Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Request for arguments against affirmative action

Allow me to start by posing a hypothetical situation:

A top-25 astronomy department has a major gender imbalance on their faculty. Let's say the fraction of women professors is below 10% of the overall faculty (This is a safe example since we don't actually know of such a department, do we? Right? Anyone?). 

Let's suppose that the upper administrators at said hypothetical university (e.g. the Dean of Sciences) would like to address this problem with a radical approach. If the astronomy department conducts a programmatic search for a woman junior professor and identifies a candidate that meets the high bar expected of the university and department, then a special faculty line will be made available that won't count against future departmental hires.

The reasoning for such a move is as follows:
  1. Studies show that departments with more gender balance can more effectively bring in excellent women students, postdocs and professors by offering a better overall environment for women to work. Increasing the number of women professors in the department counteracts unconscious bias, sexual harassment and provides the dept with advocates for progressive, family-friendly policies. 

  2. The increasing fraction of women among the department's student population would be better served by an equivalently diverse faculty. Many (but not all) women students would benefit from female role models, mentors, teachers and advisers in a manner that an all-male faculty cannot offer. 

  3. University and departmental policies and attitudes over the past century have greatly reduced the available talent pool by arbitrarily drawing from a population that was almost exclusively white male. This reduces the number of perspectives and backgrounds that contribute to creative solutions to long-standing problems. An expanded talent pool could bring break-through, game-changing solutions to many old problems while simultaneously developing entirely new fields of study. All of this will contribute to the department moving from top-25 to top-10 and beyond.
Okay, there are the arguments for a programmatic search for a female professor. I'd like to solicit
counterarguments from you, dear reader. 
  1. Why would this approach be a bad move for the department, university or field of astronomy?
  2. If this is a bad approach, what should the university/dept do instead?
Please refrain from one-liner comments sent from your iPhone. If you have a good argument, give it the time, thought and space it deserves. Similarly, please refrain from feeding the trolls by responding to one-liners. Don't give them the time and effort they don't deserve.

In addition to leaving thoughtful comments, I'd appreciate it if you send me a private email with your long-form counterargument, with the subject "Counterargument" so I can be sure to collect the full list. 

In future posts I'll present the counterarguments, along with my thoughts. This means you should bring your A-game, because I will not hesitate to wipe up any weak-sauce sent my way. 

Before commenting/emailing, please consult Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement, below (credit Wikipedia). Specifically, please avoid emotional and/or ad hominem B.S. Keep it constructive and I feel certain that we'll all learn something from this thought exercise.