Climate Advice


Climate change wanted.

In the first iteration of the Pluralist Guide in 2011, we sent out three separate surveys to our advisory boards, asking if they could assess the climate for graduate students who are women, persons of color, and/or LGBTQ students. The feedback we received on the latter two groups was insufficient for meaningful assessment, since the national numbers for these groups are fairly small, but we did receive significant feedback on women and so reported our findings. This was the same sort of national reputational survey as we have done for the various areas of philosophy, intended to provide prima facie evidence that prospective students can then follow up with further research.

Assessing the climate of a department for underrepresented groups is notoriously difficult to do. Individual experiences within a department can vary widely, and individual assessments of departmental problems also can vary. Those seeking to make it through their graduate program successfully, or those seeking jobs, tenure, or promotion, may be understandably loathe to participate in any sort of climate questionnaires, a fact that can skew results. And negative assessments about departments generated by surveys can be complex to interpret: for example, in a department with a strong feminist presence, there may be more reports of sexual harassment because students feel more empowered to report such problems than in departments with more hostile climates.

Despite these intrinsic difficulties in assessing climates, it remains the case that department climates and cultures vary, and not all are equally hospitable, or equally hostile. Sometimes the cause is ill-will; often the cause is cluelessness. Causes can also be complex and beyond any individual intention. Problems are not always large scale or overt; persistent micro-aggressions and micro-inequities can produce such alienation that leaving the discipline feels necessary for one’s mental health.

We want to encourage philosophers at all levels to make an effort to understand what makes for a hospitable, or hostile, climate and how to improve their own departmental climates. We all have things to learn here; climate concerns should be a shared, ongoing project. Philosophy is one place where climate change should be welcomed.

Toward this end, we intend to make the Pluralist Guide a resource for climate change activists.

Below is a short start-up guide. Some of these points are applicable to departments; others are more useful for individual faculty or students. Readers should note that various under-represented groups have varied problems and may need varied mechanisms for surveying problems as well as redressing them.

A How-To Guide for Climate Change in Philosophy

1. Climate Surveys

Assessing departmental climates through surveys or other means should not be taken as a necessary condition for pro-active steps. There are legitimate reasons not to engage in climate studies, not simply because of their methodological challenges but, more importantly, because they ask the most vulnerable populations to take the largest risks. Think about how many persons of color and/or out LGBTQ persons are in your department, and now think about trying to assess how they are experiencing the departmental climate. Anonymity is basically impossible in such situations.

A further consideration to keep in mind is that working on climate issues is typically significantly undervalued service work that is typically done by women. Check out the essay by Sharon Bird, et al “Creating status of women reports: Institutional housekeeping as ‘women’s work,’” as well as the other useful articles on the work of institutional diversity, in the Spring 2004 issue of NWSA Journal Vol. 16, No. 1. Faculty members and graduate students who do choose to take one for the team and do this work should receive better support from their colleagues and their institutions, not to mention the profession as a whole. NSF’s Project Advance supports institutional climate research with course release, money to pay for the implementation and analysis of climate surveys and money to pay for the transcription of qualitative data.

Despite the challenges, climate studies can be very productive avenues for uncovering problems, generating discussion, and motivating action. To address the problem of achieving anonymity, experts encourage the use of online surveys that can anonymize answers. They also warn against publicly releasing raw data, and suggest that respondents should not be required to identify themselves by gender, race, sexuality, etc.

Here are some templates:

i) A generic template for female philosophy students

ii) A survey used for assessing the climate for all graduate students, in which diversity questions (including questions for international students) are in the final section of the survey.

iii) University of Michigan graduate student survey.

2. Guidance for Individuals Experiencing Difficult Climates

What to do when one has moved across mountains to attend or begin work at a particular philosophy department and finds oneself in a rather unpleasant, difficult, or downright hostile climate?

Moving to a different department may not be the answer, given the national nature of the problems in philosophy. Surviving requires careful strategizing, as one might do to win a chess match.

  1. Wait long and hard before you decide who can be trusted to help. Like a year. Alums of a department can sometimes be a great resource.
  2. Cultivate friendships and intellectual collaborations outside of the philosophy department when possible. University-wide service work may be looked down upon by typical philosophy faculty, yet may provide critical respite from the strains of a dysfunctional departmental family. Also, Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies and LGBT Studies and Disability Studies programs often have opportunities to obtain a graduate certificate by taking a few courses.
  3. Know your rights, and know the local procedures in regard to matters such as sexual or gender harassment. Know who at your institution have been the advocates in these kinds of cases, and who know where the bodies are buried. Ask them for advice if you need it, not just your chair or mentors inside the department.
  4.  Travel to conferences, workshops, and other venues for philosophical work in which you might find more like-minded compatriots. Pursue peer mentors.
  5. Reach out to more senior people in your sub-field for mentoring. They want you to succeed and stay in the profession.
  6. Succeed, and stay in the profession. Funnel frustration into determination. Change is on the horizon.

3. Guidance for Departments

At this point there are good leads on pro-active steps departments can take.

  • First and foremost, go to the APA’s Committee on the Status of Women website and check out the many resources they provide for advancing women in philosophy, many of which can also help other groups, such as articles on implicit bias, help for diversifying course syllabi and doing climate studies. They also provide lots of helpful data. Go here to answer their departmental questionnaire about your own department.
  • Financially support and back the creation of groups—such as all an women group, an all minority group, etc—that will meet regularly for snacks and coffee, 1-2 times a term, with an agenda of getting to know one another as well as sharing papers, discussing topics in seminars, and discussing common concerns.  This is a way to create a peer based mentoring system. If there are not enough interested students in the philosophy department, such groups could pull from multiple departments.
  • Bring in senior philosophers to the colloquium series from outside the usual identity domains.
  • Organize a retreat or workshop with help from the Women in Philosophy Task Force or the APA Committee on the Status of Women to discuss in more depth issues such as implicit bias, tackling the pipeline problem, mentoring, and general strategies for improvement.
  • Learn about the resources out there to strengthen the philosophy pipeline: PIKSI, the Rutgers Summer Institute for Diversity, CUSP, and others. Encourage students and faculty to pursue these opportunities.

Here is a description of pro-active steps that one department, at Rutgers, has taken to address climate issues, helpfully compiled by Professor Ruth Chang:

1. The department has a Climate Committee composed of several faculty members and two graduate student representatives. The Climate Committee is chaired by the Faculty Climate Officer(s) whose charge it is to keep tabs on the climate in the department, to administer a climate survey among all the graduate students every other year, and to undertake initiatives to improve climate with the help of the Climate Committee.  Members of the Committee are available for consultation by any student who would like to discuss possible climate issues in the department. During the spring of 2012, the Climate Committee met with the university Equity Officer to inform its members about their reporting duties in cases of sexual harassment, and to review best practices for handling climate-related issues that might come to the attention of the Committee.

2. The department has launched a comprehensive climate webpage located at the department website. The department believes that a crucial part of supporting and maintaining a thriving department climate for women and underrepresented groups in philosophy is making information and resources accessible to current and prospective students, and that an important part of creating and developing an excellent professional philosophical climate for all philosophers is making information on implicit bias and stereotype threat, how to counteract them, and departmental and professional statistics more publicly accessible. The climate webpage a) gives statistics concerning women and underrepresented groups in the philosophy department at Rutgers, b) summarizes the problems of implicit bias and stereotype threat, c) provides links to a wide range of resources including academic articles and power point presentations on implicit bias, stereotype threat, and climate issues generally, and d) describes the initiatives at Rutgers to help improve climate.

3. The graduate representatives of the Climate Committee are facilitating the development of a collaborative, graduate-student maintained wiki, linked to the climate webpage, that contains various student-developed guidelines for students who take on leadership roles. For example, the wiki will contain a page of guidelines for proactive inclusion of women and underrepresented groups in graduate talks, a similar page for the Rutgers-Princeton Graduate Conference, a page for sharing teaching best practices, a page with suggestions for how to be supportive of women and members of underrepresented groups in seminars and colloquia, and a First-Year Survival Guide. The wiki will also provide a graduate-student only online discussion forum, to provide students with the opportunity to discuss any climate-related concerns or questions they may have. The wiki will be up and running no later than September 1, 2012.

4. The department holds an annual Women-in-Philosophy Community Dinner. This event is open to all philosophy majors, but is geared toward undergraduate women interested in majoring in philosophy and going on to graduate school in philosophy. The dinner provides undergraduates with the opportunity to meet and talk with women faculty and graduate students in a relaxed setting and to gain more information about what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy.

5. The department maintains a mentoring project for women undergraduate majors. Every woman philosophy major has the option of being paired with a volunteer graduate student mentor in the department. That mentor provides advice on everything from course selection to fellowship applications to career direction. This program will be piloted during Fall 2012.

6. The Climate Committee is organizing sessions on how to work effectively as an “ally” to ensure that women and members of other underrepresented groups are treated equitably in classroom and other academic settings.

7. The department administers a climate survey to all graduate students every other year in order to better study how to improve the climate for women and other members of underrepresented groups. Care is taken to anonymize all results which are studied by the Climate Committee and reported to the department at a department meeting where further action may be taken.

8. The department sponsors special lectures on Issues in the Profession for all faculty and graduate students. In 2011, it brought in Professor Sally Haslanger who gave a very well-received talk, “Are we breaking the ivory ceiling? Women and minorities in philosophy.” Recently the department enjoyed Elizabeth Barnes’ colloquium talk about the ‘mere difference’ view of disabilities.

9. For many years the department has run the Summer Institute for Diversity in Philosophy. This seven day program is designed to introduce undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds to the various areas of specialization within the discipline of philosophy, give students a better idea of what graduate studies in philosophy is about, and explore various views about what it means to be a professional philosopher.