In Depth

Excremental crisis: Who sent UBC philosopher package of poo?

What is the meaning of life? Who am I? And why is someone mailing packages of poo to North American philosophers? A series of alarming deliveries to the offices of academic in Canada and the U.S. has added a new head-scratcher to the list of great existential questions.

Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins is one of 4 philosophers to receive package of feces from mysterious source

UBC philosophy professor Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins received this package at her office in July. It contained nothing but feces. (Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins)

What is the meaning of life? Who am I? And why is someone mailing packages of poo to philosophers?

A series of vile deliveries to the offices of one Canadian and three U.S. academics has added a new head-scratcher to the list of the world's great existential — and excremental — questions.

Police, the victims and one of the world's leading experts on Friedrich Nietzche have become embroiled in a search for truth unlike any conducted by Socrates.

"It was alarming," says Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, whose wife and fellow UBC philosophy professor Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins received one of the packages this summer.

"It's the kind of thing that it's difficult to interpret as anything other than a threat or an attempt to embarrass or intimidate."

'A longtime academic kingmaker'

The package of feces arrived at Jenkins' office in July — about the same time as similar deliveries landed on the desks of philosophers in New York, Massachusetts and California.

Because the UBC package was sent across a border, it was the only one to contain a customs declaration form.

Name: Peter Aduren. Return address: a number one digit removed from the University of Chicago Law School. Contents: four foam sculptures. But what awaited was not foam. And it definitely wasn't sculpted.

The package sent to Canada was the only one listing a return address and name of sender. Both are fictitious. (Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins)

Jenkins reported the package to RCMP, but her husband says police told her there wasn't much they could do beyond making a note of the incident.

That didn't stop speculation about the name on the envelope, which some claim is a pseudonym for University of Chicago professor Brian Leiter, a man who had publicly tussled with all four victims.

Leiter, a Nietzchean scholar described in the New York Times as "a longtime academic kingmaker," is the former editor of Philosophical Gourmet Report, a website which ranks philosophy departments.

He's not a guy known for holding back on his opinions of other philosophers.

In 2014, Leiter leveled an acid pen at Jenkins over a blog post she wrote after her first day as a full professor at UBC.

Jenkins pledged "not to make negative personal comments about individual philosophers" and not to "treat other philosophers or their work in ways that are belitting, trivializing, and/or exclusionary."

The post didn't mention Leiter, but he apparently saw his name between the lines. According to his blog, Leiter "sent her a sharp and derisive email" to which Jenkins never replied. He also called her "sanctimonious."

In response, more than 600 philosophers — including nearly a dozen from UBC — added their names to a statement pledging to stop volunteering services for the Philosophical Gourmet Report: "We don't find what has happened to our colleague acceptable and don't wish voluntarily to help provide Professor Leiter the power that makes it possible."

Framed by a 'vile cyber-cesspool'?

Leiter, who has since stepped down as editor of the website, denies any involvement in sending the packages to the professors. In an email, he points to a blog posting he wrote earlier this month: "There is no bottom to vile in cyberspace."

Leiter also says he's asked the University of Chicago police to investigate.

UBC philosopher Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins turned her package of poo over to RCMP. But the identity of the sender remains unknown. (Jonathan Ichikawa Jenkins)

In his posting, the professor says he was in Germany when Jenkins' package was mailed from Chicago. He calls the mailings a "vile stunt" and urges any recipients to turn them over to police.

Leiter suspects he's being framed by another online group who he "mercilessly criticized" for suggesting "law school is a scam."

"Alas, what this is really about is what happens when one vile cyber-cesspool — the 'law school is a scam' crowd —hears about another cyber-controversy ... involving their nemesis, namely, me," Leiter wrote on his blog.

"The culprit(s), I'm rather sure, have nothing to do with philosophy."

Carolyn Dicey Jennings received her package of feces at the University of California, Merced. There were stamps, but no postmark or return address. Jennings says it was kind of gross.

"It felt a little bit like a slap in the face, that level of disgust. It wasn't something completely traumatizing, but on the other hand, it's obviously very insulting to be sent feces," she said.

"I don't believe that a philosopher could do this ... I guess I don't think anyone could have done this, but someone must have — because we received them."

Like Jenkins and the others, Jennings turned her package over to police. There are no DNA tests in the works, and the investigation appears to be stalled. One more eternal mystery.

Not knowing the truth is particularly tough for scholars dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom.

As Plato might say, they're like prisoners in a cave, chasing a shadow of a person with an envelope full of excrement across a wall.

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.