AHA Activities

From the Professional Division: Case Studies in Professional Ethics

AHA Staff, May 1993

The AHA's Professional Division has received or acted on fourteen formal complaints and seven informal complaints since the publication of its last report a year ago (April 1992). 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.

Of the fourteen formal complaints, two (involving restrictions on access to research sources) were dismissed because they focused on charges previously reviewed by the division. The division reached findings in four cases: one complaint focusing on the misuse of another's work (in which the division found for the complainants), one challenging tenure and promotion procedures (finding for the complainant), one charging abridgement of academic freedom (finding against the complainant), and one complaint of age discrimination in a promotion and tenure decision (finding against the complainant). The division has held over three complaints for review at its spring meeting (which will be held after this issue goes to press): one plagiarism complaint, one questioning hiring procedures, and one focusing on tenure and promotion procedures. At that point, there will also be three new complaints on the division's agenda: one each of plagiarism, abridgement of academic freedom, and racial/ethnic discrimination. Finally, the division has received two other complaints (of plagiarism and of sexual harassment), but procedural requirements will delay action until the division's fall 1993 meeting.

The division also reviews informally other complaints and queries brought before it. This past year, it advised parties to four such disputes: two involving charges of plagiarism, one concerning hiring practices, and a fourth involving other charges of unprofessional conduct. At its spring meeting, the division will review three informal complaints, one regarding plagiarism and the other two regarding hiring procedures.

The two cases summarized below involve problems in hiring and promotion procedures, an area in which the division is receiving increasing numbers of complaints, formal and informal. In finding for the complainants, the division raised questions about the procedures employed in each department's decisionmaking. The Professional Division hopes that discussion of these cases will lead other departments to review their policies and procedures to ensure appropriate attention to professional criteria and fair practice in all hiring and promotion decisions.

For a copy of the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, contact the Publications Office, AHA, 400 A Street, S.E., Washington, D.C. 20003.

Case I: Hiring Practices

In the fall of 1990, a history department placed an employment advertisement in Perspectives for a tenure-track assistant professor of history in a particular area specialization, and a candidate with appropriate credentials in that field applied and was subsequently informed that he was on the department's "short list." The candidate was then asked to respond in writing to three questions, two of which focused on research and teaching and the third on the congruity between the candidate's religious beliefs and the aims of the church-related college in which the department is located. Although no religious criterion had been indicated in the position announcement, the candidate responded as best he could. The department then invited him and one other candidate for on-campus interviews. Neither was hired, however, and the candidate was told that the college administration had blocked hiring anyone that was not a practicing member of the religious denomination with which the institution was affiliated. The candidate then contacted the AHA's Professional Division.

Although the department eventually appointed to the position an individual who was not a member of the sponsoring denomination (but for a three-year contract rather than for the tenure-track appointment originally proposed) and the administration maintained that religion had not been a factor in its hiring decisions, the AHA's Professional Division concluded that the history department's position announcement had indeed misrepresented the situation. While an internal position description indicated that applicants "should be in sympathy with the aims of a church-related liberal arts college," the ad placed by the history department in Perspectives did not include that language. Candidates found out about this criterion only after making application. It is legal for church-related institutions to use religion as a hiring criterion, but such a criterion must be stated clearly and on the front end. To do otherwise is misleading and unfair. The college subsequently acknowledged its inconsistency and agreed to be more explicit in stating criterion in future position announcements.

The division later received another informal complaint regarding the same problem at two other institutions—a candidate was asked in interviews at each about her religious background, despite the fact that in neither case did the position announcement indicate religion as a criterion. This complaint, however, raised an additional concern—the difference between an institution with close religious ties and one more loosely church-affiliated, with faculty from various faiths. The former is on much firmer ground here than the latter. Employing institutions should be cautious about invoking religious preference if their hiring patterns otherwise do not indicate consistent application of such criteria.

The Professional Division reminds interviewers that personal questions or comments not related to the position, e.g., on a person's lifestyle or appearance, are inappropriate in a professional interview and that care should be taken to avoid questions that may be in conflict with the letter and spirit of federal antidiscriminatory law.

Case II: Tenure and Promotion Procedures

An unsuccessful candidate for tenure asked the Professional Division to review the procedures followed by his former university. He claimed that the university had failed to follow established tenure review procedures. The specific irregularities he cited were the inclusion as an evaluator of an individual whose work the candidate had criticized, the pursuit of negative evaluations of the candidate, the inclusion of the candidate's journalistic writings with his scholarly work, and the scheduling of the department's review simultaneous with the review by the university's interdepartmental tenure committee.

Following its published procedures, the division asked the university to respond, but it did not, despite several delays in the proceedings granted at its request. Based upon the material submitted to it, the division concluded that the individual's tenure review had been badly flawed. Since the Association does not have the means to discipline a department or an institution in a case such as this, the division recommended that the complainant request formal review by the American Association of University Professors.

The Professional Division reminds readers of the necessity of using established procedures in reaching decisions on personnel matters. For specific guidelines regarding academic due process, see the AAUP's Statement on Procedural Standards in the Renewal or Nonrenewal of Faculty Appointments and Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure.