Long ago in Latin class I must have established a link between nepotism and Cornelius Nepos, the Roman biographer and friend of Catullus and Cicero. Only recently, when confronted with questions about conflicts of interest in my department, did I realize that, while his name in Latin may mean everything from grandson, granddaughter, nephew, descendant, to spendthrift and prodigal, Cornelius Nepos did not give his name to the long-standing practice of nepotism.
In fact, nepotism entered the English language as a loanword from Italian in the seventeenth century, first to describe the semi-institutionalized favoritism among Catholic Renaissance dignitaries toward their relatives (esp. illegitimate sons), and later, more generally, to denote any “unfair preferment of or favouritism shown to friends, protégés, or others within a person's sphere of influence” (OED).
Faculty at the modern research university recognized the clear and present danger nepotism posed to the rational principles supposed to rule decision making in post-Enlightenment academe. In nineteenth-century Europe, internationally minded scholars fought locally and regionally minded administrations and governments who, more often than not, preferred to hire members of their own or extended families, close friends, and politically loyal candidates.
In the 20th century, institutions of higher learning all over the world have protected themselves and their reputations through the inclusion of anti-nepotism clauses, more or less prominently situated in agreements with their faculty and staff unions or in the regulations of Human Resources departments.
Such definitions of nepotism most often try to avoid favoritism based on a certain degree of consanguinity. Thus, the Board of Regents Handbook for the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, based on guidelines developed by the Nevada Commission on Ethics, states that “no University employee may hire or cause to be hired, nor supervise, any relative of the employee otherwise employed by the University within the third degree of consanguinity or affinity, except with the prior approval of the President.”
This rule not only touches an employee’s spouse, child, parent, sibling, half-sibling, or step-relatives in the same relationship, a spouse of the employee’s child, parent, sibling, half-sibling, or step-relative, but also the employee’s in-laws, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, grandparent, grandchild, or first cousin. While the focus here is clearly on an actual legally defined family relationship, the first definition of “nepotism” in the same UNLV Handbook warns, more generally, that none of the institution’s “employees or officers shall engage in any activities that place them in a conflict of interest between their official activities and any other interest or obligation. Conflict of interest requires all employees and officers to disqualify themselves from participating in a decision when a financial or personal interest is present.”
Two recent situations in my own department relate to this more general understanding of nepotism. In one case, a colleague on a departmental committee ranking applicants for sabbaticals recused herself because one of the applicants happened to be her daughter’s godmother. In a second case, I suggested that a faculty member on a search committee become a non-voting member because he had served as the principal mentor and thesis adviser for one of the job applicants.
In neither case was the issue consanguinity, but the acknowledgment of a family-like or kinship-like relationship that might lead at least to the appearance of a conflict of interest. In both cases, there were clear indications that our culture viewed the respective relationship as one in which the faculty member served in loco parentis, as godmother in one, as Doktorvater in the other.
Initially, I found the first colleague’s religion-based recusal fishy, suspecting that it might be just a clever way of shunning responsibility for a tough decision about granting or refusing a colleague a coveted paid year off to research and write. Later, however, when the hiring committee issue came up, I much preferred the first faculty’s caution to the second one’s bold denial of a problem.
The second colleague brazenly claimed that he could not see any possible conflict of interest in his serving on the search committee as a voting member and convinced the departmental Policy Committee to side with him when I suggested that he recuse himself from voting when it came to his former thesis advisee. He then continued to take every opportunity to weaken the record of other promising candidates and exalt his former advisee’s qualifications, perhaps not always consciously, but to the point where the other members of the search committee felt that they were being pressured into bringing “his” candidate in for a campus interview.
My institution, unlike many other research institutions, does not have a hard and fast rule against hiring its own graduates. However, the thought that one powerful faculty member, the only colleague in his specialty, might first orchestrate the hire of his own former thesis advisee, a graduate of our own program, and then become the lead faculty for this junior faculty’s performance reviews and, finally, her evaluation for tenure and promotion, clearly felt ethically problematic.
In addition, I tend to think that new hires should rejuvenate departments and program areas, not necessarily reinforce existing methodologies, practices, or dogmata, in the way that German institutions will publish a retiree’s name and specialty areas in job ads to indicate to prospective candidates that they are supposed to emulate a preordained tradition.
I was proven right when, during a first round of video interviews, my colleague asked candidates a specific question only someone trained in our own program, and by him, could possibly answer without further clarification.
Later, when I brought in the two candidates the search committee had ranked first in their final recommendation, but not our former graduate, whom the committee had ranked third, the colleague in question stepped down in protest as a member of the search committee, demonstrating publicly that his foremost desire in the search process had probably been the hire of his own former student.
These examples suggest that narrowly defined and exclusively consanguinity-based definitions of nepotism do not even begin to address the vast variety of conflicts of interest in a department’s daily dealings. Similar to the broad semantic range of the word “nepos” in Cornelius Nepos’ days, nepotism in contemporary academe may comprise religious and even intellectual kinship concepts that can turn out much more multifarious than those implied by direct family relations.
Raising such conflicts of interest early on can protect the viability of a search or ranking process from potential ethical and legal challenges. In the end, though perhaps not initially, your colleagues will appreciate your making the pitfalls of nepotism part of their deliberations.
Fitzwilliam Darcy is a pseudonym for the Chair of a Humanities Department in the Midwest.