Letter to Leadership in the field of Communication
To Whom It May Concern:
We write this document as a broad coalition of members of the communication discipline, and do so as scholars of color, of other marginalized groups, and allies, many of whom have worked for decades to make our field more just. We are intentionally representative of our field’s diversity and share a deep disappointment with recent public statements by some of our most senior and celebrated colleagues. Our concerns are firmly rooted in a shared belief that the communication field’s vibrancy, relevance, and, most crucially, ethical core depend on a consistent, rigorous, and measurable commitment to addressing its exclusionary history with regard to people of color, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, people with disabilities, non-citizens, and those who stand at the intersections of these identities and more. To that end, we address this document to a broad audience of colleagues who are in a position to respond in meaningful ways to Dr. Martin Medhurst’s editorial, which was originally slated to appear in Rhetoric & Public Affairs, as well as a letter authored by Dr. David Zarefsky and endorsed by 66 of the National Communication Association’s living Distinguished Scholars to NCA President Star Muir and Executive Director Trevor Parry-Giles. We are united in our conviction that any acceptable response to the current exigence must entail a public and emphatic re-commitment to our discipline’s espoused goals of diversity and social justice, as well as the implementation of new practices that build upon previous efforts. It is our hope that this painful moment portends possibilities for new disciplinary futures.
The immediate impetus for this document is the editorial drafted by Dr. Medhurst. The document, which he also requested several colleagues circulate via social media and he now claims has achieved its intended purposes, condemns the leadership of NCA (the most diverse in the organization’s history) for taking steps to change the ways the organization designates Distinguished Scholars. Past recipients of the honor, arguably the Association’s most prestigious, were selected by previous years’ Distinguished Scholars and are overwhelmingly people who are cishet enabled white men. Largely in response to a petition from NCA members in protest of the historic exclusion of people of color as Distinguished Scholars and journal editors, the Association’s leadership has implemented changes to the nomination and selection process for the award in order to mitigate the potential for the kinds of self-reproduction that occur in all-white spaces. In other words, NCA leaders wisely understood that an overwhelmingly white, cishet, and enabled group of mostly men empowered to choose its own members will likely continue to choose awardees who resemble them. We wholeheartedly endorse this change, as we have collectively watched with concern and anger the persistent reproduction of whiteness in this and other contexts. Indeed, we recognize that the racial homogeneity of the Distinguished Scholars is reflective of so many other realms of our discipline, including editorial positions at major journals, editorial boards, and tenure-track faculty positions in departments. In other words, NCA’s Distinguished Scholars are not an exception, but a particularly public expression of the prevailing rule in the communication field. Recent moves by duly elected leaders and committees, acting in the spirit of the democratically-adopted Statement on Diversity, Equity, Access, Justice, and Inclusion, to improve the diversity of the Distinguished Scholars has the potential to have concrete professional reverberations throughout the discipline.
Dr. Medhurst’s editorial leverages his status as a full professor, Distinguished Scholar, editor of a major journal and book series, and white man to undermine the work of a diverse group of NCA leaders, whose very presence in their current positions is the result of tireless activism by previous generations of scholars from marginalized groups. It functions as a tool of intimidation and professional bullying that leverages a senior scholar’s institutional capital against some of those who are amongst the most marginalized in our community. The editorial creates a chilling climate that must be stopped immediately. Furthermore, Dr. Medhurst’s document, as well as the Distinguished Scholar letter, reifies some of the worst tendencies of whiteness—the study of which, we should add, several of our communication colleagues have pioneered, and yet none of them enjoy the status of NCA Distinguished Scholar. Throughout his editorial, Dr. Medhurst virtue signals by noting that Rhetoric & Public Affairs has historically published work by a diverse array of scholars. He even notes, “We recently received a submission from a scholar who identifies as trans.” In addition to disrespecting and potentially endangering this individual through outing (especially given the small number of trans scholars in the field), Dr. Medhurst also undermines the anonymous peer review process he believes is so central to fairly reviewing and publishing quality scholarship. Ultimately, Dr. Medhurst tokenizes 22 years of scholarship by people of color, queer and trans scholars, and members of other marginalized groups. He functionally weaponizes their identities in the service of demonstrating his own espoused commitments to diversity and in order to combat attempts by NCA to correct one manifestation of its exclusion of oppressed peoples.
Dr. Medhurst also positions diversity and merit as oppositional to one another. We have heard this argument before: “If we integrate the schools, education will suffer,” “If we allow people of color to move into the neighborhood, property values will go down and crime will go up,” “If we adopt affirmative action policies, we will hire less-qualified people,” ad nauseum. The implication is that an attention to diversity necessarily entails compromises on quality. In Dr. Medhursts’s mind, prioritizing diversity in the selection of Distinguished Scholars or journal editors is to risk the integrity thereof. In making this argument, one of the most visible and influential rhetorical scholars in our field is telling his colleagues that he believes the intentional inclusion of more people of color and members of other marginalized groups risks a sacrifice of quality. Dr. Medhurst leans heavily on “merit” as his preferred metric for inclusion and, in his view, the only legitimate criteria for promoting diversity. Meritocracy is among the most durable argumentative frames that aids in sustaining prevailing power relationships. At its core, such a position is ethically and empirically untenable, for it claims that creating more space for those we have traditionally excluded lessens our intellectual credibility as a field.
But Dr. Medhurst, as well as the signatories to the letter addressed to Drs. Muir and Parry-Giles, insist that they support diversity. We do not doubt the sincerity of their convictions but have deep reservations about how our Distinguished colleagues express them. For example, both the editorial and letter wonder aloud why more people of color have not been nominated as Distinguished Scholar awardees. In the context of expressing their shared commitment to diversity and attempts to generate a more diverse group of awardees, the letter authors write,
“We focused on the nominating process because our analysis indicated that the slow progress on enhancing diversity was primarily the result of the lack of nominations that would make the pool more diverse, not from the selection process for choosing the award recipients. It is a truism that people who are not nominated cannot be selected.”
Indeed, one cannot win an award for which they are not nominated. But our colleagues’ line of argument is either naïve or willfully omits several fundamental truths regarding processes such as the one under scrutiny. A homogeneous group of scholars will almost certainly judge merit on the basis of their own experiences and standards of rigor, and presume that such experiences and standards are universal. They are not. We cannot “promote diversity within a scholarly consensus about intellectual merit” when a privileged few determine the nature of such “consensus.” For decades, our colleagues from historically oppressed groups have repeatedly explained that homogeneity breeds homogeneity. The publication of Chakravartty, Kuo, Grubbs, and McIlwain’s recent article “#CommunicationSoWhite” illustrated this fact through empirical methods, clearly demonstrating that our discipline has a race problem—a problem people of color in our field have known in their bones without such empirical support. Those who justifiably have little faith in these kinds of processes are reluctant to engage in the logistical and emotional labor of seeking awards they reasonably presume they will not receive. And yet, Dr. Medhurst and many of his fellow Distinguished Scholars wonder why they did not receive more nominations. They assume diversity is a “happy byproduct of a fair evaluation process” rather than the result of bold structural transformations.
We could further identify many flaws in the arguments that fill Dr. Medhurst’s editorial and the Distinguished Scholars’ letter. We could, for instance, note that when Dr. Medhurst extols the virtues of himself and others who have mentored a diverse array of graduate students, he ignores the often-invisible labor performed by scholars of color, and disproportionately women, to provide support for marginalized students—support their white advisors-of-record are often unable or unwilling to provide. Several of us can also attest that many white mentors are themselves complicit in reproducing racism and toxicity no matter how unwittingly. Predominantly white institutions are profoundly difficult spaces for scholars of color to navigate and white mentorship alone cannot ameliorate the resulting harms. We might also note that the comparison between the current process for naming Distinguished Scholars and prevailing tenure and promotions processes works against its own intentions since promotion and tenure processes are incredibly disadvantageous to marginalized groups—largely because the overwhelmingly white pool of advanced colleagues evaluating their dossiers often cannot judge merit beyond standards rooted in their own experiences. Many of our colleagues, such as Dr. Mohan Dutta and NCA President Muir, have carefully documented the deep flaws in the arguments put forth in the editorial and the letter, so we will not further elaborate on them here. Rather, because we believe the current state of affairs requires concerted and impactful action from a variety of actors, we ask that the following occur:
- Dr. Medhurst must immediately resign as editor of Rhetoric & Public Affairs and as editor for the Rhetoric and Public Affairs book series with Michigan State University Press. Many of us know Dr. Medhurst personally and still respect him. However, the damage that has resulted from his editorial is, in our collective view, irreparable as long as he serves as gatekeeper for these two important publication outlets. In drafting and circulating his polemic, Dr. Medhurst has effectively announced to the discipline that his outlets are unsafe spaces for people of color and other marginalized people in the discipline.
- Current members of the Rhetoric & Public Affairs editorial board should resign en masse in protest if Dr. Medhurst does not himself resign, as should members of the board for the MSU Press book series. Others should refuse to serve as ad-hoc reviewers for the journal or the book series. Tenured scholars should abstain from submitting their work to the journal or book series and pull single-authored scholarly work already under review.
- The University of Georgia should cancel next year’s biannual Public Address Conference during which Dr. Medhurst has been designated as the honoree. Following his editorial, honoring Dr. Medhurst in this public space will be awkward at best and deeply hurtful to his marginalized colleagues at worst. Disinviting Dr. Medhurst will no doubt be a difficult move for our colleagues at Georgia, but it will send a powerful message regarding the program’s investment in diversity and social justice. To this end, the 2022 conference should be hosted by a communication program with a demonstrated record of excellent teaching and scholarship related to diversity and social justice, as well as multiple people of color on its tenure track faculty. If the conference is not canceled, scholars should boycott it.
- Current NCA Distinguished Scholars should publicly and unequivocally condemn Dr. Medhurst’s editorial. Those inclined to do so should also follow the lead of Dr. Mary Stuckey and remove their name from the letter to NCA leadership. They should express their solidarity with people of color and their allies, as well as the NCA Executive Committee, and leverage their disciplinary capital to concretely support present and future efforts to dismantle the organization’s exclusionary practices. Such efforts include but are not limited to the recent change in the nomination and selection of Distinguished Scholars.
- The leadership of the National Communication Association should, in spite of pressure to change course, continue the process of changing the way Distinguished Scholars are chosen. Doing so will communicate to generations of scholars of color, LGBTQ+ and disabled colleagues, and their allies that their work to transform NCA has resonated and had an impact. Furthermore, NCA should take further steps in revising the criteria for Distinguished Scholars. Specifically, the organization should eliminate the requirement that a nominee has worked in the field for at least 20 years and is a full professor. This requirement fails to account for the fact that the professional pipeline for people of color and other marginalized scholars differs dramatically from those of white and otherwise privileged ones. Simply put, such scholars with 20 or more years experience and at the rank of full professor are fewer because our field has systematically excluded them from graduate programs, tenure-track positions, and leadership positions in professional organizations. We do not believe it is possible to change the composition of the Distinguished Scholars without changing the way they are selected.
- Members of the NCA Executive Committee and Executive Director Parry-Giles should also publicly and unequivocally reaffirm their commitment to the principles expressed in the Statement on Diversity, Equity, Access, Justice, and Inclusion, especially with regard to policies governing awards, journal editorships, and other NCA actions that convey eminence and/or govern access to publication outlets and other professional resources. President Muir’s 8 May 2019 letter to Dr. Zarefsky and other Distinguished Scholars was exemplary in this regard.
- The International Communication Association Fellows and Fellows of the Rhetoric Society of America are also overwhelmingly white. Both ICA and RSA should reform their practices with regard to these honors in order to enhance diversity.
- NCA awards, the selection of journal editors, and related practices should be executed with maximum transparency. Members of the relevant organizations should have unfettered access to published processes determining award recipients, editors, etc., as well as data reflecting diversity.
- NCA, RSA, ICA, and other communication organizations should prioritize recruiting people of color and members of other marginalized groups to key leadership and editorial positions, as well as nominees for major awards. Diversity should be an explicitly “value-added” criterion and the organizations should designate additional resources to incentivize such service.
- NCA should pursue the creation of endowed research awards for critical scholarship in race, gender, and other marginalized identities and topics. Honoring such work in an intentional and conspicuous way will further codify the organization’s commitment to diversity.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. It contains suggestions that we believe will ameliorate the harm associated with our present moment and lay the foundation for even more robust changes in policy and practice. We also understand that this document addresses a broad range of audiences, including individuals and the leadership of several scholarly organizations. The breadth of our audience represents the extent of the problem. The centrality of whiteness to every aspect of the communication discipline manifests in myriad forms, which means quite literally every facet of our field requires examination and transformation.