István Aranyosi calls for university hiring policies that are purely business, not personal

Decisions based on gossip, caprice and favouritism make the scholarly job market unmeritocratic, István Aranyosi argues

May 23, 2013

Like virtually all academics, I used to have a phobia of managerial interference in what are traditionally considered academic matters. But my recent experience with the academic pseudo-job-market has convinced me that when it comes to recruitment, we should hand decision-making over to business-minded managers.

I have spent the past academic year applying for lecturer and reader positions in UK philosophy departments. Six years ago, when I applied for seven jobs worldwide, I quickly landed one at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Since then, the length of my CV has roughly tripled and now features 15 articles - most of them in high-ranking journals in the field - and two forthcoming books with prestigious academic publishers.

I also received an honourable mention in 2012 for one of my articles in the American Philosophical Association’s article prize competition for early career academics. To my knowledge, I am the first non-US-based philosopher to have received this accolade.

Almost all my research has been produced in the eight years following my PhD: an output well above the average for someone applying for philosophy lectureships, and comparable to that of readers or professors with 15 years of experience.

I would not normally parade these facts so immodestly, but it is important for understanding why my recent experience with the job market is so disturbing.

With this CV, I have applied for 16 jobs at top 20 UK universities. I have not been shortlisted for a single interview. Colleagues tell me that the job market is “very tight this year”, but this should have worked to my advantage by ruling out less competitive candidates. Yet many such candidates have been hired.

One of my applications was for one of three research fellowships intended for people who “have potential to contribute to the research output of the university” - code for being ripe for submission to the research excellence framework - and present a “credible research proposal on topics that have potential societal impact and are, preferably, related to the university’s priority areas”.

Hiring decisions should be taken out of academic hands and given to managers who are able to apply genuine market principles when these are called for

The combined CVs of the three people hired for those fellowships might just have measured up to mine, while two of them are pursuing research that has little to do with societal concerns (being very much at the dryer end of the philosophical spectrum). By contrast, my research proposal was an ambitious interdisciplinary study on sensory experience improvement in old age, as well as more general problems related to discrimination against elderly people, with potential policy recommendations as conclusions.

A few universities made it explicit that they wanted to hire people who could contribute four items to the REF, preferably of 3* and 4* quality. I did mention my two books, and two 2012 articles published in top journals. Yet invariably they hired people who can barely offer a couple of articles, let alone a book.

Nor was the problem that my research area simply did not fit what the departments were looking for. I confined my applications to positions in my research area and to “open area” searches. The latter would normally mean the department hiring the best applicant measured on their research and teaching experience. Regarding this, I have roughly three times more experience than the candidates who were hired, but, again, I was not even interviewed.

My grave suspicion is that this type of seemingly arbitrary behaviour by hiring committees is not infrequent. Academics tend to have a great confidence in their own ability to identify the best candidates. They certainly know a lot about their field, but I think this becomes more of a liability since they also tend to have “pets” - students and research topics - that colour their judgement.

Academics also tend to rely on hunches and gossip about who’s hot and who’s not. Hence they end up making decisions that, to an outsider, seem totally counterintuitive and self-defeating, and that breach any principle of meritocracy or fair competition. This, to me, is irresponsible and will ultimately destroy the credibility of the academy.

So I can’t avoid the conclusion that hiring decisions should be taken out of academic hands and given to managers who are able ruthlessly to apply genuine market principles when these are called for.

For starters, administrators could ask academics for a list of performance and productivity indicators, such as their most prestigious publications and prizes, and require the academics on the hiring committee to apply this information uniformly for shortlisting. If we academics are unable to manage our business responsibly then we must accept that we should be supervised by non-academics who can.

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