Diversity Hiring and the White Lie of “Most Qualified Candidate”

As the news has spread about my university being the latest case of white faculty claiming false diverse identities, I have seen on social media one of the negative consequences I anticipated from this situation—people criticizing diversity hiring.

I expected this sort of backlash because every time the issue of needing to hire a more diverse faculty has been raised among faculty, one of the first responses is, “We should always hire the most qualified candidate.”

The person voicing that position is always a white man.

And each time a new hire turns out to be a white man (again) even though the final 2 or 3 candidates include diverse people, the response is, “We hired the best candidate.”

The problem with this claim and even commitment is that white men constitute only about a third of the population, but are the majority in many fields—and almost always the majority in positions of power.

If mostly white men are making hiring decisions, there is a significant likelihood that these white men see “best candidate” in people who look like them.

With wealth and power disproportionately and historically pooled among white people, hiring has long been skewed toward white bias, cronyism, and nepotism.

If we are gong to be honest, in all fields, positions are flush with mediocre white men who have been hired for many reasons other than being the “most qualified candidate.”

And even though there is abundant evidence that white men have huge advantages in almost all fields—even ones that are predominantly Black, such as professional sports—there is a history of imposters there also.

Take the case of George O’Leary from 2001, in the world of high-level football coaching which is disproportionately made up of white men who are recycled through jobs at a mind-numbing rate:

Five days after naming George O’Leary its new head football coach, the University of Notre Dame announced today that O’Leary had resigned suddenly after admitting to falsifying parts of his academic and athletic background.

For two decades, O’Leary, 55, formerly the coach at Georgia Tech, exaggerated his accomplishments as a football player at the University of New Hampshire and falsely claimed to have earned a master’s degree in education from New York University. Those misstatements followed him on biographical documents from one coaching position to another until finally reaching Notre Dame, one of the most coveted and scrutinized jobs in college football.

Does anyone recall the rush to end the hiring of male football coaches due to high-profile cases of fraud?

Anyone calling to curb or end diversity hiring due to the rash of imposters in academia in recent years is simply grasping at a convenient and misleading reason to hide their real efforts to cling to white privilege.

“Most qualified” and “best fit” are white lies aimed at preserving the status quo.

Here are some harsh truths that must be stated:

White male exceptionalism is a lie, and white male mediocrity is extremely common across all fields.

Diversity hiring remains necessary, and hiring candidates primarily for their diversity is not only acceptable, it is in fact preferable to counter-balance countless decades of white people being hired purely for being white and connected.

Daily, mediocre white men are hired while diverse candidates are expected to be exceptional and compete among themselves for ever decreasing positions in fields such as higher education.

The fear that a candidate may not be the “most qualified” in higher education—where almost all candidates have achieved a doctorate—is particularly ridiculous.

Certainly among academic doctorates and even medical degrees, there is a range of quality, but that range is already at an advanced level. For people with academic doctorates, there is also substantial evidence that even so-called weaker candidates have significant capacities to grow, learn, and improve.

Systemic racism and sexism still make diversity hiring very challenging, and as recent cases have revealed, higher education is likely very susceptible to the sort of fraud uncovered among white women posing as diverse candidates and scholars.

But hasn’t all hiring been prone to fraud and poor hires throughout history?

Curbing or ending diversity hiring would be yet another case of demanding perfection among diverse candidates and the hiring process while having never demanded perfection in the good ol’ boy system.

Recent cases of academic imposters are not signs that diversity hiring is a problem, but a few high-profile cases of fraud cannot be allowed to pause the already very slow progress being made to create faculty in higher education who look and live more like all of the U.S.

Diversity hiring remains a necessity, and “most qualified” is a white lie designed to derail those goals.