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The Fight Over University Women

Four years ago, the first complaint of university sex discrimination was filed with the secretary of labor by a woman’s organization called the Women’s Equity Action League. WEAL requested that an Executive Order, which, as of 1968, prohibited sex discrimination by federal contractors, be enforced against universities. Millions of dollars in federal contracts were handed out every year to academic institutions which, as WEAL claimed, practiced extensive and vicious prejudice against women instructors and students. WEAL appended eighty pages of evidence for its charges and asked that HEW examine all universities and colleges holding federal contracts to see whether they were complying with the Executive Order.

Within six months complaints against more than one hundred academic institutions were filed by women’s groups.1 Under this pressure HEW’s Office for Civil Rights began conducting reviews of the compliance of universities. Almost everywhere HEW found evidence of prejudice. The university administrators, in effect, had to promise to mend their ways or lose their federal allowances. Like other employers holding government contracts, they were required to draw up programs to eliminate discrimination in hiring.

The academic campaign against HEW on campus started on October 8, 1971, when Columbia’s President William J. McGill, as Life‘s guest editor, complained that with “no prior warning” HEW had instructed Columbia “to get into [federal contract] compliance within thirty days or face a cut-off of federal funds.” McGill’s claim that Columbia had “no prior warning” was, as we shall see, utterly false. But within a few weeks Professor Sidney Hook of New York University was denouncing HEW’s thirty-day edicts. While women’s organizations were busy filing more university discrimination charges, Hook was busy telling university officials just what they wanted to hear: administrators “should not yield to [HEW] …ultimata.”2 Hook organized the Committee on Academic Non-Discrimination and Integrity, and in one article after another male professors wailed about HEW interference on campus.

These protectors of academic integrity against the HEW civil rights office use two kinds of argument. According to the first, university hiring practices are fine just as they are. Universities practice a “merit system” of employment.3 Since a merit system is, by definition, free of sex discrimination, HEW’s pressure to hire and upgrade women faculty is superfluous and, if successful, would corrupt “standards of excellence.”4 This argument is consistent. Unfortunately, its premise—that universities practice a merit system—is false.

Not all HEW critics agree that academic hirings and firings are so fair or so virtuous. Some even grant (sometimes) that universities have treated women badly. But, they claim, HEW remedies have bad side effects. First, HEW investigators ignore university rights to due process (e.g., by issuing orders that universities must end discrimination within thirty days). Second, HEW insists on increased numerical representation of women on faculty—a numbers game that is said to be logically absurd since any other group could demand faculty representation. Finally, by requiring that the universities set numerical goals, HEW is allegedly imposing a quota system that causes reverse discrimination against men. As Charles Frankel, a philosopher, put it: “If you hire unqualified women…bright white males don’t get jobs.”5

Let us see if the claims of these academics against HEW stand up.

The Merit System

Paul Seabury, a political scientist writing in Commentary, describes HEW’s enforcement of the Executive Order as an “assault on the merit system” of faculty recruitment. If the universities complied with HEW’s demands, this would, he said,

compel a stark remodeling of their criteria of recruitment, their ethos of professionalism and their standards of excellence….6 Somebody…has to pay when the principle of merit is compromised or replaced by preferential ethnic and sex criteria.7

Seabury explains that the idea of merit as a conception of justice means “to each according to his abilities…[and] works.”8 Of course, Seabury does not claim that throughout society people are rewarded according to their ability and works. Why then does he believe that this kind of justice looms so large in academies? Do professors have so much more integrity than ordinary mortals? Such discrepancy between the morality of academia and the rest of the world seems implausible, for a start.

Note that the idea of a merit hiring system does not mean merely that excellence is given some recognition. Superior quality plays a role in almost any market or hiring system. The force of talent is undeniable. It is unlikely that the three top sopranos would be unrecognized. Similarly, virtually anyone who has contributed significantly to knowledge will be offered a place in a major university. But it is a necessary condition of any hiring system based on merit that qualified candidates not be excluded, either because of (1) hiring procedures that tend to reject them, or (2) prejudiced attitudes, e.g., against women. Academic hiring fails on both counts.


If any group can be expected to hire its faculty according to “standards of excellence,” it should be the philosophers. Do not philosophers, far from petty concerns, seek Truth, Beauty; and the Good? But the fact is that hiring practices in philosophy are similar to those described in US vs Local 46, Lathe Workers where the court found a “deep-rooted and pervasive practice” in the lathe workers union of giving out jobs through their own network “on the basis…generally [of] ‘pull.’ ”

As with the lathe workers, so with the logicians. The philosophy hiring network is revealed in a document issued by the officers of the American Philosophical Association:

[we] have for some time been ashamed of the way in which we force young philosophers to…enter…the profession…. Candidates for junior positions, no matter how able, can…probably expect…serious consideration from only a few departments,…in a great many cases, departments having some special tie with [their] own. These conditions, together with the spectacle of the annual smoker…[where job interviews occur] can hardly…instill…pride in our profession. [APA Bulletin #4, February, 1971, emphasis added]

This “special tie” is known in every profession as the “old boy” or the “buddy” system. Seabury’s claim that American administrators seek “the best the world of scholarship could offer” is misleading. 9 Typically, a department chairman asks his former graduate professor to recommend a candidate. For example, colleges in New York City employ a large number of Columbia PhDs. Did New York college administrators just happen to find the best available candidates from “the world of scholarship” studying right in their own neighborhood? The fact is that a local phone call often fills the job. This “old boy” system tends to exclude talented people outside the closed circuit.

Seabury does offer one fact about academic hiring practices. The hiring “skill pool” used by “top universities” is “the top 5 percent of graduate students in the top ten universities.”10 But hiring among top institutions itself exemplifies the “old boy” system. A bright graduate student who didn’t attend a top university is usually barred from a place on their faculties. In a merit system, such institutions would reasonably recruit, in good measure, from top universities; but no candidate would be denied a chance merely because of the status of his or her graduate school. The fact is, however, that a student’s choice of graduate school (often made naïvely or ignorantly or because of family obligations) “has a determining effect on where he ends up.”

Just as a person’s eventual position in society depends on the class he was born into as well as on his own talent, so his eventual position in higher education depends on the standing of…his PhD institution…as well as on his capabilities…. [R. Berelson, Graduate Education in the US, McGraw-Hill, 1960, pp. 109-113]

The “halo effect” conferred by a PhD degree from a high-status school is an advantage regardless of merit. But that halo does not brighten a mediocre PhD’s own classroom, where generations of students may languish under incompetent instruction. In today’s tight academic market, mediocrities with high-status PhDs can still expect decent jobs, while bright, lively candidates from minor universities may worry whether they will ever get to teach a class. As the APA document reports, job candidates have a “desperate sense that one could find out where the jobs are if one could only be introduced to the right people.”11

A resolution by young philosophers describes hiring procedures:

Something must be done about the degrading and humiliating process of [convention] interviewing…the inhuman rush for jobs and candidates…. How are we to take philosophy as a great enterprise of the human spirit, when it becomes a scene of speedy uncaring encounters with recruiters and a race from interview to interview. [APA Bulletin #4]

Philosophers refer to the APA Convention, where “degrading and humiliating” job interviews occur, as “the slave market.” Perhaps some day Seabury will explain how hiring procedures appropriate to a slave market sustain a merit system.

A system where job applicants are “desperate” to meet the right people also corrupts professional excellence, although more subtly. What happens when young people, who regard their profession as “a great enterprise of the human spirit,” discover that to practice their profession they should know the “right” people? Ways of knowing the right people are the same throughout society; and professors are no less susceptible to flattery than others. Young persons who become adept in getting to know the right people are likely to become less fit to practice any “great enterprise of the human spirit.” (Such adeptness can also help a young academic to become one of those “right people” himself—a fact which helps to explain how mediocrity finds a home for itself on major university faculties; or—to skip a step in this story—how so much pale, male, dead wood got settled at the top.)

Recently, I ran into a philosophy instructor who as a student had seemed the model of intellectual purity. This model now held forth on the utility of something he called “deference.” It is certainly true that deference is professionally most useful and can be practiced in a variety of ways. For example, one could, in one’s own articles, defer to Professor Joe Doaks, by such references as these:

Philosophers like Bertrand Russell and Joe Doaks…. This article is a footnote to Professor Doak’s classic paper…. As Doaks has taught us….

It is not surprising that many young academics come to resemble their Madison Avenue counterparts—junior executives on the make.

While Seabury mentions the hiring tie among top institutions, he says practically nothing about general hiring practices in the academic world. But the moral principle he praises—to each according to his ability and works—is a tenet of justice. Surely the person applying for an instructorship at Podunk College, as well as at Harvard, has a right to just treatment. Seabury might broaden his moral perspective by asking whether academic people are usually accorded fair treatment. He would find, I suggest, that applicants for instructorships share the fate of job seekers everywhere. Being the best qualified candidate is one way to get the job.

  1. 1

    Discrimination Against Women, Hearings before the Special Subcommittee on Education of the Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives, June, 1970 (hereafter House Hearings), pp. 298-314.

  2. 2

    The New York Times, November 5, 1971.

  3. 3

    HEW and the Universities,” Commentary, February, 1972 (hereafter HU), p. 40; “The Idea of Merit,” Commentary, December, 1972 (hereafter IM), p. 45.

  4. 4

    HU, p. 38.

  5. 5

    Newsweek, December 4, 1972.

  6. 6

    HU, p. 38.

  7. 7

    HU, p. 44.

  8. 8

    IM, p. 41.

  9. 9

    HU, pp. 40-41.

  10. 10

    HU, p. 42.

  11. 11

    It should be said that in the last few years the American Philosophical Association has attempted to reform these hiring practices, e.g., by publication of a directory, Jobs in Philosophy, where job openings are listed and described.

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