Daphne Patai on Political Tests in Faculty Hiring

By September 12, 2008

FIRE Board of Directors member and University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Daphne Patai had a biting essay Wednesday on MindingTheCampus.com titled, "Want to Teach Here? Then Tell Us Your Politics." Patai sees increasing efforts in the academy in general and UMass Amherst in particular to tailor hiring practices to select only candidates who fit certain political litmus tests. She provides an excerpt from a UMass Amherst document entitled "Supplemental Search Instructions" provided to faculty by the campus’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity (OEOD).

The document states that although the provided questions do not necessarily have a right or wrong answer, they can be helpful in illuminating a professor’s personal opinions. "Many candidates will not have prepared answers to these questions in advance," explains the memo. "These questions will, therefore, be useful in drawing out the candidate’s opinions." Here are a couple of examples, where the blank is to be filled in with the group of one’s choice: minorities, women, the disabled, "and other groups requiring sensitive treatment."

  • How did/would you deal with faculty members or employees who say disparaging things about (____)?
  • How would you demonstrate your concern for equity for (____) if you were hired?

First of all, I would find it rather insulting if someone told me that I was in a group "requiring sensitive treatment" rather than the equal treatment that should be afforded to all individuals.

More importantly, the OEOD apparently gives no credence to the idea that prospective employees might not be prepared for such questions because they know it would be inappropriate, if not illegal, to be asked questions by a public university that were intended to reveal their personal political beliefs. Patai cuts to the chase: "Gauging levels of ‘commitment’ to what are essentially political issues has nothing to do with one’s academic expertise. Rather, it resembles the effort by Schools of Education to gauge potential teachers’ ‘dispositions’."

Patai deftly adds:

Not only are the "suggested questions" an embarrassment to public education (private too, but that’s a somewhat different story), they also endorse subterfuge on the part of the interviewers: no direct questions but rather attempts to trap the candidates into revealing something about themselves (all the while pretending there are no right or wrong answers, as the paragraph introducing the questions explicitly states). Potential faculty are thus being pressured to adopt and embrace — or merely pretend to do so — the requisite "attitude" toward minorities, political activism, and social issues, and to provide evidence that they have acted on these supposed commitments. And, scarier still, these questions by implication are presented as legitimate requirements for employment, though they have nothing to do with either education or intellectual and scholarly accomplishments. And, even worse, the questions are designed to weed out the merely formal assenters from authentic true believers.

This issue leaves one wondering how much time in the hiring process is spent divining applicants’ views on one’s favorite social or political issues rather than examining the true merits of a candidate.