Latent or Even Unconscious (?) Influences on Equity and Merit Phraseologies in Canadian Tenure-Stream Advertisements

January 2002

In the long run, the quality of a university’s faculty is arguably the most important determinant of its effectiveness as an academic institution. In Canadian universities, the most critical decision point about faculty occurs at hiring at the junior (assistant-professor), tenure-stream level, because an individual hired into the tenure stream has an excellent chance (about 80%) of obtaining tenure. This contrasts with the very low tenure-granting policies of such American institutions as the ivy-league universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Brown, for which tenure-stream hiring decisions are not so critical.

Until the late sixties, tenure-stream hiring in North America was informal, with no requirement to openly advertise tenure-stream faculty positions. Following the introduction of that requirement, there began to be a demand to consider not only merit but also equity in determining the winner of each tenure-stream competition for candidate faculty members. In a report last year (Provincial politics fail to affect employment equity commitment in universities, SAFS Newsletter, 2000, 27, 6-7), I suggested that the phraseology of tenure-stream advertisements could serve as an indirect indication of a university’s commitment to the conflicting principles of employment equity as against merit. Using a method I have labeled "judgmental content analysis" of the wording of those ads, I reported the results of testing a specific hypothesis, which was that the "political earthquake" that occurred in Ontario with the change from the Rae to the Harris government (a change that included the abolition of employment equity laws for private industries) would affect the equity wording of Ontario universities’ tenure-stream advertisements. The hypothesis seemed intuitively plausible, if only because the major source of funding for universities is provincial rather than federal. However, our results conclusively failed to support the hypothesis, and I concluded that the lesson for those such as members of SAFS, who are committed to advancing merit over equity aims in higher education, is that they have to work independently of the political changes that occur outside the university.

Aside from the possibility of testing such specific hypotheses concerning the impact of provincial politics, the project also offers an opportunity to evaluate the influence of such factors as university mission (using the Macleans' 3-level categorization of universities: medical/doctoral, comprehensive, and undergraduate) and discipline hardness (physical science, social science, and humanities) on both equity and merit phraseology. As I indicated in my previous report, the data examined (with funding from the Donner Canadian Foundation and the Horowitz Foundation) were some 500 arts and science tenure-stream ads in University Affairs; the ratings were carried out using a 7-point scale on both equity and merit by student raters (in this study, they were Sean Fidler, Yaniv Morgenstern, and Wendy Tryhorn), and the four factors examined were university mission (using the Macleans' 3-level categorization of universities: medical/doctoral, comprehensive, and undergraduate), discipline hardness (physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities), time (1992-4 vs 1996-8), and location (Eastern Canada, Ontario, Western Canada, and Quebec). Analysis of variance was employed to assess whether these factors, or their interactions, exerted a significant influence on either equity or merit phraseology.

Viewed from the perspective of the discipline of psychology, the phraseology of the tenure-stream ads reflects collective or institutional cognitive functioning, which is clearly affected by such explicit sources as advice from "equity" officers and other administrators who favor what have recently been called "diversity" aims in academic functioning. However, if an influence such as university mission is also operating in affecting the wording of ads, then I suggest that this is an implicit or latent influence, because, to my knowledge, there have not been institutional-explicit references to hiring policies that have taken into account a university’s mission, or the hardness of the discipline, or the location (in Canada) of the university. Still, the influence of a factor like mission may have a plausible rationale (e.g., merit requirements for faculty could reasonably be set higher for medical/doctoral institutions than those devoted only to undergraduate education). It is much more difficult to produce even an implicit rationale for those influences that interact on ad phraseology. Such interactions, I suggest, indicate the presence of irrational or unconscious influences on collective institutional cognitive functioning. In this note and two figures, I present an example each of how statistically significant (defined at a level of less than 0.05, i.e., that there is a less than 5% chance that the observed sample difference is drawn from a population with no difference) main effects of mission on merit and equity ratings were significantly qualified by differences in location (West, Ontario, and East).

Figure 1 shows mean merit ratings on the vertical axes of the graphs in the top and bottom panels. The top panel shows the main effect of mission, with the medical/doctoral, comprehensive, and undergraduate institutions being clearly ordered in a way that could be readily rationalized -- research-intensive institutions require higher merit standards for their faculty than those where the emphasis on research is less, or not even part of the professorial requirement However, the significant mission x location interaction shown in the lower panel indicates that whereas in the West (solid function) it is the undergraduate institutions that are lower than the other two institutions, in Ontario and in the East, the main difference is between the (higher) medical/doctoral institutions and the other two sorts which do not differ from each other.

Figure 1
Figure 2

One can speculate why the influence of mission is qualified in this particular way by location (the data shown in both figures excluded the fourth location, Quebec, as that province had no advertisements for tenure-stream positions in undergraduate institutions), but one would be hard put to provide a rationale for this sort of interactive influence. For example, what rational justification could be given for the medical/doctoral vs. comprehensive difference in Ontario and the East disappearing (and even slightly reversing) in the West?

The interactive influence of location on mission’s influence on equity phraseology shown in the bottom panel of Figure 2 (mean equity ratings on vertical axis) is even more marked than the location x mission inter-action on merit phraseology.

The main mission effect on equity phraseology is that medical/doctoral and comprehensive institutions are higher than undergraduate ones (top panel), and proponents of equity or ‘diversity" may rationalize this as an indication that the more numerous "equity officers" that are present in non-undergraduate institutions are, indeed, valuable for keeping "diversity issues" front and center in hiring policies. However, as the bottom panel indicates, there are three quite different mission functions in the three areas, with only the West being similar to the mission main effect shown in the top panel of the figure. The function for Ontario (dashed line in the bottom panel) is particularly aberrant, with the medical/doctoral institutions ranking lowest in their emphasis on equity, and comprehensive and undergraduate institutions being approximately equal.

The two interactions I have depicted here are only a subset of a large number of significant interactions that we have found (to be reported elsewhere in more detail), and some of these were three-way interactions (among three factors), interactions which are even more difficult to account for in terms of a sensible rationale. It is interesting to note that for the experimental psychologist seeking to manipulate variables defined in abstract, conceptual terms, interactions, especially higher order ones containing more than two factors, are a bane of existence. In the case of this non-experimental research into the nature of collective, institutional activity involved in the writing of tenure-stream ads, interactions illuminate the complexities underlying what, in fact, is an activity that is influenced not only by stated policy formulations of "equity," "diversity," or even "excellence," but also by latent or even unconscious influences that apparently affect not only the equity but also the merit wording of tenure-stream advertisements.