Level Playing Field

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For many decades, major American orchestras were overwhelmingly male. And every time that was pointed out, the response was “It’s a shame, but there just aren’t as many excellent female musicians out there,” and all kinds of faux-sciology was invented to explain that paucity of musical talent and commitment. And that reasoning held sway until the practice of blind auditions came to prominence. Amazingly enough, women who weren’t known to be women turned out to be excellent performers in similar numbers to men. Who’d have guessed?

There’s a reason why blind review is considered the uppermost threshold of academic evaluation. So why don’t we do it more often? I was having a discussion with a colleague from another college over the weekend, and we were talking about disciplinary accreditation. Whole-institution accreditation is pretty wide ranging, accounting for everything from finance to the website. But disciplinary accreditation has mostly to do with whether the students are experiencing a particular array of coursework, under the supervision of appropriately trained faculty, and achieving a certain level of performance. That could all be done blind, and would reduce the need to be nice to your pals from other schools with whom you serve on meaningless but important-sounding boards.

For tenure and promotion reviews, a body of work could be sent—with identifiers removed—to the senior faculty in the applicant’s field who work at similar schools. Those reviewers could offer independent and adequately blind assessments of the candidates, based only on the quality and quantity of work on the table.

For the most part, we don’t do those other things blind. Why is that? In the case of accreditation reviews, we don’t do it because IMPORTANT people like deans or presidents could be embarrassed. Wouldn’t want that. And accrediting bodies are member-supported, and it’s hard to tell a school who’s been giving you tens of thousands of dollars a year that they’re inadequate.

In the case of hiring committees and tenure and promotion reviews, we’re assessing a whole person—a scholar, a teacher, a colleague, a working partner, an officemate. Those things require a holistic assessment that can’t be done in the absence of interpersonal and contextual knowledge. And yet… it’s hard to reconcile that one’s whole career comes down to specific decision points with unclear and likely biased criteria. We’re all biased and privileged, usually in ways we don’t even begin to recognize. Sometimes we’re biased about what we believe to be “good” work, as MFA programs privilege short story writers because that’s what you can accomplish in a semester, and design programs privilege the extrovert who can bust out a dozen ideas a minute rather than the introvert who goes off to work something out on her own for a few days. And sometimes we’re biased about who we believe to be “good” colleagues, usually meaning that they remind us of ourselves in some important ways. The hiring decision that comes down to which candidate is a “good fit for our department” is simply the forwarding of those biases.

Perfectly blind review is neither always possible nor always fully desirable. But we need to develop some better body of methods that allows us to recognize talent as talent, no matter who brings it to the audition.