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Manufacturing Racism: Academic Hiring and the Diversity Mandate

So-called equity hiring is an inequitable and injurious practice.

by
Janice Fiamengo

Bio

December 23, 2012 - 12:00 am

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.

Janice Fiamengo is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa, and author of The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada (2008).
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