The term “nepotism” is typically riddled with negative connotations. It’s an ancient practice whereby at least one individual is awarded a coveted role or position simply because they are related to someone higher up on the ladder. It’s not quite discrimination … but it’s not quite not, either, since those who are passed up for the opportunity were discriminated against for not being related. It’s a fine line that is illegal in some places and unethical everywhere else, but in the case of academic nepotism, it has proponents who argue about the benefits it brings.
Discriminatory policies are clearly denoted in academic institutions and are typically closely followed, but nepotism often slides through the cracks. When it comes to instructional positions, there may be not enough people to fill them, or too much competition and a lot of coveted roles. The pendulum swing depends on a lot of factors, such as what’s going on in the government reform policies for that year. Higher learning institutions have been in the spotlight lately for their stance on academic nepotism, with some people arguing that it has a place ethically, when it’s used right.
What is Academic Nepotism?
The principle of academic nepotism is that a person gets a job position because of their relationship to someone already established in the institution. It’s not illegal, provided there are no monetary benefits beyond the salary and no conflicts of interest that would cross the legality line.
Academic nepotism is more common than most people probably think, especially in smaller, rural towns where “knowing somebody who knows somebody” is an advantage. But in so many cases, it’s not an intentional incident. The employer doesn’t hire the relative thinking about the nepotism involved. They look at the skills and see that the person is capable of the job and that they are a known variable versus the other unknown candidates. The line becomes blurry when someone with equitable skills and background is given a position over another applicant with the final deciding factor being their relation to a person already hired.
The Arguments Against Nepotism in Higher Learning
Some cases of academic nepotism start out completely innocent, while others are completely lacking in integrity. Opponents of this method of hiring new staff claim that instances of nepotism are inequitable, with people obtaining positions that they are wholly unqualified for based on the merit of their relation to another employee. When this happens, it’s not only inefficient, but it’s dangerous to the students’ academic outcome and the entire institution's mission.
This is also a problem because teachers are hired in contract positions that are difficult to terminate without a major justifiable cause. Inefficiency isn’t technically a cause for firing someone. The contract may not be picked up the following year, but the entire school year can be wasted while the untrained person struggles with their role. The students are the victims in this situation.
As the rest of the faculty begin to see the consequences of this action, the effects roll downhill to their trust in the system. If they are working hard and had to earn their position, yet someone else is able to skate by with their job because of their family relation, the rest of the faculty loses confidence in the fairness of the institution’s human resources department and other administration, resulting in a loss of motivation and disconnect in the overall loyalty. Those who would otherwise have been strong faculty members may leave if they feel unappreciated for their hard work.
Proponents and the Benefits They Claim
Some institutions have anti-nepotism policies in place, but others encourage this method of bringing in staff. When it comes down to it, it really depends on the ability the school has to attract good candidates to their positions. A rural school or a school in a tiny town doesn’t typically have a lot to offer, and when they have someone on staff with a spouse or partner looking for a job, it can be a blessing to all parties.
Smaller school districts usually have less budget to pay competitive salaries or to offer benefits. Their pool of good, qualified candidates is already small. If an employee has to leave the area because their spouse can’t find work, now they’ve got two open vacancies they can’t fill instead of one. Offering a job to the spouse, if they have the skills that fit the job requirements, might be the solution, unless the school district has distinct anti-nepotism policies in place.
In general, professional organizations like the American Association of University Professors suggest that the policies behind nepotism be constructed by the faculty and administrators of an institution based on their needs. It should be formalized, but individual to the school itself, taking into account things such as privacy sharing and consensual relation rules.