Recruitment reforms urged to curb French ‘moustache positions’

Parisian professor says hers is the first to appoint a selection committee by lot, an approach that should be taken up nationwide

六月 28, 2022
Two contestants pose during the  European Beard and Moustache Championships to illustrate  Reforms urged to curb French ‘moustache positions’
Source: Getty

A Paris laboratory has trialled randomly appointing a recruitment committee to avoid favouritism towards candidates from the institution, a practice its organiser hopes will catch on at other universities.

France has traditionally centralised academic recruitment to avoid any influence from institutional politics, but a 2007 reform gave universities responsibility for payroll and more say in hiring decisions, leading to concerns about “moustache positions” tailored to favour a preferred candidate, which result in departments of lookalikes or identikit academics.

The novel recruitment experiment was led by Beatrice Mabilon-Bonfils, the director of the Bonheurs laboratory at CY Cergy Paris University, who told Times Higher Education that current procedures were vulnerable to abuse.

While half of panellists must come from outside a recruiting institution, a chair can steer the process to favour a preferred candidate by carefully wording the job description, stacking the panel and directing certain applications to like-minded members, she said.

Professor Mabilon-Bonfils’ lab used 10 external and six internal panellists, picking the former at random from a list of 730 suitable professors. It also assigned candidates’ applications to responsible panellists alphabetically.

Receiving 68 applications and successfully filling the post proved that the novel approach was viable and could be rolled out nationally, she said. “We hope that the minister will take up this issue and change the recruitment methods,” she said.

Although there are no data showing how often recruitment processes are skewed, Professor Mabilon-Bonfils said she thought it was a “very frequent” occurrence. Ministry data show that a fifth of lecturers and just under half of professors were recruited from their home institution in 2020, a figure that has been stable for two decades.

“In some institutions, the presence of a majority union, and therefore of elected members in the main councils and selection committee, has a definite influence on the recruitment of a colleague,” Professor Mabilon-Bonfils said.

“I’ve seen this situation more than one time,” said Julien Gossa, an associate professor in computer science at the University of Strasbourg who studies the phenomenon, referring to local bias. He said he had been involved in recruitment rounds that had been abandoned after outside candidates were selected.

Because of the small step-up in salary, promoting local academics to professors adds little to a university’s payroll, making it a cheap way to generate goodwill among staff. “You can buy happiness for almost nothing. It’s a very good idea to make a lot of local promotions,” he joked.

More mobile academics tend to develop more daring research agendas, according to a study of 7,000 academics from 140 countries. Dr Gossa said elite French universities tended to have a two-track approach that sought high-profile international professors but recruited more junior staff internally.

While randomising recruitment could curb localism and the stigma that can follow hires who happen to be home-grown, he said, the current oversupply of excellent early career academics meant that reform would be unlikely to change the quality of appointments.

“The 1980s was open bar for universities: anybody can have tenure. Now it’s very, very difficult. You have to have a better profile to become a maître de conférences than before to become a professor,” he said.

Professor Mabilon-Bonfils said the right of academics to lead recruitment should not stop reforms. “Academic freedom cannot be the screen behind which those who do not respect academic ethics hide,” she said.



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