Intellectual Merit Under Attack at the National Communication Association

David Randall

The National Communication Association, the scholarly society for communications professors, must make a critical decision: will it focus on intellectual and scholarly merit, or on diversity?

Dr. Martin J. Medhurst, Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Communication and Professor of Political Science at Baylor University, has stirred up a hornet’s nest. He wrote an editorial in Rhetoric & Public Affairs, later converted into a more public statement, in which he objected to administrative changes by the Executive Committee (EC) of the National Communication Association (NCA). The issue was whether NCA Distinguished Scholars should be chosen, in the last analysis, by diversity or merit.

Medhurst’s essay questioned whether diversity is an appropriate tool for making final judgments on individuals and their work:

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.

Medhurst made it clear that he “strongly support[s] diversity” and believes that “social, cultural, and racial perspectives make a difference in what is studied and how it is studied.” He believes the field of communication studies “has been enriched as it has become more diverse.” And he supports diversity as one among several criteria for judging scholars and their work—but “not at the price of displacing scholarly merit as the chief criterion.”

He called on NCA members to “register your concerns” with “NCA president Star Muir (smuir@gmu.edu) and the members of the Executive Committee.” He closed with another call for both diversity and intellectual merit: “We can have diversity within scholarship, but only if scholarship is our first priority.”

Medhurst’s paean to diversity did nothing to propitiate the diversity zealots. A large number of radical communications scholars are calling for Dr. Medhurst to be punished, and doubling down on the replacement of intellectual merit with diversity. Their open letter calls for Medhurst to “immediately resign” as editor of Rhetoric & Public Affairs and as editor for the Rhetoric and Public Affairs book series with Michigan State University Press. If Medhurst fails to do that, then the organizers believe current members of the Rhetoric & Public Affairs editorial board “should resign en masse in protest.”

They want Medhurst stripped of forthcoming honors, by way of cancelling the University of Georgia’s upcoming Public Address Conference, during which Medhurst was to be designated as the honoree. This would “no doubt be a difficult move” for the University of Georgia, Medhurst’s critics acknowledge, but no price is too high for virtue signaling commitment to social justice. Cancelling the conference “will send a powerful message regarding the program’s investment in diversity and social justice.”

Medhurst’s opponents are also doubling down on their diversity demands. They want to loosen the merit-based criteria for NCA honors, including eliminating the requirement that a nominee for NCA Distinguished Scholar has worked in the field for at least 20 years and has achieved the rank of full professor. They also want Members of the NCA Executive Committee and Executive Director Parry-Giles to “publicly and unequivocally reaffirm their commitment” to the NCA’s 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 they want “reform” of the International Communication Association Fellows and Fellows of the Rhetoric Society of America, which are apparently “overwhelmingly white.” To make the bottom-line of their demands crystal clear, they want diversity to become “an explicitly ‘value-added’ criterion,” and “additional resources to incentivize” diversity applicants—including “the creation of endowed research awards for critical scholarship in race, gender, and other marginalized identities and topics.”

The NCA is clearly in a moment of crisis, and the National Association of Scholars echoes Dr. Medhurst’s call to action. All scholars and citizens should express their public support for intellectual merit, and should write to the parties Medhurst suggested:  NCA president Star Muir (smuir@gmu.edu) and the members of the Executive Committee, whose names and addresses can be found here.

We also encourage public support for Dr. Medhurst himself, and public condemnation of the authoritarian leftists who seek to complete their takeover of the Rhetoric/Communication Studies discipline.

We note, however, that Dr. Medhurst’s preferred halfway house of diversity and intellectual merit is untenable. Abraham Lincoln famously declared that “this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.” No scholarly institution can endure, permanently, half devoted to diversity and half devoted to intellectual merit. Once you commit yourself to diversity, intellectual merit eventually will wane—and, as we can see from this example, eagerly rejected by the partisans of diversity.

Scholarly institutions must devote themselves exclusively to intellectual merit. Any commitment to diversity is inevitably fatal to intellectual merit.

We also note that Rhetoric and Communication Affairs are also the departments responsible for basic writing courses. The Medhurst controversy is not a mere tempest in a teapot. The authoritarian leftists who are taking over Rhetoric and Communication Studies are turning basic writing courses into exercises in social justice activism. Professional book series in the discipline now include Communication for Social Justice Activism, which declares that its “goal is to weave social justice activism into all levels of the communication curriculum.”

The basic instructors of writing skills are now dedicated to social justice activism—which is practically defined as harrying out of the profession anyone who speaks up in favor of intellectual merit. Dr. Medhurst is finding this out firsthand, and NAS members should come to his aid.

Image Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15504652

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