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.