Tuesday, September 11, 2012

 

Newbies Only?

I admit nearly spitting my coffee when I read this one.  And that’s unfortunate.

The Colorado State University English department posted a tenure-track faculty position, specifying that it would only consider candidates who received their Ph.D.’s in 2010 or later.  The IHE article quotes a legal consultant saying that there’s nothing illegal about the posting.

Though I’m not a lawyer, I respectfully disagree with the consultant.  Good luck defending this one against a “disparate impact” age discrimination claim.

It’s true that the requirement is not age discrimination in the strictest possible sense; somebody could have received a Ph.D. in 2011 at the age of fifty.  But most new doctoral recipients are in their twenties or thirties.  Setting a “sell-by date” would clearly impact older people disproportionately, even allowing for a few exceptions.  The legal term is “disparate impact,” and it’s actionable.  I would have a hard time keeping a straight face if I were deposed and had to defend the policy against a disparate impact claim.

That said, though, there’s a valid argument to be made that hiring for diversity in ages should be just as allowable as hiring for diversity by race or gender.  With life tenure, no retirement age, and long droughts of hiring, it’s easy for a department to get very top-heavy in age.  (I don’t know if that applies in this particular case.  I’m also unsure whether hiring for, say, racial diversity is permissible in Colorado.  But if it is, I could see a parallel argument.)  We haven’t yet recognized age or generational diversity as valid hiring criteria, but they’re crucial for succession planning and the long-term stability of departments or programs.

To the extent that diversity arguments are based on a presumed diversity of perspectives, the generational argument seems stronger.  If everyone in a department was trained before 1980, bringing in a newbie can bring new connections, different assumptions, and a whole different set of references.  

Interestingly, nobody objects when the situation is reversed.  If you have an entire cohort of rookies, bringing in a seasoned veteran is widely considered right and proper.  And it’s easy enough to screen out the “too young” by setting excessive requirements for experience, publications, and the like.  In that situation, generational diversity is typically recognized right away as a desirable good.  It’s only when the young, rather than the old, are favored that people object.

Part of the unease around issues like these, I think, comes from two logics crashing into each other.  The logic of individual rights, and merits, suggests that any “arbitrary” criteria be removed.  Certainly, any attentive student of American history knows who those criteria tended to favor over the years.

But it’s also true that a department or program is a whole, rather than just the sum of its parts.  And if the whole is imbalanced -- even if it’s nobody’s fault, and everybody is good at what they do -- then it’s weaker than it should be.  If a literature department is chock-full of, say, Americanists, but lacks anyone specializing in England, then it’s imbalanced, even if every single Americanist is doing a damn good job.  Specifying that the next hire specialize in British lit would strike most people as fair and reasonable, even if that meant that the underemployed Americanists still out there were out of luck.  

Along those lines, I could see an argument for balancing a department that skipped a generation.  That’s not a shot at the incumbents; it’s simply a recognition that homogeneity breeds blind spots.  A hire from a different generation won’t have the same blind spots, so the department as a whole would be stronger.

(Some conservatives have argued that the same principle should apply to political beliefs.  I disagree on two grounds.  First, in most areas, political beliefs are irrelevant; I have no idea which party, if any, the new music professor belongs to, nor do I care.  Second, though, political beliefs are subject to change in ways that, say, race and date of birth are not.  In the subject areas in which political beliefs may be relevant, telling someone that following his research to its logical conclusion would cost him his job -- because it would involve taking a political position contrary to the one he was hired to represent -- is directly antithetical to academic freedom.  If I’m hired to be the department conservative and my research pushes my perspective leftward, I’m suddenly not doing my job; it’s hard to imagine a more direct threat to the pursuit of truth than that.  It also presumes a single, continuous spectrum of political ideas, which, to put it mildly, is hogwash.)

I have no illusions that the Colorado State kerfuffle will lead to a thoughtful discussion of generational diversity.  Instead, it will almost certainly lead to indignant flaming, backpedaling, and apologies.  And that’s a shame.  Because while this instance is hamfisted and asinine, the larger question actually matters.  And it isn’t anywhere near as clear as we tend to assume.

Comments:
As per the update here, the matter's already in the process of being handled.
 
Though I’m not a lawyer, I respectfully disagree with the consultant.
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Yep lets ignore experts in their fields. What do they know? Evolution, those crazy biologists with their ideas of common descent. Climate change, those crazy climatologists, and supporting chemists and physicist what do they know.

If disparate impact was that strong, plenty of women in the news would have kept their anchor jobs as they aged.

I tend to find academics way overestimate risk, creating inane safety policies and rules regarding hiring. At my current college, outside consultants running workshops contradict overly nervous HR people.
 
"And it’s easy enough to screen out the “too young” by setting excessive requirements for experience, publications, and the like."
***
Is that what they're doing - screening out the young or are they respecting and desiring experience?? Why don't we respect experience?
 
I'm surprised DD didn't comment more strongly on the risk inherent in choosing from a likely modest-sized field of scholars of 18th century American Literature with very limited teaching experience and having them occupy that seat for the next 45 years. Better get that right!

Or maybe they already have the person, and want to make it easy to hire them cheaply. Get someone with a fresh PhD and offer them a glorified post-doc salary they are happy to have, and they are locked into a promotion system that will pay them less than new hires in later years. I noticed "seeking an entry-level professor with an entry-level salary and expectations" [emphasis added]. Pretty easy to negotiate when the person has low expectations for salary at a second rate school.

It will be fun to watch if someone with "star" quality (two books?) in this field applies with a 2009 PhD. Even if they don't want the job.

As someone who was part of, and has documented, the lost generation in physics that resulted from a hiring boom that ended in 1969 when most universities stopped growing, I'm only mildly sympathetic. This has been going on for decades. I know several highly productive people who were at the low-end for years because they were in "happy to get it" mode when hired in the 70s or 80s in my field.

What is odd is that I've seen this done (hire inexperience over experience when costs were a factor) without anyone putting it in writing. They must figure it is easier this way, as long as they get a big enough candidate pool. Which they will.
 
"First, in most areas, political beliefs are irrelevant; I have no idea which party, if any, the new music professor belongs to, nor do I care. "

You may feel this way, but it does not appear to be the case in higher ed generally. How else does one explain the liberal dominance of academia in a country that is perhaps 20% liberal?
 
I agree with Dean Dad, and I am surprised that the lawyers and the HR people at Colorado State University let this one go through. Institutional lawyers and HR people are usually extremely ultracautious, and will usually block anything in which there is even the remote chance that the school could be sued. Even if the probability that a lawsuit would ultimately succeed is very small, the school would still have to spend a lot of money and suffer some bad publicity if some irate job applicant gets hold of a junkyard dog lawyer and decides to bring a lawsuit.

Here at Proprietary Art School, our lawyers are paranoid about just everything that could conceivably result in any sort of legal action. For example, our lawyers have convinced management to impose a rather draconian set of restrictions on what we are allowed to do with copyrighted materials in the classroom, arguing that just because we are a for-profit educational institution, the educational exemption provided for in the copyright law does not apply to us. They maintain that even fair use does not apply to us because we are a for-profit institution.

Like CCPhysicist, I remember the job crisis in physics that began in 1969. This hit just as I was graduating with a physics PhD and trying to get a job. The job fairs at physics conferences resembled a Depression-era longshoreman’s hiring hall—hundreds of out-of-work people wandering around looking for jobs and only a dozen or so openings available. Unable of find jobs, a lot of new PhDs ended up driving taxicabs or tending bars. Or they drifted gypsy-like from one temporary post-doc to another in a fruitless search for a tenure-track position. Even jobs in industry were hard to find. The physics job market hasn’t gotten all that much better even after all these years.

I wonder if that Colorado State University job ad was written specifically for someone that they already knew that they wanted to hire. Maybe the position had actually already been filled. I have seen a lot of job ads which specify a long list of specific requirements, so many that no mere mortal could possibly fill them all. Or else the requirements are so tightly written that only the candidate that the search committee had already selected could possibly satisfy them all. Back in the 1970s, I was working in a summer internship in a government lab. I happened to see a job posting at that lab that I might be able to satisfy. I immediately rushed over there, only to find that the job had already been filled several months before. Apparently the lab was required to post all of their job openings, but there was no requirement that they actually post them before the job was already filled.
 
Playing devil's advocate here...would we look at all askance at a posting requiring certain IT certifications or degrees to be after or within certain dates? Some of "my" IT degrees have the requirement that the student graduate within 5 years or START OVER FROM SCRATCH. If the information is that volatile in IT, why not in other areas. Could it be age discrimination? Sure. But could it also be searching for the most up to date qualifications for the field. Possibly.
 
More on IT job ads and academic job advertisements in general.

I think that the a lot of IT ads which display a long list of seemingly impossible job requirements plus a whole boatload of necessary certifications are a thinly-disguised attempt to justify shipping the job offshore or to justify the hiring of an H-1B visa holder from overseas to fill the position for a lot less money. "See, we just can't seem to find an American who has these qualifications so we simply have to go offshore".

A lot of industry heavyweights in software and IT fields talk like this, complaining that there are not enough qualified Americans to fill the large numbers of jobs that are supposedly available out there.

Or else the job doesn't really actually exist and the ad is simply trolling for lots of resumes just in case Alan Turing happens to show up.

Alternatively, the company may settle for someone who doesn't meet *all* of the requirements but does satisfy *some* of them. Perhaps they know enough so that they can jump right right in to the job without having to go through all sorts of expensive on-the-job training.

A lot of job ads for faculty positions at research universities say that they require lots of publications in refereed journals plus even a couple of scholarly books published. Probably even more important, they want a demonstrated ability or a high potential to attract external funding. There are so many job seekers out there that the university can afford to wait until the right person comes along.

Actually the job market is so tight right now that companies and universities can demand that only superstars need apply. Us mere mortals need not apply.

Maybe the Colorado State job ad was intended to reduce the flood of hundreds of CVs that just about every advertised opening seems to attract. By saying that they only want a very junior person who will work for postdoc-level wages, they may be able to reduce the blizzard of CVs to a more manageable level.
 
The most poignant part of this post is that it comes after DD's thoughts on MOOCs and more open approaches to higher education. The contrast is stark

Think of things this way: Right now, there are more and more open and free educational materials being promoted by a variety of individuals and organizations. Supporters range from Harvard and MIT to random people who are just interested in taking a stats course. In such an environment, reputation dominates, and there's ample opportunity to market yourself as a good teacher/instructor/curator. The whole thing is only a few steps away from becoming a bona fide industry that's actually economically sustainable for producers and consumers.

On the other hand, you've got an existing higher education system where highly qualified and trained candidates fight tooth and nail for scraps of career opportunities. Case in point, a "second rate" school that explicitly filters out applicants that aren't new enough using legally ambiguous tactics. This position will still likely attract scores of candidates.

The most dedicated and innovated of folks in the current system will likely look elsewhere for opportunities. I wonder where they'll go...
 
"How else does one explain the liberal dominance of academia in a country that is perhaps 20% liberal?"
On average, liberals are more academically inclined than conservatives, obviously. /snark

I'm kind of surprised disparate impact could be applied here- I've seen lots of jobs talking about someone < X years from the PhD in my field. Granted, these are postdoc job ads, so they aren't usually subject to a ton of HR scrutiny, and there are sound grant-requirement related reasons for these things sometimes.
 
I'm not sure how this is really any different than saying that the job is to be "filled at the assistant professor level". When we list a position for an assistant professor, we do not consider applications from someone more than a few years into another position because a) we won't be able to afford them on the budget we've got and b) they won't fit our demographic needs. We hire academically young faculty for a number of good reasons, some of which DD has noted.
 
Age discrimination is one of the things going on here, but it isn't the main issue. The main issue is that the department is stating up front that they will not consider people who have been out for several years and are working as adjuncts - even if those people have plenty of teaching experience, publications, etc. Many of us know that this is unofficially the case. People who do not get jobs fresh out of graduate school are considered "stale" losers with nothing to contribute. The only surprising thing is that the ad is so blatant. So the discussion of age-related perspectives is pretty much irrelevant here.
 
to ArtMathProf @7:34AM

I'm not old enough to have experienced the 1970 collapse, so I'm more of a historian of that era based on first-hand accounts such as yours. (If there were 12 openings, other readers need to compare that to about 1500 PhDs granted in 1970.)
 
Goodness! You should NEVER hire for "diversity" in age, race, gender etc. Simply require for the position the "qualifications" that you want. Do you want someone energetic, engaged with social media, with a proven track record of constantly trying new teaching methods then say THAT. Do you want someone with a varied cultural background? Then say THAT. It has nothing to do with genetics (race), age, gender, etc. I cannot believe anyone even considers those non-changeable non-pertinent words when it comes to hiring.
 
At least it's honest.

As a practical matter, no one is going to hire a person with a degree from, say, the 1970s or 80s, no matter how much awe-inspiring experience she or he has.

So...why not be upfront? The message is "don't waste your time." I personally prefer not to waste my time, and so, as much as I deplore the discrimination, I resent the department a great deal less than I resent those who find ways to weasel around fairness.

At Edmund Dantes: The explanation is simple: Most educated people are seekers of truth. Truth has a liberal bias.
 
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