Tuesday, August 17, 1999

Murray Miles

The Record (formerly the Kitchener-Waterloo Record)

The Laurier affair: Hiring a prof for WLU's psychology department just because she is a woman is absurd

Little did the administration at Wilfrid Laurier University suspect that it was courting a public relations disaster when it advertised an opening in the Department of Psychology for which only women need apply.

According to Rowland Smith, vice-president, Academic, Laurier took extensive legal advice before embarking on this course of action. What it apparently did not anticipate is the media attention it has received and the overwhelmingly negative comment.

The Record had damning editorials July 24 and Aug. 6, and on July 27 Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente wrote a stinging indictment of the ad. A series of negative letters to the editor began to appear almost immediately.

On August 9, the editorial staff at the Globe took a swipe at the Human Rights Commission for not only permitting, but condoning, blatant gender discrimination (in this case, reverse discrimination against males), while turning a blind eye to female-dominated areas like librarianship. The next day WLU Vice-President Rowland Smith published a rejoinder, only to have his arguments demolished in a series of Letters to the Editor beginning the very next day.

Letters in the Record have been pro and con.

Smith doesn't claim that the situation in the Psychology Department has resulted from discrimination, whether intentional, unintentional, or systemic. He builds his case on the claim that gender is somehow a relevant educational qualification in hiring. Now common sense suggests a clear difference between performance-related criteria like knowledge of one's discipline and the ability to teach it (as demonstrated by peer-reviewed scholarship and positive teaching evaluations) and irrelevant, non-academic criteria like the possession of female genitalia.

Blurring the distinction, Smith waxes maudlin: "many people of both genders respond more readily to teachers and mentors of the same gender."

Respond? Even if this means 'learn,' the attempt to accommodate preferences of this sort must be assigned a very low priority given the traditional mission of our universities as centres of higher learning and scholarly and scientific research.

Moreover, even if simply being a women were somehow meritorious in an academic sense, it's nothing short of absurd to claim that this one factor trumps all others -- so much so that the qualifications of prospective male professors needn't even be considered!

As for the role model argument dutifully trotted out by Smith, this has no force at all. You have to be a woman to model the role of, say, a mother or a sister. But the professor's role is different. Anyone can model it for students of either sex by being active and innovative in research, diligent in course preparation, fair and open-minded in evaluating students and in considering other points of view, etc.

Has media attention blown this case out of all proportion? Not at all.

There is a widespread tendency in Canadian society today to regard personal merit as less important than group membership; to abandon the principle of non-discrimination in the headlong pursuit of something called inclusiveness; to replace respect for the dignity of individuals with respect for the diversity of groups; and to confound equality of opportunity with equality of outcomes (proportional representation of various groups).

In each case, the former is a core value of Canadian society. The issues are therefore important.

By now Laurier has recognized its tactical blunder in discriminating overtly. However, nothing stands in the way of covert discrimination, which is even more insidious. Deans and vice-presidents have the authority to reject the recommendations of departmental hiring committees. There is always the "subject to budgetary approval" escape clause in job advertisements, and university administrators intent on pursuing social goals may be so unscrupulous as to allege budgetary strictures to avoid appointing candidates who don't meet their special biological criteria.

If the Laurier administration is typical, such covert discrimination is precisely what we should expect. With the Human Rights Commission apparently unclear about its mandate to prevent all, including reverse, discrimination, there exists at present no reliable mechanism for addressing complaints about unfair hiring practices.

This is no tempest in an academic teapot. Where a pretext can be found for differential treatment of male and female faculty, how confident can one be of equality of treatment of male and female staff and students? And what about the job market outside the universities?

The Laurier affair has been an eye-opener for the Canadian public. Canadians everywhere should call on their MPP's to bring this case and the important issues it raises before their provincial legislatures.

Note: In the original, the article was accompanied by a drawing: Generic university building with sign in foreground: "MEN need not apply".

Murray Miles is an associate professor of philosophy at Brock University in St. Catharines and adjunct professor at McMaster and York Universities. He is currently a member of SAFS' Board of Directors.

Posted with permission.

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