Letter to SAFS Editor: Re: The Best of Biopolitics

April 2005

The best of biopolitics is illustrated by the latest statistics on the CRC program as described by Karen Birchard (Women make gains in Canada Research Chairs following uproar over gender disparity, SAFS Newsletter, January 2005). Ms. Birchard concludes, “The universities are apparently getting the message. For example, Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia, was among the institutions with the fewest female chair holders. In the latest round, four out of five chairs at Simon Fraser went to women. The program's managers say they are receiving record numbers of nominations for women, so more rounds of appointments like this one are likely.”

Yes, the Universities are getting the message that they must hire females or lose CRC positions. CRC searches have been stalled or cancelled because there were no qualified female candidates. Others have been reassigned to accommodate previously identified female candidates. Strangely, none of the adver-tisements for these positions said, “males need not apply.”

Readers of SAFS Newsletter hardly need to be reminded of the implications of such aggressive affirmative action. In the CRC context, two implications stand out for me.

First is the obvious (but vigorously denied by university administrators) result that average quality of appointed candidates is reduced by selecting qualified (or perhaps less than qualified) female candidates over better qualified male candidates. Also, it seems likely that the quality of the candidate pool is degraded because qualified candidates are put off by the biased process and choose not to apply. Women of CRC calibre want to be selected as the best candidate, not the best female candidate. And, men don’t want to suffer the inconvenience and indignity of applying in good faith for falsely advertised positions. Everybody loses with affirmative action.

The second implication is that biopolitics has taken first priority over strategic distribution of research funding. The human rights complaint raised by Wendy Robbins and seven other women is spurious. Whatever, one thinks about the distribution of CRC funding among the disciplines, that distribution has nothing to do with gender discrimination in hiring. Yet, the Human Rights Commission agreed to hear the complaint and, although the commission has yet to rule on the case, NSERC pleaded guilty and promised with great fanfare to do better. “Better”, means unofficial gender quotas, so university administrations are scrambling to appoint female candidates.

Nevertheless, my sense is that many administrators would much prefer hiring policies that are untarnished by biopolitics. The unfortunate reality is that they feel compelled to comply with the dictates of the ideological left. Rather than develop sound defensive arguments and strategies to ensure merit based hiring, administrators plead guilty to false charges of inequity and then scramble to appoint females while maintaining a façade of merit based selection. That doesn’t look like leadership to me.

What to do? For starters, we need to be clear that Ontario human rights legislation allows but does not require affirmative action during the selection process. It is essential to ensure that position postings are very accessible to potential candidates from all designated groups; I think everyone can and should support that. But, there is no and should not be any requirement to apply affirmative action during the selection process. Accordingly, one strategy to help ensure merit based selection is to insist on a transparent selection process. Yes, that’s easier said than done, but I’d like to open a “how to” discussion. Some suggestions follow.

  1. Look for opportunities to make public statements in support of merit based selection. The campus news paper is a good place to do this. If anyone is interested, I’d be happy to forward a copy of a letter that I submitted to our campus newspaper.
  2. When a faculty hiring is being considered in your department remind the appropriate administrators that affirmative action measures must be limited to creation of the applicant pool. During the selection process, nothing counts but merit.
  3. If you are involved in administrative committees that influence hiring strategies, make suggestions to help ensure that hiring practices and intentions are transparent. For example, if it is clear that your department or college intends to appoint a female, suggest that the position should be advertised for females only.
  4. If you are participating on a selection committee, make it clear in writing at the outset to the committee and relevant administrators that you will insist on merit based selection. If you find yourself removed from the committee, make a public statement explaining why that happened.
  5. Faculty members may be able to positively influ-ence hiring protocols through the university faculty association. If the association has opportunity to meet with candidates, it could also advise candidates who are not members of designated groups to write the committee chair and ask for assurance that the selection process will not be influenced by ethnic or biological factors.

Overall, my sense is that the success of bio-politicians is mainly due to publicity associated with ungrounded human rights complaints. Accordingly, the best way to push back is to expose opaque selection processes.