Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Meritocracy and Hiring

Is academic hiring meritocratic? The author of this piece assumes that it is. As someone whose job it is to actually hire faculty, I can attest that merit is only a small part of the picture.

The single most important part of the picture is the existence of a position at all. In this funding climate, we can only afford to staff a few of the positions (whether faculty, staff, or administration) that we need. If the position doesn’t exist, then the relative merit of the prospective candidates means exactly zero.

That may seem obvious, but it gets blithely ignored in the piece. Posted tenure-track faculty positions were down by double digits in most disciplines last year. Does that mean the merit of the candidate pool went down by double digits? Um, no.

In a particularly cruel catch-22, the relative ease of finding adjuncts for a given discipline actually mitigates against its getting a line. If you can only afford to hire one full-timer, and you have requests from both history and, say, pharmacy, what do you do? If good history adjuncts are easy to find, and good pharmacy adjuncts are nearly impossible, you give the line to pharmacy. An oversupply of candidates in a given discipline can actually depress demand for those candidates. (Say’s Law in reverse: supply actually depresses demand.) The connection to individual ‘merit’ is obscure at best.

For public institutions -- which employ a significant percentage of faculty in the US -- political winds at the state (and sometimes county) level also have serious impacts on hiring. For example, my college just got word that next year will bring yet another seven-figure cut in our operating funds. Obviously, any serious programmatic expansion is out of the question. This has literally nothing to do with the ‘merit’ of any given candidate. Depending on the state, the political winds may make the economic ones even worse. Combine a recession with a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights or a Prop 13, and all bets are off.

Of course, there’s also the basic incompatibility of life tenure with the idea of meritocracy. If incumbents don’t have to keep proving themselves against newcomers, then you do not have a meritocracy. Tenure violates the foundational assumption of meritocracy. In truly performance-driven settings, there’s no such thing as resting on your laurels; you are either the best at your role right now or you are not, and you’d better be ready to prove yourself at any moment. If we had a meritocratic revolution, tenure would be the first casualty.

But even taking all of that as given, are the searches that actually happen reflections of pure merit?

They couldn’t be, because there is no such thing. Instead, there’s something like ‘fit,’ which only makes sense in context. Situational merit -- or what I above called “best at your role” -- necessarily relies on the situation (or role). As the situation changes, so does the merit.

Quick, who has more situational merit: a well-published candidate with an indifferent teaching style, or an engaging teacher who rarely publishes? A research university would answer that differently than a community college would. Unless you assume a single linear chain of being, like the old social Darwinists, you have to confront the diversity of missions of various institutions. ‘Merit’ in one setting does not necessarily imply merit in the other.

Alternately, who has more merit: a professor of French or a professor of Spanish? The latter has a much better shot at getting hired, because that’s where student demand is. You may be a fantastic French teacher, but if we don’t need it, we don’t need it. Enrollments aren’t the only drivers of hiring, but they matter. I don’t know how to judge the ‘merit’ of one language against another, but I know quite well how to measure the enrollments of one against another. In the absence of sustainable public subsidies, tuitions will pay the bills. C’est la vie.

Even within the same department or program, needs will vary over time. Sometimes a department needs a peacemaker and sometimes it needs a sparkplug. Sometimes it needs to diversify its demographics by race or gender. Sometimes it’s too inbred, with everybody coming from the same one or two graduate programs, and it needs new perspectives. Sometimes it just needs someone who isn’t allergic to the internet. None of those has anything to do with ‘merit’ in the sense the term is usually used, but each makes sense in its own way.

The key is to recognize that hiring is always more about the employer than about the employee. Employers hire to solve problems they consider important. If you’re the best darn German professor who ever walked the planet, congratulations, but I don’t need you. I don’t doubt your brilliance, your hard work, your civic virtue, or your habit of helping old ladies across the street. They just don’t matter. It’s not about you.

Conversely, if you landed in a great job, congratulations! Enjoy it, work hard, and do it without guilt. But it would be ethically unbecoming to assume that it reflects your personal superiority to those who didn’t make it. There’s such a thing as being in the right place at the right time.

My objection to the ‘meritocracy’ piece isn’t just that it’s inaccurate, although it is, or that it’s arrogant, although it is. My objection is that it feeds a myth that does real harm.

If you believe that the academic job market is a true meritocracy, and you’ve been freeway flying for a while now, what does that say about you?

I’m convinced that one reason some people won’t let themselves let go of the dream, despite years of external signals suggesting that they should, is a sense that it would reflect a personal moral failing. They’ve identified so completely with the ‘meritocracy’ myth that they feel a real need to redeem themselves within it. It’s more than the money; other fields often pay more. Instead, they see the status of “tenured professor” as a sort of validation of everything they’ve done. Leaving the academy would be admitting defeat and accepting failure; lifelong “A” students, as a breed, aren’t very good at that. It’s not what they do.

My proposal: let’s recognize the academic job market as the uneven, unpredictable, often unforgiving thing that it is. Good people lose. Frankly, some real losers sometimes win. It’s not entirely random, of course, but it’s a far cry from a meritocracy. Let’s stop recruiting for a meat grinder of a market and pretending that it will all work out in the end. And for heaven’s sake, let’s stop pretending that it’s all about the candidates. It just isn’t.