Restricted Entry Redux

September 17, 2012

When news spread last week about a Colorado State University job ad for an assistant professor of English that specifically asked for candidates who earned their Ph.D.s in 2010 or after, many academics felt that this was discrimination against those who have been on the market for several years, perhaps working as adjuncts. The university quickly reworded the requirement, and said it was looking for an “entry-level” candidate.

It turns out Colorado State is not the only university publishing job candidate requirements that actually anger potential job candidates. Twitter, or at least the part inhabited by some faculty members, was abuzz Friday after news surfaced about a job opening for a tenure-track assistant professor of comparative literature at Harvard University that specified the “Basic Qualifications” for the opening as:  “Applicants must have received the Ph.D. or equivalent degree in the past three years (2009 or later), or show clear evidence of planned receipt of the degree by the beginning of employment.”

The responses to the ad were scathing.

“I don't enjoy this feeling that I'm like a fruit that will only be ripe for about 3 years, before being dropped into the cider bucket. #PhD,” said a Twitter post from Melonie Fullick, a Ph.D. candidate working on research in post-secondary education, policy and governance at Canada’s York University and Inside Higher Ed blogger. Others also joined the chorus of indignation.

When contacted Friday morning, David Damrosch, chair of comparative literature at Harvard, said his department was looking for candidates who were in the beginning stages of their career. Damrosch said that in his experience, a job search for an entry-level candidate rarely ended with a new hire who had a doctoral degree from more than three years ago. “It is a fact of the profession for the most competitive jobs. It is regrettably true,” he said.

When told that some potential job candidates viewed such job postings as discriminatory, he said that “we are certainly willing to revisit the issue.”

Just a few hours later, Damrosch said in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed that the department was revising the listing. “Our wording had not been intended to have any age-discriminatory purpose, but may have reflected an outdated sense of the time it now takes to secure an assistant professorship,” he said. “The postings on the ever-extending job search made our committee rethink this, and we're revising the ad to drop the requirement that the Ph.D. would have to be received in 2009 or later.”

The Harvard job requirement for a recent Ph.D., just like the one from Colorado State, will disappear soon. But many feel that the debate generated by the wording of these two job openings is just beginning.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said the association's Executive Council will discuss the issue in October. Feal said the two job postings raised concerns about why the two universities had made their requirements so explicit in this way (even though many suspect that many universities have been implicitly following such tactics).

“I am puzzled by how the search committees are thinking,” Feal said. “It is well-known that there are far more recipients of Ph.D.s than there are good positions.” She wondered if such ads pass “an ethical smell test.”

Feal said the MLA reserves the right to edit all job advertising it publishes, “and we let departments know if we have concerns about their ads.” Although the MLA does not have a statement about ad submission, it has guidelines to ensure all job candidates are treated equitably, she said. For example, the MLA will not accept a job ad specifying that an opening requires a native speaker of a certain language, but it will accept one requiring “native or near-native fluency” in a language.

Matthew Finkin, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is an expert on employment law and policy, said that he had never seen any job ad such as the ones from Colorado State and Harvard. “I think they did not think about it very much,” he said. “It is one thing to classify a job as entry-level; it is another thing to refuse to consider candidates based on when they got their Ph.Ds." Finkin said that “there may be a legal issue here.”

He said that the way universities have responded to the shrinking economy has been a tragedy. “What would be considered a typical academic career is vanishing. Instead, we have a lost academic generation,” Finkin said.

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