Inside Higher Ed recently published an article purporting to take us “Inside a Search,” by Lou Marinoff, in which he relates the story of how the Philosophy Department at City College of New York filled a position last year. It’s mostly what you’d expect, except for the fact that they decided to run an open search–any field. For a job in New York City. And he seems surprised that they were overwhelmed by 637 applications! Duh. Who ever could have predicted. . . ?
Anyhoo. Here’s the part of Marinoff’s article that really raised my left eyebrow:
How did we prune our field from 637 to 27? An important selection criterion was holding a Ph.D. from a good university. Members of our department earned their Ph.D.s at Columbia, Harvard, Oxford, and University of London. Additionally, City College is known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat,” with distinguished alumni that include nine Nobel Laureates, more than any other public institution in America. Our faculty members are expected to live up to this legacy.
Wow–the superscientific method of divining the “good” Ph.D.s from all of the others. Shockingly, they decided that the universities they attended all qualify as “good” universities. I like that part too about how “our faculty members are expected to live up to this legacy.” So modest! And how many Nobel prizes has your department reeled in so far, perfesser? Huh? We’re waiting….
Fortunately, most of the commenters at IHE beat me to the punch. Why did they solicit applications in all fields from all schools, when they should have specified that only applications from “good” schools would be seriously entertained? You won’t be surprised to hear that this department of (according to the first commenter at IHE—here’s the web site, which appears to back up this comment as much as it can) four white guys with mostly Ivy League and Oxbridge degrees managed to hire–guess!–two other men with similar pedigrees! Anyone who has attended an Affirmative Action workshop knows that you’re obligated to do exactly the opposite of whatever Marinoff did. You have to look at people from “non-traditional” universities and go out of your way to make sure your applicant pool is diverse in as many ways as possible. (Maybe that explains the wide-open job description?)
This is what the dingbat opponents of AA don’t get: it’s not just about racial and gender diversity–we are required to solicit applications from as wide a pool as possible and to give them all equal consideration because Affirmative Action is also about preventing discrimination on the basis of class (by looking only at people from “good schools,” and disregarding people with Ph.D.s from state schools or undergraduate study in a community college), religion (by knocking out anyone who studied at Yeshiva U., Calvin College, Catholic University, or Brigham Young University), region and nationality (by excluding people who studied at institutions in a particular foreign country or region of the U.S.). A straight, white, male colleague of mine is fond of reminding us that he too is a beneficiary of AA because he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Utah: AA required that the search committee who hired him treat his application fairly alongside those other applications from Stanford and Columbia.
What was the penalty for this discriminatory stance the department took? “Dean Reynolds and Provost Zeev Dagan, alike, perceived this search as a unique opportunity to strengthen our department and the college with the pick of a bumper crop of promising young philosophers. The dean had obtained the provost’s approval and the support of President Gregory H. Williams to hire not one, but two of our finalists.” Awesome! White men almost never catch a break, do they? Gee–I wonder why women in philosophy are still so marginalized?
Aside from the likely illegalities, it strikes me as simply counterproductive to go into a search with such rigid and arbitrary criteria. Most historians who aren’t desperately insecure and hung up on status know that different Ph.D. programs have different strengths–and that what counts as a “good” Ph.D. will vary widely according to which field you’re seaching in. Are you looking for a Latin Americanist? Well, the University of Texas will be a great place to look. How about an African Americanist? You could do a lot worse than hire a recent grad from Michigan State University. Want an environmental historian? It’s the University of Wisconsin that can help you out. How about Borderlands? Well, it turns out that a lot of the Universities of California are where you want to look–not to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. We all probably can think of departments in which everyone they hire comes from HarvardYalePrinceton, right? That always strikes me as rather desperate and as a mark of insecurity among the faculty, because it suggests that they don’t trust themselves to discern who’s truly the best fit for them, and they have to rely on a “name-brand.” In my department, it’s the specific program and faculty a candidate has worked with that’s much more important than the relative prestige of the name of the degree-granting university.
This fixation on brand-name universities carries over into book publication, too. This reverie reminds me of the story I heard about an eminent and prolific Native American historian who was getting hassled because ze had several books published by the University of Nebraska Press and the University of Oklahoma Press. His colleagues at an eastern elite college just couldn’t understand why ze didn’t try harder to publish at really prestigious presses–you know, like Harvard and Yale. Ha! (Clue stick: even if you might not have the same bragging rights if your kid gets into Nebraska or Oklahoma, they’re the premier Native American presses. And yes, Virginia: there is civilization West of the Hudson River.) A related anecdote: European Medievalists are always incredibly impressed when they learn my book was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Ha again! I’m not a Medievalist, and although the American History and American Studies side of the Penn Press list is very well respected, it isn’t yet as prestigious in Americanist circles as the imprint is in Medievalist circles.
So, what’s a “good university” anyway, if it’s all so highly specific and contingent? I guess that’s why Affirmative Action requires us to read all of the applications we receive, so that we can make those fine distinctions, which really aren’t all that hard to make if you know your field and have a Ph.D.