Friday, October 22, 2010

The Vagaries of Academic Hiring

Something I learned today while reading Nicholas Phillipson's long-awaited biography, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (Yale 2010):

In the mid-18th century, Archibald Campbell, Earl of Islay (later third Duke of Argyll) was virtually an "uncrowned king of Scotland." As such, he controlled appointments to professorial chairs at the major universities, including in Glasgow, at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment. Islay might have gone down in history as the greatest ever judge of academic talent, but for one profound mistake.

After appointing the brilliant Francis Hutcheson to the Chair in Moral Philosophy in Glasgow in 1929, and the even more brilliant Adam Smith to the Chair in Logic and Metaphysics in 1751, Islay opposed the supremely brilliant David Hume's application to fill Smith's chair, after Smith took over Hutcheson's chair in 1752. Instead, Smith's chair went to the eminently forgettable and forgotten James Clow. (It is worth noting that Smith's own recommendation of Hume for the Chair was only lukewarm because he foresaw a hostile public reaction against Hume's appointment.)

Instead of going down in history as the ablest academic administrator ever, the Earl of Islay is now infamous (if he is remembered at all) for believing that David Hume was not qualified (probably for religious reasons) for a professorship in Logic and Metaphysics.

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