Monday, January 08, 2007

You can discriminate in economics again 

I didn't get to the meeting as I was pinned down interviewing, but the meeting of the American Economics Association led to a change in the policy of editing job ads. According to the Chronicle of Higher Ed (subscribers' link):
After a period of widespread discontent, the executive committee of the American Economic Association voted on Thursday to loosen restrictions on references to minority groups in the association's job notices. The decision was formally announced on Saturday during the association's annual meeting here.

Since 1986, the association has banned advertisements in its newsletter, Job Openings for Economists, that discriminate "on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, sexual preference, or physical handicap." And for at least a decade, it has interpreted that policy with an unusual strictness, so as to forbid phrases such as "We encourage applications from women and members of underrepresented minorities." Broad language such as "We are an equal-opportunity, affirmative-action employer" has been accepted, but explicit encouragement to particular groups has not.

Three months ago, Stephanie Seguino, an associate professor of economics at the University of Vermont, was angered when the association deleted language from a recruitment ad that declared that her department "welcomes applications from women and underrepresented ethnic, racial, and cultural groups, and from people with disabilities." Ms. Seguino notified colleagues, and several e-mail lists have been ablaze with discussion since October. Dozens of scholars at the Chicago meeting wore small maroon ribbons as a gesture of protest.

As Ms. Seguino and her allies see it, the association was foolishly censoring commonplace phrases that might play a small role in broadening the representation of women and people of color in the discipline. (According to the most recent report of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, women earned 27.9 percent of the economics Ph.D.'s issued in 2004, a percentage that has been generally flat during the last decade. And a 2006 report on a study by Gregory N. Price, a professor of economics at Jackson State University, noted that only 44 of the 2,785 faculty members in Ph.D.-granting American economics departments were African-American.)

During the Chicago meeting, the association's executive committee conceded the argument. The new policy's exact terms have not yet been set in stone, but the association will now allow recruitment language that encourages applications from people who belong to underrepresented groups covered by federal civil-rights law.

"We will permit the discussion of those groups now when it's done in terms of broadening the applicant pool," John J. Siegfried, a professor of economics at Vanderbilt University and the association's secretary-treasurer, said in an interview on Saturday. "But we will continue to prohibit such language if you're talking about hiring criteria."

According to several accounts, the most contentious issue during the board meeting was the treatment of advertisements from sectarian religious colleges, which are legally permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion. (The federal government gives that power only to colleges that can demonstrate that religion is fundamental to their mission.)

Early last year, Peter J. Hill, a professor of economics at Wheaton College, a Christian institution in Illinois, wrote an essay objecting to the association's refusal to publish an advertisement declaring that Wheaton's faculty must "affirm a Statement of Faith and adhere to lifestyle expectations." Such requirements are perfectly legal, he noted, adding that it seemed pointless not to inform prospective applicants about the college's nature.

Under the new policy, the association will treat such advertisements exactly as it does announcements that mention race, gender, and sexual orientation, Mr. Siegfried said. That is, from now on, Wheaton will be permitted to "encourage" or "welcome" applicants who are evangelical Protestants -- but the association will still not allow Wheaton to list evangelical Protestantism as a job requirement, even though such advertisements are legal.
The militants against the AEA's policy said it would be better to "think about how to enhance the success of minority students and junior scholars." That has a very distortionary sound to it. Increasing hiring of junior scholars who are women and minorities increases competition for those candidates and leads to higher wages. Schools such as ours cannot compete in that market effectively, and yet we are criticized for not having enough of the quota'd faculty. (I do note we are a 25% female department.)