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January 29, 2008

The Ethics of Diversity

Randy Cohen, the New York Times "Ethicist", offered a very slippery response to a reader last week, on the question of financial incentives for the hiring of minority professors. You'd best read the whole exchange first. My comments are beneath:

I teach at a state university that offers financial incentives to hire minority candidates. A department receives $1,000 for completing a tenure-track hire but $5,000 if it hires a minority candidate. I'm concerned that colleagues will make recommendations based on the financial reward rather than pursue the "best" candidate. Should the institution offer these bounties? - DR. MARK E. CHASE, SLIPPERY ROCK, PA.

There's nothing discreditable or even unusual about using financial incentives to prompt estimable conduct. Governments use tax codes to promote desired activities. Businesses offer bonuses to encourage certain kinds of job performance. (Full disclosure: I have a "financial incentive" to write this column. It's called a "paycheck.") Be wary of skewing your argument with a loaded word like "bounties."

It is admirable of your school to acknowledge that some minorities are underrepresented on campus, that this is unjust in itself and that it subverts the school's mission: it is important for students to encounter professors (and fellow students) of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. In pursuit of this goal, the school may try various things. There might be better ways to genuinely expand faculty diversity, but until such methods are on the table, and unless the danger you worry about actually emerges, financial incentives are worth a try.

Be comforted that hiring a new faculty member involves so many layers of scrutiny, so many opportunities for colleagues to weigh in, that the hazard you invoke is minimal. Remember: this tactic is not meant to lower hiring standards but to broaden the pool of people considered for the job.

For so long there has been so much social (if not legal) pressure arrayed against hiring such folks - in effect, incentives to hire white men - that it seems hypocritical to object only when incentives benefit minority candidates.

First, yes, the incentive that Dr. Chase writes concerning is clearly a small one. It's unlikely that a department would contort its hiring decision much on the basis of a $4,000 "bounty" - after all, they'd have to work with the hire. Cohen's right to point out that the "hazard is minimal" - yet his answer concerning that minimal danger is far from forthright. Consider this, the slipperiest sentence from above:

There might be better ways to genuinely expand faculty diversity, but until such methods are on the table, and unless the danger you worry about actually emerges, financial incentives are worth a try.

Yet isn't the danger that Chase raises precisely the issue of whether financial incentives will, well, pose incentives? Isn't a financial incentive explicitly designed to reward a behavior? They don't offer a financial incentive of five dollars, because it wouldn't encourage anyone to do anything. An incentive of $5,000 is a different story. Admittedly, again, the number of occasions when it could change a decision seem slight, but the very premise of the reward seems to be that it might change behavior on those precise occasions. Say that two evenly-matched, well-qualified candidates are under review for a position. One of the candidates is white, the other is a minority. Say that the white candidate was evaluated slightly better than the minority, but that the department then recalled the extra $4,000 they could earn in hiring the minority, and decided to take him instead. Wouldn't that constitute a "recommendation based on the financial reward" rather than the selection of the best candidate? Cohen avoids the implications of the question. The "danger that [Chase] worries about" is exactly that financial incentives will provide an incentive for decisions that, based strictly on other factors, may not be made. Cohen asserts that this danger hasn't emerged, in the very same sentence where he's embracing financial incentives in the hope that they'll provide an incentive for decisions that, based strictly on other factors, may not be made. Make sense to you?

Everything in the piece suggests that Cohen is entirely comfortable with "colleagues who will make recommendations based on the financial reward rather than pursue the 'best' candidate." It would have made for a more convincing column if he was direct about this from the start. Cohen sanctions personal or departmental greed as a factor in academic decision-making, as long as it encourages the right outcomes. It's not an unsurprising rhetorical strategy; advocates of a variety of minority preferences invariably skip quickly over the practical requirements of their schemes - distinctly unfair structures from quotas to financial rewards - in order to concentrate on their happy desired outcomes. Remember, the end always justifies the means if it's diversity.

Comments (4)

Manny Psuiguido:

This weekend is good for me, since at this point in time I am reading this great informative piece of writing here at my home.

Caso Genitivo:

THUMBS UP FOR BETHANY!!

Long Holgerson:

Thank you.

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