This article came to my attention the other day, and I wanted to let it marinate before responding.
One thing I’ve gleaned from my position of Temporary Honorary Colonel is that the hiring process is the most delicate and important part of the academic life. Get that right, and invariably it leads to a better institution. Get it wrong, and, well…The problem is that every candidate these days comes in with a PhD, scads of publications/presentations/performances/what have you, and letters of recommendation that would imply this person would walk on water if it wasn’t for the fact that s/he is an Olympic swimming champion. So I understand the impulse to find Yet Another Way to seek out that A-1 top-notch person who is perfect for the position. We have more data (and the ability to access more data) than at any other time in human history. We routinely use technology that was unimaginable two decades ago to do things impossible ten years ago. I am most certainly in favor of adapting technology for our needs, including this process.
There was a line in the article that concerned me.
“It offers a way for his GameChanger unit to avoid wasting time on the 80 people out of 100—nearly all of whom look smart, well-trained, and plausible on paper—whose ideas just aren’t likely to work out. If he and his colleagues were no longer mired in evaluating “the hopeless folks,” as he put it to me, they could solicit ideas even more widely than they do today and devote much more careful attention to the 20 people out of 100 whose ideas have the most merit.”
My fear is this: who controls the algorithm? Throughout human history, attempts to seek out “the best and the brightest” almost invariably fall back to “the best and the brightest from a very specific social, intellectual, and cultural circle.” Maybe this is the old class-warrior chip on my shoulder, but in an age where social mobility is declining and income inequality is increasing, I can’t help but think that folks like me (working-class/agricultural background, not exactly in a Major Metropolitan Area) would have been still passed over for the possibilities generated. Put simply, no matter how good I would be, my background strongly implied I would be one of “the hopeless folks.”
What does this mean for higher education?
I never really believed in the idea of the “intangible.” I wanted to believe that American Higher Education was truly a meritocracy, and that it didn’t matter where you came from so long as you were among the best. Then reality hit, and I saw people far better at this than I limited to long-term adjunct positions (assuming they were able to get positions in academia at all) and people far worse end up in positions of power. I saw brilliant minds from the working class shunted off to career paths that were not in their best interest and mediocre minds from the upper classes given control over higher education. I remain skeptical that even a pure data-driven exercise would be set up in such a way as to remove this basic unfairness, especially now that the megacorporations are taking hold of this idea. So now I do believe in the “intangible,” and when I serve on a hiring committee I take the time to look beyond the data and see what kind of person is lurking under that CV.
What say you?