Thursday, December 27, 2012

Manufacturing Racism: Academic Hiring and the Diversity Mandate
So-called equity hiring is an inequitable and injurious practice

I started my first university job as a well-meaning progressivist and came out, depending on one’s perspective, either a confirmed conservative or a racist reactionary. Although many factors played a role in my conversion, an important one was my experience of affirmative action in hiring.

It wasn’t called affirmative action at the prairie university where I began my teaching career; it was called equity hiring, an odious misnomer. What it meant, I was told, was that if two equally qualified candidates applied for a position, the one whose hiring would enable the department to become more “diverse,” and therefore ostensibly more representative of our society, would be chosen. Every accredited university in Canada is required by federal law to implement an employment equity program, and the vast majority of my colleagues declared its goals and methods laudable. The four main historically disadvantaged groups targeted by the program are women, racial minorities, people with disabilities, and Aboriginal people.

The little bubble of unease I felt upon hearing the explanation of equity should probably have been warning enough that I was ill-suited to take my place in the liberal professoriate, but I fought it down and tried to argue myself into enthusiasm. Was I not in favor of diversity? Did I not want to see the old boys’ network decisively dismantled? The answer, as I felt it in my secret heart, was no. If diversity meant hiring people on the basis of their female gender or non-white skin, then I despised the idea, whatever larger social good it was thought to serve.

Even without experience of the hiring process, I understood that the assumption of “two equally qualified candidates” was a disingenuous fiction. Candidates are always different from one another and differently qualified, with various skills, aptitudes, and kinds of intellectual proficiency. To suggest that two or more could be found who were equal is seriously to underestimate the range of considerations that go into finding the best person for a job. Moreover, once the desire to fill a quota becomes part of the hiring process, it operates to curtail the open-minded weighing of qualities and achievements necessary for a fair and thorough search.

Even more importantly, the idea that diversity of ideas could be promoted by gender and race quotas is clearly a social engineer’s article of faith, one that intellectuals committed to the life of the mind ought to resist strenuously. I agreed with a colleague who summed up gender equity in a pithily subversive manner: “I’ve always been interested in what was between a job candidate’s ears,” he twinkled, “not what was between his or her legs.” But this fellow, who enjoyed outraging his left-leaning colleagues, had long been derided and ignored as a raving right-winger and hate-monger.

My worst fears were confirmed during the job search. Preference operated at every stage, from the initial advertisement to the final selection, ensuring that the ethical touchstone of the process — equality of qualifications — could never be adequately determined. Our job ads stated the university’s commitment to diversity, making it clear that white men were at a disadvantage. A typical Canadian university ad reads as follows: “We especially welcome applications from members of visible minority groups, women, Aboriginal persons, persons with disabilities, persons of minority sexual orientations and gender identities, and others with the skills and knowledge to engage productively with diverse communities.” One can never know how many straight white men, recognizing the clear implications of the rhetoric, simply chose to forgo the bother of applying.

Next came the creation of a shortlist of three or four candidates for interview; some members of the department were keen to stack the list with members of the diversity groups. To this end, there was much sophistry about why a (white) male candidate’s book with a prestigious university press was really no better than — was actually perhaps a bit inferior to — a female candidate’s single article with an academic journal of no repute; or about why a (white) male candidate’s expertise in highly competitive Shakespeare studies was no better than — was actually far less original than — a female candidate’s untested, largely speculative work on an obscure seventeenth-century woman playwright. Thus were well-qualified white men kept out of the competition. Moments of levity occasionally occurred when we were forced into elaborate interpretative dances to determine if a male candidate might be black or Asian or gay, though usually the savvy candidate made that clear in his cover letter.

At the hiring stage, there was the same special pleading. Poor presentations by women candidates were praised as “provocatively unorthodox” or “strategically unconventional” while polished ones by men were criticized as “safe” or “unoriginal.” Women’s mistakes could be overlooked or seen as strengths (“I like that she was courageous enough to present on material that she is still working through”) while men’s mistakes were definitive (“I’m shocked that he could be finishing a PhD and still not know that [minor detail”]). One male candidate who had given the best demonstration class I’d ever seen was criticized by our leading feminist professor — presumably because she could find no other faults — for having never visited England to do archival work, a criticism the poverty-conscious lady would almost certainly never have made of a struggling single-mother candidate. That a man might have life circumstances preventing him from travel seemed not to have occurred to her.

During the four years I worked at this university, we hired five new faculty members, only one of them a man. An extraordinarily well qualified candidate, he was hired in a divisive contest that saw, at its end, the same good woman who so prized archival research in tearful colloquy with our department head over the department’s failure to pursue its equity mandate. To her, equity meant that, well into the foreseeable future, no white men should be hired at all.

When the department sought to hire an Aboriginal specialist in Aboriginal literature, our desire to make amends for Canada’s “genocidal history” led to even more zealous equity measures. Early on, we determined that the normal qualification of a PhD should be waived in favor of cultural qualifications, particularly knowledge of Aboriginal lore. The PhD was, after all, a white Western construct tainted by the history of colonialism. Once framed by an anti-colonial ethic, the search process became almost unworkably burdened by white guilt. Academic publications could not be required, we reasoned, because Aboriginal culture was traditionally oral, not print-based. Aboriginal people approached teaching, learning, and cultural authority from a point of view fundamentally different from that of white scholars. Protocols of respect for elders, gift-giving, talking circles, and non-exploitative communication — often involving long silences — set Aboriginal knowledge practices apart from Western ones.

The more we discussed Aboriginality, the more difficult it became to imagine asking an Aboriginal scholar to conform to any of our ordinary requirements. Who were we, after all, to judge the scholar’s depth of knowledge, to impose on her our Western assumptions about rationality, rigor, and originality? Did it not involve a kind of colonial violence of the sort her people had already suffered so egregiously? By the time we had talked ourselves into a state of intellectual paralysis, it should have been obvious that we had no business conducting the search under the terms we had created. But conduct it we did, in a muddle of cultural obeisance.

The problems of such hiring assumptions and practices are so manifold as to make it nearly inconceivable that they should have been implemented across North American universities without any significant protest — but implemented they have been, and most academics I know will admit no serious contradiction between the ideal of equality and the reality of discrimination against white male candidates. It should be self-evident — but is not — that any form of hiring is wrong that does not make merit its first and major criterion. Not only academic departments are harmed by practices that imperil quality; the candidates themselves, who must live with the question of their real qualifications forever undetermined, are placed in a humiliating position. Moreover, department morale is likely to suffer considerably when members see less qualified candidates favored due to non-intellectual factors, with resentments and rivalries an almost inevitable result.

What stands out most in my recollection of that time is the dishonesty of the proceedings. A member of the department who served on a campus-wide committee tasked with developing best practices to promote diversity mentioned one of their recommendations: after a minority candidate is hired, members of the department should take care to tell all their friends of her merit; the equity preference should not be mentioned. The omission hit at the nub of the matter. It was not that individuals were necessarily lying as they offered their various justifications and rationales; many of them believed in what they were doing, at least some of the time. But it was impossible to believe wholeheartedly and without hesitation through all of those strained, compromised, and occasionally ludicrous moments of hedging, half-truth, selective blindness, and forced praise.

No matter one’s commitment to righting past wrongs, one could not avoid recognizing that non-intellectual criteria were being used to hire candidates into positions ostensibly defined by intellectual achievement. In many small ways — in the checking of skepticism or the suppression of a challenging question, in the effort to be impressed by the unimpressive, to wholeheartedly approve the only moderately good — one did subtle violence to intellectual integrity, and one couldn’t help but know it. The ramifications of that knowing for one’s faith in the academic enterprise, and in one’s colleagues and oneself, cannot be underestimated and can never be undone.


Cuts to religion lessons 'will fuel bigoted attitudes', British MP warns

Children risk being increasingly swayed by the attitudes of “bigoted” parents because of the steady decline of religious education in schools, ministers have been told.

Pupils will fail to filter out fundamentalist Islamic views – or offensive opinions voiced by Christian families – following a drop in the number of decent RE lessons, it was claimed.

Stephen Lloyd, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education, said high-quality tuition in a range of faiths, beliefs and cultures was essential for young children to make sense of the world.

But he warned that access to lessons was becoming increasingly marginalised because of a combination of Government reforms to the curriculum and cuts in teacher training places.

According to figures, a third of secondary schools already flout the law on compulsory RE by refusing to allow pupils to study the subject in the final two years of school.

It also emerged that rising numbers of schools were cutting specialist RE teachers and relying on untrained staff with a poor grasp of the subject to deliver lessons.

Last month, the Parliamentary group launched an investigation into the multiple problems facing religious education.

New data presented to the group showed that the number of universities running training courses for would-be RE teachers has fallen by a sixth in just two years – from 40 to 33. The vast majority of remaining courses are under threat of closure because of a lack of fully-funded places, it was claimed.

Mr Lloyd, the Liberal Democrat MP for Eastbourne and Willingdon, said the decline in the subject led to fresh concerns that extreme attitudes towards certain faiths and beliefs would spread.

“I think – certainly outside the faith schools – RE is a subject that’s beginning to diminish,” he said.

“I think that it is even more important today that our children learn about the range of different faiths, cultures and beliefs to give them the chance to gain a level of knowledge across the piste so they don’t just have to listen to what’s on the internet or what may be the fundamentally bigoted attitudes of their parents or peers towards other religions. It is becoming more and more important because of the globalised world.”

Critics have claimed that RE is in decline because it is has been excluded from the Government's English Baccalaureate – a school leaving certificate that rewards pupils who gain good grades in English, maths, science, languages and history or geography.

Mr Lloyd said that decent RE teaching gave pupils access to more objective facts surrounding different faiths to act as a counterbalance to attitudes picked up in the home.

He added: “I don’t think most children – if they are told that fundamentalist Islamic views are right or fundamentalist Christian views are right – are going to go on the internet and look at all the rational moderate details of all the different world religions as balance on their own.

“I think there’s far more chance for them to go online and find all the information that validates what they already believe.”

Data submitted by the Association of University Lecturers in Religion and Education to the all-party inquiry suggests that dedicated teacher training courses in the subject are in decline.

Universities such as Warwick, Hull, East Anglia and Oxford Brookes have closed training courses in the last two years, it said. Only 33 courses remain but 27 of these train fewer than 10 teachers this year – potentially making them unviable.

The committee is expected to publish its report on RE early in 2013.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Religious education remains a statutory part of the wider school curriculum for every single student up to 18.

“The English Baccalaureate will not prevent any school from offering religious education GCSEs. In fact, RE teaching hours at Key Stage 4 [14-to-16] have risen since the introduction of the EBacc. We have been clear that pupils should take the exams that are right for them and teachers and parents should help pupils make the right learning choice.”


Good looks 'work against' female academics

Comment from Australia

BEAUTY is beneficial in most workplaces but not universities, where students' regard for 'hot' lecturers can be outweighed by colleagues' disapproval.

Cassandra Atherton, literary studies lecturer at Melbourne’s Deakin University, said good looks played well with students but not fellow academics. And with careers more dependent on peer perceptions than student ratings, glamour could be a drawback.

“We’ve still got that stereotype of the professor as socially inept and not particularly attractive,” she said.  “If you don’t fit that stereotype, you’re not working hard enough on your academic career.”

Dr Atherton said good looks disadvantaged researchers when they fronted academic boards. “The research is considered to be somehow not as rigorously intelligent. Even if you’re looking at a fiercely interesting topic, the suggestion is that you spend more time in the beauty parlour than on the article.

“After reading about how good-looking people do so well in other industries, it was shocking to me that looks could be interpreted as a statement about intelligence.”

A US study has found that on a 5-point student evaluation scale, attractive professors receive ratings an average 0.8 points higher than their plain colleagues. But Dr Atherton said they were no more likely to receive promotions, because research was considered more important than teaching.

The study was based on the ‘Rate My Professors’ website, which allows US students to judge their lecturers “hotness” as well as their helpfulness, clarity and accessibility. Lecturers considered “hottest” are identified with an exploding hot chilli pepper icon.

Dr Atherton said US academics tolerated such observations despite considering them demeaning and irrelevant. “They feel it’s something that they have no control over, and it’s not going to stop.”

She said Australia could expect the same. Local websites such as the student-created ‘My Lecturer’ and its secondary school equivalent, ‘Rate My Teachers’, already allow anonymous assessments of teaching staff.

One of the “hottest” lecturers on the American website, Bonnie Blossman of the University of North Texas, started receiving negative reviews after joining a reality TV show.

Dr Atherton, who interviewed Dr Blossman while researching a book on high profile academics, said UNT was pleased with the profile gained from having its lecturer on ‘Big Rich Texas’, which profiles women at an exclusive country club.

But colleagues – particularly women – were critical, while viewers, journalists and fellow cast members routinely questioned the developmental physiologists’s credentials.

“Blossman’s expertise as a scientist is rarely put to use on the show, and her PhD is often called into question.”

Criticism of Dr Blossman had been fuelled by her colloquial language and her association with an “anti-intellectual” television genre, but her looks were the main factor.

Dr Atherton said Canadian psychology professor Judith Waters had identified a “beauty penalty” in academe, where it was important to look acceptable “but being gorgeous can be a problem”. Dr Blossman had highlighted the issue by being filmed having a nose job and botox treatment.

Dr Atherton said it would be impossible to study how many academics had cosmetic surgery, because they wouldn’t discuss the issue. “They’re entrenched in this idea that brains over beauty is what counts.

“They would fear being judged as less intellectual because they cared about that kind of thing – surely they could have been banging out another article rather than recovering from some procedure.”


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