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I am on the job market this year, and one of the main things I'm looking for is a good department culture fit. Naturally, the political views of the department and its members plays a role in this, and so I would like to have some idea of the political leanings of the department. However, I'm unclear how much prodding about this is "acceptable" at job interviews? For instance, would it be a bad idea to ask (in a sensitive way) what the department/university response to relevant political happenings has been?

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    What's "relevant political happenings"? Hamas, or recent changes in state education policy? Commented Dec 8, 2023 at 1:57
  • ‘[W]hat the department/university response to relevant political happenings has been …’ A formal statement on behalf of the department ought to be easy to dig up. If you’re interested in opinions of individuals, just ask them if you need that. In the latter case, how would you do the same thing with neighbors? Commented Dec 8, 2023 at 2:43
  • I'm not sure this is equivalent to asking neighbors' views (hence the question). In particular, a potential neighbor has no impact on my life if I choose not to live somewhere (and relatively little impact on my life even if I do). Commented Dec 8, 2023 at 12:38
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    Those are both examples of the type of issues I'm talking about. Other examples would be views on stuff like pronouns, bathrooms, etc. Does it make a difference the specific issue? Commented Dec 8, 2023 at 12:41
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    " one of the main things I'm looking for is a good department culture fit." you have been on the job market for very short time, then ;)
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Dec 8, 2023 at 15:54

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Asking directly about such things is unlikely to be to your advantage - especially if the answers to the questions wouldn't please you. OTOH, those departments that would go all negative aren't likely the ones you want to join in any case. So, if you have options, rather than just wanting to know so that you know how deeply you need to keep your own feelings/attitudes, then ask away. If you get pushback, look elsewhere, though you need to watch out for dissembling as well.

There is another aspect of "political" that you don't raise, but should be aware of and that is whether there are factions in the department that are constantly at war with each other over whatever issue(s) they choose to fight over. This one is harder to get a handle on in a visit, however. Those issues might be political in the classic sense or related to fields of interest.

Hanging around the coffee room for a day or so can give you a good idea about all such things. How do people talk to one another? What do they talk about. What opinions are expressed on the topics of the day?

In large departments you will find a variety of attitudes. Most places the "average" is a bit more liberal than the general population of that region (some exceptions). In large departments you can likely find some people with views similar to your own and some with different views, even those you find repugnant. Such is life.

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By saying "relevant political happenings", do you mean politics inside the department or global/national politics? If politics is inside the department, you are unlikely to know until you join as a faculty. They will say nice things. If you mean global/national political happenings, people may not be very vocal even though they strongly feel about something, especially at the interview phase. So, it may not be a better idea to ask. Rather than infer indirectly based on their actions, the diversity of faculty, the diversity of students, and some other similar matrices.

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  • There's also intermediate steps. University-wide politics are relevant, and so are state/provincial politics, when those affect funding and policy. In Europe, trans-national EU/ESA/CERN politics also play a role.
    – user71659
    Commented Dec 9, 2023 at 1:22
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This is something you can bring up during more informal parts of a campus visit. I would not bring it up before that time, as the prior screening interview will be quite focused on your qualifications and selling yourself. The more informal parts of a visit are often meals, and this is where you would make inquiries about collegiality, department climate, and the various tensions you mentioned here.

Is it wise to bring it up? In my opinion, if these issues are something that would make you decline a job offer, then you need to know about them directly from the department rather than making assumptions based on what you have access to in the news or online. So it makes sense to ask — in the right way at the right time.

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