There are certain academic jobs such as Baylor or BYU that require a certain way of life. BYU, for instance, requires one to adhere to the Church Educational System Honor Code and Baylor typically requires a letter of recommendation from your Minister/Rabbi (their words) with one's application. For example, being in a gay relationship would be enough to be expelled from BYU.

These require a certain type of personal life choices and lifestyle, and, while they are very religious schools, there are other possible dealbreakers at secular universities. For example, secular schools have retracted offers due to the fact that the applicant for a faculty job is on the sex offenders registry.

There's a huge amount of gray area between these two data points that I have. Where is the line drawn on how much one's personal life matters at a secular school? What would have to be publicized about a faculty member's or applicant's personal life in order for the person to have an offer rescinded or tenure revoked? Is it only about the research/teaching/service, or is there any examination on the person's life if that common knowledge in the community?

My question is mainly about the United States.

  • 2
    You may find this article interesting. It describes the interplay between religion, research and hiring at St Louis University, which is 'Catholic Jesuit institution' but is nevertheless 'governed by a board of trustees with a layperson majority'. In particular, though the job advert being dissected starts off describing SLU as a religious institution (which other universities might also do) there are more secular spaces than you would tell from the posting.
    – E.P.
    Aug 3, 2015 at 15:28
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    Making controversial public statements has caused at least one secular university to retract an offer.
    – Mangara
    Aug 3, 2015 at 15:35
  • Some research facilities require a security clearance. Perhaps a situation could arise in which a very leftist candidate would make the hiring committee uncomfortable because collaboration with key department members could be difficult if the security clearance couldn't be obtained. But I'm just speculating. Aug 4, 2015 at 20:15
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    As a foreign counterpoint, Brooke Magnanti was outed as "la Belle du Jour" in 2009: she worked as a call girl to fund her PhD studies and subsequently wrote about her experiences in a pseudonymous book. Needless to say it generated a lot of press coverage. She was working for Bristol University at the time it was revealed. The official statement from the university was simply, "This aspect of Dr Magnanti's past is not relevant to her current role at the university."
    – Calchas
    Aug 5, 2015 at 16:04

2 Answers 2


I am not a lawyer, so take this with a grain of salt.

In the US it is illegal to take information about a candidate's membership in a protected class as a basis for hiring or firing, except in circumstances where that information concerns what the law calls a "bonafide occupational qualification."

The idea is that certain kinds of employers get to discriminate in ways that would otherwise be illegal because of their status as private entities dedicated to a particular mission. For instance, a Jewish synagogue can discriminate against non-Jewish applicants when it is hiring a rabbi. If the state prosecuted synagogues for religious discrimination because they only considered Jewish candidates, this would effectively be the state saying that Jewish Synagogues can't exist.

So, in certain kinds of religiously affiliated schools, it is legal for the school to hire only members of a certain religion based on the same principle. But this only holds if membership in the religion is an explicit, advertised condition of the job, i.e. if the school is dedicated to being a school exclusively consisting of members of that particular religion.

Most religious schools in the US are not actually like this--for instance there are dozens of catholic schools in the US which are open to students and faculty of any religious tradition, or no religion at all. Schools like that are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion, because clearly at such schools membership in the religion isn't a "bonafide occupational qualification".

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    In most states, you can be fired for plenty of things in your personal life without a problem for the institution. At-will employment allows this. It is illegal to discriminate based on someone's membership in a Protected Class, but if someone wants to fire you because of something else in your personal life, they can, unless you have a contract, collective bargaining agreement, or local non-discrimination law that says otherwise. Sexual orientation tends to fall in this last category. Blue hair or an love for basketball are fair game.
    – Bill Barth
    Aug 3, 2015 at 15:47
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    @BillBarth, you are exactly correct. My initial wording is overly broad. I should have made a general claim about all information about a candidates personal life. I will update in line with your suggestion.
    – user10636
    Aug 3, 2015 at 15:49

I appreciate what @shane is saying about hiring legalities. But potential employers have so many resources available these days that would reveal things about a candidate's life, and I would bet money that somebody on the hiring team is going to google your name to see what they could see. And the things they find may be more or less relevant to your teaching or research. If it comes down to two candidates that are equally qualified, and one of them has unsavory things floating around the internet, that might be the deciding factor.

Being a registered sex offender would, in my mind, pretty much take you off the list. We have so much trouble with sexual harrassment at the university level, and in my time, several faculty were summarily dismissed when what they were doing came to light. Wouldn't a school want to avoid possible difficulties if they had another qualified candidate?

Of course, everything on the internet has to be taken with a grain of salt, and if you are dead drunk in Cancun on spring break or heeding the call to "Show us your boobs" in New Orleans at Mardi Gras time, well, kids, you know? But if there's something serious easily accessible on the net and they can't bring it up in the interview because of the legalities, might you want to bring it up?

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