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September 10, 2008

Want to Teach Here? Then Tell Us Your Politics

By Daphne Patai

It's hard to say just when universities ceased to believe that education was a worthwhile mission. But that they have done so is beyond question. Among many signs of this reality is the anxiety to redefine the university's task. After all, educators who no longer expect or demand serious intellectual effort from their students are bound to look elsewhere for ways to justify their existence and that of their institutions. Enter the language of "community engagement," "outreach," "social justice," and "equity" (to name just a few of the terms now used as rallying cries on many campuses).

If anyone has doubts that behind these grand terms lies the degradation of academic life, a look at procedures for recruiting new faculty is a good place to observe the university's priorities. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I teach, a document both sublime and ridiculous advises us how to go about determining if applicants have what it takes to work here. Along with the usual lists of questions that may or may not be asked, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity provides some crucial guidelines in a document titled Supplemental Search Instructions. I reproduce the final section of this document below:

IT'S ALL IN WHAT YOU ASK: SOME QUESTIONS SEARCH COMMITTEES MIGHT WANT TO USE

Search committees often have difficulty determining if a candidate is aware of and responsive to minority and women's issues and to issues involving the disabled and other groups requiring sensitive treatment. When prospective employees are asked, "Are you concerned about and supportive of these issues?", they will invariably give an affirmative reply. Unfortunately, that gives little indication of their level of concern or commitment. Asking some of the questions listed below may help you gain a better understanding of a candidate's position on these issues. Many of the questions suggested below do not have a "right" or a "wrong" answer. These questions should be asked by both men and women on the search committee because having only women or minority persons ask questions about these issues may give a candidate the impression that equity issues are not important to the institution as a whole. Many candidates will not have prepared answers to these questions in advance. These questions will, therefore, be useful in drawing out the candidate's opinions rather than the "correct answer".
Parentheses are used to indicate that one or more of the following words are missing: Minorities, Blacks, Hispanics, Native-American; Women; economically disadvantaged persons; disabled persons; veterans or disabled veterans; homosexuals, gays, lesbians; protected groups; affirmative action groups, etc.

How have you demonstrated your commitment to (____) issues in your current position?

Which of your achievements in the area of equity for (____) gives you the most satisfaction?

How would you demonstrate your concern for equity for (____) if you were hired?

In your opinion, what are the three major problems for (____) on your campus?

How are general issues in higher education related to (____) issues? What is the link?

Describe activities--include articles, interviews, and speeches--in which you have taken part that demonstrate a public commitment to equity.

In your current position, have you ever seen a (____ ) treated unfairly? How would/did you handle it?

In your current position, what is your relationship to the affirmative action officer? Have you ever sought his or her help in recruiting?

How many of the top people at your current or previous institution are (____ )? What did you do to encourage hiring more (____ )?

Which committee at your current institution would you consider the most powerful? How many (____) are on it? How many (____ ) have you appointed to it?

How did/would you deal with faculty members or employees who say disparaging things about (____)?

What scholarship about (____) have you read lately?

Have any students ever complained to you about sexual harassment or discrimination in any work with professors or staff? If so, how did you respond?

* Adapted from It's All in What You Ask, Association of American Colleges Project on the Status and Education of Women. Bernice R. Sandler, Project Director.

Bernice Sandler, from whose work the above section is adapted, is a well-known activist and a key figure in the creation of Title IX (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions). This was part of the 1972 Education Amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Among other things, she is co-editor of the large book of essays, Sexual Harassment on Campus: A Guide for Administrators, Faculty and Students, a foundational text for what I have called the Sexual Harassment Industry that promotes vigilantism on college campuses. The document It's All in What You Ask dates back to 1988 and focused entirely on women. Despite claims to the contrary, women are doing so well in education these days that there wouldn't be much for campus reformers to get heated about if they had not broadened their sights to include all identity groups purportedly in need of protection. So, what was once a specific feminist tactic promoted by activists twenty years ago is now, with a bit of tweaking to include other victim groups, thoroughly mainstreamed.

The legality of the questions suggested by Sandler and her co-authors seems dubious, though I am not aware of any lawsuit that has challenged them. They are also patently inappropriate. Gauging levels of "commitment" to what are essentially political issues has nothing to do with one's academic expertise. Rather, it resembles the effort by Schools of Education to gauge potential teachers' "dispositions," a practice challenged and publicized by K. C. Johnson. It is also in the same league as the still widely prevalent speech codes and harassment policies that elevate sensitivity and comfort into major academic concerns.

Not only are the "suggested questions" an embarrassment to public education (private too, but that's a somewhat different story), they also endorse subterfuge on the part of the interviewers: no direct questions but rather attempts to trap the candidates into revealing something about themselves (all the while pretending there are no right or wrong answers, as the paragraph introducing the questions explicitly states). Potential faculty are thus being pressured to adopt and embrace -- or merely pretend to do so -- the requisite "attitude" toward minorities, political activism, and social issues, and to provide evidence that they have acted on these supposed commitments. And, scarier still, these questions by implication are presented as legitimate requirements for employment, though they have nothing to do with either education or intellectual and scholarly accomplishments. And, even worse, the questions are designed to weed out the merely formal assenters from authentic true believers.

What can it possibly mean to ask candidates what they've done lately to demonstrate their "public commitment to equity?" Any chance that an acceptable answer would be the following: "In view of what happened in the USSR, China, Cuba, Cambodia, and many other parts of the world under communist rule, I believe that the best thing I can do to promote equity in our society is to help strengthen capitalism and democracy in every way I can and, toward that end, I actively promote Republican candidates"? Another piece of micromanagement revealed by these questions is that they're obviously meant to induce the candidate to name names of identity groups, and to express specific allegiances and particular political positions, precisely because the questions are so carefully framed. Here's another sure-winner answer: "I'm increasingly concerned about what's happening to gifted children in our society and thus I'm working in my spare time to promote charter schools and advanced placement courses."

How long will it be before tenure and promotion decisions, which so far involve political considerations mostly unofficially and surreptitiously, will also openly embrace such procedures?

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Daphne Patai is a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst



Comments (3)

A co-worker of mine was asked the following question during a job interview at the state university where I work:

How would you define "social justice"?

Laura Freberg:

If you think there is a discrepancy between left and right leaning faculty today, please check out Cardiff and Klein (2005). They note that the Republicans identified in their 11 California universities were virtually all senior, full professors. Once this cohort retires, there are none in the lower ranks to take their place. The liberal boomer faculty took some time to slam the door behind them, but slam it they did. The next 20-30 years of political slant in academia is a done deal.

I am a professor at a small liberal arts college. During my first year at the college 14 years ago, I attended a discussion at which the guest speaker commented that there was little liberal influence in America. I prefaced my disagreement with "As a conservative.."
A colleague then responded, prefacing her own remarks with "First I want to thank you for COMING OUT OF THE CLOSET." Welcome to academia.

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