Do universities need affirmative action?

Equity policies may have little impact.

Two things have put affirmative action on my mind lately. One is the Tory musings that the government might abandon the federal affirmative action policy. The other is that I am on a hiring committee at work.

My august institution has an affirmative action policy that seems, at least, in theory, fairly reasonable to me. In a nutshell, the policy says that well qualified members of visible minorities and well qualified women should at least get an interview — even if just on the phone or by video conference. Moreover, if it comes down to two more-or-less equally qualified candidates, the minority candidate or the woman should be preferred to the white man. Fair enough, I say, because the policy does not call for the less qualified to be hired over the more qualified — with all the potential pitfalls that can arise from there. And hey, all else equal, surely going for increased diversity is better than flipping a coin.

But does my university really need such a policy? And if we do, is it doing any good? I am doubtful on both counts.

Though university professors are far from perfect, they are, in my experience, more than usually aware of bias and more than usually broad minded. At the very least, they are intensely interested in seeming broad minded. Indeed, faced with a candidate who is a member of a visible minority, I suspect most university professors would make a point of being particularly open to the candidacy, if for no other reason than to allow themselves hearty self-congratulations later on.

The ethnic diversity of my university faculty colleagues seems to bear this out. Cape Breton is not, itself, particularly diverse, and it is not always easy to attract candidates who may feel out of place on a small, sparsely populated island where they are less likely to meet others with the same religion, linguistic backgrounds, or cultural traditions. Nevertheless, the university is far more culturally diverse than the surrounding community. I have colleagues from around the world and who follow a variety of religious traditions. The university is also one of the few places in Cape Breton where alternative sexualities can be openly discussed and displayed without fear of unwanted social consequences.

As for women, female faculty abound here, and not just in the arts, but in many science disciplines, too. The  inequities that remain seem primarily a result of the fields that women choose to pursue — which may be a problem in itself,  but not one likely to be helped much by affirmative action. I was on a Philosophy hiring committee once, and of the twenty-five applicants, only one was a woman. Why don’t women want to be philosophers? On the other hand, female candidates have always been taken seriously on the hiring committees that I have served on, and when it comes to continuing positions in my department, they have been evenly split between men and women — at least since I’ve been here.

Still, diversity in the ranks doesn’t proves the policy is unneeded. It could be a sign that the policy is working.  But I doubt it.  First of all, the affirmative action policy is trumped by Canadian law which privileges Canadian citizens and permanent residents; recent immigrants, who may often be minorities, are often neither and get pushed aside. Moreover, the policy does not cover every element of diversity, only visible minorities, persons with disabilities, and women. In other words, the policy does not help you if you are gay or of a minority cultural group that is not visibly different (as with Jewish people of European descent, for example).

More importantly, the policy only applies to you if you self-identify for the equity initiative. This makes a certain amount of sense, of course: you can’t necessarily recognize a member of a visible minority when you can’t see the candidate. And you really don’t want a committee trying to guess. In practice, however, surprisingly few candidates self-identify, especially women. I’m not quite sure why this is. Perhaps they feel that self-identifying makes them look weak in the eyes of the committee. Or, they may feel that they don’t want special treatment — that they want the job only if they are clearly the best candidate. So, if the job-seekers don’t want affirmative action, whose interests does it serve?

Finally, at the end of the process, the committee still chooses the best candidate. If that candidate is a member of a visible minority the policy was never needed; if she is not, the policy does not apply. In theory, the affirmative action policy might force a committee to consider a candidate they would have dismissed, only to find out he was great and hire him after all, but while I would welcome such an outcome, I have never seen it happen. Similarly, there could be a theoretical tie between two very good candidates, and the minority applicant would be chosen, but, again, while I would have no problem with that, I have never seen that happen either.

So while the current policy has little or no effect, a tougher policy would achieve more diversity only at the cost of fairness and academic quality. And how much more diverse than the surrounding community does the university need to be? But who knows, maybe this hiring committee will be the one.  We professors are unusually open-minded, you know.

Keep up to the minute on The Hour Hand