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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

On Diversifying Academic Panels and Conferences

This is an evergreen issue, but in response to a tweet by the twitter feed of the Feminist Law Professors blog, Mike Dorf has put up some thoughts on the question of diversity on academic panels and conferences, including but not limited to gender and racial diversity. I was involved in planning one conference this year, and am involved each year in planning the list of speakers and attendees for the Annual Law and Religion Roundtable (although the lion's share of this hard work is done by my friend and co-organizer Nelson Tebbe, and most of the rest of the work is done by our other co-organizer and friend, Rick Garnett). I've also helped plan a few other panels and conferences here and there, and have advised the Alabama Law Review on its symposium planning. I'd like to offer some thoughts of my own here.

As a preface, I should add a note by way of confession, since the tweet that sparked Mike's post suggested that men should refuse to appear on a panel if there is not at least one woman on the panel. I'm not sure that plea, if one agrees with it, should stop at gender, and a person interested in gender, race, class, and intersectionality might ask why the suggestion stopped there. Still, I must confess that I just appeared on a conference panel on which there were five men and one woman, who was "only" the moderator. (She happened to be the most impressive person on the panel, for what it's worth.) I found it striking and surprising. I will note, though, that panelists often don't know what the composition of a panel will be until rather late in the process, when they've already made a commitment to appear. I'm not rejecting the suggestion of the tweet, and in such situations one should at least write to the planners and urge them to see whether something can be done about it; better yet, one could ask or insist in the first place, upon accepting, that there be at least one woman (or what have you, including insisting that the panel is not all like-minded on the issue) on one's panel. But the timing and logistics are a complicating factor. I will note, in fairness to the planners of that conference, that the mix of men and women on the overall list of conference speakers was quite strong. I will also note that in past years, I've put up one or two posts (which I couldn't find, alas, but commenters who do are welcome to put up the links) examining the gender composition of panels at the AALS annual conference. Many were reasonably balanced. A number, often associated with particular sections, were composed of only one man or only one woman. A few, to my great surprise, were all men or all women. The AALS usually advises program planners to seek various balances, including gender balances, but the advice apparently doesn't always take, and I don't know whether it does any follow-up or not when it looks at the proposed speaker list and finds serious imbalances. 

Here are my thoughts, for whatever they're worth. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 23, 2018 at 11:56 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


There are lots of complicated issues raised by this topic, and I'm still thinking through my thoughts on a lot of them.

On the limited issue of ideological diversity, I would make the point at a somewhat different level of generality: It's a bad thing when panelists who follow the first speaker begin by saying, "I agree with everything that has been said so far, and I just want to add a few additional thoughts." In assembling a panel, the goal should be to present different positions of some kind; each speaker should have a distinct topic or perspective, so that each panelist brings something new to the broad subject of the panel. Sometimes that will be ideological diversity, and sometimes that will be a different way to think about the topic. But the audience doesn't learn all that much when panelists are all saying the same thing, which happens more often that it should.

I also tend to share Paul's view that a panel narrowed to a particular viewpoint can be problematic. I'm reminded of a panel at an AALS criminal justice mid-year meeting I attended when I was a junior professor. It's been a long time, so maybe I am misremembering, but my recollection was that the panel was about diverse ways of thinking about the death penalty. The panelists then presented different methodologies that could be used to oppose the death penalty. You could use philosophy to oppose the death penalty; you could use empirical studies to oppose the death penalty; you could use economics to oppose the death penalty; etc. As I recall, the point of the panel was to show that you could use lots of different tools to make a single argument -- showing that professors had lots of methodological tools in their toolkit. But it also tended to suggest that the job of law professors was akin to that of litigators, and that we were supposed to be looking for modes of argument to support our preexisting conclusions rather than using those tools to arrive at whatever conclusion they brought us to reach. A broader range of perspectives that suggested tools might lead to the opposite conclusion might have been more illuminating, I think.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 23, 2018 5:52:43 PM

I have one more thought on the very limited issue of ideological diversity -- which I realize is not the most important part of this debate, but my views on the important parts are more in flux and tentative so I'm not sure I'm ready to write on them. In my experience, achieving ideological diversity can be pretty difficult in some subjects. I've been involved in panel planning, including for AALS panels, and sometimes there are so few people on the other side that it's hard to offer an ideological range. The field I know best is my own, criminal law and procedure, where there are pretty strong orthodoxies. For most highly controversial issues, the kinds that make for good panels, there are widely-shared views among professors from which few disagree. You end up with a small number of people who can be called on to present contrasting views. And few want to hear from those same people again and again, assuming they are willing to attend and speak on the panel.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 23, 2018 6:05:05 PM

[Just a quick note by way of fairness: Although the tweet I mention above referred to gender alone, another tweet on that feed (God, I hate talking about Twitter) did discuss race as well.]

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 23, 2018 7:00:04 PM

While everything you say sounds good I kinda feel you are dodging the elephant in the room. Ultimately, given the limited number of willing participants and the time/resource constraints on the organizers one can't simultaneously achieve diversity in all dimensions. At some point the problem becomes zero-sum and diversifying in one regard means forgoing it in another and given the very organizational difficulties you cite above we may already be at this point or at least relatively close.

More specifically, the claim being made by those who advocate shaming/pulling out of panels that lack sufficient gender/racial diversity isn't merely that this is a nice property to have but that it trumps almost all other panel selection considerations. Listing other kinds of diversity that might be nice to have without taking a position on whether or not these other kinds of diversity can outweigh the benefits of racial/gender diversity is kinda avoiding the real question: which considerations should be paramount when choosing a panel.

Posted by: Peter Gerdes | May 24, 2018 6:31:27 AM

As the originator of the tweet on Feminist Law Professors, I am grateful for the thoughtfulness with which Michael, Paul, Orin and others are engaging in the question of diversifying academic panels. I’d like to take it to a simpler level. Who would be willing to sign a public pledge that before accepting any invitation to speak on an academic panel, you will ask what efforts have been made to secure diversity in speakers, whatever “diversity” means to you?

Posted by: Bridget Crawford | May 31, 2018 9:30:19 AM

If you're willing to sign a public pledge to ask the diversity question (however you define it), please feel free to add your name to the list of signatories here: https://www.thepetitionsite.com/268/743/150/ask-about-diversity-on-legal-academic-panels/

Posted by: Bridget Crawford | May 31, 2018 10:32:27 AM

I should just point out that the AALS Criminal Justice Section explicitly seeks to achieve diversity along all the lines Paul identified: race, gender, law school standing, celebrity/non-celebrity, viewpoint—and region is another one that is important to us (who wants to have a bunch of folks from one area, especially when the criminal justice system varies so much by region). We also have a list of prior panelists, and so try to share around invitees to make sure it's not the same old faces. It helps with AALS, because there is some institutional memory there. It's harder in other settings if there is no institutional memory. All this is to say that if there is a commitment to diversity, it is possible to achieve it. And I've tended to find that including different viewpoints that challenge the orthodoxy has generally made the panels much better than they otherwise would have been.

Posted by: Eric J. Miller | May 31, 2018 4:22:34 PM

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