The last few days have witnessed controversy over a letter written by the Distinguished Scholars of the National Communication Association, of which I am one, in response to a change in the process for selecting its Distinguished Scholars, of which I was a signatory. Some of you may not be familiar with NCA’s DS designation, so permit me to provide a brief background.
NCA established its DS designation in 1991 to acknowledge career achievement in the study of human communication. To be considered, a scholar must be in the discipline at least 20 years. The designation recognizes career achievements as a researcher, mentor, and influence on the study of human communication. Candidates are nominated with a cover letter and a separate unsigned one-page statement that provides a context for the candidate’s accomplishments. Self-nominations are disallowed. Candidate CVs and the one-page anonymous contextualizing are distributed to the DS group. Unlike RSA, whose Fellows are selected by the Society’s Awards committee, heretofore DS selection was made by the extant DS group, which ranked up to half or fewer the candidates under consideration. To become a DS, one must be ranked by 50% of the voters, with the highest ranked, up to a maximum of 4, selected in any given year.
At the time I was named a DS, 2005, the 52 honorees included only 8 white women and no scholars of color. Several measures were adopted to address this imbalance, including opening the nomination process to the entire membership. The results have been positive but not stellar in the case of women scholars, with 14 of the 50 selected since then being white women, but only one male scholar of color. To address this glaring absence, NCA's Executive Committee determined that in the future the DS would not be selected by the DS group, as in the past. It established a selection committee to be named by NCA’s Leadership Development Committee (i.e., a committee on committees). The DS group took this action of being informed without consultation as a vote of no confidence in its ability to address the problem all agree exists. It responded with a letter to refute the action. There were two key responses to the DS letter—a letter by Star Muir, NCA President to the DS and one by Marty Medhurst, a DS and editor of Public Affairs, in the form of an editorial intended to run in his journal. Medhurst’s intended editorial, unfortunately, instantiates how a position of privilege can make us blind to the consequences of actions that reproduce that privilege. That letter has led me to reflect on my own commitments and, because I signed the DS letter and also have an official capacity in RSA, recognize this is an important moment to publicly address RSA’s commitments and my own.
I will start with my commitments. I am a white male in his 70s. That position has consequences. Being a white male in the US, I recognize that every day I must work at reassessing my privilege that comes with being a white male of a certain age. I recognize that I do not always succeed. I did not succeed in this particular case because I lost sight of the problem that transpires when a homogeneous group of predominately male and almost exclusively white scholars assess the impact and contribution of scholars whose work may address issues outside a white person’s experience. As one who has been named a Distinguished Scholar of NCA I am less concerned with how that designation is made than I am that NCA be welcoming, supportive, open, and fair to all its members. That value can only be lived if I learn from scholars whose research reflects the full range of lived experience. My signature on the original DS letter did not reflect that value.
As Executive Director of RSA, it is important that my commitments to inclusivity, to a welcoming Society, and to learning from perspectives beyond my experience are reflected in my own actions and in the exercise of my influence as a person in a position to strengthen RSA in these regards. RSA now has the most diverse board in its history. I work for them and for you to make the board’s composition an opportunity for RSA to embrace more completely and openly the way rhetoric shapes our lives and society. As its Executive Director, I strive to aid the board and officers to make its processes, its committee composition, its events, and its publications reflect these values, and where there are perceived problems, to address them. RSA is not perfect; it is a work in progress. For example, two weeks ago the board charged its president to examine its awards structures to address concerns of bias. The same imperative holds that I strive to learn from its officers, board, editors, and administrative offices about the myriad ways RSA is experienced and how we might continue to improve.
Regardless of my intent at the time, I regret that signing the DS letter was not conducive to expressing the principles that I value or the aims that I seek as Executive Director of RSA.
Gerard A. Hauser
The Rhetoric Society of America