Monday, March 27, 2006

Interdepartmental Warfare

This is how feuds start.

First, we have a spat brewing at Rutgers-Camden Law School over affirmative action in their hiring process. Professor Michael Livingston wrote a blistering attack claiming that Affirmative Action lowers the quality of new hires, gives free passes to "can't lose" minority profs who don't meet normal tenure requirements, and reduces civility at the law school. The last point is warranted by Livingston's claim that:
Because everyone knows that the people other than the best candidates are being selected, but in the nature of things cannot really say so, they tend to develop a habit of dishonesty and "wink-nod" compromises that is extremely difficult to limit to this one area. The entire trust and honesty that characterize academic exchange accordingly tends to atrophy in very short order.

Briefly, I'd like to point out the premise that "everyone knows" these people aren't the best hires is hardly self-evident (see below), and even if he is right that there is some incivility flowing from minority professors attacking other members of the department over the diversity issue, it's no more uncivil than the blanket attack that Livingston makes against this entire group's qualification set. I'm beginning to understand what folks were talking about when they told me how the call for civility acts as tool to suppress minorities defending themselves from majority attacks. The double standard is palpable.

But I digress. The really interesting thing was Imani Perry's email response to Livingston (reprinted at BlackProf). Perry is a black female professor at Rutgers-Camden, and she was a bit perturbed at some of Livingston's insinuations:
[M]y ten publications, coming back to work five weeks after giving birth (by c-section) and three advanced degrees are all certainly signs to our community and the world at large of Rutgers' lowered standards. And the illustrious backgrounds, high level of scholarship, and exemplary faculty citizenship of our aforementioned [minority] colleagues raise serious questions about the legitimacy of their candidacies as well. I know, you said, the issue is not whether we are actually "good enough" but rather that the school would/could have done so much better if it had sought "the best" instead of "the black." Shame on the institution for including racial diversity in its vision of excellence! (Is my facetiousness clear enough?) Incidentally, are you confident that you were objectively the "best" that Rutgers could have hired during your year on the market, or that unconscious racial and gender preferences didn't play a role in your candidacy? I doubt that you or anyone else in your position can be.

Game, set and match. But the irony is that Livingston can go and take this email, and use it to buttress his "incivility" cry. I think that would be complete crap, since he was obviously the provocateur. But it still can happen, and its still wildly unfair.

Oh, and for the record, I'd just like to compare the Livingston's resume to Perry's. Livingston attended Cornell undergrad and got his law degree from Yale. He published a casebook on Tax Law in 2004, has another book in progress, and has published several articles in prestigious law journals (none, however, was listed as being more recent than 1998). Very impressive, to be sure. Perry attended Yale undergraduate, and received both a Ph.D and a J.D. from Harvard University. She hasn't been teaching as long as Livingston, so it's difficult to compare publications, but she has one book out already, and five articles forthcoming this year. Also a stellar resume.

Can anybody fairly say that Livingston was "clearly" a better hire? Perry is already matching him pound-for-pound in scholarly output, and in terms of pre-hire qualifications I have to give Yale/Harvard/Harvard the edge over Cornell/Yale. Who's really got the built-in advantage, then?

On the other side let's look at an unrelated beef from the right. A prominent Baylor University Professor, Francis Beckwith, has been denied tenure. His supporters are aghast, and to be fair, his c.v. looks pretty damn impressive. The American Spectator comments, as does Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News, who suspects this case will reverberate nationally. Southern Appeal (where Beckwith co-blogs) has been all over this story, and they all seem convinced that Beckwith was targeted for being an unabashedly evangelical, conservative, pro-life scholar. Ed Brayson, by contrast, attributes it to intra-Baptist and intra-University politics (Baylor is a Baptist school), not to a specific animus against conservatives (its important to note that Brayson, who disagrees with Beckwith on many key issues, is also appalled by the denial). Either way, it's a shame. Beckwith's resume seems almost unimpeachable, with overwhelmingly positive student reviews to match.

Interdepartmental politics--be they powered by political, racial, religious, or personal agenda--are scary things. I don't relish having to navigate them when I enter the job market.

1 comment:

Belle Lettre said...

Great post. It is so sad how minority scholars will still have to justify their presence in the ivory tower.