David highlighted the University of Wisconsin’s hiring of a nutty 9/11 conspiracy theorist and a junk-science lecturer. And there are many reports of similarly low quality (to put it kindly) “hires.”
In “An Ounce of Prevention,” Anne also weighed in on this incident, asking whether this professor should have been hired in the first place and citing an ACTA report which recommends that campuses assess hiring processes to ensure quality of teaching and research.
As usual the debate about the engagement of such academics comes down to the law’s protection of their free speech rights versus whether their course content is academically sound and whether they are imposing their personal views on students (for example, in the UW case, as reported in “Wis. Provost Will Review Teaching of Instructor With Controversial 9/11 Views,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 7-14-06).
This pivotal matter of faculty hiring deserves considerably more attention. What, for example, exactly are these practices, and do they differ from campus to campus? And, when we exhort campuses to assess their hiring procedures, what plan of assessment are we asking them to follow? What should be the blueprint for faculty hiring?
I will not attempt here to fully answer these questions, which are so seminal to reforming the academy. For starters, however, I would suggest that a formula for shedding light on the hiring practices be defined and put forth. One solution might be the taking of scrupulous minutes at the meetings of the departmental hiring committees, followed by a benchmarked review of these minutes by a combination of institutional provosts, presidents, trustees and peer reviewers from outside the campus in question (the latter because it becomes increasingly apparent that the academy is loathe to heal itself). The specific identities of the applicants should be expunged in order to safeguard them from public criticism as well as their positions on other campuses.
Such committees would thus be able to compare the relative quality of candidates and at least begin to challenge and perhaps prevent bizarre, academically indefensible hirings.