You’d never hire a behaviourist? At least be honest about it

Discriminating in hiring practice against particular intellectual perspectives is no less sinister than discriminating against particular political persuasions, says Glenn Geher

March 2, 2017
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Source: Eleanor Shakespeare

There has been lots of talk recently about whether academics, as a group, are too left-leaning. Indeed, a politician in Iowa has even proposed legislation to force the state’s public universities to ensure, in their hiring, that neither registered Democrats nor registered Republicans outnumber each other by more than 10 per cent.

It might well be better if students were exposed to a wider range of political views in class. Yet, from where I sit, such a mandate would be a completely unacceptable way to address this issue. Recruiting academics on the basis of their political beliefs would be a deeply sinister step to take.

But what about discrimination in recruitment on the basis of the intellectual perspectives that applicants adopt in their work? This happens all the time. Suppose, for example, that there is a sociology department with 10 full-time faculty members. Eight of them publicly endorse a social constructionist take regarding what it means to be human. When a vacancy arises, the department concludes that hiring another social constructionist would be best, so that the new hire shares colleagues’ perspective. Would it be appropriate for the department to put, in the job advertisement, that it “particularly seeks someone who takes a social constructionist approach to behaviour and we discourage applications from those who adopt biological or other essentialist perspectives”?

Or imagine a psychology department that is looking to hire someone with expertise in psychopathology: the study of mental disorders. Many in the department frown upon behaviourist approaches and would not contemplate hiring someone who shows signs of being a behaviourist. Would it be appropriate for the job advert to state that “we discourage applications from those who adhere to a behaviouristic approach”?

As a long-standing faculty member and department chair, I think about this issue quite a bit. I was particularly primed to think about it the other day, while engaging in an online discussion about evolution’s place in the social sciences. One sociologist chimed in with the observation that if his colleagues knew that he endorses an evolutionary approach in understanding sociological phenomena, he could lose his job; “career suicide” was the precise phrase used.

In preparing this piece, I examined hiring policies from a broad array of US universities, including my own. Each of these schools has clearly demarcated policies about discrimination in hiring, such as the following, broadly typical statement that I found on the University of New Hampshire’s website: “The University of New Hampshire is an Equal Opportunity/Equal Access/Affirmative Action institution. The university seeks excellence through diversity among its administrators, faculty, staff, and students. The university prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, veteran status, or marital status. Application by members of all underrepresented groups is encouraged.”

While this statement includes a list of criteria that the university does not use to discriminate candidates from one another, not a single word is included to reflect intellectual diversity or perspective-based discriminations. Indeed, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen language to this effect included in hiring statements. Yet, in my experience, such discriminations are made frequently.

In both of the examples above, the department’s discrimination was intended to limit its diversity of intellectual perspectives. But what if the opposite were true? What if the sociology department wanted specifically to recruit someone who wasn’t a social constructionist? What if the psychology department were bent on shaking things up by recruiting a behaviourist?

There, the case is stronger: I understand and appreciate the importance of diversity of intellectual perspectives, in terms of both exposing students to a variety of perspectives and in terms of initiating new research avenues that take the best from a variety of different approaches.

Still, at the very least, universities should be obligated to say so if they discriminate on the basis of intellectual perspective in faculty hiring – even for the best possible of reasons. At least that way, applicants would know what they were up against, and those who did not fit the ideological bill would not waste time applying.

But, better still, perhaps universities should refrain from hiring on the basis of intellectual perspective – and add a clause to that effect to the equal opportunities blurb attached to job adverts.

I see perspective-based hiring discrimination as both unfair to the candidates and destructive to the intellectual profile and teaching ability of departments since it has the capacity to screen outstanding candidates out of the pool and to over-favour weaker ones, who make the cut simply due to their adherence to the “right” intellectual philosophy.

As a strong advocate of academic freedom, I believe that scholars should be encouraged to follow their intellectual passions without fear of how doing so might impact on their employment prospects. And hiring should be done on the basis of purely merit-based criteria, relating to the applicant’s record in teaching, research and administration. Anything less, in my view, is no less sinister than checking whether someone voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump before offering them the job.

Glenn Geher is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

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Reader's comments (2)

Favouring a certain intellectual perspective can also have a longterm effect on a whole field. In disciplines such as the history of science, a constructivist perspective can become extremely dominant simply because academics hired when that perspective was considered ground-breaking tend to favour candidates with a similar perspective
I'm rather puzzled by this: "One sociologist chimed in with the observation that if his colleagues knew that he endorses an evolutionary approach in understanding sociological phenomena, he could lose his job." Aren't his colleagues aware of his publications? Or is this endorsement not evident in his publications?

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