The Academic Meritocracy

A good friend of mine recently found out that he didn’t get the tenure-track job he was up for, and was told in confidence that the university’s president personally intervened to force the department to hire a woman over my obviously more qualified friend (she’s a grad student who hasn’t finished her dissertation; he has a top-tier Ph.D., a book coming out in two months, and four years teaching experience).

Of course this came as no shock, considering I once was interviewed at an academic conference and was told that they “simply couldn’t hire a white male.” This too could only be said in confidence, after the interviewer looked around to ensure that no one was listening. More generally, the division head of a junior college I once taught at asked me why I even bothered sending out CVs, saying that “no one can hire a white male.”

And yet we continue to pretend that hiring in this profession is based on merit. I don’t get that. Well, I get why the image is necessary, but if anyone out there buys it they’re seriously deluded. Of course the most deluded of all is the American Political Science Association — which is supposed to be our guild — but which willfully keeps its head in the sand in the name of what they call “diversity.”

FILED UNDER: Education, ,
Leopold Stotch
About Leopold Stotch
“Dr. Leopold Stotch” was the pseudonym of political science professor then at a major research university inside the beltway. He has a PhD in International Relations. He contributed 165 pieces to OTB between November 2004 and February 2006.


  1. the Pirate says:

    I know exactly where you are coming from, I have a friend who is a Department Chair at a University and the BS the school makes him do for diversity is over the top. They are still trying to fill open spots with a non-Asian minority, preferably female. Of course the publications of new PhD’s show less than 20 who meet the qualifications and well over 50 Universities hiring.

  2. ken says:

    If you are a white male whose only distiction is a degree or two and some publishing under your belt and want to want to get hired in an entry level acedemic job you need to apply to a school whose current staff is composed of mostly tenured minority females. According to demographics this should be around half the schools of higher education, right?

    Your not looking hard enough.

  3. Stevely says:

    So where are the lawyers in all this?

    Time is ripe for some big lawsuits, I think. Sauce for the gander, sauce for the goose.

  4. Brendan says:

    Firt, let me say that I have been on the business end of one of these decisions. After 7 years of teaching I applied for a particular job that was, as I thought at the time, tailor made for me. From my point of view I fit the job perfectly and it was near enough to my home. And I thought I had done well when they called me in for an interview and teaching demonstration. In fact I got a call and the fellow I talked to told me, in words I’ll never forget, that thought I was the best fit for the job (that’s is supposedly the magic word, “fit”) “a lady applied and we had to offer her the position for the reason I just implied.” HA HA on me!

    2 years later I got a good job — not nearly as good imo as the one I lost. But in my current position, I’ve served on hiring committees. Decisions to hire are neither based on any crude objectified criteria like years of teaching + Degrees + publications. Frankly, to my amazement sometimes, Faculty at a teaching-heavy institution with a generally modest publishing culture will rule out strong researchers/publishers because they are seen as not being like themselves (“Too good for us”). Also, teaching experience does not necessarily make a person a better and more effective teacher than someone with less. Also there is the matter of what training the candidates have and what areas they can cover. In shrinking Departments, the ability to cover more territory (as opposed to being the greatest expert on one single area) is very highly prized. Personally, I DO find the lack of the formal qualification in the case you describe to be offensive (Ph.D. vs ABD) because there are usually plenty of people with Ph.D.s applying. But the weighing of other qualifications in a Department that must work together in a degree of harmony according to the needs of the institution is an alchemy that you cannot appreciate unless you have had a bad colleague. I have had that too.

  5. LJD says:

    You made a lot of good points, right up to the comments that suspiciously smells PC (unless I misiunderstand your point):

    But the weighing of other qualifications in a Department that must work together in a degree of harmony according to the needs of the institution is an alchemy that you cannot appreciate unless you have had a bad colleague.

    So does being a white male take away from the ‘harmony’ in a discriminatory workplace?

    The fact that sex or race is in any way a consideration for employment is evidence of the utter failure of the civil rights movement in this country. Equal opportunity isn’t always ‘fair’ and certainly does not meet quotas.

    Perhaps you would have more luck if you pretended to be an openly gay cross-dresser. I hear that’s in popular fashion these days.

  6. I think LJD misreads Brendan’s comment; sometimes, the best candidate on paper (no matter his/her gender or race) turns out to be a bad colleague.

  7. Tano says:

    If y’all want this issue taken seriously, it is time to stop with the little anecdotes, and gather some hard data. What are the racial/ethnic/sexual/sex orientation percentages of newly minted PhDs? What are the percentages for new academic hires? If you don’t deal with actual data, you end up being dismissed as a bunch of whiners looking for excuses.

  8. donsurber says:

    Oh gosh, like this only happens in academia

  9. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘Oh gosh, like this only happens in academia ‘

    I’m down with that. If only I could come back as a female IT manager.

  10. Ken Hasenmueller says:

    Same story for me. I applied and had an excellent interview at a univeristy. I felt sure that I would get an offer. I did not. I was told much later ,by one of the interviewers ,that I was everyone’s first choice. However, there was much pressure put on them to “select” a women or minorty for the position. As it was they got both a women and a minority. Meanwhile I continued to work at the Mall.

  11. bryan says:

    IÂ’m down with that. If only I could come back as a female IT manager.

    Hey, a sex change would increase your career chances. Not only would you be a woman, but you’d be a transgendered woman. That’s like a trifecta, isn’t it?

  12. ICallMasICM says:

    I said come back – not turn into. Think of a larger and even more unattractive Janet Reno.

  13. Jacob T. Levy says:

    If nothing else, everyone needs to learn to take these confidential, nudge-nudge, “if only you were a black woman” conversations with a grain of salt. Even if they are sometimes true, they are also sometimes not true– because it’s a very easy, costless thing for some member of the hiring department to say.