Blog Confidential: Onward, Christian bias

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online

March 11, 2010

This week: Onward, Christian bias

I'm new in my department. I'm trying to understand who's who and where the power lies. I have noticed that a number of faculty members are Christians. The head is a bit "born again" and keeps saying "bless you", even when I haven't sneezed. I wouldn't mind except that I'm an atheist, although I have not mentioned this to anyone at work or done anything to tip my hand.

Recently, the department advertised for two principal lectureships and four internal applicants responded, two of whom are known "Jesus types". The jobs were advertised in Times Higher Education and the staff were quite excited about who would apply.

The four applicants were decent. One of them - not one of the Christians - has a PhD and is very clever. The others have professional qualifications, are hard-working and committed, but lack strong track records in research.

I was having a meeting with the head of department in his office when halfway through the dean phoned him to say that he wanted to see him urgently. My boss said he would be gone for only five minutes and asked me to wait.

While he was away, I happened to see a file marked "Applicants for Principal Lectureships". I had a quick peek: my first thought was "Oh my God." There were 17 applicants, 12 of them externals. Seven had PhDs, three were from outside the UK and even a cursory glance revealed that several were quite brilliant. I didn't mention this to anyone.

However, when the shortlist for the posts was announced, none of the externals had been invited, but both of the "underqualified" Christians had been, along with one other applicant from a local university who is acceptable but not exceptional.

At the divisional team meeting, the head of department said that the external applications had been poor, but I know that they were very, very good. Today we heard the results of the interviews. Guess who got the jobs? Yes, our mediocre Christians. Perhaps there is a God after all ...

I know the process was a sham. I don't like it, but what can I do?

This is a real dilemma. Putting to one side the question of bias for a moment, you acted unethically by reading the list of applicants. This is inexcusable.

That said, this sort of parochial and small-minded decision-making takes place all the time in the academy. And it's not just the Jesus brigade - a friend told me that he knows a cell of Darwinists that is doing something similar.

If you challenge the appointments, your career will be blighted. But there is injustice here and in terms of equal opportunities, I'm not sure where you stand. In an ideal world, the bias should be challenged. You need strong union backing, but without it you will be walked over. The HR department is likely to cover its back, as will the academic head and the dean. God help us ... or not, as the case may be.

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