Thursday, April 23, 2015

Academic "price fixing" at SBL?

I'm on the periphery of a group for SBL that was denied this year even though it had quite a significant line up for this Fall and probably would have been quite popular. I'm trying to process the reason given, which more or less had to do with perceived overlap with other groups that already exist (even though they weren't interested in the specific topic). Also cited was a move away from "fragmentation" in SBL groups.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this decision. I know that decisions by leadership are often complex and involve a bigger picture than an individual decision. It's difficult to see the whole picture from the receiving end. I was really on the edge of this group anyway so I didn't have much invested in it.

But here are the thoughts going through my mind?

1. Did this group and topic appear too "evangelical" and thus not "diverse" enough or too "fragmented"? It would be interesting if the SBL program committee thought so. Was there a bias against confessional scholarship involved?

The line up included prominent individuals from Duke and even had Tom Wright scheduled this Fall. By contrast, the SBL program committee, as far as I can tell, is made up overwhelmingly of individuals from secular schools. There is interestingly some strong bias against Wright as a scholar in the academy. Some of his work drives me nuts but there's no denying that he is one of the most influential scholars of the last twenty years. Who has heard of Ken Schenck (or the author of the linked protest letter)? Wright, him I've heard of.

2. Some steering I've seen at SBL to me has been about as boring as a dead fish. I personally think this phenomenon is something that plagues academia in general, where professors and leaders think they get to decide what people are interested in. And they drive their institutions into the ground with declining enrollment until their departments or colleges close.

I attended a group for about a decade at SBL that started with the seats packed. The topic was brimming with interest. Then it seemed to me that the leadership packed the agenda with just the right balance of "non-fragmented" speakers, including interdisciplinary talks by people from other areas of expertise who frankly looked silly to me speaking on topics about which they weren't experts.

Before long, the leadership seemed to muse at all the papers on the topic being presented in other groups. Attendance didn't seem to be as strong as it started. When interest found other ways to express itself, there seemed to be an urge to find ways to keep power over the topic centralized with the enlightened group. To me, it looked similar to my perception that struggling Methodist seminaries try to use power at their HQ to force ministerial candidates to go to schools they just don't want to go to.

3. What I'm talking about here is "price fixing" in academia, using power to squelch voices you don't agree with. This phenomenon is not conservative or liberal. It's human. Conservatives do it. Liberals do it. Personalities do it against other personalities. It has only to do with who is in power, not what their ideology is.

There is a temptation even within an institution like IWU to try to squelch a program in one part of the university because it might grow over the territory of another program. There are some valid concerns here. But what doesn't make sense is to hamstring a program that looks to be wildly successful just because you don't want a struggling program somewhere else to suffer or die.

4. Oh well. Stuff happens. I suspect the proposed group would have been pretty popular at least its first year. Who knows? It might have been the hot thing this Fall at SBL.

My question is this. What will the "Dead Fish Quotient" (DFQ) be this Fall at SBL? Will there be some topics where the rooms are brimming with interest? Or will most of the sessions be a mirror of many struggling religion departments today, where the professors can't get anyone to sign up for their classes?

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