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Getting Schooled: Applicants Deserve Ethical Treatment

Second of two parts.
 

Having commented on practices from an institutional perspective, we now turn to the candidates themselves. This is an exceedingly important area of inquiry that represents an “ethical black hole.”

 

Who champions the need for the nurture and care of candidates? As anyone knows who has prepared the documents to submit to a search committee or agonized through an interview process, it can be very defeating never to even receive notification that one’s application and credentials have been received, let alone being informed what the outcome of the search was.

 

Transparency and concern in all of the process and for all serious candidates suggest that each is treated with dignity and accountability about his or her results in a search. Every candidate deserves to be informed of his or her continuing status.

 

Search processes often take some unplanned turns that pose real ethical challenges. There is the seemingly unthinkable result of offering a position to a candidate and subsequently withdrawing the offer. Chairs of departments should exercise utmost care in contacting candidates and, even more importantly, candidates must be careful to obtain in writing any offer of employment from the authorized administrator.

 

Situations occur, for instance, where, on the basis of an oral offer, a young candidate had sold property, contracted with a moving company and purchased flights to relocate, only to be told that the senior administration had scuttled the offer altogether.

 

One leading institution actually pursued hiring a candidate from another country, offered the person tenure and then, upon hearing rumors that the candidate had adopted a politically incorrect position, attempted to withdraw the offer. This resulted in prolonged litigation and embarrassment for the institution, let alone the anguish of the candidate.

 

Yet another institution’s representative repeatedly and verbally offered a position to a candidate (with no declared search process) while concurrently the “candidate” learned of substantive conversations with other prospects who were actually invited for a campus visit.

 

A third scenario reportedly involved the due process of a faculty and administration that concurred in the offer of employment, only to be nullified by a board committee whose prerogatives were focused upon external denominational interests. This can be common among theological schools owned by denominations. The moral of these stories: “Candidates, be wary!”

 

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Christian institutions face several overarching challenges. They must balance their pedagogical and subject area/discipline needs with the character and religious ideals of the institution. Departments may want to emphasize experience and quality of preparation while administrators are often keen to see compatibility with a doctrinal statement or social ideals position. In some institutions the formal process is virtually a sham because the chief administrator makes decisions quite far from his or her expertise based upon personal compatibility or “style.”

 

Religious institutions have a responsibility to declare faithfully their convictions and abide by them with integrity in hiring practices. Of course, in defense of their own integrity, candidates are obliged to do their homework in understanding the ethos of a school, hoping as well that the character of the institution does not change dramatically after their employment but before they are granted tenure.

 

An ethical “must” is for Christian institutions to conduct thorough background checks on finalist candidates in searches. Letters of application and curriculum vitae can deliberately mislead or simply neglect useful details in the interests of securing employment. The usual police and credit checks and reference letters are not enough. The expectations of Christian integrity and confidentiality underlie the need for consultation with responsible sources and weighing very carefully the “evidence” gathered.

 

Concern prevails in two areas. First, the attempts of some colleagues within institutions to circumvent search processes and gather what can be slanderous and unidentified innuendo that is fed into the search (or worse, the community) without the knowledge of the candidate or any attempt to weigh judiciously the context are grossly unethical and potentially actionable.

 

Second, there is oftentimes a rush to secure a new colleague to meet the demands of existing faculty, without attention to due process or respect for the search committee. Search committees must be independent and trustworthy to enjoy the confidence of both the institution and candidates.

 

Christian institutions must adhere to even higher standards of conduct than others, given the principles upon which they are founded. Where nonreligious and public institution standards are enforced by law and internal monitoring strategies, there are checks and balances in place. Among Christian institutions, however, it should be a matter of voluntary advocacy that is rooted in principles.

 

Moreover, following the thought of ethicists like Stanley Hauerwas and James McClendon, Christian colleges, universities and especially theological seminaries constitute living ethical communities that have an obligation to exemplify the gospel as a part of their character and mission.

 

If we cannot count on the integrity of working ethical communities, how can we hope to recruit appropriate candidates to teach and work in Christian institutions?

 

William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia.

 

Part One: When Christian Higher Education Abuses Ethical Hiring