by Steven M. Cahn
A widely accepted principle of academic ethics is that candidates for appointments should not be asked questions that do not bear on performance as a faculty member. For example, no interviewer should inquire of a candidate, “How much do you weigh?” or “Do you think you are the right age to assume this position?” or “With whom are you living?”
A reason these questions are inappropriate is that while competence is a criterion for a faculty appointment, weight, age, and personal relationships are demonstrably not appropriate criteria. Thus they should never be mentioned.
Indeed, if a candidate raises such considerations, the discussion should not be allowed to continue along that path. Hence, for example, if applicants mention their sexual orientation, the response should be that the matter is not relevant to the appointment and will not be discussed further.
In addition, even if a candidate’s vita includes such information as date of birth or number of children, these facts should remain irrelevant. Such data should not be requested, and, if provided, should not be considered.
This much should be uncontroversial. Consider, however, a situation I faced some years ago, when one of our doctoral students asked my advice about whether to include on his vita the information that he had served as a columnist for National Review, a popular journal of conservative opinion.
Although I believe most professors would agree that a candidate’s politics should not be considered in making an appointment, I was uncertain whether in practice faculty were likely to act in accord with this principle. Of course, had the doctoral student worked for a popular journal of liberal opinion, he would not have been concerned about saying so. He anticipated, however, that most philosophers would be uncomfortable appointing someone with his political outlook.
At the time, my advice to the student was that the information didn’t belong on the vita. He omitted it and obtained a fine position. Perhaps the result would have been the same had he acted otherwise. I hope so, but I have my doubts.
Now for a few questions:
- Should activity that is more political than philosophical be noted on an application for a faculty position?
- Would indicating involvement in conservative politics endanger a candidate’s chances for appointment?
- Should an individual’s public political beliefs be as irrelevant to the appointment process as matters of weight, age, and personal relationships?
- How would you have advised the student?
Steven M. Cahn, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, is author of the forthcoming book Inside Academia: Professors, Politics, and Policies (Rutgers University Press).