"Moral Fables ..." and the History Job Market

Benjamin Alpers and Norman F. Cantor, November 1995

To the Editor:

I was extremely disappointed to read the Annual Report of the AHA's Professional Division, "Moral Fables and Other Cautionary Tales from the Job Market," in the April issue of Perspectives. "Moral Fables" set out to explain what criteria the Professional Division is currently applying in evaluating job market-related complaints. The criteria were, I might add, wholly reasonable. But my disappointment stems not from what the report said, but from what it failed to say or do.

The historical profession and the humanities in general are in the midst of a structural crisis. There are dozens of PhDs in history for every tenure-track job opening; each year more PhDs are produced than there are jobs, making the crisis ever worse. Faced with a vast surplus army of the unemployed, universities are replacing tenured and tenure-track lines with exploitative adjunct lines. If this crisis is now being felt by recent PhDs, we can expect its effects to spread: already there are signs that the very institution of tenure might be threatened. But, so far, the Professional Division has failed to take a leadership role in altering this situation. Only in passing does this year's annual report refer to "the difficulty of finding appropriate employment for PhDs in history." In the past, the Professional Division has only described the employment situation. The point, however, is to change it.

Last December, the Modern Language Association's Committee on Professional Employment produced an impressive report about the similar crisis in the literary fields, a report which I strongly recommend to members of the AHA. The MLA's committee properly described a crisis not in the job market, but in an entire "job system," a system which involves not only the way we hire our colleagues, but also the way we train PhDs, the way we allocate undergraduate teaching, and a whole range of other, interrelated issues. After doing an excellent job of analyzing this crisis, the committee came up with a set of concrete suggestions for reforming the job system. The report is not perfect; there are plenty of areas open for disagreement. But at least the MLA has tried to address the crisis in a proactive way. Despite hosting a much-needed meeting on the use of adjunct and part-time faculty last year, the AHA has failed to address the crisis as a whole.

After five years on the job market, four of them with PhD in hand, I was fortunate enough to find a wonderful, tenure-track job for next year. But I am one of the lucky ones. There are hundreds of talented young historians who will never have the chance to grow as scholars and teachers unless we work to resolve the current crisis in the historical profession. Let us follow the MLA's lead. I have heard enough moral fables and cautionary tales. The time for action is now.

—Benjamin Alpers
University of Missouri

To the Editor:

On page 42 of your April issue, you print the AHA Policy Statement on Employment. The first sentence tells us that the AHA supports "open hiring on the basis of merit." but on page 18 of the same issue of Perspectives, Professor Carla Rahn Phillips, vice president of the AHA Professional Division, states baldly, "Job candidates have no right to decide who should or should not be interviewed or hired, nor do they have the right to know the internal deliberations of a search committee." This was in reference to a case in which a job applicant thought she had the ideal qualifications but was not even interviewed, and the chair of the search committee flatly refused to explain why this happened.

I submit that the AHA policy statement and Professor Phillips's ruling are in conflict with each other, because if a candidate who feels her qualifications ideally meet the job profile's qualifications is flatly turned down without interview or even an explanation, how can the applicant be assured that there was "open hiring on the basis of merit"? Professor Phillips's committee is running a Catch-22 con game which provides a facade of professional ethics to what can be a grave injustice--even an illegal act under federal and state equal opportunity laws. Under these circumstances, Professor Phillips and her committee are worse than useless to meritorious and aggrieved candidates. Phillips and Co. are participating in a cover-up. They are providing a cover of legitimacy to history departments doing what they want, including making appointments on other grounds than merit.

When departments advertise positions in Perspectives they avow their commitment to equal opportunity, which means selection on grounds of merit. By Phillips's ruling departments say this, but they don't have to mean it, and her committee will protect their ignoring of merit in judging candidates. A department which rejects candidate A for candidate B must be required by the AHA to specify the reason for it, and that requirement is even more critical if candidate A is not even interviewed. Yes, the involvement of the Professional Division Committee in such situations is time-consuming and messy, but if Phillips and her committee won't do it, I see no reason for its existence, except to provide a specious facade of legitimacy to unjust and illegal acts. If Phillips needs the assistance of counsel to do real monitoring of hiring by merit, then the AHA members' dues should be raised accordingly, or the president of the AHA instead of wasting time and paper with the usual bromides of the annual address, should seek funds for legal assistance from foundations and private benefactors; I am sure that would be forthcoming.

—Norman F. Cantor
Sag Harbor, N.Y.