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What is the telos––the purpose, end, or goal––of the university? In a thought-provoking 2016 lecture, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argued that the answer ought to be “truth,” but that lately, more of America’s top universities are embracing social justice as a second or alternative telos. While acknowledging that those goals are not always at odds, he argued that “the conflict between truth and social justice is likely to become unmanageable,” and he urged academia to affirm the primacy of truth-seeking.

A recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education recognizes the same conflict, but implies that it sometimes ought to be resolved in the other direction.

Its author, Nikki Usher, asks, “Should we still cite the scholarship of serial harassers and sexists?” It is “a bind that we have yet to account for,” she argues, “how the process of building on academic work itself burnishes the reputations of people whose scholarship is good and sometimes even foundational, but whose characters are awful. In the case of a sexist jerk, you are often left without recourse: Cite him, or look like you don’t know what you’re talking about to reviewers and readers.”

Usher notes that peer reviewers once asked her to cite the work of a professor whose scholarship was substantively relevant, but who has “been fairly awful toward me and other women—although just a sexist jerk, not a sexual harasser.”

Declaring herself unsure about what to do, she concludes that “the best strategy” may be a “somewhat sketchy” one suggested by her friend: “Do what the editor wanted so that when he sent the revised manuscript back to reviewers, they would see I had followed their instructions and added the requisite citations. Then ... when I got the manuscript back before final publication, surreptitiously remove the citations.”

Why not simply cite the work?

For those men whose academic sexism hasn’t risen to the level of actionable correction, and very likely won’t — while they continue ignoring female scholars and belittling their work on a daily basis — their reputation overall will remain clean. A serial sexist is unlikely to cite the work of female scholars, but if he is a predominant voice in your field or subfield, there is no way for you to avoid having to continue to build his academic reputation through citations, even if you would like to avoid doing so … We have not tackled the question of how scholarship — in journal articles and books — amplifies the reputation and credibility of people who do not deserve that recognition.

One implication of this argument is that scholarly recognition should hinge not only on a scholar’s contribution to advancing human knowledge, or his utility to present and future scholars, but on his character.

The consequences of that mind-set could be far-reaching. Usher writes:

Consider the case of the Nobel-Prize-winning scientist James Watson, who, with Francis Crick, is credited with discovering the structure of DNA, and led the Human Genome Project. For years Watson was revered. Then in 2007, he publicly took issue with the idea that all races have equal intelligence: Watson told a British newspaper that people “who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

Watson is now known as a notorious sexist and racist who failed to acknowledge the research contributions of his colleague, Rosalind Franklin. But we haven’t stopped citing or mentioning Watson and Crick because, well, DNA.

Is that a problem? Usher doesn’t commit, but adds:

In the present-day creative arts, at least, reputations suffer by exclusion, such as removing the artwork of a serial harasser from public display (sometimes only temporarily) or no longer choosing to include poems by outed sexual harassers in various best-of collections.

That may not be the best tack to take, but it is at least an acknowledgement that scholars’ questionable behavior needs to be raised as a factor in their reputation, even if their work itself is good.

Workplace administrators rightfully care about a scholar’s behavior; they need to look out for the welfare of colleagues and students. But should writers who merely cite that scholar’s ideas also care about such things?

I don’t think so. Neither do a great many academics, who make no effort in their scholarship to acknowledge the moral faults of the people that they cite. In fact, they make no assumptions or judgments whatsoever about their character.  


Last week, the University of Chicago’s Brian Leiter offered a lengthy rebuttal to the “don’t cite them” view in The Chronicle. He makes clear that the argument is spreading:

  • After John Searle, the Berkeley philosopher of language, was sued for sexual harassment, Jennifer Saul, a philosopher of language and feminist activist at the University of Sheffield in Britain, suggested that, “If you can avoid teaching/discussing [Searle’s work], that may be the best strategy.”
  • Zachary Furste, a media-studies scholar, taught a class at the University of Southern California in which students read work by the literary theorist Avital Ronell — sued by a former graduate student for sexual and other harassment — but said if he taught the class in the future, “I haven’t really settled whether I will keep it.”
  • James Sterba, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, responded to allegations of sexual misconduct against Thomas Pogge, a political philosopher at Yale University, by declaring he would no longer include Pogge’s work in graduate classes: “You don’t need him. He carries too much baggage — he doesn’t have to be cited anymore. … He’s a negative image and we don’t need that. Maybe if he was Einstein we’d have to cite him, but he’s not.”

Leiter goes on to remind readers that foundational scholars in modern philosophy were anti-Semites and even Nazis. What’s an academic to do?

His answer is simple:

Insofar as you aim to contribute to scholarship in your discipline, cite work that is relevant regardless of the author’s misdeeds. Otherwise you are not doing scholarship but something else … Scholarly citation has only two purposes in a discipline:

  • To acknowledge a prior contribution to knowledge on which your work depends.
  • To serve as an epistemic authority for a claim relevant to your own contribution to knowledge. (By epistemic authority I mean simply another scholar’s research that is invoked to establish the reliability or truth of some other claim on which your work depends.)

In each case, citation has its purpose — ensuring the integrity of the scholarly discipline in question. Failure to cite because of a scholar’s misconduct — whether for being a Nazi or a sexual harasser — betrays the entire scholarly enterprise that justifies the existence of universities and the protection of academic freedom... You should not — under any circumstances — adjust your citation practices to punish scholars for bad behavior… researchers or teachers who let moral indignation interfere with scholarly judgment do betray the core purposes of the university and so open themselves to professional repercussions.

In other words, he argues that truth is the scholar’s telos, not social justice.


In a sense, academics have long pondered the degree to which social justice concerns should affect their scholarship. The ethical implications of Nazi experiments on human subjects have been debated since the 1940s. Institutional review boards reject proposed efforts at truth-seeking all the time on the grounds that a given approach is unjust.

Still, I’m baffled by this debate. The problematic behavior at issue in Usher’s and Leiter’s examples isn’t a part of the scholarship itself, as was the case for Nazi experimentation. More important, the ostensible social justice gains are meager and are vastly outweighed by obvious costs.

Usher replied to Leiter in the comments section of his Chronicle essay. She writes: “I suppose what I’m saying is no, you can’t avoid Watson, but perhaps there’s a footnote to alert freshman undergrads about his intellectual history.” She adds, “In the case of folks who are simply respected because people know them from various conferences or have high-output but are otherwise nothing special, it’s my sense that alternative citations can be found that say the same thing.”

But no substantive imperative to cite people based on their social cachet exists. And the “intellectual history” footnote system could easily go wrong.

Consequences might include:

  • the (further) politicization of scholarship as academics disagree about what constitutes morally objectionable behavior and how it ought to affect citations;
  • the new burden of researching the personal lives of scholars one cites;
  • disingenuous virtue-signaling and citation call-out culture;
  • bad actors who take advantage of the shift from substantive standards to subjective moral judgments to withhold credit from good scholars; and
  • increased opacity in the profession as academics remove citations to scholars who influenced their work, making it harder to follow their arguments.    

What if Usher’s suggestion were applied beyond academia?

If the poetry editor Usher alludes to in her original essay deprives the world of an excellent poem on moral grounds, or insists on noting the poet’s character flaws, then that editor communicates that he doesn’t quite believe in his field’s importance. The community of cancer researchers wouldn’t withhold a breakthrough because the academic who achieved it is a jerk in the cafeteria.

Lots of people recognized for giving the world something of great value were bad people. What’s the point in denying their contributions to their field, perhaps the only good that they ever offered others? Truth, not social justice, is the morally superior telos for academia.

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