Academic Merit Undervalued
John Furedy, Department of Psychology, May 31, 2004
The Bulletin’s annual paean for the university’s employment equity policy (“University Making Progress on Equity but More Work to Be Done”, May 20) ignores, as usual, the alternative interpretation that the “progress” in increasing women’s representation in faculty positions may actually be a “regress” towards preferential hiring that undervalues academic merit.
Aside from that interpretation, there is the interesting fact that in the hard sciences (a category that excludes the life, and social, sciences, as well as the humanities), women continue to be “under-represented” at a rate of 14.5%. This contrasts with increases, since 1997, in other disciplinary categories. Presumably it is this continuing low percentage in the hard sciences that Professor Angela Hildyard, vice president (human resources and equity) had in mind when she stated that “We want to ensure that we continue to make equity and diversity integral to our priorities at all levels (my emphasis)”.
Evidence from biological psychology suggests that the low female percentage in the hard sciences is a “level” on which little “progress” will be made, no matter how much more “more work is done”. This evidence has recently been presented by the eminent Canadian researcher Doreen Kimura in her 2003 book, Sex and Cognition (for reviews see www.sfu.ca/~dkimura). The findings are that there are significant group sex differences in cognitive abilities in such categories as higher mathematics, as well as in motivation. The motivational difference is that women, on the average, prefer life - over physical - sciences, even if they are capable of performing equally well in either area. These sex differences appear to have a significant biological basis, although undoubtedly societal factors also contribute.
Another more indirect source of evidence is based on analysis of the tenure-stream advertisements, assessed in terms of their relative emphases on merit and equity. In a recent study (supported by the Donner Canadian Foundation) that examined Ontario university advertisements before and after the 1995 NDP -to- PC shift (www.safs.ca/january2003/advertisement.html)
we found that only the hard-science departments increased their merit requirements by, for example, using phrases like “outstanding record of research publications” rather than ones like “an interest in developing a research program”.
In contrast, across all disciplines, there was an increase on the equity emphasis. For example there was an increase in phrases like “especially welcome applications from women” relative to “weaker” phrases like “welcome applications from both women and men”.
An interpretation of the unique hard-science increase-in-merit emphasis coupled with the non-differential increase in equity of all academic units is that the hard-science departments protected the integrity of their disciplines against merit-diluting equity pressure from equity officers and offices by strengthening their merit requirements in their advertisements.
Whatever the reasons for hard sciences not currently measuring up to our administration’s goals of “equity” and “diversity”, it does appear that if these trends continue, the most important division in the university of the future will be between those departments that treat merit seriously and those that do not.
Case Resorts to Sophistries
Vassos Hadzilacos, Department of Computer Science, June 28, 2004
Professor John Furedy makes two points (Academic Merit Undervalued, May 31).
The first is that the low representation of women faculty in the so-called “hard” sciences is a consequence of cognitive deficiencies with a “significant biological basis.” This thesis is questionable and, more important, irrelevant – my myopia, whose biological basis is indisputable, is easily corrected. The disingenuous elevation of characteristics with a biological or genetic basis to ones that are unsurmountable has a long and pernicious history. I cringe at the thought of the untapped talents of people written off because they have the “wrong’ colour or sex.
The second point in Professor Furedy’s letter is that equity policies have subverted the non-hard sciences’ commitment to merit. As evidence he cites a study that found the language used in tenure-track job ads of hard science departments to be stronger than that used by their “softer” counterparts. This is akin to me judging the skill of my optometrist based on the wording of his ad in the yellow Pages. I suppose it bodes well for the success of equity policies that one of their most outspoken critics must resort to such outlandish sophistries to buttress his case.
Both Points Misstated
John Furedy, Department of Psychology, July 26, 2004
Professor Vassos Hadzilacos (Case Resorts to Sophistries, June 28) is clearly offended by my recent criticism of the administration’s equity policies (Academic Merit Undervalued, May 31). However he has misstated both of my points with which he takes issue. First, I indeed did refer to a “significant biological basis” in the determination of observed behavioural sex differences but immediately and necessarily qualified this with the point that “undoubtedly societal factors also contribute.”
This qualification is essential since it differentiates my position that heredity, environment and their interactions all play a (complex) causal role from the reductive ideology of biological determinism that views behaviour as being totally determined by biology (an ideology I reject entirely).
Second, It is not the case that the evidence I had cited found merely that tenure-stream ads in the hard sciences used “stronger” language than those in other disciplines. Rather, the results indicated a difference in merit, but not equity, requirements between the hard science departments and other sorts of departments.
For further details I refer Professor Hadzilacos to http://safs.ca/january2003/advertisment.html.
Letter Misrepresents Points Made
Philip Sullivan, Institute for Aerospace Studies, July 26, 2004
In his letter to The Bulletin (Case Resorts to Sophistries), Professor Vassos Hadzilacos challenges Professor John Furedy’s May 31 criticism of Simcoe Hall’s diversity policies (Academic Merit Undervalued). But Hadzilacos’ letter does not contribute to debate on these policies: it misrepresents Furedy’s points and accuses him of using forms of argument tantamount to intellectual dishonesty. Furthermore his concern is misdirected. In the Feb. 9 issue of The Bulletin Furedy and I argue that it is the current academic plan that inappropriately emphasizes biology as a proxy for intellectual diversity (The Proportionality Game, Forum).
Hadzilacos’ letter also reinforces a view that Furedy and I share: apart from mantra-like repetitions linking diversity and excellence, from the Governing Council to individual faculty members, there appears to have been no serious justification of policies in the current academic plan promoting diversity. In an institution aspiring to the stature of the best public U.S. universities, such policies ought to be controversial.
For example, in seeking an explanation of the low representation of women in the physical and mathematical sciences, Furedy cites the work of the internationally recognized Canadian psychologist Doreen Kimura – a woman, it is to be noted. She and others have established that there are subtle but distinct differences in certain aspects of female and male intellectual abilities and interests and that these are traceable in part to biological influences. Although these differences are negligible for the average man and woman, at the extremes of the distributions, the populations can differ greatly.
One would expect to choose university faculty from the superior extreme, so that an equity policy promoting proportionality must inevitably compromise excellence. There might be valid reasons for promoting a social good by compromising in this way but such a policy needs to be subject to informed, rational scrutiny.
On a personal note, I taught in the elite engineering science program for 38 years and during that time class composition changed from almost exclusively white male to include many women and a broad representation of the ethnic groups now making Canada their home. Some talented women and men from these groups have already become successful faculty: many more will follow. Thus I fail to see why Simcoe Hall is preoccupied with a pseudo-problem at a time when the university faces real problems arising from chronic underfunding.
Low representation can and should be remedied
Vassos Hadzilacos, Department of Computer Science
I am glad that Professor John Furedy rejects biological determinism but his proclamation to that effect misses the point of my criticism (Both Points Misstated, July 26). What I take issue with is his assertion that “the low female percentage in the hard sciences is at a “level” on which little “progress” will be made, no matter how much “more work is done.” (I am quoting form his original letter, Academic Merit Undervalued, May 31.) Since this point was misunderstood, let me elaborate.
Some researchers have presented evidence that men and women differ in specific cognitive abilities. Even if we accept that conclusion (and not all expert do), this tells us nothing about the potential of women to perform at the highest level in any given intellectual endeavour in equal numbers as men. To illustrate, speech-related cognitive abilities of deaf people differ from those of hearing people. This does not prevent the former from being able to communicate very effectively. They simply do it differently – using sign language instead of speech. In general, complex behaviours such as mathematical prowess are not reducible to individual attributes of cognitive ability. This is because human beings are notoriously creative in leveraging their particular aptitudes to accomplish goals, given the motivation and opportunity to do so.
Professor John Graydon correctly points out that the demographic makeup of my own classes is unrepresentative of the university’s student population (Inborn Abilities Have Effect on What We Become, July 26). But the fact of women’s low representation in the hard sciences is not in dispute. The reasons for and the desirability of that fact are, I believe that women’s innate abilities have nothing to do with it and that it is not just a necessary fact of life but a socially and historically shaped reality that can and should be remedied. Professor Emeritus Philip Sullivan’s testimony of the increased number of women students in his elite engineering classes over the past 40 years corroborates my contention (Letter Misrepresents Points Made, July 26). This was the result of social and political change and surely not of any change in the innate abilities of women and men over that period of time.