When professors at the University of Vermont sent information about a job opening to the American Economic Association this fall about a tenure-track opening, they didn't think their notice was unusual. After describing the position, the notice said that the university "welcomes applications from women and underrepresented ethnic, racial and cultural groups and from people with disabilities."
Those words never made it into the economics group's job notice list because they were deemed discriminatory by the association. That view has angered enough economists that the association's board will be meeting next month to consider changing its policies on job listings, but for now economists are trading charges of discrimination, censorship and insensitivity.
"It's ironic that an organization that believes in free markets is disrupting the free flow of information," said Stephanie Seguino, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Vermont, and until recently the economics chair there. Seguino said that it was "just wrong" for the economics association to have called her department's notice discriminatory. She said that the economics department was trying to build a diverse pool in a field dominated by white men and that the ad did not suggest any preference in selecting finalists or making an offer, but only wanted to encourage people to come forward for consideration.
"To signal to certain groups that have in the past faced discrimination that they are welcome is not discrimination, but is legal affirmative action," said Seguino, who said that the language Vermont used had been reviewed by the university's lawyers. "We are just signaling that, unlike some economics departments, we welcome diversity."
Welcoming diversity would have been OK, according to the economics association -- the university just couldn't welcome any particular kind of diversity.
John J. Siegfried, an economist at Vanderbilt University who is secretary-treasurer of the American Economic Association, said that the group's policy was to bar any mention of any group in a job ad as discriminatory. "We have taken the position that we do not want to help anyone discriminate in any way, shape or form," he said. So while colleges can (and do) include references to being in favor of diversity, or being equal opportunity employers, the minute they mention a group, the ad is edited to remove the relevant phrases. He said that "a few dozen" ads are changed every year, most of them ads that mention a requirement that applicants be members of religious groups (for jobs at certain religious colleges).
In many circumstances, it is entirely legal for religious colleges to have such limits, because of exemptions to civil rights laws that are designed to allow religious institutions to preserve their identities. Siegfried acknowledged that keeping such information out of ads could end up wasting everyone's time -- as a secular person might apply for a job at a college requiring faculty members to endorse a statement of faith. But he said that the association believed this was the right approach. "We want to take the high road morally," he said.
There is, however, one case where the economics group will allow individual distinctions. Government agencies are allowed to specify citizenship requirements.
As word of the economics group's action has spread, there has been anger over both the practice of changing ad wordings (other colleges, alerted to Vermont's experience, found their notices changed) and to the association's view that Vermont's language amounted to discrimination.
"This atavistic interpretation counters the legal doctrine of inclusive affirmative action," said Susan Feiner, professor of economics and director of women's studies at the University of Southern Maine. "The discipline's flagship organization fails its constituents by over-reacting to a problem that does not exist."
The International Association for Feminist Economics has written to the AEA questioning the group's policy and saying that it has the potential to hurt recruiting efforts. "Economics has been described as a discipline with a particularly hostile climate for women and members of underrepresented ethnic minorities," the letter said. " We urge the AEA to do everything it can to dispel this image."
Adding to the controversy is anger among some non-traditional economists who believe the association is squeezing them out of its annual meeting. The AEA meeting had in recent years featured more sessions from various groups of economists with specialties and areas of interest than from the AEA as a whole, and the larger association has begun taking back more meeting slots. While AEA officials insist that groups are having meeting sessions eliminated based on attendance and not on politics, some left-leaning groups -- particularly the Union for Radical Political Economics -- charge that their ideas are being set aside. Some professors see the conference and job notice disputes pointing to larger problems with the association.
Siegfried of the AEA said that that it was unfair to link the two issues or assume that they show anything about the inclusiveness of the economics group. He said that the association's board had decided to revisit the job notice policy next month, in part because of the protests over the Vermont ad. He said that board views on the issue appear to be mixed, so it was unclear which way the association would go. But he added that many "think this has already taken more time than the thing is worth."