This gem of a story is about how one Aussie university went to the logical endpoint of the diversity-trumps-merit controversy: Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane is apparently about to hire solely on the basis of diversity, and has erased any mention of the word “merit” in its hiring policy. This of course is ridiculous, intolerable, and a recipe for academic disaster (see our big article, “In defense of merit in science“). But it’s very “progressive”!
The big taboo that people can’t discuss is that there’s a tradeoff between merit and ethnic diversity, a tradeoff that results from members of minorities having lower traditional qualifications—a result of both historical bigotry and present cultural circumstances. To achieve ethnic equity, then, you simply have to lower the merit-based standards you’ve used before. This is why colleges left and right are getting rid of standardized tests like the SAT for college admissions, and adopting what they call “holistic admissions”. At the same time, high-school graduation standards are being lowered for similar reasons (see this article about New York State considering ditching the Regents exams once required to graduate.) But few people will openly admit why this happens.
Well, Queensland University of Technology is making no bones about it. In their frantic search for diversity, they’ve binned the idea of “merit” altogether. This piece comes from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, so I assume it’s kosher. Click below to read it:
The article is short, so I’ll put all of it up. I’ve bolded the telling bits, but of course this isn’t really a new tactic. What’s novel is that they do it so blatantly and explicitly:
Queensland University of Technology’s vice-chancellor has defended the decision to remove all references to “merit” from its hiring policy.
Staff were told about the move via an internal email, which informed them that they would be moving away from “the merit principle” towards a “more inclusive suitability assessment”.
Vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil told ABC Radio Brisbane the suitability assessment would consider factors such as gender and ethnic backgrounds.
Professor Sheil said it would also consider the current demographic breakdown of their various schools and disciplines.
She said women, for example, were under-represented in science and engineering at QUT whereas men were under-represented in teaching and nursing.
She dismissed suggestions that the hiring process should be colourblind, saying that was impossible in practice.
“When people say things like ‘We do this on merit’, they’re actually reflecting the bias of their own experience,” Professor Sheil said.
“There’s so much data on this around selection, whether it’s recruitment into orchestras or into universities.
She said staff undertook unconscious bias training, and that the selection committees were chosen with diversity in mind.
She said they would aim to hire a diversity of personalities, such as recruiting more outgoing scientists who were good at industry engagement.
Professor Sheil denied the policy was a “political” decision, insisting it was a practical move to improve the university’s talent pool.
“We need to access the entire talent pool, and we don’t want everybody to look the same,” she said.
“We need the workforce to reflect the students coming through, and we also know people look at things differently when they come from different backgrounds.
Professor Sheil said she was the first female professor of chemistry in Australia and has subsequently spent her life trying to get more women into science.
QUT claims the suitability assessment is based on the Queensland Public Service Commission’s hiring strategy.
The ABC attempted to reach the QUT Liberal National Club and Young LNP for comment.
I had to resist putting the whole thing in bold! Now if inequities are the result of “systemic racism or bigotry,”—that is ongoing codified bias or widespread bias that is keeping people out of the university—then yes, that must be remedied. But is it? Now I don’t know what the situation is in Australia, but there’s no substantial evidence of systemic racism or sexism in America, at least in STEM (see this debate at MIT). This is also the case in other fields, so if you have inequities in any field, you have to determine the causes before you can create equity.
But is equity really a desirable goal? What if differences between groups are due to differences in culture (or biology) that lead to differences in preference? I’d suggest, for example, that the overrepresentation of women in teaching and nursing might be due not to biases against men in those fields, but to a difference between men and women in preferences: women prefer jobs that allow them to interact more with people, while men are more object-oriented. That is an alternative hypothesis for inequity, and one supported by other behavioral studies.
At any rate, you need to know whether it’s preference, bias, or a combination before you start preferentially hiring men to get degrees in teaching and nursing. In fact, an important new meta-analysis of both male-and female-dominated professions in 44 countries (including Australia) showed that, after 2009, gender bias against hiring women in male dominated fields disappeared. In female-dominated professions there was a slight bias in hiring females (see a general discussion here). In other words, the paucity of women in professions apparently isn’t due to bias against them. This of course says nothing about race.
As for what kind of diversity they’re looking for beyond that involving gender, Vice-Chancellor Sheil shows her hand when she argues that it’s impossible to have “colourblind hiring”, and that “we don’t want everyone to look the same.” That’s a code for “we want racial diversity,” of course, although Professor Shiel adds that she wants a diversity of personalities and viewpoints. But do you really get that when you ditch merit for ethnic diversity? Why even take ethnicity into account if you want groups to “look at things differently”? Wouldn’t you want to find out what people think instead of using “how they look” as a proxy for “how they think”? It has yet to be demonstrated that greater ethnic diversity leads to greater viewpoint diversity, much less that viewpoint diversity increases more when viewpoints are assessed directly rather than through the proxy of ethnicity. And is “personality” the same thing as “viewpoint”. An outgoing person can, for example, be either liberal or conservative.
It’s all a huge mess, and Sheil doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing except that she wants to be au courant by promoting diversity. What’s new is that she makes no bones about ignoring merit.
Ditching merit is, as I said, a recipe for disaster. The staff at this university should be rising up in anger, for by completely eliminating merit and hiring on the basis of “personality” and “looks” (i.e., race), they’ve guaranteed that the academic quality of the university will drop. And as for gender, there’s no evidence that there’s any bias, unconscious or otherwise, leading to inequity of sex in fields like nursing or teaching.
I wonder if this policy will really be put in place, but the Australians should be up in arms against it lest it spread to other Aussie colleges. Are we going to see Australian academics become like those in New Zealand?
h/t Luana, Jon