Philosophy Snares Two Rising Stars
Sarah R. Buchholz

August 25, 2000

Members of the Philosophy Department committee that hired two new faculty for this year can only be described as exuberant about the results of their search. And they are hoping for a similar success this year to help them toward greater national recognition.

"I never thought in my wildest dreams that we would do this well," said John Robison, head of the department and a member of the search committee. "I thought we'd go through 20 to 25 people. We're talking about people who are in demand at the premier departments in the country. Instead, we made offers to our top three choices and the top two accepted."

The "top two," who begin as assistant professors this fall, are Kevin Klement and Jonathan Schaffer. A third position will be readvertised this year.

"By the time this was finally done - mid-March - we felt that we would be better off starting over this fall with a search for the third position," Robison said. "We wanted to fill the three positions with the closest we could come to the very best. The dean [Lee Edwards] deserves credit and appreciation for this because she had said she wanted us to get the very best people that we can. We could have gotten some very good people still, but as much work as this search was, we would rather do it again next year and fill this spot with the best."

As a group, the 477 applicants had doctoral degrees from schools in 15 countries. More than 25 percent were from universities with the equivalent of "top 10" rankings in the 1998-2000 Philosophical Gourmet Report, a barometer of the state of graduate education in philosophy. Robison said the level of interest from high-profile applicants is a good sign.

"We really do have a nationally recognized department that is competitive with the best departments in the land," he said.

Although the department has hovered around the No. 20 spot in various national rankings over the past 20 years, the Philosophical Gourmet Report says the department now "suffers from a greying faculty, with many well-known faculty over 70 by 1999-2000 (Vere Chappell, Edmund Gettier, Gareth Matthews, among others), while others, like the eminent ... Robert Sleigh, are in their late 60s. The Department's position in this peer groups is, as a result, somewhat precarious."

Sleigh retired this summer, and Robison predicts that five or six other faculty will retire in the next five years.

"I know the department has a noble past," Edwards said. "I look forward to working with the faculty - current and future - to secure an equally glorious future. I think it is realistic to aspire to being one of the 10 best philosophy departments in the country."

"UMass has a world-renowned philosophy program," Schaffer said. "It has historically been one of the top graduate programs in the country. It's a real honor for me to be part of such an important and influential department. I look at this as an opportunity to interact with some of the finest minds in philosophy.

"I had some very interesting other offers, but it was pretty clear to me that this was the place I wanted to be. The caliber of the graduate students was a draw for me, as well."

Schaffer, who was in a tenure-track job at the University of Houston last year, expects to teach metaphysics, philosophy of science, epistemology, and philosophy of mind.

A measure of the success of his young career is that he had the lead article in a recent journal of modern writing on causation, Gettier said.

"He's definitely a big star," said doctoral alumnus Ned Markosian ('90), assistant professor of philosophy at Western Washington University. "He's that good."

Klement said he was attracted to the department because of its friendly, comfortable atmosphere, as well as the caliber of his colleagues and the Amherst environment.

"I had one other school I was considering, but this was by far my preference because of the people and the resources for doing research," he said. "It's a really well-known school in philosophy; it's got a great reputation. I'd seen some of the faculty at conferences. Everyone seemed very friendly. It seems like everyone talks to each other - the kind of environment where everyone works together well."

Klement plans to teach philosophy of language, logic, history of analytic philosophy, philosophy of science, ethics, and philosophy of mind. Gettier said that some of the work Klement has done in logic has only been done by three or four other philosophers.

"He is amazingly knowledgeable about Frege and Bertrand Russell," Gettier said. "He knew even the minor details of the correspondence. When he came to campus, he gave one of the most phenomenally good talks you could imagine. It was obvious that he is extremely intelligent and hard-working."

"They are very good judges of talent, and they can use that to their advantage in hiring," Markosian said of the faculty.

Faculty and doctoral alumni point out that the strength of the department's reputation is partly the result of 30 years of focusing on providing the finest graduate education.

"The distinctive strength of the UMass philosophy department has consisted in a combination of an uncommon extent of shared methodology and devotion to graduate education among the faculty," said Earl Conee ('80), associate professor of philosophy at the University of Rochester. He said the department is highly regarded for having a tradition of "both junior and senior faculty who are genuinely interested in graduate education - even at some expense to their time for original research. This is quite rare."

"One of my best memories is the great interest that the faculty took in the philosophical development of graduate students," said Peter Markie ('77), deputy provost and professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri. "I recall that Ed Gettier was working on Hintikka's epistemic logic and some of Hintikka's discussions referenced Kant's views on mathematical knowledge. I was in Bob Wolff's Kant seminar. The next thing I knew, Gettier was handing me articles by Hintikka and arranging for us to meet to discuss them. I didn't for a minute think he needed my help in understanding them; what he wanted was that I learn about them and develop my philosophical skills. For the faculty - and so for the graduate students - that's what life in the department was about."

"It was advanced mentoring at its best and most pleasant!" Conee said. "I recommend UMass to the University of Rochester's best undergrads in philosophy who show inclinations toward the emphases of the ... department."

Professor Gary Matthews said that the importance graduate students play in the department was reflected in the search.

"The graduate students were invited not only to attend all the lectures and meet the candidates but also to give a reaction to the candidates on a form John Robison designed. They were good about attending the lectures and very conscientious about filling out the forms. Their reactions played a significant role in the process. The people we hired got high marks for the ability to explain difficult things clearly. Graduate students are going to have a somewhat different perspective than the faculty, so it's good that we can take that into account.

"One of the nice things about this department is our relationship with our former students. I organize a reunion every other year in October."

"People come from all over the country for that, which just goes to show you how strong the ties are," Markosian said. "It's the most fun conference I go to."

"And when we go to APA [the American Philosophical Association], the UMies all get together," Matthews said.

"My impression is that we do it more than anybody," professor Fred Feldman said of maintaining relationships with former graduate students. "I've always thought that when you take somebody on as a dissertation student, it's a life-long commitment to their career—placement, getting published, tenure, changing jobs."

"And our former students send us some of our best graduate students," Matthews said. "It's a kind of ongoing process that is important to the health of our program, as well as to the well-being of our present and past students."