03 October 2010

Is there abuse and corruption in musicology? Part 2

The following is Part 2 of an essay entitled "Is there abuse and corruption in musicology?," which originated as a response to a discussion on the AMS-L e-mail list in May 2009 regarding an essay by Ilias Chrissochoidis in The Chronicle of Higher Education (8 May 2009). My essay was not published by AMS-L at that time, and this is its first publication. For contextual background, see the Introduction; see also Parts 1, 3, and 4 of this essay. A pdf of the complete essay, including the introduction, is available here.

Are there structural aspects of academic hiring and review in musicology that offer opportunities for abuse and corruption?

First and foremost among these, to my mind, is the lack of transparency and accountability in hiring. Hiring committees in the U.S. (and also in Britain, a system with which I also have personal experience) are independent of oversight to a degree that would seem astonishing to someone from almost any other profession or industry. To be sure, the recommendation of a hiring committee can be overruled, and the institutional community from which the committee is drawn will usually have some chance to voice its opinion on the candidates who are actually interviewed. But crucially, committees are not typically required to account for the applicants they reject. There may well be cases in which someone from outside a hiring committee vets the 140 candidates who didn’t make the cut, in order to assess whether the rejections were fair or whether potentially excellent candidates were overlooked—but this has never happened, to my knowledge, in any search with which I’ve been involved, either as an applicant or a committee member.

Absence of accountability obviously allows at least the possibility of abuse and corruption. Does such abuse and corruption happen? Here I can speak only from my personal experience and draw on my conversations with many professional colleagues over the past couple of decades. Let me start with a pedestrian example. When I was most recently on the musicological job market in 2005-6 and 2006-7, I applied for every job that was at all reasonable: I applied for something on the order of 30 to 35 positions each year (I can provide exact figures if you’re interested). My professional friends who were helping and advising me in my job search were universal in cautioning that my age would work against me (I was, after all, applying mainly for junior positions in middle age). But with a six-page list of publications and papers (including six national AMS presentations in a span of 13 years), a long laundry list of publications to come, a wide range of teaching experience in more than 20 different undergraduate and graduate courses, a stack of enthusiastic student evaluations, a packet of glowing recommendations (including, at long last in 2006-7, a letter from someone who had actually seen me teach), two prestigious fellowships in 2006-7 (one of which I declined), a book in process, and a well-established international reputation in my field, I thought (and my professional friends thought) that surely someone would be interested. In both of those years, there were several job descriptions that sounded as if they had been written with me in mind. (Lest anyone think I’m exaggerating, I still have these job descriptions, and would happy to send them or post them here). And after all, age discrimination is illegal. The outcome? I had one phone interview in 2005-6 (and this not from one of the positions that sounded as if it had been tailored for me), and no response whatsoever in 2006-7. Was age a factor in at least some of the decisions to exclude me from serious consideration? Very likely. Can it be proved? Of course not. Because age discrimination is illegal, and no one would admit to it. Did I have any recourse? Of course not. Was there accountability or a system of checks in place to prevent that kind of abuse? Of course not.  (Some of you might be thinking, “Well, he was probably overqualified for some of the jobs.” But a moment’s reflection will show that the idea of “overqualification” for an academic job is, to say the least, bizarre.)

Lack of accountability and transparency in hiring also increases the power of old-boy/old-girl networks. Everyone on the musicology job market knows (or soon learns) that there are some universities that have prominent networks of graduates placed in schools around the country, and that there is a marked tendency for these people to hire their own. This may be human nature, to some extent, but it can also lead to unjust favoritism. Some of you, no doubt, may be tempted to retort: “But the most important thing about an applicant is that she (or he) be a good colleague, because we may have to see each other every day for the next twenty-five years,” as if that hoary chestnut were sufficient grounds to pick someone from your alma mater over more qualified and promising scholars. But in fact, this rationale is most often specious anyway. At any rate, to judge by the evident social dysfunctionality of such a high proportion of departments (and be honest; you know this is true, if not of your own department, then of those in which many of your friends work), the strategy of hiring “good colleagues” would not appear to be working very well.

Lack of accountability and transparency also allows unfair preference to be given to internal candidates. I have been told of one case that what was, for all intents and purposes, a false search, where the incoming applications from a national search for an academic position in musicology at a prominent American university were basically ignored because there was never any intention to hire anyone other than the internal candidate. An acquaintance of mine, who was in possession of a “smoking gun” regarding this particular incident, refused to come forward for fear of negative career consequences. This case may be extreme, but I see no reason to assume that it is unique. With greater accountability and transparency in hiring, it likely would not have happened. The unwillingness to stand up against injustice and malfeasance within the field is, in my experience, pervasive. I know of another case, regarding an important non-academic research position of considerable power and influence, where the job was allegedly advertised only in an obscure local newspaper where no one would see it—this so that the anointed candidate (one who on the basis of qualification and scholarly profile in that particular area of research almost certainly would not have been hired, and indeed, might well not have made it past the first round) could simply be installed without a legitimate search or vetting of alternative candidates. This hire is likely to have a profound effect for many years on the course of research in the area of scholarship with which it is connected. That several prominent and distinguished scholars in this area remain unemployed makes the incident all the more repellent.

There is also a crippling lack of any realistic recourse and legal protection for job applicants and junior faculty who feel that they have been the victim of injustice. An applicant who suspects discrimination or unjust favoritism has no access to any information about the selection process, which is entirely closed and which provides no feedback. Similarly, “everyone knows” that junior faculty must keep their mouths closed, smile, and take whatever is dished out (while, of course, attempting to brown nose as successfully as possible), because there is no protection from a rogue senior faculty member, who can easily make you or break you, or even destroy your career. Again, because there is little or no true accountability or transparency, and very little possibility that a perpetrator of any injustice will suffer significant consequences, the system is ripe for abuse. In one job review, my employer (to avoid any identifying job titles) systematically marked me much lower in every category than my actual production and performance warranted. In fact, he admitted to me cheerfully that he did this as a matter of policy with all new faculty (I wish I’d had a tape recorder). In effect, he had given himself the ammunition to get rid of me if he felt like it—and not long after, he did. I had no recourse. And “everyone knows” that even when legal recourse exists, one could very well be destroying one’s chance at a future career in the field to take it. We probably all know at first or second hand of cases in which this has happened.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we all know of other examples of ethically questionable behavior, blatantly unethical behavior, and perhaps even corrupt or illegal behavior in cases of hiring and review, or in the evaluation of fellowship applications or article and paper submissions. Many of us know of scholars who assisted their career development by sleeping with the right people. Many of us have witnessed or been victim of anonymous and behind-the-scenes denunciation.  (For those of you who have not been a victim of such a denunciation, I can assure you that it gives one a very vivid sense of what it must have been like to live under a totalitarian regime.)  Many of us know of cases of the unethical or dishonest appropriation by one scholar of the research and ideas of another, without proper (or any) credit being given. I have personally been involved in one case where I was asked to review an article that, in part, presented as original (that is, without citation) information and ideas that I had previously published or presented in public papers that the author had attended. The article was also unacceptable for publication on a wide variety of other grounds, and I presented all of this information to the journal in as dispassionate a form as I was able (while making clear that I wasn’t happy about the situation). The editor of the journal (not my principal contact during the review process) elected to publish the article with virtually no revision, without addressing any of my concerns or even contacting me. That there was personal collusion and favoritism in this case between author and editor, and perhaps also another reviewer seems very likely. I have been told (although I have no personal experience of this) that there is even corruption in the hothouse world of program notes and pre-concert lectures, where at least in one case that I have had described to me in great detail, pre-concert gigs have been given to the lover of someone in a position of influence over the selection (this was with a major orchestra, not a local community symphony).

Continue on to Part 3 of "Is there abuse and corruption in musicology?"
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  1. Apologies if I sound impudent, but I don't really know of any professional field where there is transparency in hiring. In many professions, people hire candidates for many reasons. Someone who appears the "best qualified" might only be part of a reason, or might be a secondary consideration, or might be a reason *not* to hire a person. Just look at the selection of Supreme Court judges over the past 15 years and you'll see any number of issues are in place. Certainly politics plays a large part in the Supreme Court process - as it does in many hiring situations, including those of musicology.

    I used to think of such things as corruption or evil. But the fact is that is has always existed, and unless you're willing to administer mass lobotomies, I don't see any way to eradicate it. So it's a matter of dealing with such situations by understanding that it's part of what goes into finding *and* maintaining a job.

  2. Bob - your rememdy assumes a rationality in the process which doesn't exist. Given the practices that go on in the selection process, it would not be impossible for any person to understand "what goes into finding *and* maintaining a job."

    Neither can the sometimes ruinous subjectivity and the prejudices which affect people's careers be excused because everyone else does it.

  3. I think you meant "it would not be possible for any person to understand"?

    But thanks for your comment, and I agree.