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In my opinion

Yes, Canadian universities do discriminate against their own graduates

The following is a response to the 2009 article, “PhD: To what end?,” which showed that Canadian philosophy grads are less likely than foreign-educated PhDs to be hired at Canadian institutions. The article has received more than 40 comments to date, including this insightful reply.

BY DOUGLAS MANN | JAN 09 2012

Louis Groarke and Wayne Fenske’s analysis of the woeful lack of success of graduates of Canadian philosophy programs is entirely accurate. I did very similar research myself several years ago, and came up with similar numbers. The only flaw in the article is the authors’ timidity in drawing the obvious conclusion that Canadian universities discriminate against hiring their own graduates. The other horn of their dilemma – that Canadian graduates are “inferior” – would be very difficult to prove in a systematic fashion. My own experience is that much of the vast “potential” of these prestigious foreign hires fizzles away once the person in question gets tenure.

I graduated from a middle-level Canadian PhD program in the late 1990s. Even though I’ve taught 75 courses, published three books and over 90 articles (half of them academic), I’ve never gotten an interview for a tenure-track job. I’ve taught in six disciplines at five universities and colleges, and have gotten a few limited-term contracts, but have never been within shooting distance of the plum jobs reserved for graduates of foreign programs and the University of Toronto. When I apply to a tenure-track job today, I’m about 95 percent sure that I’ve out-published the entire appointments committee that sends me a rejection letter three months later. Many of these people are the graduates of the so-called “prestigious” foreign programs that defenders of the system laud.

Enough about me. What’s interesting about this article is not so much the conclusions the authors come to, which I think are unassailable, but the shoddy, arch-conservative criticisms from some of the commenters. Even though these arguments often come from people in positions of authority at the departments Dr. Groarke and Dr. Fenske attack and are thus little more than ideological defenses of personal economic and political capital, I’ll take on their main points seriously and counter them one by one.

1. The Neo-Conservative Argument: “Canadian English-speaking doctoral universities represent only a small fraction of the worldwide total. The fact that 30 percent of those hired come from Canadian programs isn’t proof of anti-Canadian discrimination – instead, it’s proof of pro-Canadian bias!”

My jaw dropped when I read this argument repeated over and over by the article’s critics. Yes, Canadian PhD programs probably don’t spit out more than five percent of English-speaking philosophy graduates. But assuming that this figure is somehow relevant reduces academics to the social status of migrant farm workers. It may be the case in neo-conservative economics textbooks that labour is perfectly mobile, but in the real world people often feel a sense of loyalty to the land of their birth. This may be the result of a connection to family, friends, patriotism, a love of the city or countryside of their homeland, or a feeling of comfort in a liberal democratic state with a reasonable social safety net such as Canada. The critics assume that anybody is willing to move anywhere in the world for a job. This assumption is plainly false, and is so conservative that it would make Dick Cheney grin with approval.

Added to this is the fact that the Canadian state has long supported Canadian content programs in various aspects of culture and media, these being fairly successful in building local publishing, music and TV production industries. Why would such programs not be relevant to academic life, where at least in history, sociology, economics, political science, literature, media and popular culture having a lively knowledge of Canadian content is very relevant? Not to mention having people in the sciences who can actually speak English. So a pro-Canadian hiring policy can be supported ethically as being in the public good.

Further, if you think about it, it’s very unlikely that the Americans heading north to take Canadian positions are, in fact, the “cream of the crop” from Ivy League institutions. Why would a hotshot Harvard or Yale graduate want a job in at a Canadian school they’ve never heard of if they have a chance to be hired at a “prestigious” American school? Most of the hires from south of the border are, in fact, middle-of-the-pack scholars with little teaching experience and next to zero publication record. I’ve proven this to be true in the 50 or so times I’ve looked up CVs of people who have gotten on short lists or gotten hired to Canadian jobs I’ve applied to – 90 percent of the time they are generic candidates with about a year’s worth of teaching experience and one to three publications (and no books), sometimes without even a finished PhD (which raises the separate question of age discrimination).

Added to this is the niggling question of facts. My one glimpse through the dense fog surrounding hiring procedures came during my doctoral days, when I noticed that 80-90 percent of people applying to an open tenure-track job at a middle-level Canadian school were either Canadian, had Canadian PhDs, or both. Several critics have pointed out that this is a mystery we’ll never penetrate; one even suggested that maybe 10 percent or less of applicants to Canadian jobs are from Canadian programs. This is nonsense.

My challenge to the critics is this – if I’m wrong that the majority of applicants to Canadian tenure-track jobs have Canadian PhDs, prove it by releasing figures that break down the origins of applicants to each job. This isn’t a mystery. It’s a secret: there’s a difference. As far as I can see the facts support Dr. Groarke and Dr. Fenske. So the “30 percent hired” figure for Canadian graduates is very low, and provides prima facie evidence for discrimination.

2. Bad Causality: “Inferring causality from the facts presented in the article is impossible. The authors are committing a host of statistical sins. Hey, maybe those applying from outside Canada actually have stronger CVs and that’s why they all get hired!”

My jaw is getting sore from all this dropping. As any student of Hume knows, constant conjunction IS an element of causality. If three percent of non-smokers and 50 percent of smokers get lung cancer, one can safely guess that smoking is bad for your health. Of course, the other element needed to show causality is some sort of causal mechanism. And we have at least two: first, the neo-colonial mentality in Canadian academic institutions that everything American or European is better; second, that like hires like. If hiring really were an impartial, discrimination-free process, it’s almost impossible that a department like the University of British Columbia could have hired only one Canadian graduate. Instead, it’s far more likely that departments dominated by Americans hire more of the same via the old school tie, ideological affinities, or personal connections, perhaps so they can discuss the intricacies of college basketball in the corridors. The department I graduated from had, at the time, about ten Americans, two Canadians, one German and one Brit. The four or five least-published and least-effective teachers in it were all American. The two Canadians were both well published scholars.

3. The Silly Non-Sequitor: “Not all Canadian profs are competant.”

This is irrelevant: if you take any large group of people sharing some common factor, some of them are competent, and some of them are incompetent. But at least we can spell the word “competent.” Probably the worst philosophy conference paper I ever heard was by an American grad student studying at U of T; I’ve heard several colloquia presentations where tenured presenters managed to talk for a half hour and say nothing, while I’ve also heard some very interesting papers presented by unknown Canadian graduate students.

Again, the relevant comparison for competitive Canadian graduates isn’t with the best Harvard PhD student, who is unlikely to venture north; instead, it’s with the A-minus graduate from the Indiana University or the State University of New York who can’t find a good job in the U.S. Having met some of these A-minus types, they’re certainly not any more astute scholars or harder workers than the best graduates from Queen’s University, the University of Waterloo, or Simon Fraser University. Yet they get hired over such graduates.

4. The More-Study-Needed Fallacy: “We need a qualitative study of the hiring process, from dossier creation through the nature, tone and quality of letters of reference, to attitudes towards interviews, and a trans-cultural analysis of how candidates, Canadian and non-Canadian, fare in this complex process.”

The interesting thing about this suggestion from a university official, which sounds so reasonable, is that it excludes the most important element in the hiring process: the attitudes, values and rationale of those doing the hiring. It utterly fails to question those in power as to why they make the decisions that results in what looks like to any reasonable outsider as discrimination. “Dossier creation” and “attitudes towards interviews” by a Canadian candidate don’t matter if the cards are stacked against him or her from the start.

In short, Canadian universities, especially philosophy departments, are neo-colonial and neo-conservative institutions that systematically ignore qualifications and practice discrimination in hiring tenure-track professors. Funding shortages have forced them to employ a large army of sessional teachers and grad students to do the drudge work: teaching large undergrad classes, marking essays and exams. That’s what the Canadian PhDs are for, to serve as a reserve army of the semi-employed. As others have said, it’s a caste system.

Douglas Mann is a sessional professor of media studies and sociology at the University of Western Ontario.

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  1. N. Ronan Coleman / January 6, 2012 at 13:39

    As for my area of the humanities, a reliable friend told me he heard the head of a middle-quality Canadian department assert unambiguously that as far as he was concerned no Canadian-trained student was good enough to teach in his department. Of course he had a Ph.D. from Cambridge. In my department, a Canadian candidate for a tenure-track job, who met all the specified qualifications, was not hired in favour of a foreign trained, non-Canadian citizen. Some one needs to do a study of how often this happens. I have suggested in the past that a class action suit should be filed by qualified Canadian candidates against a handful of Canadian universities based on those universities’ violation of Canadian hiring laws.

  2. Dr Sheesh Ferpeetsake / January 6, 2012 at 22:54

    YES OXFORD DISCRIMINATES AGAINST ITS OWN GRADUATES

    – Inciteful commentary from University Affairs! –

    I checked the Oxford University Philosophy website, and as far as I can tell, hardly more than half the faculty there have their highest degrees from Oxford.

    Some say that shows favoritism of Oxford towards its own. But I say: why so few? I mean, who else could have been applying for those jobs, after all? Other people in Britain? I imagine they hate snobby people from Oxford and wouldn’t want to go there. And nobody from America would apply — do you know how far away America is from England? People wouldn’t just apply for a job across an ocean, I’m pretty sure. After all, I’ve applied for hundreds of university jobs, but they’ve all been in the same suburb where my house is.

    The dozens and dozens of philosophy graduates from the most prestigious American programs will all stay home to accept the dozens and dozens of philosophy jobs at Yale every year. So only the really bad ones — did I tell you I met a dumb American at a conference one time? anyhow — only the bad ones would apply to Oxford.

    In short, the facts are definitely on the side of people who claim that Oxford Philosophy has been discriminating against its own graduates. We can probably maybe safely conclude that at least 88% of applicants for Oxford philosophy positions have Oxford degrees. The fact that only 65% of faculty there have Oxford degrees therefore shows discrimination. (One person told me that this somehow was bad statistical reasoning. He sure reminded me a lot of Dick Cheney!)

    Only by releasing its job application data and maybe also giving me a job can Oxford free itself from the terrible shadow of hiring malfeasance that we have seen to hang over it.

    Dr Sheesh Ferpeetsake

  3. tjp / January 8, 2012 at 16:43

    Thank-you so much for this follow-up to the Groarke and Fenske article. I too was very unimpressed with the elitist indignation that it elicited among already tenured faculty, who obviously have an interest in maintaining the status quo.

    What I find so sadly hilarious is the fact that every job posting seems to state that special consideration will be given to Canadian candidates, provided of course that those candidates have attended an ivy league university or U of T, I guess.

    One job I was interviewed for in 2007 was given to an unpublished ABD simply because the candidate had been ivy league…like many of the senior faculty.

    What I can’t understand is why the federal and provincial governments don’t take an interest in this problem within institutions that they fund. I was fortunate enough to have my graduate studies fully funded by provincial and federal grants (including a two-year postdoc), although six years after graduating I’ve been unable to obtain a tenure-track appointment. I had hoped that the nearly $100 000 that had been invested in my education and training to be a professor at a Canadian institution was money well spent. Apparently it was not, since for the last several years, in spite of a strong teaching and publication record, I continue to fight it out with other part-timers with Canadian PhDs for sessional scraps. All the while dealing with severe depression and a nearly broken marriage.

    To quote a Bruce Springsteen classic: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”

    Perhaps it is time for a class action lawsuit…

  4. G. Elijah Dann / January 8, 2012 at 22:19

    With the study of employment trends and practices described by Mann and the other authors, why would young men and women even want to pursue a PhD anymore (coupled to the economic outlook)? If young undergraduates really think it through, Canadian graduate schools could soon lack candidates for the program. Then, aside from collecting hefty paychecks but without graduate students, what will the tenured professors do with their spare time? Maybe they’ll be reduced to sessional work? Hmmm… Karma.

  5. Dr. N. Titled / January 9, 2012 at 17:20

    What’s all this crying about class action lawsuits? No wonder nobody wants to hire you. What a bunch of entitled brats. Nobody owes you a living and there is no law that says Canadian universities must hire Canadians.

    As for wondering what tenured faculty would do “with all their spare time” should graduate programs shut down, does it not occur to you that we would actually praise the gods that our workload would be cut down a bit? I could then work an 80 hour week instead of a 90 hour week!