Of course, I am speaking of the semi-regularity with which many major Continental philosophy programs-- of which there are fewer and fewer-- hire away, or "poach," the senior faculty of other Continental philosophy programs. The most recent (and dramatic) instance of this is Penn State’s hiring of Robert Bernasconi and Len Lawlor from the University of Memphis... but that wasn’t the first or the only instance, and it certainly won’t be the last.
[Full disclosure: I am a graduate of the University of Memphis, where I got my Bachelor’s in philosophy and studied with both Bernasconi and Lawlor. I am also a graduate of Penn State, where I did my Ph.D., directed by Shannon Sullivan. I feel a tremendous amount of loyalty and affection for both programs and all of the people involved... so nothing I say herein should be taken as a comment on those particular people or programs.]
First, I should acknowledge some of the more obvious facts of the matter. These recent events are obviously good news for Penn State, which has had more than a few problems in the last several years. And despite what I say in the rest of this post, Penn State has every right to build the strongest program it can, which means, of course, hiring the best people that it can. Similarly, these moves are probably, in the end, going to be very good for Bernasconi and Lawlor as well. Since Penn State has demonstrated that it is fully committed to directing whatever resources necessary to supporting its philosophy program, the truth is that Len and Robert will probably be able to do a lot of things that they weren't able to do at Memphis. So, neither Penn State nor its new hires can be held totally responsible for the Memphis fall-out that will inevitably result.
However, it simply is a very real possibility that the departure of Bernasconi and Lawlor might wipe the University of Memphis philosophy program off the "Continental" map in one fell swoop. That's not to say that there aren't still people-- very good people-- doing Continental philosophy at Memphis. There are. UM still has great young people like Mary Beth Mader, Kas Saghafi and Pleshette DeArmitt. And there's also more "senior" Continental people like Tom Nenon. But it would be terribly naive, not to mention manifestly false, to claim that Memphis will still be considered one of the "top" Continental grad programs after Robert and Len's departure.
Which brings me to the first major problem with poaching... There are only about a handful of strong graduate programs in Continental philosophy in the country. Some of them, like the University of Memphis, aren't even exclusively "Continental" programs. I'm not Brian Leiter so I'm not going to try to list them, but if you held a gun to my head and forced me to give you a count, I would say that right now (before the PSU-UM thing) there are about 5 very strong programs and another 4 or 5 strong programs for Continental philosophy. About 10 or 15 years ago, I would have said there were twice that many. My point is, we're shrinking. I'm in the process of prepping a couple of my own students who will be applying to Continental programs next year, and I was shocked to discover that the programs that I can recommend to them are actually fewer than the ones I considered when I went to grad school. And I went to graduate school only 7 years ago...
Many disciplines build strong graduate programs around 2 or 3 senior-and-very-well-known scholars, and Continental philosophy is no different. But it seems like over the last couple of decades these people are getting more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer programs. So, you may be thinking that nothing can be done here, because there just aren't enough "franchise players" to go around. If "strong graduate program" = "presence of senior superstars", then the only thing that middling programs can do to boost their prestige is to go and poach other programs' faculty supply. That's what they all have done. That's the only way to do things.
But if you were thinking that, you would be wrong. See: University of Memphis.
The UofM is the rare case, I think, where we can see a graduate program that has risen to prominence not by poaching. Rather, the UofM got rich (in scholars, in reputation, in job placement) the old fashioned way-- they earned it. I think a lot of people forget that Robert and Len weren't "Bernasconi" and "Lawlor" when they got to Memphis, they became who they are now at Memphis. So, Memphis never was a program that went out and "bought" its reputation. Scholars were developed there. Other programs know this, of course, as even a cursory glance over the careers of Memphis' evacuees shows. Memphis has been developing quality (junior and senior) faculty for many, many years, only to have them snatched up by other programs. (Tina Chanter, Jackie Scott, Ron Sundstrom, Sara Beardsworth, Terry Horgan, Mark Timmons, etc, etc, etc...) Other schools have been picking our apple tree for a long time now, so it's not surprising that two of our best apples got picked. But my point is: that's not the only way to build a strong program.
Memphis' reputation also wasn't entirely about its people, either. It was also about a vision that they had about expanding the demographics of professional philosophy, and their commitment to actually bringing that about. I was there in the early-to-mid-90's when UM decided to bring more women (and feminism) into the program, and I was also there in the mid-to-late-90's when they decided to bring in more non-white students (and race theory). Surely, we have to acknowledge, those trends had just as much to do with Memphis' rise in the ranks of Continental philosophy as the people who were teaching in that program.
So, on the Memphis model, there are at least 2 (non-exclusive) other ways to build or re-build a strong program: (1) commit to and develop junior faculty (like Len Lawlor!), and (2) have a vision and an identity as a program. Neither of which, I want to note for the record, necessarily involves poaching.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this topic. Next up: "What's SPEP got to do with it?"