Monday, February 11, 2013

Question from a Reader: Faculty Candidate Blunders

Reader JP asks a question: 

The reason I am writing to you is because of something that recently happened in our department. I would like to ask you and the other academic bloggers their opinion regarding this incident.

We currently have an ongoing search in our dept. for a social scientist. Out of the four excellent candidates invited for campus interview, almost everyone in the dept. liked a female candidate who was undoubtedly the most qualified and had the most potential for funding. This female candidate was accompanied to dinner by two faculty members from our department. Both faculty members are Caucasian males, one is a US-born social scientist (let's call him X), the other is a foreign-born, multiple-minority from a STEM field (let's call him Y).  Here is the problem: Y thinks this candidate was guilty of extreme stereotyping about various issues related to race and gender during the course of dinner conversation. However, X does not think that's true as social scientists are used to talking about uncomfortable topics related to race and gender. Since there were only two individuals present who do not agree with each other, this has led to an unpleasant situation where members of the search committee are now being forced to take sides. Most people believe X (maybe because they desperately want this superstar in the dept?).  However, I strongly feel that being an underrepresented minority, Y has a certain perspective that X doesn't possess. What do you think?

- JP

JP gave me more details than I am presenting here, but does not want them shared. Still, I think it's important to at least get the flavor of the comments that the candidate made. I don't have the right to comment on whether something is racist or not, but I do have the right to comment on whether something is sexist or not. What the candidate said that is supposedly sexist is a boring cliche that I often use when I don't want to engage in a conversation about kids or their tantrums. It's silly and uninspired, but I find it entirely benign. The supposedly racist comment was the candidate going out of her way to emphasize how she does not discriminate based on race despite having been brought up in a very "red" community and state; Y was ticked off because she talked about it too much.  

The whole conversation seems to me as a case of a very nervous candidate with a bad case of logorrhea and acute "foot-in-mouthitis" more than anything else. But, because I am not a racial minority, I completely allow that I am not qualified to talk about whether something is racially insensitive or not. But here's the deal -- neither is Y. What bugs me the most about the whole incident is that Y, a Caucasian male, even if he has minority status otherwise, presents himself as the keeper of the well-being of women and racial minorities. This whole incident smells of deep-seated misogyny to me, which permeates pretty much every culture in the world and even otherwise liberal people can be profoundly sexist. 

If we only hired completely enlightened people who have no trace of racism, sexism, or any other bias in them, academia would be a very, very desolate place. (A next-door colleague, who is on the search committee with me, reminded me today that women are indeed still viewed by some, perhaps many, as "diversity candidates" and not as "real candidates". When no specific diversity designation in given, of course we are supposed to select from among the men. I am still fuming.)

I hate to see a stellar female candidate dismissed yet again because she does not adhere to some unattainable criterion -- in this case complete and flawless social enlightenment -- that nobody around her fulfills anyway. 

I personally would hire the candidate if she is the most qualified and her in-area people really like her. Once she is hired, Y, if he can will himself to be calm and objective, could certainly talk to her about the things that rubbed him the wrong way. She could also be assigned faculty mentors who are there to help her with her professional development; this could include addressing her verbal blunders.

What say you, blogosphere?


Susan said...

"What bugs me the most about the whole incident is that anyone, even if he has minority status otherwise, presents himself as the keeper of the well-being of women and racial minorities. This whole incident smells of deep-seated misogyny to me ..."

Couldn't have said this better myself.

The thing that's problematic to me is the disparity between how X and Y describe the same thing. One of these people saw something extreme that the other just noted some conversation. It's the degree, not the content, that bothers me. In the absence of any other evidence, and likely a whole bunch of evidence (other interviews, letters, etc) that there is no problem, I would have to conclude that Y is overreacting.

Alex said...

Two thoughts:
1) She's from a red state. Regional identity and race are among the most complicated issues in American history, with enormous baggage and subtext. This is a fact irrespective of whether you sympathize with certain regions or think they need to suck it up and deal. Either way, it is not surprising to me that once she got onto the topic of race and regional origin she started trying to nervously reassure people that she's not one of those.

2) On the other side of the coin, when I see a white academic who wants to assure everyone of their commitment to diversity and racial sensitivity, that can be obnoxious in its own way. However, Y is apparently also a white academic who wants to wear that mantle of Most Sensitive White Person In The Room. I wonder if he saw the candidate as a potential competitor for that title.

However, while that sort of thing can be obnoxious, if we used it to disqualify people from academic jobs it would backfire in so many ways. And it isn't clear to me that she actually wants that title. Occam's Razor says that she was nervous and Y is over-reacting.

Anonymous said...

this sounds blown out of proportion to me.

also, anyone else find it odd that the dinner was the (female) candidate and only two male faculty members? Beyond the gender dynamic, a dinner with 2 people seems designed to make a candidate feel on the spot and double teamed.

Alex said...

Sometimes it's just hard to get people to go to dinner. I have organized enough seminars where I was stuck taking the speaker out alone. I know that people have lives, but so do I, and yet I'm always the host.

inBetween said...

Yea, 2 faculty and one job candidate at a dinner is asking for exactly this kind of thing to happen. No win here, as Y will be mad if she's hired, and X will be mad if she's not.

I completely understand that collegiality is an essential component to a job hire, but as a tenured faculty member who has been on both sides (and on the search committee side quite a few times), I can say that I've seen some sad instances similar to this happen.

For example, a colleague who was also on a search committee with me years ago, accused a candidate (that everyone else loved) of being completely unaware and disrespectful of his research despite the overlap in their areas. No one else was in the meeting. The recounting of the meeting was 180 degrees off from everyone else's experiences with her. But, we ended up not offering the job to her because of it. What do you do? Even if you can't imagine the incident happening, you have to respect the opinion of the colleague you already have even if you think they are full of crappola and/and being jealous or overly sensitive.

The scenario here is a tough one, as it's he said - he said, and both are on the faculty.

Alex said...

you have to respect the opinion of the colleague you already have even if you think they are full of crappola and/and being jealous or overly sensitive

I've come to the conclusion that you don't have to respect their opinion. Working in an academic environment doesn't mean that one should suffer fools. Foolishness is what we're supposed to be stamping out.