Wasta and British Academia

(I wish I could commence this post with ‘It started;’ alas, it commenced long before my time.)

Last Monday I was summoned to a job interview at a British university that tickled my interest more than usual: directly in my field, the expertise required and the teaching and research to be conducted was akin to my own achievements in a manner that inspired much positivity.

The short-listing had been quick – three days – and the interview soon – less than a week and so I set about preparing with gusto and joy.

Monday arrived in customary swiftness and as the train entered the city, I held no anxiety: academically speaking, this was my home.

Upon arrival I was escorted to the waiting area and furnished with the names of my competitors.

Being the techno-geek that I am, I Googled their names and discovered that one was vastly superior (two books, four articles, a lectureship, fluent in Hebrew and Arabic and the director of undergraduate studies at a well-known university.)

I sighed and doffed my cap in anticipation of a fair trouncing: he was, in all respects, the better candidate.

The second was the inside runner: the student of the appointing Professor, he had completed his viva only weeks ago; he had no publications, was over 50 and sampling a career change after 30 years in business.

He had no conferences to his name, while his teaching experience was that of the newly Doctored variety.

One might say that in comparison with applicant number 1, he stood no chance.

But wait.

In academic circles the power of connections oft outweighs qualifications, experience and publications.

I chose not to be cynical and prayed this would be an anomalous event: perhaps the right candidate would win.

Freakishly, maybe the middle candidate would win.

But surely not the least qualified?

Within two hours of leaving the Head of Department confirmed the inevitable.

Rejection is par for the course in academia and by now I am in possession of a rather enviable hide of resiliance.

The Achilles’ heel however, is loss to a lesser competitor: in this instance, the candidate with a CV scantier than an extreme lingerie exhibition.

The spurn is double: had the better candidate won, my magnimity would have been in abudndance.

He was aspirational and I would be glad of his success, for he had worked harder, gone further than I have.

To be pipped by an individual who has not even begun his career on the basis that the supervisor of said individual was appointing, is scandalous.

If one aligned our CVs sans names before an objective committee, his would have been pulped with immediate effect.

Lamentably, academia is the last bastion of the nepotists.

As he strolled into his presentation five minutes late, the guffaws hinted at what I did not wish to believe.

When, upon laying my pile of publications (books and journals) afore the committee the Head quipped, ‘Well. This is an argument for getting a Kindle’ before sliding them aside, the tartness confirmed a battle over before it commenced.

This is but one instance: it is repeated in universities around the country and in turn good academics are cast into the abyss in favour of lesser skilled contemporaries.

The proof only emerges upon publication of the Higher Education Research Excellence Framework (REF) in which universities in favour of such tactics emerge at disadvantageous rankings.

The smugness that should ensure is of little consolation.

As academics we are not playing on a level field.

I might venture further that as women we are on a field as level as a glacial crevasse.

Dominated by men, the perpetuation of such skulduggery is a death-knell to academia.

To wit: a recent case involved the appointment of a contemporary to full lectureship.

The position was anticipated to be advertised, with healthy competition.

When it was announced that said contemporary – let us call them ‘B.’ – was appointed sans procedure, a silence ensued.

I pursued it further with the then Head of Department who refused to acknowledge my query.

In true Paxman style I continued to repeat the question, to which the response was a stoic ‘I have nothing to do with it.’

‘But you are Head of Department.’

‘I have nothing to do with it.’

Later that year the students began to complain.

Attendance of B.’s lectures went from 80, to 20.

The students downloaded the lectures, for B. would never deviate from the 200 words on the projector.

And yet.

B. is married to a famous academic for whom to slight B. would have repurcussions for the university in question.

Let us imagine then, the consequences in a few years, once tuition fees have reached their zenith and students expect (and rightly so!) more than a reading of a slide in the dark.

At £9,000 a year, students deserve more.

Having strived to publish and extend our CVs, we, as academics, deserve more than a limp ‘You will do better elsewhere’ while those of lesser calibre are ushered in to halls of higher education.

Sometimes, the good get in – in those cases, I am delighted: happy for their acheivements, the acknoledgement of their work and the boon they will bring to the appointing institution.

For now, I pause.

I should continue to publish. Continue to teach. Continue to present at conferences.

But what is the praise and success worth if I never get a job?

Akin to gambling, academia is a loser’s game: but one I will, like the gambler, continue to play.

Because, deluded or no, I believe I have a good hand and maybe (just maybe) the right moment will come.

2 comments on “Wasta and British Academia

  1. Craig
    August 11, 2011

    On paper, I’ve been the least qualified candidate for every job I’ve interviewed for since 1990. And yet, I’ve been offered the position just about every time I’ve interviewed. And I’m certain it’s not because of “connections” because I’ve always declined every job lead that’s been put in my path via connections just on general principles. Reputation has a lot to do with it too. As does presentation. And I imagine in an academia, people skills are a huge factor. I sympathize with what you’re saying, but you can’t reduce applicants for a job to a collection of data points. That’s not the real world and it never has been. You may be right – you may have been passed over for this position just because the person making the final decision was playing favorites – but your arguments in this post don’t provide any evidence of that. From what you’re saying here you just ran a Google search and determined based on the results that you were superior to the person who got the job. If it was that easy to find the best person for any given job they wouldn’t even need to bother with interviews, would they?

    Anyway, better luck next time 🙂

  2. Haitham Al-Sheeshany
    August 12, 2011

    As a recruitment junior “guy”, this is no surprise. Even in academia setting.

    I salute you for going the extra mile and discussing it with the HOD, s/he has the power to stir things but I guess s/he is -like the majority- paralyzed by the system + disappointment(s)

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This entry was posted on August 10, 2011 by in Politics and tagged , , , .
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