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From the AHA Activities column in the May-June 1995 Perspectives

From the Professional Division: Case Studies in Professional Ethics

AHA Professional Division, May 1995

Since the publication of its last report in the May/June 1994 issue of Perspectives, the AHA's Professional Division has acted on two formal complaints and fifteen informal complaints or inquiries. Two 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.

The division found no evidence of misconduct in either of the two formal complaints, one charging plagiarism or misuse of another scholar's work and the other charging misuse of evidence or sources. The division also advised the parties to 15 disputes brought before it as informal complaints or inquiries. Of these, seven centered on hiring issues, one concerned the tenure and promotion process, one complained of violation of due process, two raised the possibility of plagiarism, one centered on appropriate attribution of work, one sought advice regarding access to research materials, one questioned the accuracy of the interpretation in a historic site program, and one complained of unprofessional conduct. The division referred two of these to the American Association of University Professors, concluded that four should be resubmitted as formal complaints, agreed to seek additional information on six, and dismissed three.

The division is particularly concerned about the growing number of complaints focused on hiring procedures. The following cases illustrate the kinds of problems brought to the division and the difficulties the division faces in resolving them. As a consequence of its review of these complaints, the division is considering a variety of ways to better educate both candidates and search committees about equitable hiring processes.

Case I: Hiring Practices

A historian wrote to the division regarding the inadequate responses he had received from departments advertising positions in Perspectives. In one case, the only acknowledgement of his application was a rejection letter sent a number of months later. Another department acknowledged his application promptly but also indicated that it would not send letters of rejection to unsuccessful applicants—no further contact from the department should be taken as a rejection. The individual felt that these departments were in violation of the AHA policy statement that accompanies the Employment Information section of Perspectives. That statement directs departments to acknowledge all applications "promptly and courteously" and to similarly notify all candidates as they are eliminated from consideration.

Since the individual did not choose to file a formal complaint, the division did not reach a finding. However, the division did inform the complainant that it shared his dismay at the failure of the departments to communicate properly with candidates and proposed in future mailings to hiring departments to call their attention to their obligations to candidates.

Case II: Hiring Practices

A historian wrote to the division complaining that a history department advertising a position in Perspectives had not followed through with a promised interview. According to documentation provided by the individual, the head of the department's search committee led the candidate to believe that he would be interviewed at the AHA annual meeting. Once at the annual meeting, however, the candidate was told that all the interviews were prearranged and that he would not be interviewed after all. Feeling that he had been mislead by the search committee, he wrote to the Professional Division for advice.

The division reviewed the material submitted by the candidate and concluded that the search committee chair's letter had been misleading. While the letter did not actually commit the committee to interviewing the candidate, it did state that committee members "would welcome the opportunity to talk with you." The division so informed the complainant and wrote to the history department regarding the importance of more clarity in writing to candidates in the future.

The division felt that this complaint reflected two persistent problems in the hiring process: that history departments are not giving their graduate students basic advice regarding such matters as arranging job interviews at the AHA annual meeting, and that, in an effort to be positive and supportive, some hiring departments and search committees unintentionally mislead candidates about their prospects. The division agreed to review existing AHA guidelines and, if necessary, develop new material addressing departments' obligations in preparing graduate students for the job market and in communicating clearly with job candidates.