From the AHA Activities column of the December 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

Age Discrimination and the Community of Historians: An Advisory Opinion from the Professional Division

AHA Staff, December 2008

David J. Weber, the vice president of the AHA’s Professional Division writes: In recent years the Professional Division of the American Historical Association has received complaints that suggest that age discrimination remains a problem in our guild. The Professional Division issued a statement condemning age discrimination in 1996, at which time it was illegal—as it still is today. The AHA retired the 1996 statement in 2005, when it folded age discrimination into a document that opposed discrimination on the basis of age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. In light of the reports that age discrimination continues, however, the Professional Division thought it wise to bring the 1996 statement momentarily out of retirement in order to remind members that we oppose discrimination based on age. At its June 2008 meeting, the AHA Council agreed. The 1996 statement, clear and brief, appears below.

I especially urge historians responsible for hiring in public and in academic settings to review this and other AHA documents that spell out best practices in our profession. These documents, thoughtfully prepared by our colleagues, provide useful advice on matters such as such as hiring and conducting interviews (about which we also continue to receive complaints). These documents are readily available on the AHA web site and deserve our attention, as do the people whose lives are affected by our decisions.

Advisory Opinion Regarding Age Discrimination (Adopted June 1996)

The AHA’s Professional Division has found troubling evidence of age discrimination within the history profession. The division is particularly concerned about discrimination against older applicants both in position announcements and in the hiring process. More specifically, the division is concerned about departments trying to narrow the applicant pool through the use of age-restrictive criteria in job descriptions or arbitrarily eliminating otherwise qualified candidates because of age. No one should be denied the opportunity to pursue a career in history because of his or her age.

When a department or institution decides to confine its search to younger applicants, it discriminates against two groups. One is made up of older individuals who earned their doctorates during the job shortages of the 1970s and 1980s, have since held a variety of temporary and part-time positions, and are interested in entry-level positions that offer the possibility of tenured status. Although their teaching experience and often impressive publications might be expected to give them an advantage in the search process, they sometimes find themselves dismissed without interviews as “overqualified.” The other group that suffers age discrimination is made up of those who have earned their degrees later in life and thus are recent PhDs but no longer young. Such candidates have received the same training as their younger colleagues and have benefited from more extensive life experience, yet search committees sometimes tend to be biased against those whose lives do not fit traditional patterns. By eliminating well-qualified candidates simply because of age, search committees lose valuable opportunities to enrich their departments and institutions.

The Professional Division opposes the use of hiring criteria that discriminate against qualified candidates on the basis of age. The use of such criteria at any stage in the search and hiring process is unprofessional and may constitute age discrimination, which is illegal.