Discrimination and Affirmative Action

mike salovesh (T20MXS1@NIU.BITNET)
Mon, 6 Jun 1994 17:46:00 CDT

John O'Brien worries about what he hasn't yet called "reverse dis-
crimination". Let me talk from inside the belly of the beast:

If I were sending this by snail mail on NIU stationary, you would see
the message "Northern Illinois University is an Equal Opportunity/
Affirmative Action Employer" because all our stationary carries it.

It's a lie, of course.

Before I go on, let me make it clear that I am NOT talking about the
hiring process in the Department of Anthropology. I have been privy
to the hiring process across the university for three reasons: 1) I
am an active member, and former vice president, of the faculty union,
affiliated with AFT; 2) I served four years on the Faculty Council of
the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, serving one year as its
elected Secretary. The LA&S Council reviews ALL personnel recom-
mendations, particularly including salary, tenure, and promotion; and
3) I am in my third year of service on the (all-university) Faculty
Senate, and was just elected its Secretary. (Lest that sound too
powerful, you should know that the Secretary traditionally is a
member of the anti-administration opposition, and has the power to
kick, scream, holler, and resist but is never allowed to succeed in
changing the system. That's always done from the top down.)

What happens in the real NIU is that departments, when they benefit
from some kind of miracle and get authority for a new hire, check out
their recruitment ads with the Affirmative Action Office. Then they
place them in the traditional places--for us, that would be in the
AAA Newsletter and such. They do NOT place them in, e.g., journals
published outside the US; or newspapers/magazines targeted at
specific minority audiences; or in languages other than English.

When applications come in, they are sorted on the basis of the one
criterion that makes or breaks people in the NIU personnel process:
quantity of scholarly publication. Yes, letters of recommendation
are read--and the publications are not. But it's the list of publi-
cations that drives the process.

And, of course, the prestige of the institution that granted the
Ph.D. Somehow, a Harvard grad comes out ahead of a Kansas grad
every time, all other things being equal.

Now the department is down to looking at a short list of the most
likely candidates. Nobody notices that the criteria themselves are
loaded and discriminatory and reconfirm the preexisting ideas of the
old boys' network, but when the first short list is tried there
always is a shortage of women and minorities and handicapped folks
on the list. ALWAYS. (Anthro, thank God!, is an exception.)

We have now come to panic time. The selection process somehow has to
get past Affirmative Action, and there is a conviction (which is, by
the way, false to fact) that a short list without women or minorities
just won't pass their review. So a token is added to the short list,
even though everybody "knows" that the token will be dropped when it
comes time to make an offer to the allegedly best-qualified applicant
(s). Now content that everything has been done to assure fairness,
the department goes on, more often than not, to hire a "white" man
from the most prestigious background.

As I said, nobody notices the inherent biases in the process. E.g.,
although nobody actually reads a candidate's publications, a lot is
made of the prestige of the journals that published them. I have
given a paper at a AAA symposium on Nicaragua where I noted that in
the ten years following the overthrow of Somoza in Nicaragua, there
was not one article in AA or CA (only two of the mainstream journals
I considered, but I mention them here because they are the ones of
highest prestige) that dealt with the effects of the Sandinista revo-
lution on the lives of Nicaraguans. In that whole decade of the
Contra war, and near-genocide in Guatemala, and revolution and
repression in El Salvador and Honduras, NOT ONE article appeared in
the central, mainstream, high-prestige journals in anthropology that
dealt with what was happening under our noses. Oh, yes, there were
book and film reviews, but book and film reviews do not garner many
points in the personnel game. As it happens, I know a lot of
anthropologists--including me--who think events in Central America
since 1979 are of vital interest. But our publications on the
subject are shunted off to low-prestige journals in the profession
(say, Human Organization) or, worse yet, interdisciplinary journals,
where we are ritually soiled by contact with the pollution of
(gulp!) NON-ANTHROPOLOGISTS. That automatically means that our
publication records do not impress personnel committees anywhere
near as much as those that consider safe topics for publication in
American Anthropologist.

I deliberately chose to look at political bias in the selection
process, rather than gender/"race"/minority/handicap issues, because
at least part of the evidence is open to anyone who cares to read the
subject or keyword indexes to our own professional journals. The
covert message is clear: If you want to increase your hireability,
stick to what's safe and mainstreamn. And the same goes for your
"choice" of gender/"race"/minority/handicap status, although it's
considerably harder to demonstrate that.

>From what I've seen, on average the equal opportunity/affirmative
action game usually is a charade, when it isn't a farce. If you want
to beat that game, you have to construct an identity for yourself
that makes you look like an Old Boy even if you actually are a Young
Girl. Learn what personnel committees reward, and give it to them.
It won't take too long before you believe that their judgements are
just because their criteria are right. God help you when that
happens, because you will have bought into a game with loaded dice.

Or you can just go out and do what you think you ought to be doing,
because it's worth doing for its own sake. Survival is difficult
that way, but it's possible. And you save your soul.

mike salovesh <t20mxs1@niu.bitnet> OR <t20mxs1@mvs.cso.niu.edu>