Call them Al? No, call out and tackle bias

February 9, 2017

I was saddened to read your report that anglicising “foreign” names improves employability and student name recognition (“Anglicising foreign students’ names ‘could reduce bias’”, News, 26 January) because it was all too reminiscent of the institutionalised anti-Semitism characteristic of US universities until the 1960s.

A conspicuous example within my own field is Robert King Merton , who is seen as the founder of the sociology of science. Merton was born Meyer Robert Schkolnick, taking the name Robert Merton only to get into university. Many years ago at a sociology meeting, Merton and I were discussing discrimination against both Jews and women, and he described the necessity of changing his name if he was to succeed in a US university system dominated by white Protestants. He went on to say how much pleasure he took in the fact that his collaborator and partner Harriet Zuckerman had, in the 1960s, been able to keep her Jewish surname and become a distinguished academic.

As I too published with my partner, we turned to the problem of co-publication – in an environment slowly, slowly being changed by feminism – and Merton self-critically observed that he felt that he had initially not done full justice to Harriet’s contribution.

There is still discrimination against women in academia, but the option of changing names (unlike a number of distinguished 19th-century female novelists) is not a choice. Still, it is depressing to read that discrimination against “foreign” names has replaced anti-Semitism. Incidentally, given that the only examples in the article are Chinese, my gloomy hunch would be that “foreign” may well be a euphemism for Asian students and teachers – who are a significant presence in US higher education.

Confronting xenophobia would be a healthier option than changing Meyer to Robert and, a near century later, Xian to Alex.

Hilary Rose
Professor emerita of social policy
University of Bradford

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