Brian Leiter just posted an argument against philosophers relying on surveys of climate. This post, and a long similar conversation with Rebecca Kukla a couple weeks ago has convinced me that this is right. Earlier I had argued in a few of the discussions of the "pluralist's" climate guide that one should do better. And while I stand by the rather obvious point that a survey of people who have systematic and concrete knowledge of a department is a lot better than a survey of a handful of faculty lacking such knowledge, I now think my argument is wrong. For the reasons Leiter mentions and others - the fact that things can change VERY quickly, the fact that collective advice like this is will almost inevitably be taken more seriously by potential students than it should, etc. - I am now convinced that there is very little chance of a survey on these matters that will not do more harm than good.
But I do disagree with the conclusion of Brian's post: "There is no substitute, at least at present, for prospective students doing the hard work of investigating the programs they are considering for themselves." I disagree first because I don't see how that is a substitute - how are students going to do the sort of hard work that would avoid the problems he mentions? Are they going to do in depth, confidential qualitative surveys of everyone in the department? Of course not. They will spend a weekend in informal talks with students and faculty when everyone is on their best behavior and in "selling" mode or get the sorts of limited anecdotal advice that goes into a survey. I also deny that this is the only option. I suggest instead that we turn away from what is easiest for us as academics - surveys, teaching, advice - and focus instead on organizing and empowerment.
What we need to do, rather, is start training our students to deal with the sorts of problems that exist, and creating the sorts of networks that will support them when they do. The world is a shitty unjust place and, sadly, academia is not a magical mythical family that is free of all that. So rather than make up lists of places that we think might possibly be magically mythical, let's train our students to deal with injustice by fighting it. (Remember, we hope - though maybe this too is magical thinking - that they will get jobs, and we know for damned sure they won't have much choice in those, so the skills are unlikely to be wasted.) Doing so will require enlisting expertise that we don't generally have ourselves, but why not institute into every grad program a seminar of approaches to all sorts of academic political problems: racism, sexism, homophobia, corruption, authoritarianism, bias, dogmatism, exploitation of adjuncts, staff, and workers, etc.? Let's instruct our students on legal possibilities, the kinds of formal mechanisms that exist inside universities, and also modes of organizing. Perhaps students who have studied the civil rights movement, even a little, will understand how to occupy classrooms, boycott and picket offending faculty, etc. Let's teach about how to use the media and our social networks. (Again, this will require bringing in people who actually know how to do these things, but there are plenty of them, and many will be eager to help.)
And let's organize ourselves into networks that stand ready and have the resources to join with students in standing up for themselves. Let's be ready to publicize their struggles, to join them in meaningful solidarity, to exert our own pressure on recalcitrant institutions.
It seems to me that this would be a great deal better than any list with any methodology.