The New Cronyism


Cronyism is an interesting word. It sounds bad. No one says, "my heart is filled with cronyism" or "that was the cronyiest moment of my life." Yet crony just means friend. Somehow by adding ism it become a serious accusation: The hiring or granting of a right based on something other than merit. Recently I noted two new examples of changes in hiring practices: one is close to cronyism; the other dead center. But in the elite PC world of people who used to rail about ol' boy systems and favoritism, these practices seem to be OK.

1. OK, I am not sure this first one really is cronyism but it is close and I have been meaning to write about it. I was talking to a friend of mine at a different school who is on his hiring committee. I asked him if anything was different in the way it works as compared to, say, ten years ago. Without hesitation and with some level of frustration he said "yes." "I get a constant stream of letters from from well known law profs at highly ranked schools pushing their students. It's almost always the elite schools." My friend observed that ten years ago these efforts were not as aggressive. Of course these letters generally go to graduates of the same elite group of schools who desperately want to please and be remembered by their old profs. After all, a visiting position could be in the works. I understand the letter writers are not necessarily friends but they purport to be close to the candidates they are plugging and they want them to cut in line based on their connection.

2. The dead center one involves couples. Evidently, hiring a spouse or partner these days automatically means taking on the responsibility for finding employment for the other partner either in town, in another part of the university or in your own department. This is discrimination not on the bases of marital status but on the basis of to whom you are married -- cronyism.

As noted there are three forms: A person is hired who has a spouse who wants to be employed in a non academic setting. Deans call in favors to find him or her a job. Or, the person wants a job in a different department. This is actually one of the most undermining. For example, sometime ago my school sought to hire a lateral at a high but not "star attracting" salary. We found our person only to hear that the school had to fund another department to the tune of thousands of dollars to hire the spouse. WTF, I thought. If we knew we had that much to spend we would have been in the "star" market.

The final case involves the couple who teach in the same department. For me that is law. The trailer is usually someone the school would not and did not consider. The desired candidate is hired and the challenge is what to do with the "other." Others can be found stashed all over Universities -- assistant lecturer, research fellow. (Why don't we just call it what it is "Spouse of Tenure Track Professor," "Crony Professor," or "Special Position Filled on the Basis of to Whom you are Married") They go to the head of the line for any position that would fit, they make friends in a context in which social connections are almost everything, and all of sudden the are elevated to "incredibly well qualified" for the same job as the spouse holds. Of course, this is because they have cronies. I see no principled distinction between this cronyism and the 1970's version that usually involved white males and their pals. What I have learned (no surprise here) is that people who criticized cronyism in the past never did so on the basis of principle but simply because the wrong people were being hired. In both cases, though, friendship means thousands of equally or better qualified candidates are ignored.

I will concede to having some biases: First, in my experience, far more often than not, having spouses teaching in the same department has been worse than having two unrelated people holding the same positions. Second, I am so tired of hearing "We need to find a place Angelo. or we might lose Phil." Get real, from about the 20th ranked law school on down we are all basically fungible. No faculty member leaving any of those schools will create a hardship or a change in quality. The next entering class will not know Phil even existed.

I suppose someone disagreeing with me would say they learned so much about the other that he now feels the other is great. Lame, so lame -- you never compared him or her to the others.