Whiteness, NCA, and Distinguished Scholars
In a post made in response to the changes to how my discipline operates made by the Executive Committee of the largest organization of the discipline, the National Communication Association (NCA), one of the editors of a disciplinary journal Rhetoric and Public Affairs (RPA), Professor Martin J. Medhurst, a Distinguished Scholar of the discipline, calls out what he sees as the threat of identity (see below for his full piece published in the journal that he has edited for 20+ years, with 2019 SJR score of 0.27). In what he notes is a threat to the "scholarly merit" of the discipline, Professor Medhurst sets up a caricature of what he calls "identity." In his rhetorical construction of the struggles the NCA has faced over the years to find Distinguished Scholars of colour, he shares with us the facts. So let's look at the facts presented by this rhetor.
It turns out, as a member of the Distinguished Scholar community of the NCA, Mr. Medhurst has problems with what he projects as "attack on the association's own Distinguished Scholars." Since 2015, we are told that the nomination process has been opened up to the entire discipline. We learn that after the expansion of the nomination process to include all members of the NCA however has not accomplished much. Only a handful of people of colour were nominated and only one was selected as a Distinguished Scholar. Based on this observation, he concludes "Unfortunately, the EC has chosen to react to these facts not by enthusiastically encouraging more nominations but by scapegoating the entire group of NCA Distinguished Scholars, blaming them for the lack of diverse nominations, and implicitly accusing them of racism for not selecting more people of color." This conclusion is a criticism of the recent EC decision to remove the decision-making from the hands of the Distinguished Scholars and instead place it in the hands of a committee selected by NCA leadership that will attend to diversity in addition to all the other criteria.
As a member of the group that selects Distinguished Scholars, and by extension did so in the 2015 and 2019 period, Mr. Medhurst does not tell us the reasons underlying the non-selection of the three among the four scholars of colour that were recommended. He wants us to take his assurance on face value that there is no basis for the implicit assumption of racism. There are no facts to back up this claim here, except to assure us to accept the benevolence of Whiteness (when one looks at the composition of the roster of Distinguished Scholars and by his own admission, yes, this is a group of almost all White academics).
Paradoxically however, the very communicative strategies Professor Medhurst uses to set up the false binary of "diversity" versus "merit" reflects the implicit bias that perhaps the NCA EC was seeking to address.
Mr. Medhurst notes, "First, for the last four years the Distinguished Scholars have not been the primary nominators—the entire NCA membership has been. Yet even that expanded nomination base has not produced the desired results—very few people of color have been nominated—so why lay all the blame on the Distinguished Scholars?" If three among the four nominated scholars were not selected, in the absence of transparent reasons, scholars of colour will be unlikely to set themselves up to go through the selection process, reading the process itself as racist. How does the 25% success rate for scholars of colour compare with the success rate of White scholars that were nominated? Questions such as, What are the criteria for merit? What constitutes merit?" need to be explicitly asked and answered. Given the Whiteness of the roster of Distinguished Scholars, it may be argued that the very standards of what constitutes merit are embedded in the ideology of Whiteness. It may further be argued that this ideology itself protects mediocrity under the guise of standards. This is not to claim that the Distinguished Scholars of our discipline are mediocre. However, that assessment can only be made when the standards, criteria, and success rates are made transparent.
In his second point, and I sense this is where Mr. Medhurst has the most problem, we are told:
"the EC has chosen to strip the Distinguished Scholars of the responsibility for selecting the new scholars, thus taking away their one and only remaining responsibility and removing from the selection process the field’s most qualified judges of scholarly merit. Since 1991, only the existing pool of Distinguished Scholars has selected the next group of scholars to join their ranks. Now, the EC has decided to remove the Distinguished Scholars as electors and replace them with a group selected by NCA leadership. No scholarly credentials are apparently required for this new group of electors—at least none has been announced. The new selection committee will be guided by “diversity,” not intellectual merit."
Let's consider each of the arguments here. That the Distinguished Scholars have no other responsibilities is hardly a reason to retain the power in the hands of this select group.
That this group makes up the "field's most qualified judges of scholarly merit" gives us an argument without a warrant to back it up. If the argument that led us down this path is that the process of selection itself is flawed, to claim that this select group makes up the field's most qualified judges is a tautology. Rather than present evidence for excellence or why the decision-making by the group demonstrates excellence, Mr. Medhurst wants us to trust his assurance once again at face value. We should trust the judgment of the distinguished scholars because they are distinguished. To credibly argue back to the observation made by many scholars of colour that the processes of deciding merit in the discipline have themselves been biased, evidence would need to be presented clearly and transparently about the processes of decision-making, the criteria included, and the performance of the different distinguished scholars on these criteria, then compared with scholars of colour.
Let me just as an example compare Professor Medhurst with say, Professor Thomas Nakayama, a scholar of colour who has had tremendous impact on the discipline. One of the metrics of scholarly excellence (and I admit, this is only one, but one that is accepted and used fairly widely; which can itself be interrogated for its implicit ideology of Whiteness) is scholarly citation. A quick look at the citation counts of the most impactful works of Professor Medhurst and Professor Nakayama would reveal that Professor Medhurst's top citation is 202 compared to 1293 for Professor Nakayama. The h-index, a criterion that is often used globally as a metric of excellence places Professor Nakayama much ahead of Professor Medhurst. Now it is entirely possible that Professor Nakayama was never nominated for a Distinguished Scholar award. A question worth asking then is, Why until 2015 and even after that, did the Distinguished Scholars themselves, with the sole responsibility of selecting their successors, not consider Professor Nakayama? If one carefully considers the evidence, there are a number of excellent scholars with distinguished records of merit that are currently not on the roster. This then is indeed the failure of the current Distinguished Scholar committee, one for which it would do Mr. Medhurst some good to take responsibility for and reflect on.
The answer to this might lie in what we know from much published scholarship, including from the works of Professors Nakayama, Allen, Orbe, Rodriguez, Chawla. The answer might lie in the Whiteness of the existing structures of our discipline that fail to "see" excellence and merit because of implicit racism built into the disciplinary structure. The fact Professor Medhurst is that scholars of colour have to work many times harder to even be seen. Add to this the burden of service work, activism, and engagement that one must engage in to fight the racism. That I am having to spend my labour writing up this response to your racist notion of merit rather than working on my book or doing my fieldwork is the sort of everyday labour that we, academics of colour, have to perform every day of our being in academia.
The fact is Mr. Medhurst that we, scholars of colour, have to work much much harder for you to even "see" us, for us to be visible, heard, and counted in ways that matter. The fact is Mr. Medhurst that after all that hard work, you and your collegues, sitting behind some opaque cloak, will discount the work as 'political," "activist," or "not just good enough." In doing so, you will see no need to offer evidence, facts, and warrants. That you can simply make claims, we scholars of colour, have to accept at face value.
The final communicative leap however is the most eggregious, one that raises questions of racist bias in the decision-making in the status quo. Mr. Medhurst is quick to discard the new process created by the EC for selection of distinguished scholars as without merit. He notes that with the new electors, "no scholarly credentials are apparently required...the selection committee will be guided by "diversity," not "intellectual merit"." The false binary between intellectual merit and diversity has long been deployed to uphold the racist structure of the discipline. The strategy of planting doubt to cultivate disinformation is a practiced tool of Whiteness. In the statement, in setting up this anxiety about the supposed loss of standards and purity of the discipline, Mr. Medhurst conveniently forgets facts (in a piece that is apparently all about the facts). Oops, I forgot, perhaps facts are unnecessary when concocting the alarm bells that speak to racist tropes of purity. Is there any statement from the EC regarding the criteria for selection that states that intellectual merit does not matter, the conclusion drawn by Mr. Medhurst? I haven't read the EC document on the new criteria. What we do learn from Mr. Medhurst's own summary is that the new directives call for attending to diversity. In a discipline that for almost three decades, has only come up with one scholar of colour, this explicit call to diversity as a criterion in addition to others, is an important first step.
That Mr. Medhurst sees the explicit and much needed call to diversity as a threat to merit speaks of the kind of merit that appeals to him, of course wrapped up in all the right messages about how we need diversity. The statement from a journal editor of our discipline, is unfortunate and at the same time revelatory in making visible the Whiteness that forms the structures of our discipline. The changes that we are starting to see in the discipline, thanks to the decades of work by scholars of colour organizing around these issues and to the changes in the leadership of the association, are welcome opportunities.
These changes, however, will also shake up the old White guard of the discipline. And that too is welcome!
Rhetoric & Public Affairs 22:3
Over the past 22 years, I have seldom used the pages of Rhetoric & Public Affairs to make editorial statements. I have not done so because I wanted to avoid the politicization that inevitably accompanies strong positions on important issues. The pages of our journal have been open to all perspectives—left, right, and center—and scholars of all identities—gay and straight, men and women, black and white and brown, believer and atheist, Christians, Jews, and other faith traditions, graduate students and full professors, and even a couple of undergraduates. We recently received a submission from a scholar who identifies as trans. That scholar will receive the same consideration as any other—her scholarship will be judged on its merits, not on the identity category of its author. And that’s the way it should be.
Unfortunately, a recent policy change by the Executive Committee (EC) of the National Communication Association (NCA) is based on precisely the opposite premise—that identity ought to control in areas where it has historically not been prioritized. The change is being pursued under the banner of “diversity,” which is, of course a god-term of our age, and rightly so. I believe in diversity, and you probably do, too. But there is a difference in trying to promote diversity within a scholarly consensus about intellectual merit and prioritizing diversity in place of intellectual merit. There is a difference in running an issue of a journal that features two female scholars, a black scholar, and a graduate student, all of whose work has been accepted through the process of blind review versus saying to oneself, “I need to publish some female scholars and black scholars and graduate students so everyone will know that I believe in diversity.” Along that pathway lies disaster, for once we substitute identity for scholarly merit as the first consideration, we have lost our reason for being academics.
This is precisely what the EC of NCA is currently in the process of doing. It began with an attack on the association’s own Distinguished Scholars. Since the establishment of the Distinguished Scholars Award in 1991, every year nominations have been solicited and new Distinguished Scholars selected from among those nominated. There are now 70 living NCA Distinguished Scholars. Since 2015, the nomination process has been open to the entire NCA membership. Prior to 2015, the NCA Distinguished Scholars made the nominations. The nominations were then voted on by the Distinguished Scholars, and anywhere from one to five new Distinguished Scholars were selected annually. For more than a decade, there has been a shared concern that the nomination process was not yielding many people of color. Expanding the nominators to include all members of NCA was one of several efforts made to expand the pool of nominees. Yet only a handful of people of color were nominated and only one was elected as a Distinguished Scholar of NCA. These are the facts.
Unfortunately, the EC has chosen to react to these facts not by enthusiastically encouraging more nominations but by scapegoating the entire group of NCA Distinguished Scholars, blaming them for the lack of diverse nominations, and implicitly accusing them of racism for not selecting more people of color. The problems with these accusations are multiple. First, for the last four years the Distinguished Scholars have not been the primary nominators—the entire NCA membership has been. Yet even that expanded nomination base has not produced the desired results—very few people of color have been nominated—so why lay all the blame on the Distinguished Scholars? Second, the EC has chosen to strip the Distinguished Scholars of the responsibility for selecting the new scholars, thus taking away their one and only remaining responsibility and removing from the selection process the field’s most qualified judges of scholarly merit. Since 1991, only the existing pool of Distinguished Scholars has selected the next group of scholars to join their ranks. Now, the EC has decided to remove the Distinguished Scholars as electors and replace them with a group selected by NCA leadership. No scholarly credentials are apparently required for this new group of electors—at least none has been announced. The new selection committee will be guided by “diversity,” not intellectual merit. Third, the EC, in attacking their own Distinguished Scholars, has apparently overlooked the fact that most of the current group come from Research 1 and Research 2 institutions, where most of the minority, female, and other diverse populations obtained their doctoral degrees. It is the very group that the EC is attacking and implicitly accusing of racism that mentored, and taught, and advised, and published with the scholars they are now being accused of abandoning. What nonsense! But this is only the beginning.
The EC chose to attack the Distinguished Scholars first because that group is the epitome of intellectual merit. The attack currently being waged is not just on the Distinguished Scholars. The attack is on using intellectual merit as the chief criterion, not only for the selection of Distinguished Scholars, but also for the selection of journal editors, and presumably, the selection of what those newly diversified journal editors will choose to publish—it is an attack on the very foundations of Communication as a research discipline.
Most of the Distinguished Scholars, under the leadership of David Zarefsky, have protested these attacks and the removal of the Distinguished Scholars’ chief responsibility of selecting their own membership. Some 66 of the 70 living Distinguished Scholars have signed a letter of protest, including seven members of the R & PA editorial board, all of whom I consulted during the preparation of this editorial. I, too, was one of the signatories. As important as the Distinguished Scholar issue is, the far more important issue is what sort of organization the NCA will be. One where selections are made on intellectual merit or one where identity is prioritized over intellectual and scholarly merit? One where new journal editors are chosen on their background, publication record, vision, and experience, or one where the color of one’s skin or one’s gender trumps everything else? Will we be a field in which journal submissions are judged by competent reviewers who are blind to the identity of the author, or a field where editorial boards are filled with the “right” number of people from the “right” categories. The EC has already issued a document that calls for populating editorial boards with more “diverse” people, whether they are scholars or not.
Let me be clear: I strongly support diversity and recognize that social, cultural, and racial perspectives make a difference in what is studied and how it is studied. The work of the field has been enriched as it has become more diverse. That is a belief, I am sure, shared by the Distinguished Scholars as a group. We support diversity, but not at the price of displacing scholarly merit as the chief criterion for selecting Distinguished Scholars, choosing journal editors, and evaluating research.
Only the concerted effort of the entire NCA membership can stop identity from displacing scholarly merit as the governing norm of the discipline. To register your concerns write to NCA president Star Muir (firstname.lastname@example.org) and the members of the Executive Committee, whose names and addresses can be found at (https://www.natcom.org/about-nca/…/leadership-and-governance). We can have diversity within scholarship, but only if scholarship is our first priority.
Martin J. Medhurst