November 2, 2012

Iowa and the Groupthink Academy

That certain quarters of the academy--humanities departments, most social sciences departments, and many graduate programs (social work, education, and to a lesser extent law)--are ideologically imbalanced is not news. A decision in an Iowa court, however, exposed the difficulty in addressing the problem.

The case, which received extensive coverage in the Des Moines Register and attracted some notice in the national press, involved Teresa Wagner, who in 2006 applied for a vacancy at the University of Iowa Law School. (She then applied for adjunct jobs between 2007 and 2009.) Wagner had served as a part-time instructor before that time, was invited for an interview for the tenure-track job but didn't receive it, and then didn't get any of the adjunct positions, either. (It's odd indeed for a candidate considered qualified enough to be a finalist for a tenure-track job to, in turn, be deemed unqualified for an adjunct's position.) Wagner believed that her outspoken activism on social issues and her affiliation with some very conservative groups, notably the Family Research Council, motivated the opposition to her candidacy. Wagner then sued the dean of the law school.

Winning a lawsuit for an adverse hiring decision is all but impossible. (The contrast here is to an adverse tenure decision, where the odds are long but not insurmountable.) The university can always claim that, whatever the apparent strengths of the plaintiff, there simply was another, more qualified, candidate for the position, and that privacy/personnel rules prevent a thorough airing of the matter. Given the inherently subjective nature of the hiring process, that line of argument almost always carries the day, to such an extent that few lawsuits alleging bias in the hiring process even make it to trial.

The Wagner case, however, was unusual, in that she was able to present an e-mail from the law school's associate dean--dubbed a "smoking gun" document by her attorney--in which the associate dean wrote, "Frankly, one thing that worries me is that some people may be opposed to Teresa serving in any role in part at least because they so despise her politics (and especially her activism about it). I hate to think that is the case, and I don't actually think that, but I'm worried that I may be missing something."

The law school dean unsurprisingly denied Wagner's claim of ideological bias, and instead rested on an assertion that Wagner had flubbed an interview question by saying she'd refuse to teach a course required for the position. But the law school's position was weakened by its inability to produce any contemporaneous references to this alleged flubbing (the notes from other faculty seemed to praise, not disparage, Wagner's performance). And a videotape of Wagner's interview that Wagner's critics promised would prove their case was conveniently erased.

Last week, the jury rendered a somewhat confusing verdict. It found for the university in rejecting Wagner's 1st Amendment claim, indicating that jurors didn't see convincing evidence that Iowa discriminated against Wagner for her viewpoints. But the jury failed to reach a verdict on Wagner's 14th amendment claim--which was, effectively, based on the same set of facts. The resulting mistrial might very well provide an incentive on Iowa to settle the case; it's hard to imagine the university could want another lawsuit.

What, then, will the legacy of the Wagner case be? It's worth remembering that this isn't the first time the University of Iowa has faced allegations of ideological bias in the personnel process--historian Mark Moyar raised credible claims several years ago, prompting a series of preposterous rationalizations from the school's history department as to why it didn't contain even one registered Republican on staff. (My personal favorite: an assertion that Johnson County, home to the university, was 2-to-1 Democratic, as if a prestigious university history department recruits only from its home county.) Whatever else the Wagner case proved, it made perfectly clear that at Iowa, applicants perceived as conservative often won't get a fair shake, and that the troubling revelations in the Moyar affair produced no culture change at the university.

But the Wagner case also showed the limitations of a legal strategy--after all, she had a "smoking gun" e-mail, and still couldn't prevail. And even though the University of Iowa is a public institution, overt political involvement in the hiring process--through legislation mandating political diversity, for instance--would cause far more damage than it would solve.

That said, the Iowa situation does provide an opening for one appropriate legislative role--oversight of the public's funds. The state legislature should invite the university's leadership to come to Des Moines and testify before the relevant House and Senate committees on the Iowa personnel process, especially since decision-makers at the school have essentially maintained that the personnel process worked as intended in the Moyar and Wagner affairs. Sunlight, in this case, would at the least be enlightening for the public.

Within the university, meanwhile, the obvious question: where are the trustees? If the faculty and university administrators are incapable of providing fairness in hiring, then trustees need to show more assertiveness.

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