to overcome the natural tendency to self-defense, to acknowledge one’s responsibility for having caused harm, to ask forgiveness from those offended, and to outline the initial steps toward repentance. It takes a very large person to be able to do that.
Repentance is a process. Not all the steps can be known in advance. We should take Professor Medhurst at his word and trust him, hoping he will make the concluding phase of his remarkable career the best yet. His long record of selfless service entitles him at least to try for that.
7. My Hope for NCA
The issues stirred up by these recent events are not unique to NCA; they have their equivalents across the academy and beyond. With our training in communication, NCA should be a model for how to address them. We also are more likely than most disciplines to realize that we are at base a community, diverse in so many ways but united in our traditions and our bonds to one another. Yet in my opinion our recent events have presented us as an anti-model. We are better than this. We can do better than this.
I believe that we need most of all to do what we do best: communicate – across the divides of our various constituencies, face-to-face; not by issuing manifestoes and making non-negotiable demands. I know that we have talked about diversity and how to achieve it for many years, and our talk has outrun our action. But I don’t think we have had such a conversation discipline-wide, focusing directly on our own situations and what we can do. If we have, we need another one. Our convention would be an ideal place for such a conversation; after all, what more directly relates to “communication and survival”?
My friends, if you have read this far, I thank you very much. As I hope you can see, I have wrestled with my own conscience over these matters for the past week. It pains me that I come out differently from many whom I trust and respect. I hope this long statement at least explains why I have done so.
Martin Medhurst, Martin_Medhurst@baylor.edu via CRTNET
I ask your forgiveness for the current firestorm that is sweeping the discipline. It is my fault. I am truly sorry for the hurt and pain I have caused. Specifically,
To the current and former members of the Rhetoric & Public Affairs editorial board: It was wrong for me to label my statement an “editorial” and to associate it with the journal. I did not consult with the entire board. I blindsided you. I apologize. It was a serious error in professional judgment and it will not happen again.
To all the diverse constituencies in NCA: I understand that my statement hurt and offended you. That was not my intent. I apologize for the hurt I have caused and I pledge to learn from my errors.
To my Baylor colleagues: My commitment to a diverse faculty, curriculum, and hiring practices is complete. I’m sorry if this episode has suggested that I or anyone else at Baylor is not committed to diversity. I am, and I know you are, too.
To the field at large: I’m sorry this episode has developed in the way it has. My views were inartfully expressed. They have been interpreted exactly opposite of my intention. So that there is no doubt, let me say unequivocally that I do not believe that intellectual merit and diversity are a binary. I will welcome advice and guidance on that point as we together work toward solutions that will make the communication discipline a model for others to follow.
To try to ameliorate some of the damage I have done, I will immediately rebuild the editorial board to assure that there is full consideration of diversity. The mission statement of the journal will be changed to reflect greater commitment to diverse voices. And I will appoint an Associate Editor to advise me on issues of diversity, someone who has the trust and confidence of the discipline at large. I welcome your nominations for that position.
I hope that we can move forward, together, to build an even stronger and more diverse community.
Robert T Craig, Robert.Craig@colorado.edu via CRTNET
Distinguished Scholars Selection Process
As a Distinguished Scholar awardee and a signer of the much-criticized DS letter protesting the NCA Executive Committee’s decision to change the DS selection process, I would like to express my hope that NCA can move forward with the new process without further rancor or damage to the award’s reputation, and that that the new process will do a better job than we have done up to now of honoring the full diversity of excellent scholarship in our field.
The new selection process will not work as intended unless the award committee is presented with a diverse pool of strong nominations. As the DS pointed out in our letter, data for the last few years show that the distribution of awards by gender and race has closely matched the gender and racial composition of the nomination pool (as I recall, only one person of color was nominated in that period). In that regard there is no evidence of systematic discrimination, but I completely agree with our critics that systematic factors, including distrust of the process, may have affected people’s willingness to nominate or be nominated.
Hopefully, NCA’s decision to change the process will reduce any distrust in it. However, one of our (DS) objections against the new policy is that it focuses entirely on the selection process and fails to address the problem of attracting diverse nominations. We can only hope that the nomination pool will include a sufficiently diverse group of accomplished scholars. Given the small number of DS awards allowed each year, it will remain the case that many deserving people, regardless of identity, will not receive this recognition.
I will not withdraw my signature from the DS letter, which I think argued a reasonable case and has been badly misread and unfairly condemned by critics. True, it didn’t persuade the NCA leadership to change either their decision or their tone in defending it. I accept that outcome and am happy to move on, hoping the new process will work as intended.
Wayne Beach, firstname.lastname@example.org via CRTNET
This past November in Salt Lake City I was humbled and honored to receive the NCA Distinguished Scholar award.
I was also disheartened to discover, at the convention, that there were ongoing conflicts with nomination practices that have fueled
ongoing controversies and debates about inclusion, diversity, and social justice.
As a new member, my signing of the DS letter did not occur to avoid what I soon came to understand is a dire need and desire for inclusion and diversity in the DS membership. Rather, I signed as a response disagreeing with the process proposed by the Executive Committee to solve this problem. At that time, I framed the EC letter as promoting a surprising and untenable ‘us vs. them (DS)’ position. I now realize that the DS response letter, and the language within it, can be read as perpetuating the same ‘us vs them’ orientation. My intention was not to create harm or disunity. But if my signing has in any way caused hurt or lack of trust in what a DS should represent, I apologize.
In the end, both EC and DS letters have stimulated adversarial disconnections that seem to be growing daily.
We now need to seek creative collaborations between the EC, DS, and across the entire NCA membership.
There are silver linings that I truly hope we can pursue together as colleagues and as a discipline. The good news is that inclusion and diversity discussions and debates are unprecedented. Topics, concerns, and self-reflections about inclusion and diversity are on more persons’ radars than ever before. Increased attention is being given to how implicit and explicit bias can, knowingly and intentionally or not, get enacted in an organizational culture.
Unique opportunities now exist for open and constructive dialogue for meaningful and sustained change.
It is possible, hopefully probable, that over time we can grow and mature from these critical conflicts. Sooner rather than later is much preferred.
NCA and the Distinguished Scholars membership should work together to advance new and innovative approaches for not just agreeing on nomination criteria and processes, but enhancing mutual respect and fairness as mainstays for our Communication discipline.
University of Colorado, Boulder
Carole Blair, email@example.com via CRTNET
Dear NCA Members,
I hear the anger, and I know it is warranted. No one can spend much time doing the kinds of work (whether that work is advocacy, analysis/critique, service, or activism) that attempts to understand and intervene in the intricacies of structures of power, without hearing and feeling the depth of the anger, and without arriving at the conclusion that it is a righteous response. Academia has been very slow to change in general, but especially with regard to its willingness to actually act in consequential ways that would embody its words of support for diversity. The entire academic complex—NCA included—has rarely taken anything but frail action in support of its supposed commitments.
It is not just structures and complexes that have failed to act, of course, but people, who sometimes have given up, perhaps paralyzed by anger, or at other times grown complacent. And also, of course, we know there is the equal possibility of some simply not hearing the anger. Well, we have all heard it now.
At this particular moment, as one member among many, the best action for me—certainly out of both obligation but also desire—is to pledge myself willing, and indeed eager, to join the kinds of conversations that figure out better ways to do the work of this community, even when those conversations are complex and difficult ones. And I will try my best, as a member, scholar, teacher, and advocate, to help make our community one that is more just and that values more overtly each of its members.
I was struck by the wisdom of the open letter from graduate students, posted on CRTNET on June 20, in offering to us all their admirable view for the future: “What those in power have enjoyed is a fraction of the flourishing we know we can create when everyone has the chance to be their full selves and thus, do their best learning, teaching, and scholarship.” We all have a stake in trying to make that future.
Carole Blair, firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m not being embarrassed or shamed into resigning from NCA and related interest groups, editorial boards, etc. I’m liberating myself from this organization because I’m ashamed and embarrassed to be a part of it. It has become a carnival of loathing under the guise of objectives I have long embraced.
Regardless of ends, I cannot tacitly assist the following, now apparently accepted, even lauded, practices in the association:
– presuming that we can divine other colleagues’ motivations and declaring them to be nefarious, even in cases where there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.
– engaging in public vilification of other colleagues.
– demanding what amount to loyalty oaths, litmus tests, and public “confessions” of our colleagues and essentially blacklisting anyone who refuses them or is adjudged to have failed the tests.
– reveling in our “wins” over other colleagues.
– engaging in “best practices” of intimidation, threat, and coercion to ensure obeisance.
– poisoning the association’s climate to the degree that even those who might like to speak into the situation will not because the costs seem too high or because they’re afraid.
– and most appalling to me, doing all these things and marking them with the reassuring imprimaturs of diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice.
For anyone not attending to the main stage of this spectacle on social media, let me just attest that the above can hardly be described as hyperbolic.
I have said publicly and still believe that our colleagues who have adopted the above practices, and many who have applauded them, are rightly angry about serious inequities and injustices. I am too. But I’ve never warmed to the ideas that simply reversing the vectors of aggression is productive or that violence is requisite to social change. I’m confident that my departure will be scored by some as a “win.” Score it however you wish. Meanwhile, all the takedowns serve as nothing more than distractions from doing the actual work of meaningful reform.
I’m ashamed that any organization I’ve supported would sponsor even a part of the recent spectacle any more than that it enabled oppressive actions now being supposedly recompensed. I should have spoken up sooner, while I watched this begin to unfold and before becoming the target du jour (and hence another distraction). It’s certainly with a trace of sadness, but also a deep sense of relief, that I’m more than ready now to speak: I quit.
Past president/former member, NCA
David H Zarefsky, email@example.com
Zarefsky’s June 18, 2019 Post to CRTNET
A colleague has just made me aware of a factual error in my June 18, 2019 post about diversity and the recognition of NCA’s Distinguished Scholars. I would like to correct this error at once.
In section 2 I wrote that no scholars of color had been nominated for the Distinguished Scholar Award since 2014. In fact, there was one such nomination, in 2017. When I wrote, “Only three nominations of scholars of color had been made over the past ten years, and none since 2014,” I should have said, “… and only one since 2014.” When I said “Not a single person in the association … chose to make such a nomination,” I should have said, “Only one person in the association … chose to make such a nomination.”
Since the DS voting process deliberately did not reveal the names of nominators to the voting DSs, I do not know whether this nomination was made by a Distinguished Scholar or in response to the Association-wide call. Either way, it underscores the fact that there have been too few nominations of scholars of color, which was the concern of the Distinguished Scholars.
My error was in misattributing this nomination from 2017 to an earlier year, but I did include it in my totals of nominations from which I concluded that nearly the same percentage (approximately one-third) of nominees were selected whether the group consisted of white males, white females, or scholars of color, and hence that it was reasonable to doubt that racial or gender bias affected the DS selection process in the absence of any more compelling evidence. From that finding, I and others reasoned that the most effective remedy would be proactive measures to increase the number of nominations.
While this factual error does not change the strength of my argument, I very much regret its occurrence and I apologize to the 2017 nominee and nominator, whoever they might be.
The Distinguished Scholars were, and are, committed to the goal of enhancing diversity within the discipline and NCA. To argue otherwise is to raise a false issue. . Based upon precedent and a prior memo from the National Office, the DSs had expected to be invited to meet with members of the Executive Committee to discuss our ideas and other proposals. We were blindsided by the Executive Committee’s unilateral action to modify not the nomination process but the selection process.