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Is academic nepotism a good thing?
June 5, 2013 - 4:53pm

The retirement of Gordon Gee from Ohio State, and its inevitable connection to his other presidencies, including at my former place of work, Vanderbilt, provides an opportunity to talk about an important ethics subject: academic nepotism. Gee’s wife, Constance, was in my department when I was at Vanderbilt. She had come in with tenure, and when Gee left, she stayed (she has since retired). Constance Gee was not the only one in the department known to have come in as a trailing spouse, or to otherwise have come into a position through what is sometimes called the back door. 

Universities go to great lengths to put a positive spin on this form of favoritism in hiring, which may also be associated with favoritism in compensation, advancement, and promotion. They assert that it helps them in recruiting, increases loyalty, and adds stability to the university, among other arguments, and that people who are provided jobs this way are qualified (they cannot, of course, claim they would have been hired over others). Some observers note that it can even serve an affirmative action function, bringing women into certain fields or jobs. Several universities advertise policies specifically in favor of favoritism; they do not call it that, but rather refer to it as a “dual career” policy.

But hiring based on kinship is the form of favoritism known as nepotism (and we generally call hiring based on friendship cronyism). It is not illegal (although its effects might be and, where public money and institutions are involved, could potentially be viewed as a form of political corruption). But from an organizational or institutional integrity standpoint, it may be blatantly inequitable and, from a performance standpoint, deeply inefficient.

If, for example, people are given positions for which they do not have the relevant skills, training, or experience, they are unlikely to perform as well as someone recruited on merit, intentionally. They will be difficult, if not impossible, to fire; indeed, such hiring puts supervisors in tough positions. Nepotism undermines all sense of fairness in the human resources process, dampens motivation, and in general breeds distrust.  Those from outside may perceive it impossible to get a position if they see that someone has obtained a position that was never posted, or was posted as a formality or legal requirement for a fait-accompli hire. Good people already there may leave, a “cost” that is rarely accounted for, in large part because it is rarely recognized; little connect-the-dot attention is paid to the impact of nepotism on the larger organization.

Moreover, especially when jobs are created specifically for trailing spouses, resources may be diverted from other needs; the salary is a premium above that paid for the basic hire herself or himself that could have been used for something, or someone, more pressing. In institutions where a faculty or administrative hire is, for financial reasons, a rare and hoped-for occasion, lack of an open and competitive search could be a particularly dispiriting, and cynicism-breeding, practice. Productivity drops for everyone when there is a sense that rewards are not based on performance, or real resource needs must be foregone.

A potential risk, of course, is true discrimination, particularly in advancement. From a legal standpoint, it could be argued that this risk is low: the best people, what I call the free agents, will simply leave as noted (and I have seen this consistently in my many years as an organizational consultant, and also seen the accompanying loss of quality and productivity), while those more constrained will be unwilling to challenge for fear of retaliation. It makes for mutual, as well as institutional, distrust.

Certainly, nepotism goes against the fundamental Weberian principle that technical competence (merit), not kinship, social status, or heredity, be the criterion for role assignment. Universities are one of the only institutions that take the dual-career issue as somehow special to them. But of course it is not, and people deal with these choices -- to relocate or not, change jobs or not -- in all their complexity and on their own responsibility every day. So this raises another question, one that is, at heart, an ethical question: is there such a thing as an entitlement to a job? And is the expectation of a job for one’s spouse -- a request for something unrelated to one’s own qualifications or compensation, in addition to one’s own job or compensation, or a contingency for one’s agreement -- proper?

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