Column: A White Male Confesses: I Got My Job Through Affirmative Action

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Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Legalized Gambling: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara and Denver: ABC-Clio, 1994 and 1997-2nd ed.)

I received my undergraduate and master's degrees in Political Science from Michigan State University. Following a brief stint in the Marine Corps and a two-year teaching position at Southeast Missouri State College in Cape Girardeau, I enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of Missouri in Columbia. I received my degree in l972, nine months after I entered the job market for a tenured track teaching position. I knew that finding a job in l971 would not be easy. After all, my degrees were not from Ivy League schools, or from what would generally be considered"Top Ten" institutions--although the colleges were certainly respectable second tier schools. Moreover, my final degree had not yet been awarded. I had an added disadvantage in the fact that I was physically located a thousand miles away from my university. I was working with a non-profit government research group in Raleigh, North Carolina.

I needed help, so I called my advisor in Missouri and asked him if he knew of any positions. He told me he didn't, but he added that I should contact a very close friend of his who was on the faculty at the University of North Carolina, which is located in Chapel Hill, only twenty miles from Raleigh. I certainly agreed that a short drive was worth the try. His friend had been a close colleague while they were both Ph.D. students at the University of Michigan in the fifties. His friend had also been on the faculty at the University of Iowa in the sixties. The North Carolina professor indicated that he really couldn't help me, but I was free to look through the departmental file of job listings if I wished to. I certainly wished to, and I did.

I found four or five items of interest. One was a penciled note on a three by five inch piece of note pad paper from a Western Michigan University professor. The professor had been a Ph.D. student of the North Carolina professor while the latter was at Iowa. The note had a personal salutation followed by a request for a new Ph.D. or near-Ph.D with an interest in Public Administration and an emphasis in organization theory. While the area of interest wasn't exactly what I had in mind--my degree was in Political Science with an emphasis in state and local government, I thought it might be worth a try. My dissertation was focused on the office of state attorney general, and that was an administrative position, sort of anyway.

Besides, I remembered the name of the Western Michigan professor from a seminar I had attended two years previously. I had met the professor and was pretty sure he would remember me. I made a personal contact, and I was informed to get to the Midwest Political Science Conference being held the next month in Chicago. There I could meet other Western faculty members. A bigger trip, but this was a tenured track job I was seeking. The meeting in Chicago went well, and I was invited to Kalamazoo a few days later. There I was impressed that the faculty desired me to make a presentation on my dissertation research, and they seemed generally interested in my graduate studies. A week later I had a job offer.

I was at Western Michigan for nine years. I recall several more trips to Political Science conferences in Chicago. Once I drove over with the department chair and another senior professor. They talked about the new recruit we had to find for our program. Several times the two men groaned about having to post the listing and sit in a hotel room talking all day with potential candidates, and then having to respond to telephone calls that could go on until three in the morning. They let me know it was easier for them when they knew that I was coming to Chicago two years before, and that they didn't have to go through a"meat market" recruiting effort. I had been the last person the department had hired.

When we got to Chicago, it turned out that they had"lucked out" again. They met a former colleague for lunch. He told them that a fine person had been recommended by a friend at a university in Wisconsin. The candidate, it turned out, had found the atmosphere for his research at his university to be rather undesirable, and he wished another placement. The former colleague assured the chair and the senior faculty member that the candidate was top-notch, and besides,"he had his degree in hand from an Eastern university." The chair quickly made a call leaving a message for the candidate, and then he called the placement service for the conference and had the Western Michigan job listing removed. The Political Science Department had its"new man." He was offered a contract two weeks later.

During my nine years at Western Michigan University, I had received tenure and been promoted to associate professor. Nonetheless, I felt that my career was in a period of stagnation. I had served a year as a National Association of Schools of Public Administration and Affairs (NASPAA) Fellow with the Labor Department in Washington, and I had been elected to a political post as the head of a local government in suburban Kalamazoo. It was l980, and I was looking for something different. I could run for reelection and cut all ties with Western Michigan University if I won--not a sure thing, but I had a good chance. Of course, if I did that my career would be tied to electoral politics for years to come, not an overly happy prospect, from my academic perspective.

But I didn't want to return to full time teaching duties at Western as the University was facing all sorts of budget cuts and various other factors of malaise. So one day I got a copy of the Public Administration Times, the official publication of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA). There were about a dozen jobs listed for which I was qualified. I wrote to ten of the schools and sent them my resume. One of the schools was the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Their job announcement indicated that they desired to have a person at a mid-career rank, and that they were an"Equal Opportunity Employer." The rest is history, I got the job. There had been thirty-two applicants, I was ranked second, and I was invited for an interview after their first ranked candidate did not pass muster.

I have been at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for over twenty years. I can say unequivocally that I got my job at UNLV because of Affirmative Action. I was white, I was male, I was forty years old--I was an affirmative action hire.

I did not know anyone at UNLV when I was hired. No one with the Public Administration Department at UNLV knew anyone at the University of Missouri or Western Michigan University. I had no connections. However Affirmative Action requirements demanded that UNLV not recruit a new professor via penciled notes, luncheon meetings, or telephone calls to insiders. They had to advertise the job. They had to advertise nationally in a publication that would reach all potential job candidates. They had to make a special effort to advertise in media that would be seen by minority candidates, but they had to advertise in any job listing service for the discipline of Public Administration. They advertised with the American Political Science Association and with ASPA.

Does Affirmative Action help white males of younger or middle ages. This professor thinks so. In l971 I would never have been hired by UNLV. I wonder about the"old boys" network that was in place then in Las Vegas. It does seem that many of our older professors have degrees from the Universities of Arkansas and Arizona, while several have degrees from a variety of California schools. Very few of these professors have told me that they had to compete for their positions. In l980 I had a chance. How about the others that had a chance in l980 that would not have had a chance in l971? Were most of them minorities or women? I doubt it. Most Ph.D.s competing for academic jobs are males, and most are white. Without affirmative action rules, they would be left out of consideration. They would not have the simple opportunity to apply for the jobs. I was at the right place at the right time in l971. I got a job because I could apply. While I can tell myself that I won the position because I was the best person to apply, I know the truth. I think I was qualified for the job, but I happened to have an advisor who had a good friend who happened to have a former student at a certain university who was willing to tell him about the opening. And I just happened to have met the former student at a seminar. Affirmative Action means that all potential candidates know about the opening. And that means that white males have the best chances, because after all, there just happens to be a lot of them, and a lot of them do not have special connections.

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solutrian - 9/4/2001

Prof. Thompson confuses favoritism with Affirmative Action. One is simply done, whether rightly or wrongly, as a matter of practice, influence etc. The other is law, binding and imposed. Had Prof. Thompson been interviewed for his postion at a later time than of which he writes, he would have been sharply exposed to the difference. I leave it to Prof. Thompson to admit or deny his qualifications for the position.