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I personally know a male graduate student who works in a different area (in STEM) than mine and who has a potentially controversial view. He opposes to affirmative actions for women in academia and outreach activities for female teenagers conducted by a university. He's repeatedly and openly expressed his idea on his public Facebook post, in his (and my) native language, which is not English.

This particular student is soon graduating and has been granted a post as a post-doc at a very prestigious university in the U.S., from (I suppose) this fall on. I don't think that whoever in charge of hiring him knows his view, since, albeit they are public, his posts are not written in English.

While I don't know if his beliefs should prevent him from being hired, I do think that this may be a potential concern to his future employers.

Obviously I'm really concerned about his views and feel that, since they are expressed openly, it might be appropriate to make sure his prospective employers know about them. Is there a professional way to do this, or is it the case that no matter how baleful and publicly expressed the views may be, I should play no part in informing his prospective employers?

Corrigendum: I should have been really, really careful as to how to put my question. For one thing, I don't see his view anti-feminist. The word anti-feminist appears there (with quotation marks) because I couldn't think of a good adjective. It could have been anything else. Since so many people are distracted by this, I remove the word completely.

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    "He opposes to affirmative actions for women in academia and outreach activities for female teenagers conducted by a university" does not automatically classify as misogyny (there is implication only in one way). Prevention from hiring such person is not better than for someone of religious or political views you disagree with (or even: ideologies that you keep in contempt). Does he exhibit any activity that can be a proof of his sexism OR does he have a track of poor references from his female collaborators? – Piotr Migdal Jan 3 '15 at 11:52
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    Nothing described in the OP's post warrants a "warning" to prospective employers. We are past McCarthy, aren't we? (On the other hand, if there are things the OP is omitting -- such as actual discriminative action performed by the student, or favoritism based on political opinion -- then there certainly is reasons to act.) – darij grinberg Jan 3 '15 at 12:57
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    This question sounds too much like: "I disagree with the views of my colleague. How can I undermine his career?" Do you see what's wrong with that? (For the record and before anyone starts accusing me for furthering my own views: personally I support affirmative action.) – Szabolcs Jan 3 '15 at 16:29
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    Why are people downvoting this question? IIRC, downvotes are for badly phrased or ill-researched questions, not to state disagreement with the OP. – xLeitix Jan 3 '15 at 16:36
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    If you aren't understating the ideas he's expressed for the purpose of being polite on a public site, it's entirely possible that to your colleague, your own views are very anti-female. Are you unaware that some women take extreme offense to a public policy that presumes females aren't as good and cannot get in on the merits of their work, but have to be gifted opportunities based on lower standards/requirements? Having differing opinions on how to address structural inequality is not evil. – Ben Voigt Jan 3 '15 at 20:23
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+50

Mind your own business.

If you believe that your colleague poses an actual threat to someone, it is of course your duty to warn them. But opinions are not threats. It is entirely up to your colleague who he shares his opinions with. Revealing your colleague's opinions to his future employer, no matter how offensive you may find them, would be a violation of his privacy.

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    Can you elaborate on how privacy applies to open and publicly expressed opinions? – user18072 Jan 3 '15 at 17:23
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    This answers looks a bit harsh to me in how it is formulated. The big "mind your own business" could be off-putting. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '15 at 19:24
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    @FedericoPoloni One thing many people here appreciate about JeffE's writing is that it is very short and very direct. He is not all bubblegum and rainbows but his writing is concise and meaningful. When I read the OP's question, those four big words in bold are what kept popping into my mind. – earthling Jan 4 '15 at 1:58
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    @FedericoPoloni This is exactly what makes the answer good. The asker is on a dangerous track and needs to be quashed quickly and directly. – David Grinberg Jan 4 '15 at 4:18
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    @FedericoPoloni It needs to be harsh. What the OP is suggesting is an extremely bad idea and, if the institution in question is public, is also illegal (see my answer.) – reirab Jan 4 '15 at 8:09
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There is no way to do this in a professional way.

First of all, if he has been admitted already, it is too late to blow the whistle. Unless what you are revealing is a criminal offence, changing idea and refusing to give him a position to which he has been accepted is legally impossible.

Secondly, sending an e-mail or contacting the hiring committee out of the blue would sound very strange. You are probably the one that would appear as a 'hater' if you write to a professor 'hi, you don't know me at all, but I wanted to tell you that this guy is a horrible person --- to prove it, here are two sentences out of context from a Facebook post that I translated myself'. My first reaction would be thinking that you hate him for personal reasons and are trying to destroy his reputation with fake claims.

Thirdly, as noted already by other users, you are basically trying to shame him for what you regard as a thought crime. What you have objections on are his opinions, not his actions. In most countries, freedom of thought and speech is highly regarded. Unless what you are trying to report is something universally considered abject, such as apology of paedophilia or of the Holocaust, the odds are that people will consider you, not him, the bad person. Sexism isn't high enough on the horribleness scale to elicit such a reaction.

That said, I prefer not to comment at all on whether what he wrote is a sign of sexism and/or morally wrong; this is a different issue.

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    How is being against affirmative action (which can be said to be inherently sexist/racist/*ist) a "thought crime"? Or "sexism" in the slightest? o.O – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 3 '15 at 23:38
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit I wanted to use "thought crime" in the 1984 sense; I do not mean to say that it is literally a crime. I never wrote in my answer that I consider it sexism, either. I think that we should answer this question independently from these issues. The question is basically "should I let a selection committee know, and how, if I think a candidate they selected is sexist" --- we do not need to decide whether the original poster is right in his/her beliefs to answer it. – Federico Poloni Jan 4 '15 at 0:12
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit - It is a thought crime from the point of view (very clearly expressed by OP) of progressive-politics individuals. – DVK Jan 5 '15 at 20:36
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    The sexism is not the opinion of the guy being hired. The sexism is the quotas. – Nicolas Barbulesco Jan 11 '15 at 21:28
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    @DVK — In my opinion, being anti-quotas is not a thought crime. And I am a progressive politics individual. – Nicolas Barbulesco Jan 11 '15 at 21:31
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He opposes to affirmative actions for women in academia and outreach activities for female teenagers conducted by a university.

While I disagree with that view, I am not ready to call it "anti-feminist". Anyway, it is possible to have an academic job and hold anti-feminist views. A postdoc who holds (only) these views does not present an "immediate danger", in that it is unlikely that he will be involved in hiring, personnel or policy decisions.

Such a person is (I think) more likely to engage in poor or unacceptable behavior while on the job. However, that has certainly not happened yet at the postdoc job (it hasn't started yet) and you say nothing about such behavior as a graduate student. Whether Facebook is public or not -- it's clearly somewhere towards the middle of the increasingly complicated spectrum of public versus private life -- it is certainly not professional: that is, he did not post these things in the context of his job.

If I had hired a postdoc and received information about such messages on Facebook, I almost certainly would not reconsider the hiring decision. It would be hard for me to forget it, and I might keep an eye on the postdoc to see whether they behave in any inappropriate way...but the whole thing would make me a bit uncomfortable. We hire (especially STEM?) postdocs for their technical abilities, not for their political and social right-thinking. A lot of postdocs are from foreign countries, and I do not assume that foreign postdocs occupy the same position on the socio-political spectrum as most American academics. I assume that they will mostly stay out of trouble, and that if they get tenure-track positions they (as with everyone else) keep an open mind and learn about what their colleagues and superiors value.

I would say that if the writings concern you -- which I find quite reasonable -- then you should consider responding to it at the source: i.e., on Facebook itself. I try to reply to a positive proportion of emails / posts I see which I regard as being sexist / racist / morally wrong: it can be tedious to do so, but you don't want to politely say nothing while other people say terrible things. On the other hand, you may want to simply stop receiving posts from this person. I became Facebook friends a few years back with someone I had gone to junior high and high school with, and I got treated to a barrage of postings about how employers shouldn't have to cover women's health expenses that they didn't morally agree with. I think I responded once or twice, and after that I blocked the posts. I feel much better!

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    Presumably you meant "political and social left-thinking" – Ben Voigt Jan 3 '15 at 20:15
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    @Ben Voigt: the pun was somewhat intended, yes. – Pete L. Clark Jan 3 '15 at 22:02
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    +1 for suggesting that the OP respond directly, or in the forum where the opinions were originally shared. For an academic, I'd hope this would be the obvious thing to do. – Trevor Wilson Jan 3 '15 at 22:25
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    " I am not ready to call it "anti-feminist"." Even if it was anti-feminist or simply non-feminist, where's the problem? There is no law saying you must be a feminist, that's just a political opinion. Actually I think affirmative actions are quite debatable, and there is absolutely no global consesus on them. – Bakuriu Jan 8 '15 at 8:24
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    @PeteL.Clark: "refusing to write recommendations for female students, or on principle never writing as good a recommendation for a female student" would be anti-female, not anti-feminist. – Tom Church Jan 8 '15 at 18:50
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TL;DR: Don't do this. In the case of a U.S. public university, it would be illegal for them to take any action based on what you want to tell them. Additionally, telling them is a bad idea for the reasons other answers have already given.


Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer. The quotes below, though, are from lawyers who also just so happen to be U.S. Supreme Court justices or U.S. Court of Appeals justices.


In addition to the excellent answers already here, what you are suggesting has actually been ruled illegal for U.S. public universities (or almost any other government job in the U.S., regardless of whether it's at the federal, state, or local level.) Furthermore, anyone deemed to be acting to discriminate on such a basis on the behalf of the state can be sued individually in addition to the state institution itself being sued. If anyone acted on your advice not to hire this person because of his political beliefs, he could sue them. Additionally, he might even be able to sue you.

For more information, see Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, a U.S. Supreme Court case which ruled:

Today we are asked to decide the constitutionality of several related political patronage practices — whether promotion, transfer, recall, and hiring decisions involving low-level public employees may be constitutionally based on party affiliation and support. We hold that they may not.

Additionally, see Elrod v. Burns, which ruled similarly:

Patronage dismissals severely restrict political belief and association, which constitute the core of those activities protected by the First Amendment, and government may not, without seriously inhibiting First Amendment rights, force a public employee to relinquish his right to political association as the price of holding a public job.

In a more recent case, Wagner v. Jones, a law professor was able to individually sue the Dean who made an illegal decision not to hire her based on her political views. Due to unrelated technicalities, that case is still winding its way through the courts, though the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has already ruled that:

[T]he First Amendment prohibits a state from basing hiring decisions on political beliefs or associations with limited exceptions for policymaking and confidential positions.

[Near the bottom of page 10]

and that:

Section 1983 provides a civil cause of action against any person who, under color of state law, causes a deprivation of the rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States. 42 U.S.C. § 1983

[beginning of Section II at the bottom of page 9]

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    I deleted both my answers since legal precedence trumps... thanks for putting this together. – user18072 Jan 5 '15 at 1:31
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    "He might even be able to sue you"—of course he can sue you; anyone can sue anybody else whenever they feel like it. – Nick Matteo Jan 5 '15 at 3:31
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    @kundor They can, but it would normally be summarily dismissed if there were no actionable cause. – reirab Jan 5 '15 at 3:37
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    @SteveJessop That wording was used because that was the circumstance of the specific case (Rutan v. Republican Party.) Rutan actually cited Elrod as precedent. Wagner v. Jones actually refers to a situation nearly identical to that of what the OP was trying to do, specifically of someone not being hired as a university professor on the grounds of their political beliefs. IIRC, that decision cited the other two. – reirab Jan 6 '15 at 22:27
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    @SteveJessop In the case of Elrod, the specific case involved existing employees being fired. Rutan clarified that no employment action ("whether promotion, transfer, recall, or hiring decisions") can be made on the basis of political affiliation. I don't think there was any intent there to narrow to cases explicitly involving party association and apparently the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals didn't think so either when writing their ruling in the Wagner case. – reirab Jan 6 '15 at 22:32
43

Let's look at this question by looking at affirmative action, the university setting, and your role in it:

Affirmative Action

It's hard to gauge his specific position, but being against affirmative action/outreach programs does not mean that this person is against the group that is supposed to benefit from these programs. It can simply mean that this person sees affirmative action as the wrong solution to an issue that might or might not be an actual problem.

For example, this person can think that the gender of a student should be irrelevant, and they themselves have no preference for, e.g., male or female students. In fact, they do what is ostensibly desired -- they treat men and women the same. Interest, persistence, grades, performance, etc. should count, not whether this person is/identifies as male or female. They might even welcome women if they have similar competence (a requirement for the contact hypothesis to work). They might see the differences between the percentages of men and women in certain domains within STEM due to a different distribution of interests, not due to discrimination that requires affirmative action, or think that Academia is not specifically hostile to women but hostile in general (many PhDs, few tenure track positions). There is also the counter-intuitive finding that affirmative action might hurt those it should benefit. At least for race there was an interesting "intelligence squared" debate.

In the following, I'm assuming that this person has thought about his position.

University Setting

Now let's look at affirmative action in the university setting. Unfortunately, some people think that anything but (at least) 50% women in highly prestigious fields like STEM indicate discrimination (ignoring, e.g., prior interests). And for some, it's an ideological issue where questions or an open debate with arguments based on theory and evidence are not tolerated. If you are not for positive discrimination, you are seen as acting actively against women -- even if you just apply the same standards to men and women.

Even worse, I get the impression that some universities get more and more infected by ideology. They are turning into indoctrination places where having the right (or rather: the left) point of view is all that counts (FIRE is an interesting source here). Personally, I think that universities can and should do better. If you cannot discuss "potentially controversial views" at the university then where can you discuss them? But realistically, in some universities open discussion of controversial ideas can draw a lot of outrage (including from students).

Your Role as 'potentially concerned person'

Given the explosive nature of the topic for many people, exposing a contrary view of someone could cause damage. Not necessarily because of the issue, but because you make it an issue. Especially if it is done without this person's knowledge. Or would you tell him in advance that you translated or summarized his postings and gave them to his prospective employers because you were "concerned"?

If you inform his employers/colleagues, I would hope that they have even a shred of integrity and have a look (and a translation) for themselves. Depending on how thought out his views are, they might conclude that he is not the problem but the informant is. They might even regard the informant as a backstabbing snitch who is envious that their new employee was accepted to "a very prestigious university" despite (what the snitch considers) his "potentially controversial views". Even if it damages his career (which it easily might), I don't think that the snitch would come out with a good reputation.

If the new post-doc on the other hand is open about these issues, good. I hope so. Issues should be discussed openly. But considering how easily criticism of a publicly widely accepted view can be misunderstood and misconstrued, it's his decision whether or when and how to talk about it in an Academic context. Personally, I do not think it would belong in a talk with a prospective employer as the topic is too complex and explosive for a superficial conversation and is likely to be misunderstood.

A better solution

If you are "really concerned" about his views, then you can -- as others have written -- talk to him. Discuss the issue with him on the platform of his choosing (here: Facebook). Of course, the same ideologues for whom affirmative action is "not debatable" might regard any person having a debate about the topic as a problem. At the very least you consider something debatable that for them is a no-brainer! And how would you react if he made a point? But perhaps that's a bit too much "censor in the head". ;-)

But if affirmative action really is a no-brainer, you should be able to argue for your point of view and try to convince him. Because frankly, no view -- even if it is/were "right"/"true"/"correct"/"the best solution there is" -- should prevail just because those who have a different position were stabbed in the back when it came to hiring and promotion.

(edit: spelling)

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    Underrated answer in my opinion! Very good points stated. – user11153 Jan 8 '15 at 10:46
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    Another good response. One note however. If the person in question is intelligent enough to be against affirmative action (discrimination), then he's probably not going to be easily swayed. – Keith Jan 21 '15 at 13:08
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    @Keith Touché ;-) – Daniel Wessel Jan 21 '15 at 22:09
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    Awesome response, well-written. This is exactly how I feel about affirmative action. – Hugo Zink Oct 29 '15 at 11:47
7

My understanding that in said country (you are in USA, correct?) freedom of speech is at least as important right that the "need to uniformly and loudly support" a specific policy whatever is your moral concern.

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    Criticisms or argument with a personal (is posting on Facebook public opinion?) opinion doesn't mean "how can I report on him to the authorities". It is like saying that reporting your ethnic origin, or sending out detailed reports on your homosexuality to prospective employers is right, and should be hailed. – Greg Jan 6 '15 at 7:00
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    Well, xkcd is irrelevant, too. May I put the other way: if I would report on OP to an employer that she is a potential backstabber based on her SE posts, therefore a terrible team-player, potentially hurting his/her colleages and employer should be concerned about the issue (this is, off course, exaggeration for the sake of example), in my opinion, I would limit OPs right to speech and raise questions publicly or anonymously, and discuss his/her concerns. In my opinion, policing thoughts and speech are essentially the two face of the same problem. – Greg Jan 6 '15 at 7:14
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    Perhaps you should edit your answer to say all that, then. (Right now, I don't see what your answer adds over the existing answers, which raise similar points but more accurately and clearly. What's the new point you came here to add?) – ff524 Jan 6 '15 at 7:16
1

I can argue this both ways.

On the one hand, I do believe that while public speech should be free, people are also free to react to that speech. So if you really believe that this candidate should be rejected for shooting off his mouth, you're entitled to say so. (Exactly as entitled as he was to make the comments in the first place ... which comparison may indicate why you might not want to do so.)

On the other hand, a person's views -- however obnoxious you find them -- are their own. If they act on those views, including voicing them in a way/time/place that creates a hostile workplace, that's a problem and should be addressed at that time. Until then, they're entitled to disagree even if you find that disagreeable.

I guess my answer would be: If asked, you can certainly voice your concern. I'm not at all convinced it's appropriate to do so if you aren't asked. Remember that the folks accepting/hiring this grad student are perfectly capable of websearching him themselves, and these days have probably done so as part of their HR process. If they've taken him anyway, odds are that you won't change their mind unless there's more going on than you've told us.

And really, how important is it for you to sabotage him, and why? Let him get himself into trouble, if he's going to. Or let him learn how not to. It really doesn't sound like he's a danger to anyone.

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    I'm curious to know how not supporting affirmative action is potentially troublesome, something that could be dangerous. – user20640 Jan 7 '15 at 4:47
  • So am I. That's the point. There seems no need of a warning. He will either piss someone off or he won't, and there's( little value to be gained,to anyone, from getting involved. – keshlam Jan 7 '15 at 5:02

protected by ff524 Jan 4 '15 at 1:55

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