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Seeking Brains, Brawn

January 17, 2013

Wanted: Tenure-track professor of political science specializing in constitutional law to teach four courses per semester. Juris doctor degree highly desirable. Occasional weight-lifting required.

Sound strange? Not at California’s Azusa Pacific University, where a majority of academic job ads outline expectations of not only mental but physical prowess from applicants. Of the institution’s 18 posts on available faculty and administrative positions, 13 include detailed “physical demands,” such as “the ability to exert up to 10 pounds of force and occasionally lift and/or move up to 15 pounds.”

Other common “physical demands” included in professor job ads in fields from physics to social work are “visual acuity to read words and numbers,” “sufficient hand, arm and finger dexterity to operate a computer keyboard and other office equipment,” and “speaking and hearing ability sufficient to communicate in person or over the telephone.” Dean, provost and enrollment administrator jobs ad also include such requirements.

Through a spokeswoman, Azusa Pacific’s risk management officer for human resources, Brian Gleason, said that the qualifications were intended to accurately reflect the “usual physical duties of a faculty member, which may include carrying textbooks, laptop computers and other instructional or technical materials.” The qualifications have been used in job ads since 2010 and were not spurred by any particular incident with a faculty member, the spokeswoman said.

Still, faculty advocates and employment law experts say the move is unusual, and could expose Azusa Pacific to potential legal troubles.

“We don’t see this kind of language in our ads,” said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, which compiles thousands of faculty job ads each year ahead of its annual meeting, which also unofficially serves as a massive job fair for academics. Moreover, she said, the association actively encourages college and university personnel committees to “hire inclusively,” as “candidates that see that kind of language [in job ads] might not feel as welcome as they would at other kinds of institutions.”



Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors’ department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, called Azusa Pacific’s posts “very troubling.” Taken at face value, he said, the listed demands could disqualify applicants such as the internationally renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who, due to a motor neuron disease, communicates through a speech-generating device. Blind professors also would be disqualified, for example.

AAUP guidelines, including those detailed in a January 2012 report on accommodating faculty members with disabilities and in its longstanding statement on discrimination, are designed to protect job applicants and employees from such bias, Kreiser said. (The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources has no official policy pertaining to the matter, but encourages colleges and universities to seek advice of legal counsel to ensure that all position requirements comply with federal laws and regulations, a spokeswoman said.)

Michael Schwartz, a law professor and director of Syracuse University’s Disability Rights Clinic, said listing such demands for academic positions is illegal.

“I consider myself an expert in [the Americans with Disabilities Act] and when I read that advertisement, I thought, ‘Yeah, they’ve got a problem,’ ” said Schwartz, who is deaf and spoke through an interpreter. “I don’t understand the connection between exerting up to 10 pounds of force and lifting for a professor’s position. I could perhaps understand it for an airline mechanic or baggage handler, but for a professor?”

Other ad details are problematic, as professors with visual impairments, for example, may still perform their jobs through “reasonable accommodations,” said Schwartz, quoting language included in the federal disabilities law. Employers should look at how applicants can perform the essential functions of a job, with or without accommodations, he added. “The way that [the ad] is written, it’s implied that they have to be able to see, and that’s illegal,” according to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations.

The commission is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, genetic information, or for complaining about discrimination on those grounds. Justine Lisser, a senior attorney-adviser for the commission's communications and legislative affairs office, declined to comment directly on Azusa Pacific’s ads, but said the commission does not mandate language included in job descriptions, other than prohibited preferences. For example, she said, “men only" job ads -- or those containing more masked preferences, such as “front office appearance” -- do violate regulations.

Additionally, Lisser said, to comply with the American with Disabilities Act, employers may break down jobs into their essential functions in ads so candidates can accurately assess their appropriateness for the position. But certain tasks may be able to be performed in a manner different from an employer’s expectations. For example, instead of using manual dexterity to operate a computer, an individual with an impairment that precludes the use of hands might well be able to operate a computer through adaptive equipment, such as voice commands.

Echoing Schwartz, Lisser also noted the difference between essential and ancillary job functions. A teacher may be able to teach -- the essential job function -- but not be able to load 10 pounds of paper into a copy machine -- an ancillary job function -- without reasonable accommodation, such as help from another faculty member. Individuals maintain the right to file charges with the commission when they feel they have been discriminated against for not being able to perform the essential functions of a job with or without reasonable accommodation, she said.

 

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