Wednesday, January 7, 2009

One small skirmish won in battle against cronyism

I did my little bit today to combat the rampant and corrosive effects of cronyism in St. Louis - the good old who you know, not what you know or how effectively you do what you do.

I serve on a board at Washington University. One of the many things our center does is administer a faculty fellows program that allows three professors per year a break from teaching to concentrate on research and writing.

I like just about everything we do at the center, so at the last board meeting I volunteered for whatever committee needed a warm body, and the director assigned me to the faculty fellow committee.

I was mailed a selection of applications from the prospective fellows and asked to suggest three expert readers to judge their proposals. This, in itself, was fun - to read a proposal for a research project on (say) some abstruse domain of philosophy, and then educate myself on who are the other hotshots in that field.

Once a critical number of reviews from our outside experts had come in, committee members were sent these reports and were asked to read them and select the three faculty members who deserve fellowships.

Now, I had strong opinions about the quality of the proposals I had read. As an alumnus of Wash. U., I also knew (and had a high personal opinion) of one of these faculty members, and had a received opinion of another that was not good.

However, what was the point of soliciting outside experts if we weren't going to trust their verdicts? Only two of these applicants received more than one "Excellent" overall review that was accompanied by handwritten comments. Even though one of these struck me, when I read the proposal, as particularly painfully academic, I trusted our experts and recommended both of these for fellowships.

That left one slot. Five of the other applicants had received one "Excellent" overall review, so I concentrated only on them. One of these applicants was the person I had known and liked as a student, and I was sorely tempted to give this person the nod.

However, both of the two applicants I had already recommended were men, and of the five other candidates I was considering, only one was a woman. I believe in gender balance, especially since slightly more than half of us are women, which means slightly more than half of the world's human intelligence must belong to women. I submitted the one woman with one "Excellent" overall review as my third recommended fellowship recipient.

In so doing, I put into personal practice three good operating principles - trust expert opinion of effective work, don't favor who you know just because you know and like them, and strive for gender balance in the provision of opportunity.

An aside about cronyism. From my intimate experience of St. Louis politics, I am convinced that cronyism and nepotism are more central to what is wrong about St. Louis than racism. I have two reasons for this.

Cronyism and nepotism are also practiced by people from groups who suffer from racism, which makes for the doubling of disadvantage for those racial minorities who also don't have powerful hookups through friends and family.

And cronyism and nepotism are foundational to the most damaging element of racism, which is institutional rather than personal. Many (for example) black people are passed over in favor of less qualified white people for jobs and opportunities, not in many cases because the person making the selection is a racist, but because he or she has cronyist or nepotistic tendencies.

In a culture where white people (especially white men) still make the majority of the judgments for selection and advancement, the effects of cronyism and nepotism will be no different than the affects of racism, since almost everybody is related almost only to people of their same race, and for the large majority of people, the large majority of their friends are from the same race.

That means, if white folks are hiring, and they practice nepotism and cronyism, black folks stand at a tremendous disadvantage, whether or not the white folks are racist.

I am using "race" as it is experienced and judged in the culture, knowing it's only a metaphor, albeit with the fierce power of reality - knowing there is really truly scientifically only one race among humans, the human race.


Palmer Cox Brownie image from, of all things, a Yukon Freemason blog.


Anonymous said...

I'm just catching up on my blog reading, and this has to be one of my favorites of 2009. Ya Baha'ul 'Abha, bless you, and your family, and your house, and the place where it sits, and the street by that place, and the city, and the state, and the country and the continent, and the planet, and the whole universe, because mention of Truth hath been made.

Poetry Scores said...

Wow. Sheesh. Golly.