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September 11, 2012 - 9:39pm

I admit nearly spitting my coffee when I read this one. And that’s unfortunate.

The Colorado State University English department posted a tenure-track faculty position, specifying that it would only consider candidates who received their Ph.D.’s in 2010 or later.  The IHE article quotes a legal consultant saying that there’s nothing illegal about the posting.

Though I’m not a lawyer, I respectfully disagree with the consultant.  Good luck defending this one against a “disparate impact” age discrimination claim.

It’s true that the requirement is not age discrimination in the strictest possible sense; somebody could have received a Ph.D. in 2011 at the age of fifty.  But most new doctoral recipients are in their twenties or thirties.  Setting a “sell-by date” would clearly impact older people disproportionately, even allowing for a few exceptions.  The legal term is “disparate impact,” and it’s actionable.  I would have a hard time keeping a straight face if I were deposed and had to defend the policy against a disparate impact claim.

That said, though, there’s a valid argument to be made that hiring for diversity in ages should be just as allowable as hiring for diversity by race or gender.  With life tenure, no retirement age, and long droughts of hiring, it’s easy for a department to get very top-heavy in age.  (I don’t know if that applies in this particular case.  I’m also unsure whether hiring for, say, racial diversity is permissible in Colorado.  But if it is, I could see a parallel argument.)  We haven’t yet recognized age or generational diversity as valid hiring criteria, but they’re crucial for succession planning and the long-term stability of departments or programs.

To the extent that diversity arguments are based on a presumed diversity of perspectives, the generational argument seems stronger.  If everyone in a department was trained before 1980, bringing in a newbie can bring new connections, different assumptions, and a whole different set of references.  

Interestingly, nobody objects when the situation is reversed.  If you have an entire cohort of rookies, bringing in a seasoned veteran is widely considered right and proper.  And it’s easy enough to screen out the “too young” by setting excessive requirements for experience, publications, and the like.  In that situation, generational diversity is typically recognized right away as a desirable good.  It’s only when the young, rather than the old, are favored that people object.

Part of the unease around issues like these, I think, comes from two logics crashing into each other.  The logic of individual rights, and merits, suggests that any “arbitrary” criteria be removed.  Certainly, any attentive student of American history knows who those criteria tended to favor over the years.

But it’s also true that a department or program is a whole, rather than just the sum of its parts.  And if the whole is imbalanced -- even if it’s nobody’s fault, and everybody is good at what they do -- then it’s weaker than it should be.  If a literature department is chock-full of, say, Americanists, but lacks anyone specializing in England, then it’s imbalanced, even if every single Americanist is doing a damn good job.  Specifying that the next hire specialize in British lit would strike most people as fair and reasonable, even if that meant that the underemployed Americanists still out there were out of luck.  

Along those lines, I could see an argument for balancing a department that skipped a generation.  That’s not a shot at the incumbents; it’s simply a recognition that homogeneity breeds blind spots.  A hire from a different generation won’t have the same blind spots, so the department as a whole would be stronger.

(Some conservatives have argued that the same principle should apply to political beliefs.  I disagree on two grounds.  First, in most areas, political beliefs are irrelevant; I have no idea which party, if any, the new music professor belongs to, nor do I care.  Second, though, political beliefs are subject to change in ways that, say, race and date of birth are not.  In the subject areas in which political beliefs may be relevant, telling someone that following his research to its logical conclusion would cost him his job -- because it would involve taking a political position contrary to the one he was hired to represent -- is directly antithetical to academic freedom.  If I’m hired to be the department conservative and my research pushes my perspective leftward, I’m suddenly not doing my job; it’s hard to imagine a more direct threat to the pursuit of truth than that.  It also presumes a single, continuous spectrum of political ideas, which, to put it mildly, is hogwash.)

I have no illusions that the Colorado State kerfuffle will lead to a thoughtful discussion of generational diversity.  Instead, it will almost certainly lead to indignant flaming, backpedaling, and apologies.  And that’s a shame.  Because while this instance is hamfisted and asinine, the larger question actually matters.  And it isn’t anywhere near as clear as we tend to assume.


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