Recruitment, Hiring, and Ageism

One of the most frequent ways that ageism occurs in higher education is during the hiring process, particularly when older candidates are seeking to enter the tenure-track faculty workforce. Even if applicants have strong credentials and successful careers in other fields, they can be turned away summarily. As Jon, a white male academic administrator in a southwestern

Behavioral and Process-Based Ageism 51 public research university explains, when hiring for senior positions, the question of age may be in people’s minds:

When you are hiring at the senior level, sometimes the question would come up, when hiring either an administrator or a faculty member ... if the person is already like 64 or something like that, how much longer would it be likely that he or she would stay before they retired? That conversation would certainly be shut down by the department head or whoever was running the meeting but it was certainly in peoples minds. So this is a very pragmatic matter, if you are going spend a lot of money to hire a senior person, the odds are you will have the younger person around longer, not the older person. But I think that’s just in people’s minds and not something that was part of the discussion and not part of any decision that I am aware of.

Katherine, the white female faculty member mentioned previously, describes how behind-the-scenes comments on faculty search committees can reflect ageist concerns, particularly when hiring for tenure-track positions:

But you have the off-the-books conversations that take place among faculty, because obviously if it is a tenure-track job you are investing a lot of resources and such into the person and you kind of hedge your bets. ‘Are they going to stay with us? Is there longevity with this person? Are they going to keep up with these demands of this job in particular?’ ... we talk about how we kind of need ‘go getters’ in these positions. I have honestly noticed occasionally some of my faculty colleagues making comments like, are they going to be able to keep up with the energy' level required of this position? I would characterize that as an ageist comment, because fitness levels come at all times of life ... there are some people that have low energy when they are young. I think that is a faculty assumption to make.

Conversations that reflect overtones of ageism are typically held behind closed doors in backstage settings and can include off-hand remarks and gestures. Once again, the theme of intersectionality of ageism with gender arises as interviewers can differentially focus on gaps in employment for women and their family responsibilities. Katherine further notes that ageist comments tend to be said more about women, “I feel like it’s said more about women than men. I think we give men more age leeway in a lot of things.”

Katherine aptly describes how a priori ageist assumptions influence institutional decision-making in which valuable contributions from senior faculty can be discounted and minimized. When she recommended faculty members who were perceived as about to retire for committee assignments or other roles, she experienced pushback, even though the individuals had a great deal to offer including institutional memory, a good attitude, and a willingness to help. As she explains:

I have had my higher-ups pretty much suggest, ‘We don’t want to put him in [that role] because I think he is about to retire; I think he is on his way out.’ ... people can leave tomorrow for whatever [reason]. Sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot, by using some of these assumptions to decide a priori. Let them decide if they don’t want to be on it. So those offers aren’t extended, because they are kind of making an assumption.

Such workplace ageism has been described as “insidious, rampant, and stifling” (Taylor and Lebo, 2019, p. 56). Feminist scholar, Phyllis Bronstein, relates how the search committee chair at a major university asked her noncommittally, ‘Well, you’ve been out a long time, haven’t you?’ (Bronstein, 2001, p. 189). Although she had received her Ph.D. the previous spring and was holding a post-doctoral fellowship, Bronstein realized the question really meant, ‘You’re a lot older, aren’t you?’ (Bronstein, 2001, p. 190). Women may contend with the stereotype of being a middle-aged housewife with family responsibilities raising children. Gaps in employment records, regardless of the reason, are not looked on favorably by hiring committees (Bronstein, 2001).

Even when women have attained considerable academic stature and recognition, their job applications can be dismissed due to ageism. For example, Christina Economos, a professor at Tufts University and science educator with four decades of experience developing curriculum, describes such experiences (Applewhite, 2016, para 9):

I don’t even get a reply-or they just say, ‘We’ve found someone more suited’ ... I feel that my experience, skill set, work ethic, are being dismissed just because of my age. It’s really a blow, since I still feel like a vital human being.

In the view of Johanna, the African American female academic administrator cited earlier, ageism begins in the way position descriptions and advertisements are framed and continues in the marathon-like rigors of interview processes:

You can start by the way we have begun to ... rescript position descriptions, even the advertisements, which say, energetic leader, multitasker. Really embedded in that is ‘young,’ the notion that if they are young, they’re going to be physically fit, they can leap tall buildings ... and take care of everything ... And there are some institutions that really want to recruit experience, but they see youth or young-looking as

Behavioral and Process-Based Ageism 53 being where its at, and being a way to connect better with students. While they don’t say that aloud, it’s embedded in some of their actions, starting with the way the position descriptions written, to the way they conduct interviews. Some interviews start at seven in the morning and go to nine at night. And then you can hear the way committees talk,‘So and so was huffing and puffing by the end of that. Do you think they will be able to work here?’

And behind the scenes, Eric, an African American faculty member and former chief diversity officer at a private research university, describes ageist and gender-based assumptions comments he personally witnessed during search committee deliberations:

I have seen it with search committees ... where assumptions were made more often about women, particularly women who have gaps in their career path, both older and younger women for different reasons.These comments have included,‘I wonder why they didn’t get tenure, or ... maybe she is not going to stay with us because she might want to start a family.’

In this regard,Veronica, an African American administrator overseeing institutional effectiveness and diversity at a private university, has counseled search committees regarding illegal ageist questions. She describes how in one instance the committee surmised that a female applicant was in her late 50s or 60s and wanted to ask the applicant if it was her last stop before retiring.

Ageism particularly affects late-entry academics who apply for faculty positions either due to attaining the Ph.D. at an advanced age or having raised a family or worked in nonacademic settings or in non-

”... the issues of older women within academia, as in the society at large, remain mostly invisible. Ageist attitudes and discrimination go unacknowledged, or are viewed as acceptable reactions to supposed peculiarities or inadequacies of the women themselves ... because their confidence has been shaken by years of being ignored or discounted, many older women begin to doubt their own abilities, and lower their self-expectations for accomplishment.”

(Bronstein, 2001, p. 195)

tenure track appointments (Raghaven, 2018). Take the case of a female academic, who had returned to graduate school in her 50s to earn her Ph.D. in the study of ageism and had a ten-year track record of teaching, was unable to find tenure-track work at the age of 65. She concluded (Gullette, 2018, para 9):

Despite a CV that should have given anyone a chance to be considered for a full-time or tenure-track job, which I was seeking, I was ignored, told in various ways that, at my age, nothing else mattered but my age.

After ten years of teaching required courses and electives in two departments, the female professor was further informed that all her classes had been cancelled, no reason given, and without an acknowledgement or thank you (Gullette, 2018). Due to the impact of this action of social closure, she became ill and wrote (Gullette, 2018, para 10):

I felt devastated and I still do. Pathetic as it may seem to those with a lifetime of recognized achievements, I felt stripped of my identity, invisible, disposable, robbed of the occupation I had so recently discovered could give my life such extraordinary meaning.

Older male candidates can also experience the penalties of ageism when hiring for tenure-track positions. For example, Michael Jon Stoil, a 63-year-old tenured Associate Professor of Political and Military Science at the University of Guam, applied for undergraduate teaching positions at the reduced rank of assistant professor. Over a period of three years, Stoil had only one interview and no offers. He was informed by two search committee members that his age precluded him from consideration for attaining an assistant professor position (Stoil, 2014).

In another example, Robert McKee, began to apply for sociology' teaching positions in 2012 at the age of 57, after having returned to academia to complete his doctorate in 2008. Despite a record of 20 years of part-time teaching at the university and community college level, publication of a book, completion of seven journal articles, and Vietnam veterans status, McKees only received two phone interviews after applying for more than 60 positions. As he explains (McKee, 2014, para 5):

Just about every job in academia for which I applied required a statement about how I would be able to contribute to their righteous cause of diversity.Yet, when given the opportunity, they fail time and again to live up to their high-minded ideals when it comes to hiring those of us over the age of 40. Instead, they continue to hire younger, less-experienced applicants.

Numerous examples demonstrate the difficulty that older applicants, both male and female, face when applying for faculty and administrative positions in higher education.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, generational status barriers also apply to newly minted Ph.D.s entering the academic job market. With a glut of Ph.D.s on the job market, budget cuts in higher education, and the shrinking availability of tenure-track positions, young scholars are faced with what has been called “the bleak job landscape of adjunctopia” (Carey,

2020). The tight job market, as well as the recent attainment of their doctoral credentials coupled with slimmer publication portfolios, may result in a lack of leverage and feelings of “an imposter syndrome,” especially among women (Kelsky, 2019). Should they even be granted an interview, young faculty may suffer from inexperience when fielding critical questions from senior faculty during the on-campus interview or when negotiating the terms of their first tenure-track position.

In this regard, consider the experiences of Jennifer Gomez, a young black graduate student, who faced condescension from senior faculty during her on-campus interview for a tenure-track position (Gomez, 2018, para 7):

... a white male faculty member told me that I had explained my own theory on cultural betrayal trauma incorrectly. Next, a senior white female faculty member described cultural betrayal trauma theory to me as my ‘ideas’ with air quotes and expressed her concern that my work was not scientific enough for that top-ranked department.

She experienced a profound sense of betrayal when a high-ranking male faculty of color whom she had thought might support her indicated that her research undermined her academic credibility and even suggested that the academic environment might not be for her (Gomez, 2018). Although his comments appeared to be motivated by genuine concern, Gomez writes: “Even though I can sympathize with the compromises he has had to make as an elder in the field, to this day, 1 have yet to forgive him” (Gomez, para 8).

 
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