Thought of the day

Feb 27 2018 Published by under Careerism, Diversity in Science

Someone on the Twitters was asking for ideas about what to say in response to faculty that say, dismissively, that other faculty members are "diversity hires". The implication, stated or not by such folk, is that persons of color, or of nonXY chromosomal identity, are clearly inferior merely because of such identities.

In context of prospective new faculty during a hiring cycle, the VeryConcerned person often asserts that they are only concerned with keeping up the standards of the department.

"Can't have all these inferior diversity hires dragging us down, chaps! Hrm, hrm."

My thought is this.

In science, the young, new hires are always better than the department's current average. They have more cutting edge techniques, fresher ideas, less historical baggage and/or likely better collaborative relationships. They are not yet burned out, quite the contrary.

So the VeryConcernedColleague can rest at ease. The new hire is going to improve the Department, no matter who is hired out of the Long List of reasonably attractive candidates.

14 responses so far

  • Ola says:

    A to the effing men. New blood is always good, whatever the ilk. It helps to dilute the teaching load, and gives the oldies someone new to blame for that godawful smell emanating from the bathroom.

  • girlparts says:

    I was just thinking about this in the context of conference invites. There are all sorts of not-strictly-merit-related factors behind any invite - maybe a more famous person suggested you in their place, maybe you trained with one of the organizers. or maybe you just met one of them at the buffet at some previous meeting. I've been invited to speak because someone wanted gender balance at their meeting. But that just got my foot in the door; I still had to actually impress with the talk.

    Hiring is no different. To pretend that non-minority members were hired strictly on merit, and not in part because of some other accident is willfully blind. And, of course, members of underrepresented minorities are much less likely to be able to benefit from knowing someone famous etc.

    Also, it is possible to nicely point out to those who don't want to think of themselves as racist that, while they might not have intended to imply that people of X group are inferior, that's how it came out. Over the last few years, I've made some headway in my department in this way.

  • randoprof says:

    I agree with the general point, but there's a thorny problem to address here.

    There are cases where "standards" are lowered well beyond what might be considered an adjustment for lack of equal opportunity. More commonly, people just think this is happening, and it isn't. But it does happen, or some people at least try to make it happen. Affirmative action of this degree requires levels of moral and policy reasoning that many scientists never attain, hence the stupid comments about diversity hires. It is obviously a liability to confess to practicing it. But some believe it should be practiced, and others don't, and conflict and fear by the latter are thus inevitable.

    I was recently questioned obtusely about diversity hiring at an interview and can attest to the fact that we have a long way to go.

  • drugmonkey says:

    And, of course, members of underrepresented minorities are much less likely to be able to benefit from knowing someone famous etc.

    During one of my science training stops I was in a Department that had a couple of these anti-affirmative action type established Professors. There were two individuals hired during my association with that department that were widely and almost openly derided as "dean's hire" affirmative action appointments. Of course they were shit on by the department. I was not privvy to specific details but I watched as they got crappy space (literally in the basement), nobody seemed to want to collaborate and they always seemed to struggle to get access to resources. Both of them eventually left. This, however, is not the main point. The main point is that a few years later there was a non-minority hire in the department. She had trained in the department and that alone was a tiny bit eyebrow raising because the Department definitely had the ethos of geographic nomadism being the best.

    But even better was the fact that soon after the hire it turned out that she was engaged to one of the established faculty.

    Naturally that guy was one of the most fervent of the anti-affirmative action voices in the department.

    There were at least four examples of women married to established professors in the department who had tried to get faculty appointments over the past decade and a half. None of them got Asst Prof offers and had to settle for bad non-tenure track barely faculty appointments. They struggled along on the margins of slightly above adjunct teaching gigs and shoe string research activities. So on the one hand, of course this couple that pulled it off was totally secret about their relationship until after she'd gotten hired. OTOH... oooooh, baby there were some angry folks.

  • […] was a comment from girlparts on my prior post which triggered an anecdote from my past. It seemed worth having its own post. I […]

  • Almost tenured PI says:

    In my department, we get really excited whenever we have someone interview that can be considered a diversity hire. The University has a special pot of money that we can get for their startup package, etc. That means we can then hire a second candidate with the original pot of money. It's two for the price of one! I've never heard anyone complain about quality. We're just happy to have new people and all the new equipment they buy!

  • MMI says:

    The way I think of it when comparing two candidates with similar CVs, even if the non-minority candidate is slightly more impressive, the fact that the minority candidate overcame substantial obstacles to get a comparable record suggests they are in fact the better candidate. In a supportive environment the minority candidate would outperform the non-minority candidate. The issue becomes many environments are not supportive and instead of introspection, the minority candidate is blamed.

    So, obviously diversity hire critiques are generally said in bad faith, but you don't even need to engage at that level. The minority hire should in many cases be the more impressive individual if their record is looked at while understanding all of the biases and difficulties they have had to overcome at every career stage may lead to a slightly less impressive CV than a non-minority candidate. Then you just have to agree that the department is about hiring the best individual not the best piece of paper.

  • drugmonkey says:

    IME the antidiversity warriors are not excellent at understanding how privilege (and lack thereof) influences the academic record of candidates.

  • Zuska says:

    I'm always in favor of interrogating such statements. "I know what I mean by the term 'diversity hire' but I'm not sure I know what you do, and so I'm not sure I understand why it bothers you so. Can you explain to me how you understand that term?"

    This does two things: it opens the possibility of dialogue with the person, instead of you starting with a lecture that will go more or less unheard (assuming you speak in an open manner and not in a disingenuous and condescending tone.) And, it offers the disgruntled defender of standards an opportunity to examine his/her own beliefs, or at least to state them more explicitly in public. This form of gentle shaming can be a first step to change, and at the very least will indicate to the DDoS that his/her belief system is not shared. And that alone is a good and useful thing.

  • Grumpy says:

    Strange thing about academia is how ppl justify diversity hires from a meritocratic POV (e.g. minority person was actually the best after you control for hardships).

    Having been involved in hundreds of hiring decisions in industry, and now a few in academia, I have no idea what ppl are talking about. I have never been able to figure out "who is the best", and, to me, "the best" is constantly changing over time anyhow.

    So I say hire diverse because that's what you want your team to be and because evaluating "the best" is a fool's errand anyway.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yea you have an excellent point. The idea that there is one “best” candidate for a faculty appointment is dumb. Many (especially these days) who will be excellent faculty members are out there. They are different, sure, but equally meritorious overall.

  • I agree 100% with Grumpy and DM's last comment. I've been involved in a search pretty much every year since joining ProdigalU, and there is never a "best" candidate. There is above the bar and below the bar, and the rest is just departmental preference.

  • drugmonkey says:

    the rest is just departmental preference

    And personal preference! Defenders of Quality typically confuse their own personal biases and preferences with some sort of objective truth.

  • Zuska says:

    When I was tasked with trying to talk professors into being on Team Diversity, I often tried this tack: that most candidates meet minimum standards for a position, after that it's about a departments needs and preferences, and diversity can be one of those preferences. Also, that perhaps it is not a departments job to seek out and hire an already made super star who needs nothing further from the department, but rather the task is to find someone with potential who brings new things to the department and then bring all departmental resource to bear to ensure their success. A radical notion.

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