Bias Against Older Candidates

History group reminds departments that age discrimination is illegal. Does academe have a problem when it comes to evaluating candidates who aren't freshly minted Ph.D.'s?
December 17, 2008

Everyone knows that colleges doing faculty hiring can't bar people from applying if they are over 40 (or some other cutoff). That's age discrimination and that's illegal.

But are departments paying attention?

In 2005, the American Historical Association decided to retire its statement banning age discrimination, and simply added a line to general statements about all kinds of discrimination condemned by the society. This month, responding to reports of age discrimination in faculty hiring, the association has reinstated its original explanation about why age discrimination is both illegal and wrong. And some experts on age discrimination suggest that historians are hardly unique in experiencing the problem, and may just be ahead of other parts of academe in acknowledging it.

Among those who have most frequently raised concerns about age discrimination are adjuncts. Departments that have no problem hiring adjuncts to teach courses semester after semester many times hesitate, they say, even to consider these instructors when full-time, tenure-track positions open up. Younger candidates, with new Ph.D.'s and less teaching experience, seem to beat them out, many report, even for positions that are teaching oriented. And the AHA statement agrees that this is one of the situations in which age discrimination is taking place.

"When a department or institution decides to confine its search to younger applicants, it discriminates against two groups," the statement says. "One is made up of older individuals who earned their doctorates during the job shortages of the 1970s and 1980s, have since held a variety of temporary and part-time positions, and are interested in entry-level positions that offer the possibility of tenured status. Although their teaching experience and often impressive publications might be expected to give them an advantage in the search process, they sometimes find themselves dismissed without interviews as 'overqualified.' "

The statement also refers to a second group of victims of age bias: "The other group that suffers age discrimination is made up of those who have earned their degrees later in life and thus are recent Ph.D.'s but no longer young. Such candidates have received the same training as their younger colleagues and have benefited from more extensive life experience, yet search committees sometimes tend to be biased against those whose lives do not fit traditional patterns. By eliminating well-qualified candidates simply because of age, search committees lose valuable opportunities to enrich their departments and institutions."

Statistical evidence of age discrimination in history was offered last year in the blog Ph.D. in History -- by Sterling Fluharty, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma who writes extensively on job market issues. Using federal data, Fluharty found a pattern in which those furthest up the academic prestige hierarchy were those who had finished their doctorates in the shortest time after finishing their undergraduate education, and who had finished their doctoral degrees at the youngest ages. A tenured professor at a doctoral university, for example, on average earned his or her doctorate at the age of 31.2, while the average age of doctorate completion for a tenured professor at a four-year college was 33.7 and the average age for community college faculty was 37.7. The older you were at the point of completing a dissertation, the less likely to find a high prestige job.

While some might argue that the best graduate students naturally finish up in a timely way, Fluharty noted that there are often other factors involved. "If you have the resources and privilege to attend a highly selective institution for your bachelor's degree, start graduate school as soon as you earn your bachelor's degree, and then work continuously on your degree without having to stop to earn money, then you will probably go far in this profession," he wrote. "If you were raised without these resources and privilege, if you took a few years off between your bachelor's and graduate programs, or if you received your doctorate in your mid- to late 30s, then you might as well as admit that your doctorate will likely get you little more than a low-paying or adjunct position."

One history adjunct chuckled when told that the AHA had reissued the statement. "What took them so long?" he said. This adjunct has been a non-tenure-track instructor for 25 years -- despite having a Ph.D., plenty of teaching recommendations, a book published by a respected university press, and a specialty in which there are jobs.

Because he worked outside academe for 10 years before entering his doctoral program, he was older than most job candidates even when his Ph.D. was new. Some years ago, he stopped including dates on his C.V. for when he earned his Ph.D., and left off some of his experience so as to appear younger (without stating an age). "But I have silver-gray hair," he said. "I've had 50 interviews at AHA in the last seven years, and I have never been asked for a campus interview."

This adjunct, who asked that he not be identified so as not to hurt his career, said he was "deeply cynical at this point" about the odds that he could get a fair hearing in a job interview. "But I guess that it's nice that they've woken up to this business."

The issue is by no means unique to history. An article in 2005 in the Virginia Journal of Social Policy and Law argued that law schools were vulnerable to age discrimination suits because of a reluctance to hire as new faculty members those who have worked more than a few years in law firms.

Ethan Burger, one of the authors and an adjunct law professor at American University and Georgetown University, said that when he wrote the article, his wife told him not to publish it for fear that it "will make you radioactive." Burger said that his research finds clear patterns where people over certain ages appear not to be interviewed or hired. He acknowledged that there is an element of subjectivity in faculty hiring that makes it hard to demonstrate bias. But he said records about who is actually interviewed should raise questions about bias, since there should be enough on paper to make it clear some good candidates aren't even interviewed. "You see all of these cases where there is no justification for not talking" to older candidates, he said.

In a few cases, adjuncts who were passed over for jobs have received legal backing from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for their claims of age discrimination.

Ann H. Franke, a consultant on higher education legal and risk issues, said that she was pleased to see the AHA releasing the statement again. "Older faculty candidates do indeed face barriers," Franke said. She noted that the AARP publishes guidance for older job candidates on how to handle questions that might relate to their age, and a checklist for employers on how to consider candidates without age-related bias.

A lawyer at the AARP views academe as a sector of society with a serious age discrimination problem -- and not just in employment. Dan Korhman, who works on employment discrimination cases, said he has received several inquiries from people who were either rejected from graduate programs or admitted but denied aid, and who were told that departments didn't see the logic of their starting a graduate program at their age. "It's blatant age discrimination," he said, adding that he's looking for a test case to bring.

"There's this very crude notion about how colleges must be mindful of the investment they are making" in someone admitted to a doctoral program, and a "terribly implausible" view that the younger someone is, the more likely the investment is to pay off, Korhman said. He noted that many doctoral programs have terrible problems with student retention, suggesting that they aren't so great at figuring out whom to invest in. "It seems to me that older applicants for graduate programs have really decided what they want their life's work to be," he said.


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