The ‘Identity’ Rejection Letter: Should search committees reveal the identity of the people they hire to unsuccessful applicants?

I’m a philosopher on the academic job market and an aspect of this ‘rite of passage,’ as I like to call it, is receiving rejection letters for the many jobs one has applied for. How many such letters one gets is of course a function of how many jobs one applies for (the more applications submitted the more rejection letters one is likely to receive), and I won’t here supply the details of just how many jobs I have personally have applied for and their results (though I have often thought that this information might be of interest to other applicants). However, having been on the market for a few years and having received my share of rejection letters, I’ve noticed that these letters take a variety of forms. The most common is the ‘stock’ rejection letter, sometimes sent from the committee directly, sometimes from the human resources department, sometimes addressed to me personally, sometimes to the ‘Dear Candidate,’ which thanks me for applying and regrets to inform me that I haven’t been short-listed or the committee has chosen the candidate that best serves their needs. (I don’t mean to bash the stock letter. There is good reason the stock letter is so common: the number of candidates applying for most of these jobs is so high that anything other than the stock letter would require an unreasonable amount of labour by the committee or secretarial staff.) Every once in a while, however, the rejection letter I, and presumably all other candidates, receive informs us of the identity of the person that the selection committee has hired for the position in question. What I’d like to discuss here is this specific type of rejection letter, let’s call it the ‘identity letter, and ask a question: should hiring committees reveal to applicants the identity of the successful candidate? I’ll be honest, I’m not sure committee should, in the end, do this, but there are some reasons for and against, and it seems worthwhile to at least discuss the question since committee practices are so varied.

Let me start by speculating on why the committees that do reveal the identity of the successful candidate to all applicants engage in this practice. One reason might be that it is merely serving the function of an announcement – informing a community of an important development that the community has an interest in. Another, related reason is that it’s performing the dual function of informing applicants that they were unsuccessful while at the same time saying ‘and we did in fact hire someone, their name is X.’

Now let me consider some reasons NOT to reveal the identity of the successful candidate. I think the main reason not to do this is simply that there doesn’t seem to be any good reason TO do it in the first place. Indeed, to speculate on why some committees don’t write identity rejection letters is because the applicants aren’t entitled to this information in the first place. There is likely no institutional pressure to reveal this information, and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious moral or practical reason to do so either. After all: who a department hires is the business of the department and the successful candidate – nobody else’s!

At the same time, let me offer a few reasons in favour of committees revealing the identity of the successful candidate to applicants. One reason to do this, although not a very good one, is that everyone, including unsuccessful applicants, will most likely be able to find out this information themselves anyways. With sites like the Philjobs ‘Appointment’ page, and the websites departments maintain of current faculty and staff, any interested party can learn who the successful candidate for a job was by a simple google search once these sites are updated. But again – this isn’t a very good reason for committee to proactively reveal the identity of the successful candidate. So,are there any good reason?

I can think of at least one that I have experienced as an unsuccessful applicant. I admit that I have sometimes searched to see how was hired for a position I applied for unsuccessfully. But despite what you might think, this wasn’t because I was nosy, snooping, wanted to gossip, etc. (Okay, sometimes I’m just curious). I sometimes try to find information about not only the identity, but the academic record of a successful applicant so that I can see what the record of a successful applicant looks like. Indeed, to be honest the ‘identity’ of an applicant (i.e. their name and other biographical information) is only indirectly of interest to me insofar as it can help me find their CV. On the one hand, this sounds like a terrible thing to say – it’s not to say that I’m not interested in who these people are either and that they’re reducible to their CV, it’s just to say that given my specific interests in this situation, biographical information is not and indeed SHOULD not be of any interest to me, for reasons related to discrimination. Whenever a committee sends me an ‘identity’ rejection letter, and once I’ve gotten over the bitterness of rejection that always seems to be present despite the fact that this is rejection #148, I’m very grateful so that in my cool hours of reflection I can process why they hired one person and not me, and I can see where my experience fell short, how I might work to build my experience in the future to give me a better chance, etc. I know people use sites like Philjobs ‘Appointments’ simply to gossip and track where people move, who gets hired where, etc., but these sites and the identity rejection letter perform a valuable educational function not only to philosophers currently on the job market like me, but also to younger grad students and those considering an academic career: it shows these people what it takes to be successful in the competitive market we’re currently faced with. I’m not sure this is enough reason for committee to adopt the identity rejection letter as standard practice (indeed I really don’t think this is a good enough reason to ignore the competing concerns of the candidate’s right to privacy or the fact that anyone other than the applicant and the department really has a right to know who was hired before officially making this information public via a website or other mediums down the road). At the very least, however, I think this is a good reason to engage in this practice, despite initial intuitions to the contrary, and committees who decide to do this have this reason to support their practice.

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