Volume 53, Issue 22, Page A31
Getting hired to teach at universities depends less on what you know than on whom you know
With 25 years of teaching experience at
Yet according to a published account by two witnesses, both of them colleagues and friends of Ms. López, the same panelists tempered their praise with captious and nit-picking criticisms of her presentation, including what one examiner called the "unpardonable" error of a mislabeled slide.
When the panel released its decision, Ms. López was the seventh out of seven qualified candidates, ranked too low to win the position she sought — even though the "impact factor" of her published research, a critical measure of her standing as a scientist, was more than four times as high as that of the candidate who came in first.
While disappointed by the decision, Ms. López was prepared for it because her three previous attempts to gain qualification had ended in outright rejection. Though she says she does not know precisely why she was passed over, she pointedly observes that she had never invited any of the panelists — senior academics in her field — to share credit for her research, a common strategy with which junior faculty members in
Despite attempts to reform the faculty-hiring process in
Now the Parliament is preparing to pass a law that critics say will undo whatever progress has been made, further encouraging cronyism and nepotism in Spanish academe. The government and its supporters insist that the new measures will ensure quality while guaranteeing universities the institutional autonomy that academic freedom requires. At stake, the two sides agree, is the ability of
The qualifying examination that Ms. López has taken four times was instituted in 2001 as a remedy for a widespread practice informally known as endogamia, or inbreeding — hiring from within the ranks of a university or research institute.
A study published last year by the government-financed Spanish National Research Council showed that from 1997 through 2001, 95 percent of the people who obtained professorships at Spanish universities — permanent civil-service jobs akin to tenure at American colleges — were already employed at those institutions, and that 64 percent had earned their doctorates on those same campuses.
The council's report did not offer international comparisons, but a study published in the journal Nature in 2001 showed that "only 5 percent of lectureships in
While inbreeding reflects certain charac-
teristics of Spanish society as a whole, including a typical attachment to family and place that discourages frequent moving, the nearly total absence of academic mobility stems from the particular nature of university governance as it has developed since the death of Francisco Franco,
In contrast with the hierarchical, centralized, ideologically guided control that the Franco regime imposed on higher education, the Spanish Constitution of 1978 guaranteed the autonomy of universities as a way to ensure academic freedom. A university-reform law passed by a new Socialist government in 1983 codified that autonomy in faculty hiring, among other areas, and established the universities as self-governing institutions that democratically elect their own rectors and other administrators.
This system gives administrators a strong interest in catering to internal constituencies, especially permanent faculty members, while largely insulating them from competition with other institutions. Financing for public universities (which account for 92 percent of the national system in terms of staff and enrollments) is pegged primarily to the numbers of students — who, for reasons of tradition and economics, rarely leave their home regions to attend college, and have therefore served as a virtually captive market.
"The Spanish university is extremely democratic on the inside, so people spend lots of time developing political coalitions, but it's absolutely irresponsible to the external world," says Luis Sanz-Menéndez, a sociologist at the research council, who was one of the authors of the hiring study. "There's practically no social control, so the university can do whatever it wants according to internal pressures."
Beginning in the late 1980s, the transfer of power and money from the national government to
Culture of Connections
All this has contributed to a hospitable atmosphere for the traditional Spanish culture of enchufe, or connections, in which personal networks of friends and family are the primary vehicle for advancement. In university hiring, local favoritism is sometimes barely disguised, with job descriptions clearly tailored for residents of the region or even for specific candidates.
The anointed are sometimes relatives by blood or marriage of decision makers on the faculty, giving added meaning to the term "inbreeding." In other cases, they are linked by mentor-disciple relationships, political-party affiliation, or common financial interests, such as consulting projects for private industry.
For Ms. López, who remains an associate professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, the lack of mobility is not the essential indicator of corruption in academic hiring. "It doesn't depend on the place," she says. "It doesn't matter where you are but who you are, the power group to which you belong."
Reports of favored candidates' being selected over more-qualified competitors had become so common by the late 1990s that, more often than not, no one else bothered to apply. According to the research council's report, 65 percent of jobs granted from 1997 through 2001 at universities and at the council itself were assigned through competitions in which only one candidate participated.
The impact of such hiring patterns on the quality of research and teaching is hard to demonstrate. Mr. Sanz and his colleagues are working on a study of the scholarly production of Spanish academics and its relationship to career mobility. Others do not hesitate to draw a connection.
"Inbreeding is causing scientific and academic quality in
Representatives of the Spanish academic establishment downplay the significance of the research council's report.
Carlos Berzosa, an economist who serves as rector of the Complutense, the largest university in
Faculty evaluations that emphasize the impact of a professor's scholarship are misleading in the Spanish context, Mr. Berzosa says, since the most urgent task for the first post-Franco generation of university professors, amid swelling enrollments in the 1980s and 90s, was teaching.
"Some professors ignore their students and hide in their offices because the only thing they care about is writing good articles," he says. "I know various professors on my faculty who do little research but are great teachers, highly esteemed by their students."
Critics of the status quo dismiss such explanations as excuses for mediocrity. "[
For some, inbreeding is just one aspect of a larger problem in a university system that rewards political skill and connections over academic merit. Miguel Camblor, who studies materials science at the research council in
In 2001, responding to longtime complaints by a small but vocal minority within Spanish academe, the center-right government at the time sought to limit the autonomy of individual university departments in hiring decisions. After that, a randomly chosen national panel of professors in a given academic field would select and rank acceptable candidates for permanent positions vacant in that field, in a qualifying examination called a habilitación. Institutions are not obliged to accept the successful candidates but must hire from among that group or leave a position vacant until the next qualifying exam.
From the start, the new system has been unpopular with university administrators, as represented by the Conference of Spanish University Rectors, which has lobbied strongly for the examination's abolition.
Among the rectors' complaints is that the habilitación is costly and time-consuming for both candidates and universities, requiring full professors on the panels to set aside their teaching duties for weeks at a time. More important, they argue, the qualifying examination violates the autonomy that universities need in order to select the people best suited to their particular needs.
Mercedes Cabrera Calvo-Sotelo,
Even critics of the old system acknowledge that the habilitación has not been a panacea. Universities often leave a job slot vacant, passing over strong candidates until a local prospect manages to get qualified, Mr. Sanz says. Moreover, professors need not work at the same institution to engage in collusion and horse-trading.
"The members of the panel decide beforehand whom they are going to qualify, on an arbitrary basis and without regard to merit," Ms. López says of the randomly selected examiners. Nevertheless she believes that the habilitación has made it more difficult to rig the hiring process in favor of in-house applicants, and that its requirements have served to filter out the weakest candidates.
A bill being debated in the Parliament, which the current Socialist government expects to become law in the spring, would abolish the qualifying exam. As an alternative, the law would provide for national committees of university professors who would accredit all qualified applicants, without a quantitative limit, based on analysis of their curriculum vitae. Universities would be free to use their discretion to fill vacant professorships with any accredited candidate.
Critics of the proposal say that, for all the limitations of the current system, such a law would be a step backward because, among other reasons, the accreditation committees would not meet publicly or interview applicants. Nor would anything prevent a hiring committee from choosing the least academically qualified candidate among those accredited.
Temptations to continue academic inbreeding will remain once the bill passes, Ms. Cabrera concedes. But universities cannot be forced to take a more competitive approach to hiring, she argues; they must be given incentives to adopt it voluntarily. These incentives, she suggests, could include extra funds and publicity for institutions that perform well in comparative national evaluations.
But Spanish rectors are, to say the least, leery of publishing comparative evaluations, let alone making them the basis of financial support. No one expects such ideas to develop beyond the hypothetical anytime soon.
Only a few scattered examples exist of voluntary and systematic resistance to inbreeding within the university system. They include the economics departments at
One solution involves enriching the pool of potential professors. Since 2001 the Spanish government's Ramón y Cajal Program has underwritten 2,300 five-year postdoctoral research fellowships at Spanish universities. Selected by an independent, international committee of scholars in each field, fellows are eligible for permanent employment at the end of their grants.
Participation costs the universities nothing, yet some have declined. "They didn't want people with better CV's than their own; they didn't want the competition," says Mr. Rull, the
When the first group of fellows reached the end of their contracts, last November, more than a third had not received permanent offers. Not only do the fellows often inspire a "bad conscience" in less productive colleagues, Mr. Rull explains, but departments also have a financial incentive to promote those already on the payroll rather than grant professorships to outsiders.
Still more-ambitious remedies are recent attempts to set up entirely independent systems of faculty hiring. The government of
The regional governments "want the most competitive centers of science and technology, but they know that the universities won't spend the money optimally, so they set up para-university institutions," says Antonio Rodríguez Artalejo, a professor of pharmacology at
Critics of endogamia say
"Universities are an anomaly in