What role should personal politics play in the hiring of faculty?

In writing about the Hamline-Emmer hiring controversy, I asked dozens of faculty and administrators in our Public Insight Network how much of a role personal politics should, and does, play in the hiring of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty.

(Emmer was reportedly rejected over his political views, including his vocal opposition to same-sex marriage.)

The general consensus seems to be: Politics aren’t absent, but they’re not really on the minds of most faculty — and generally shouldn’t be.

As University of North Dakota faculty member Marcus Weaver-Hightower writes:

I think it probably plays a role, though not as huge a one as conservatives like to believe.

Politics shouldn’t be an issue, Bemidji State University faculty member Carol Knicker says, because higher education needs diversity of opinion:

Too often we surround ourselves with friends and co-workers who think like we do. This is a mistake, especially in education, where we are trying to develop critical thinking in our students. If students are continually presented only with one view, they do not have an opportunity to examine issues from multiple viewpoints and critically reflect.

And they shouldn’t play a role especially it they have no connection to the subject at hand, writes University of Minnesota faculty member William Beeman:

Unless the candidate makes this an issue him or herself, (they should play) absolutely no role at all. It is most important that the candidate be competent to teach the courses in question as based on the person’s resume and experience. Their personal politics are never a legitimate criterion for selection. Never. … Any faculty or administrator who would allow such a factor to be the basis for a hiring decision is clearly seriously out of line, and perhaps in ethical violation of their professional responsibilities. Academic freedom applies in hiring as well as for those who are hired. … Private schools may face less scrutiny, but this does not absolve the faculty or administration of their basic ethical duties in protecting basic academic freedom of expression.

Yet David Mennicke, a faculty member of Concordia University – St. Paul, says higher-education institutions do have missions to protect:

“Our faculty hold a wide range of political opinions. We do let candidates know of the overall mission of this institution, and counsel them that topics not germane to their teaching and which run counter to the stated mission of the university are best avoided.”

That’s especially important when such politics potentially threaten to undermine a professor’s ability to deal fairly with all students, some faculty say.

Jennifer Tuder of St. Cloud State Univesity writes:

Let’s be clear, everyone is political, everyone’s viewpoints are political. They affect how we approach other people, teaching, life — this all comes into play in the classroom. … At a public university, as at most non-profit universities, there are commitments to teaching diverse populations and to the academic freedom of both faculty and students. So, if your personal politics got in the way of those commitments, that would be a problem.

University of Minnesota faculty member Greg Filice elaborates:

In this case, one of the political views has to do with the rights of others. A university or college is also a large employer with staff and a large student body. If a potential faculty member has views that belittle a certain group of people or would deny a group certain common, important rights, the potential faculty member could have a corrosive effect on the climate and function of the institution. In this case, political views should have a large influence. … It would be different if the candidate held strong views about the economy or some other area that did not affect the lives or emotions of other staff and students.

That’s not just a theoretical concern, Weaver-Hightower writes:

We have a lot of evidence that such stances are personally and academically harmful to many students who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. It’s not just a matter of personal politics at that point.

And the public status of a candidate probably changes the classroom dynamics, writes Jim Heynen, retired writer-in-residence at St. Olaf College:

When a candidate is a public figure whose politics are public, I can see that their political views might affect the decision to hire or not to hire. If a person has proselytized to the voting public, an institution may legitimately assume that such a candidate might also proselytize in the classroom.

That’s the case with Emmer, University of Minnesota faculty member Ascan Koerner writes:

Emmers was only considered for the job in the first place, because of his politics and his candidacy for governor.

Ethan Munson, faculty member at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, sees hiring as a business proposition:

If the candidate has indicated that he/she is unable to respect a substantial portion of the student body, that’s a serious problem. Also, if you hire someone controversial, there needs to be a good cost-benefit ratio. If you pay a cost in controversy, then you need to get benefit in scholarly prestige or quality of teaching. … Perhaps the university decided that the benefits of Mr. Emmers’ presence would not be sufficient.

And never forget the hassle factor, writes Carolyn Schmidt, a full-time adjunct instructor in Wichita who teaches online:

Keep in mind that an administrator is motivated to keep student complaints at a minimum. That is a primary motivator. If a person’s politics get in the way of good teaching (especially if they are perceived as being unwilling to consider other viewpoints) then a lot of complaints will come in. Administrators HAVE to take complaints from the students of their full-timers because they are essentially married to full-timers. But part-timers are just transient, so ones who are difficult to work with in any way are likely to be shown the door.

  • And then there is the issue as to whether or not “politics” was actually the issue involved in this incident, as opposed to a potential violation of HR practices in promising someone a job when the proper hiring procedures were not followed. We don’t have enough information about this case to know if Emmer’s assertion is, in fact, correct, or whether he expected to be hired outside the usual procedure.

    • Anonymous

      True, though we have seen published news accounts about faculty opposition to his politics. Hamline has also not denied it. We can decide for ourselves what all that means.
      A higher-ed colleague and I have gone through Hamline’s faculty handbook online, but there doesn’t seem to be anything that directly states what the procedure normally is, at least for non-tenure-track hires.

      • The faculty handbook would not be the source of that information, but rather the HR department and/or the various constitutions and policies of the university. The hiring practices governing adjuncts (not tenure-track faculty) may be casual, but there are most certainly some guidelines in place. It is really important in stories like these to highlight the issue of “contingent” faculty and their rights (or lack of rights). Emmer is  a high-profile public figure who thinks he’s entitled to a job. Most adjuncts are not at all in that situation. That is why the issues of HR regs (or lack of them) and their enforcement are more important as issues to me than Emmer’s dubious claims that his politics were the issue. I rather suspect that some faculty called an administrator on his/her trying to do an end-run around hiring practices.