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After applying for tenure-track jobs this year, I got a letter from a university in the California State system, signed by the English department chair:

“Dear Applicant,” it read. “Thank you for applying for our position. For the University to approve our interviews of finalists, we need you to complete the Applicant Information Form that I include.” The Equal Employment Opportunity form had standard questions about sex, racial/ethnic identity, and citizenship.

The letter seemed to say that I was a finalist for the job. After all, why would the university need me to respond before allowing the English department to interview finalists, if I wasn’t in that group? If I didn’t respond, would their hiring process halt? I completed and sent the form, but even Mrs. Churm, who has every reason to be hopeful for my employment, thought there was something off about the wording of the request. As it turns out, finalists had not yet been chosen.

When I finally received a letter confirming I was no longer under consideration, I e-mailed the department chair again to ask about the EEO letter. He replied that he wasn’t “sure” about the University mining [my word] for applicant data by using a misleading teaser, but, “The University has a regulation requiring that such a document be filled out by job applicants. I am sorry if the form got your hopes up falsely.”

His was not the only school that seemed to require this information. Mississippi State wrote, “To complete your application, please fill out the MSU ‘Personal Data Information Form,’ which you’ll find at our direct link to the Human Resources Management website….” There was nothing in the letter to suggest that noncompliance was an option.

But the University of Pittsburgh, which had one of the most professional-looking EEO forms, put it this way: “The University of Pittsburgh is required by Federal law to request and maintain data on the racial/ethnic and sex identity of all applications for employment…. Submission of the information requested is voluntary, and failure to provide it will not subject you to adverse treatment.” [My emphasis.]

So what’s the deal? Can schools require personal information as part of an application? And why do schools work so hard to get it?

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