From the Professional Division: Case Studies in Professional Ethics

Professional Division, April 1992

From the AHA Activities column in the April 1992 Perspectives

Since the publication of its last report a year ago (May/June 1991), the AHA's Professional Division has reviewed nine formal complaints and seven informal complaints. Three of these are summarized below in order to illustrate the kinds of issues that have come before the Division and how they have been resolved through the review process established under the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. Through its annual reports, the Division hopes to encourage more discussion of and attention to issues of ethical conduct.

Of the nine formal complaints brought before the Division during this past year, three involved charges of plagiarism, two charged abridgement of academic freedom, one challenged tenure and promotion procedures, one questioned hiring practices, and two focused on other charges of unprofessional conduct. The Division deferred action on three of the cases (one on plagiarism and the two on academic freedom), found for the complainant in the one case involving tenure and promotion procedures, and against the complainant in the hiring case and the two other charges of unprofessional conduct. The Division reached no finding in two other plagiarism cases—one was settled without Division action, and the alleged offender in the other case is now deceased. The Division also reviews informally other complaints and queries brought before it. This past year, it advised parties to seven such disputes: one involving charges of plagiarism, one related to tenure and promotion, and five alleging unfair hiring practices.

The first of the three cases summarized below focuses on the Association's new addendum on conflict of interest, and the Division hopes it will stimulate discussion regarding what is unprofessional and what is not within that context. The other two cases relate to hiring procedures. The common thread in these two is the failure of employing institutions to communicate properly—one department misrepresented its needs in a position announcement, and the other used inappropriate criteria that appeared to discriminate against older applicants. Poor communication is the cause of most of the hiring-related disputes brought to the AHA each year, and the Division encourages departments to take more seriously their responsibility to communicate accurately and fully with prospective candidates.

Case I: Conflict of Interest

In the fall of 1991, a historian lodged a complaint with the Professional Division that two other scholars had violated the AHA's Advisory Opinion Regarding Conflict of Interest, an addendum to the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct adopted by the AHA Council in May of that year. The complainant charged that the other two historians, in actively seeking opportunities to review the complainant's book for scholarly journals, were concealing their prejudice against the work and trying to convey an impression of fairness and impartiality. As evidence, the complainant cited correspondence he had had with the two as well as a negative reader's report submitted by one of them to a press considering the then-unpublished manuscript, a subsequent exchange between the parties that was published in a journal, and a debate held at a recent professional meeting. The complainant maintained that the two historians viewed him as a competitor and had a personal animus against him, and that it was unprofessional for them to be presenting themselves as fair-minded judges. The two historians charged with conflict of interest responded that they held no personal animosity toward the complainant and considered their various exchanges to be appropriate to scholarly discourse and not to bar either from further comment on the complainant's work.

After careful review of the material submitted by the parties in the case, the Division concluded that there was no evidence that there had been any violation of professional standards. In issuing its finding, the Division distinguished between professional disagreement, of which there was considerable evidence, and personal bias or enmity, which is the focus of the addendum on conflict of interest. At the same time, the Division advised the two historians that they should reveal their previous exchanges with the complainant in any discussion with a book review editor regarding review of the complainant's book.

Case II: Hiring Practices

In the fall of 1990, a history department placed an employment advertisement in Perspectives for an assistant or associate professor of history in a particular area specialization, and a candidate with appropriate credentials in that field applied for the opening. The candidate subsequently made the department's short list and was invited for an interview at the AHA's annual meeting. Although the candidate assumed the opening was a teaching position and the ad made no indication to the contrary, in the course of the interview the members of the search committee indicated, according to the candidate, that they were actually looking for an administrator to direct and expand an endowed area studies program. The candidate was not prepared to interview for such a position and maintained that she would not have applied or agreed to an interview if she had known the department's true interests. She felt that the department had misrepresented unfairly its goals and interests and put her in an embarrassing position. In response to this complaint, the chair of the department apologized for any misunderstanding but maintained that the position was as advertised. The candidate remained unpersuaded and asked the AHA's Professional Division to resolve the dispute.

The Division reviewed arguments presented by both sides and concluded that the job announcement lacked sufficient specificity and inadequately presented the context for the position. The Division advised the department to be more considerate of candidates' time and resources in the future and to provide information sufficient for a candidate to determine whether to pursue an interview.

Case III: Hiring Practices

In the winter of 1991, a history department placed an EIB notice in Perspectives that included the following language: "Applicants must have received the Ph.D. no earlier than 1980." Two potential candidates (the complainants) wrote to the AHA complaining that this ad violated the Association's own guidelines against discrimination. Specifically, they argued that the restriction on the date of receipt of the doctorate arbitrarily eliminated earlier doctoral recipients and thus constituted age discrimination. The chair of the department maintained that that was not their intention; rather, they wanted to encourage junior faculty to apply but without leaving it to the search committee to determine just who fit in that category and who did not. The complainants remained unconvinced and asked the Professional Division to intervene.

The Professional Division reviewed the language of the ad in question as well as the complaints and the response and concluded that, while this was not a clear case of age discrimination (an older individual who had nevertheless recently received his or her doctorate would be eligible), the criterion was unfair to individuals with nontraditional career patterns, who may have earlier degree dates but are still appropriate candidates for junior-level positions. Moreover, the Division advised, the department was not acting in its own best interests when it arbitrarily eliminated from the applicant pool many older but well-qualified candidates. The Division directed the staff of the Employment Information section of the newsletter to refuse in the future any announcements that include such language.