Saturday, September 27, 2008

This I Believe

I just read a book, This I Believe II, which consists of 75 people's essays on their core belief. That motivated me to write my own.

The book suggests that a good "This I Believe" essay must be truly honest, short, and based on a specific anecdote. Okay.

I would have thought I'd have no trouble landing a professorship. After all, I had a Ph.D from the University of California Berkeley, specializing in education program evaluation (a hot field then and now), my dissertation was nominated for UCB's dissertation of the year, and I've always been told that I'm a fine teacher and writer.

Yet I applied for a number of professorships, and after a while wasn't too picky about it--I even applied to places like the tiny Brescia College in Owensboro, Kentucky. Yet I was offered not one job that was more than a low-pay, part-time, temp, fill-in.

Finally, I was interviewed at San Francisco State for a tenure-track position. It was the interview from heaven: The professors nodded and smiled in agreement throughout the interview. When the chairman asked the other interviewers to leave and for me to stay, I was sure I'd finally be offered a job.

But he said, and I remember it word for word: "Marty, if you tell anyone I said this, I'll deny it but I want to save you the cognitive dissonance. Marty, you are by far the most qualified candidate for this job, and you don't stand a ghost of a chance of getting it. The dean has informed us that the next seven tenure-track positions to be filled will (emphasis his) be women and minorities."

Over my 2,900 career coaching and higher education clients over the past 23 years, I have seen countless examples of such reverse discrimination. Indeed, reverse discrimination is not the exception; it's the norm.

And my perhaps most deeply held belief is that the benefits that derive from reverse discrimination are far outweighed by its liabilities. Society is ultimately doomed when it prioritizes something other than merit in choosing its bridge builders, medical school students, brand-name-college undergraduates, government, non-profit, and corporate leaders, etc.

The latter reminds me of a client--an eminent, brilliant minority woman, I might add--who serves on the board of three major corporations. She told me that to meet government "goals" and to avoid the Jesse Jackson/Al Sharpton machine boycotting the companies or getting the media to call the companies racist, the companies have to hire and promote many blacks who, on the merits, never would have been hired. She continued to say that they may have brand-name degrees, (also the result of reverse discrimination) but they're not good employees. "The companies just write them off as a loss and farm them out to the jobs where they can do the least harm."

I worry terribly that reverse discrimination and its devastating effects, rampant already, will only accelerate under an Obama administration. His spinmeisters paint him as a "post-racial candidate" but a careful reading of his 2008 speech on race, and more important, his long-term associates--not just Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Frank Marshall Davis, but most significant, his wife who, for example, headed Public Allies--makes clear to me that Obama will use his prodigious abilities to push merit yet further toward the back of the bus. To devastating effect.

This I believe.


Anonymous said...

I called my mother on March 30 of this year. I was concerned about her because my two older sisters and their melodramatic lives were taking a big toll on my mother. I had tried to discuss this with her before, to no avail. She always insisted that everything was fine.

When she answered the phone, I tried to tell her that she needed to do something before the stress consumed her. Before I could finish, she told me that I was never again to discuss my sisters or their families with her.

I have not spoken to my mother or sisters since March 30. Their lives go on.

Life will always go on without you.

This I believe.

Anonymous said...

When I was a third year student in the Ph.D. program at UCLA, a kind professor leveled with me in exactly the same way. He said that not only could universities protect themselves from protests and attacks by maximizing the number of women and minorities who were hired, they could even attain "bragging rights" about their hiring achievements.

It broke my heart to realize that I would never get hired in the field where my natural strengths and passions intersected.

I dropped out of the program not long thereafter, leaving it to the oft-praised "women and people of color" (i.e., everyone except for me).

Maureen Nelson said...

Thank you for sharing what must be a painful -- or at the very least, disheartening -- memory for you. Discrimination in any form is wrong.

As a high schooler, I was chosen for a program at UCB aimed at getting more women and minorities into math and science. It offered summer and Saturday classes taught by PhD students. I was chosen because I fell into one of those groups -- not because I had any particular talent in those areas. In fact, I was only a mediocre student in both. At the end of the program, I was accepted to UCB but nearly flunked out of calculus and physics and left the university after my freshman year. The point is that I didn't really get anything out of the program, but I'm sure I took the place of a talented white male who would have eaten up the classes I found boring and too hard.

Keep fighting the good fight, Marty! You are a brave man. And I think you *are* making a difference. People cannot argue with your experience.

Marty Nemko said...

I had been afraid to write this post lest someone think that my views on reverse discrimination and higher education were merely the result of my personal experience. And indeed someone just wrote to opine that. In fact, my views on the subjects are, as I wrote and implied in the post, the result of both a lot of apriori thinking on the subject as mediated by the my having received a Ph.D. specializing in education evaluation, consulting with 15 college presidents, reading countless books on higher education, having written three, and most important, the 2,900 career and education clients I've had the honor of having a confidential relationship with over the past 23 years.

Marty Nemko said...

Oh, I might as well include that anonymous person's comment, which I thought was not worthy of publication, but lest anyone think I was censoring dissent, here it is:

"Sooooooo, we finally get to the root of Mr. Nemko's obsession with "reverse discrimination" and his vitriol towards academics. Oh, how very interesting. Well, I am a little dubious about the anecdote (really, Marty, a chair was that was so stupid as to let you in on their little secret rather than simply let you slide out the door unknowing??) but the plot did get a little thicker. Could it be, Mr. Nemko, that you simply failed in the world of higher education and that, rather than facing the unfortunate reality, you wanted someone to blame? Oh well, keep building the cabal (I will be very interested to see if this comment is actually posted)."

Marty Nemko said...

Oh, and I am sorry that that Anonymous writer is dubious that the chair would be that candid with me.

True, I'm sure that many chairs would not be candid with me, but this kind man was. I'd love to reveal his name but I don't want to punish him for his kindness.

Anonymous said...

I'm the recipient of the other kind of discrimination.

When I was applying to Berkeley for college, it was super hard to get in. My grandparents and my dad had gone. Many of my friends in high school were redirected to UC Santa Cruz or Davis, some despite better grades and test scores.

It wasn't until sometime after I'd gotten finished at Berkeley that they admitted what they'd been doing when I was admitted.

They were discriminating against better-qualified Asian students in favor of less-qualified but more traditional Anglo students. It was pretty clear to me that I'd benefitted from that, based on the test scores my friends had had.

I was perfect. I could be justified in a lot of ways: legacy student, well-written essay, good SAT scores.

I don't know what year you were on the hunt for work in, nor do I know how much teaching experience you had as you applied. My impression is that you've focused more on high-end research outfits than teaching schools in your education.

I'm a dropout from the life sciences, myself.

In today's market in the life sciences, the too-fancy degree actually hurts you if you are not applying to Harvard, MIT, Yale, Berkeley etc. If teaching is part of what a school does, they're looking for teaching experience. They're worried they'll give you that experience, then the job will open at Harvard and off you'll scoot.

SF State may well have been unable to hire you for exactly the reasons stated, but I have to ask: if a client of yours applied for 100 jobs and had only one interview, what would you counsel the client? Was the academic market that tight when you were on it? It seems that either that's far too many applications for no response, and a rethink is in order (my perception of hiring in the 70s is that it was looser in my field), or not nearly enough (lately, academic job searches are insanely long.)

I was recruited by people who had finished their PhDs in the late 60s to mid 70s. At the time, the field had many people who'd stayed in school to avoid the draft. They all taught a generation of grad students, who taught a generation of grad studentss - and by the time my generation came along, the ratio of slots to applicants was terrible (for the applicants.)

The folks who recruited me had no idea how bad the market had become, and no appreciation of their own role in the problem.

These people were doing research-intensive work and needed a lot of cheap labor to do it. So they trained a lot of grad students, and flooded the market.

I knew people who took postocs and stayed on as postdoctoral fellows for years, publishing and working in a very competitive lab while they looked for work. (How competitive? One lab director was on the Physiology or Medicine Nobel selection committee - he did good research and he was politically wired in, both in Europe and the US.)

Me? I left shortly after I read an essay in Science talking about, I kid you not, a "final solution" to the PhD problem.

Maureen Nelson said...

A friend just reminded me of a mutual friend's experience. He is a white male with a PhD in Education; emphasis: Construction Technology. Ran a CityBuild-type program, teaching disadvantaged adults the construction trades -- his dissertation was on the program. He applied to head a similar program. The requirements were a doctorate and in-depth knowledge of all the construction trades. The job was given to a black woman with a B.A. and a smattering of carpentry experience.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to comment on MEN, THE DISPOSABLE SEX but could not find the specific link. While I have not engaged personally, I have followed your online conversations with genuine interest, sometimes amusement, sometimes sadness and mostly respect or appreciation for the sincere effort with which so many individuals try to respond thoughtfully and compassionately to challenging issues for which there are no easy answers. Whether others agree with you or not, I admire your ability to invite and encourage the exchange of ideas. One observation I will share (because it touches on conversations we have had) refers to men as the disposable sex not just in the obvious areas of healthcare, labor and warfare but in a much broader sense. In my listening practice, male clients come to me with the same full range of moral, physical, social and emotional concerns as women, and their pain or struggle is not that different from the pain or struggle reported by women, with one key exception. Their pain or struggle or confusion is often not taken seriously, is not seen as a genuine cause for concern as if some myth of male toughness, pride, self-sufficiency or assumed male privilege invalidates their need for or right to a caring response supported by a fair share of the resources available.

Marty Nemko said...

Someone named D.T. submitted a post asking some questions I believe would more appropriately be answered privately. S/he did not provide his/her email address, so I need to respond here. Dear readers, I apologize for having to insert this personal communication on the blog.

Dear DT,

You asked me to reveal the name of someone whom--whether he gave permission or not--would be hurt by my revealing his name. (By the way, he has been promoted from the position he previously held.) I won't do that. (Anyway, he told me that if I told anyone what he said, he'd deny it.)

If you're interested in getting the answer to your other questions, email me with your real name and phone number. I'll respond either by email or phone.

Marty Nemko


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