A leading art historian has been barred from selection for a research post for not bringing printed copies of his lifetime's work to an interview, triggering a row in Spain over opacity and unwritten rules in academic hiring.
When Peter Cherry, a lecturer in Spanish art and architecture at Trinity College Dublin, arrived last month in Madrid to appear in front of a selection tribunal, he discovered that most other candidates for the job had arrived with two or three suitcases, stuffed with their writings.
Shortly after applicants had presented their paperwork, a notice was pinned up excluding Dr Cherry and two other applicants for incomplete documentation.
Publicly available advice said that applicants only needed to bring the first and last pages of their publications, he told Times Higher Education, not their entire works. "It wasn't written down in any place I could find," he said.
When Dr Cherry asked how he could have known about this rule, he said that he was told, "You should have known that" and, "It's what we always do here".
"The system favours those candidates who have knowledge of the workings of these bodies – ie, the unwritten set of rules," Dr Cherry said. "I was excluded on a technicality, not merit."
He also said that the tribunal had the option not to apply this unwritten rule, but chose to anyway.
The incident has once again drawn attention to concerns over opaque hiring practices in Spain, sparking a number of senior academics to sign a letter to Spain's National Research Council (CSIC) protesting against Dr Cherry's treatment.
Although the background is unclear in this case – a spokesman for the CSIC, which offered the post, did not respond to a request for comment – there have been repeated accusations of non-meritocratic hiring practices in Spanish academia.
Critics have accused the system of cronyism, with the vast majority of hires being internal candidates. Senior university managers have been accused of being in hock to local politicians, covering up research misconduct, financial irregularities and silencing whistleblowers who speak out.
Dr Cherry said that he did not think similar exclusions on technicalities were unusual, but that his case had attracted attention because "it's happened to someone who is quite well known in the field – me".
It was quite widely acknowledged that in Spain you need "tacit knowledge" to get through the system, he said. "The system has to change," he added. "I despair for academics trying to negotiate their first jobs or Europeans trying to move [to Spain]."