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.