A Discriminatory Word in Academic Job Descriptions

Brian Taylor

September 11, 2012

I've noticed a word popping up regularly in a variety of job postings in academe: "energetic."

It's a word that seems unnecessary and could be discriminatory yet it is making frequent appearances in job ads online. For example, I did the math recently and found that about 12 percent of the jobs posted on The Chronicle's site included "energetic" or "energy" in the description.

The term is stated as a requirement for all types of campus positions, from visiting professors and provosts to financial-aid officers and residence-hall directors. Recent postings included a band conductor who needed to be "energetic and disciplined" and a librarian who "will be an energetic and resourceful professional." A major state university was "seeking motivated and energetic emergency physicians to compliment [sic] our clinical, teaching, and research efforts," while another college's marketing director required "a strong work ethic and an energetic, influential, and diplomatic work style."

Listing energy as a requirement to complete a job seems to be stating the obvious. Can you imagine an advertisement that said: "looking for a person who lacks energy"? Isn't bringing energy to a position a fundamental behavioral expectation of every new hire?

Whether a candidate has the type of energy a college is looking for is a subjective judgment. The hiring committee may try to discern it through work history, facial features, vocal enthusiasm, body language, or communication skills. The problem is: It's difficult to measure someone's long-term energy level based on a few short interviews.

In an ad, "energetic" could be code for "we are going to overwork you for low pay and expect you to do it all with a smile on your face." The lowest-paying academic offer I ever received was from was a small state institution that used that same word in the description but was combining two formerly full-time positions into one job. It certainly would call for all the energy a faculty member could muster to teach six three-credit courses each semester while also managing the staff of a campus radio station, producing cable-television programming, supervising the student video-editing lab, advising majors, and participating in a major campus committee.

Some may argue that "energy" is interchangeable with "enthusiasm" or "passion," yet being energetic, by definition, usually implies physical vigor or vitality. I suspect that often the word "energetic" in a job announcement is actually code for "younger" or at least "not older."

Groups searching for candidates with a lot of energy may be indicating that aging candidates need not apply, ruling out those whose full-time work history starts before the mid-1980s. A committee may be suspicious of receiving a CV from an experienced 50-something professor looking for a new challenge when she may very well be the person best prepared to influence a program. Experience, you see, is often less valued than energy.

I heard about one search committee where the choice came down to two candidates: a middle-aged guy with a serious demeanor who had taught for several years and discussed the difficult task of leading the curriculum committee at his current campus; and a fresh-faced twenty-something new Ph.D. who had never held an academic position but was a joke-telling bundle of energy in his teaching demonstration. In their heads, the committee members wanted to hire the guy with experience, while their hearts loved the excitement brought by the inexperienced new graduate. They went with energy.

Departments like to hire a high-octane, caffeinated youngish teacher or researcher who is willing to work long hours and do all the tedious committee work or advising that aging faculty members just don't have the excitement for anymore.

Another ad for an "energetic colleague" was placed by a committee I'm familiar with that consisted entirely of middle-aged faculty members who all looked and sounded exhausted. No wonder—four of the five lived more than 45 miles away from the campus. Ironically, it was the oldest member—a 55-year-old who commuted several hours, round trip—who had the most energy. The two members in their 40s seemed to want to hire someone younger than them who would relieve them of their workloads.

There is something invigorating about a rookie's naïveté and excitement that breathes life into an aging academic program. However, I've taught many young adults who have a passion for playing video games or enthusiasm for watching sports but are lethargic when asked to do anything that doesn't entertain them. After working with hundreds of interns and graduates in my career course, I've concluded that age alone does not indicate whether a person possesses the energy necessary to perform well in a job.

Young colleagues do not always have the experience or wisdom needed for advertised positions where energy is often tied to leadership. One institution posted that it was looking for an assistant professor who could "exercise energetic leadership and work collaboratively." A science dean was "expected to provide imaginative and energetic leadership," while a college of business was looking for "an energetic and visionary individual to provide the collaborative leadership necessary for program growth."

The word is regularly used in descriptions of directors or administrators. Yet energy alone does not always make for a better leader. Hyperactive new administrators may just be trying to make names for themselves when they create new programs or change curricula that seemed to have worked fine under previous administrations. When you've been around academe long enough, you discover that sometimes the best leaders are the ones who know when to pull back and not act too quickly on their passions.

Leaders in various realms don't always show excess energy but have an internal fire that makes them effective. Medical doctors, for example, often seem very cool and self-controlled, reserving energy for the many emergencies that pop up throughout the day. Judges in a courtroom often seem dispassionate, yet they have to make decisions that can affect people for the rest of their lives.

As an undergraduate I attended the University of South Dakota and was there near the end of the reign of a legendary political-science professor named William "Doc" Farber, who died in 2007 at age 96. His influence has been often noted by the college's alumni, including the USA Today founder Al Neuharth, the NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, and the TV host Pat O'Brien. At one time Farber may have been a physical spitfire, but when I experienced him shortly before he retired he was a slow-moving, laid-back professor. Yet one former student described the straight-talking teacher as "full of energy like a stick of dynamite" in a segment Brokaw did on Farber (see the video here).

Brokaw tells the story of how, as an antsy sophomore at the University of South Dakota, he was invited by Doc Farber to dinner, only to be quietly told by the professor to quit school until Brokaw could get all the "wine, women, and song" out of his system. Brokaw did, leaving for a semester before begging Farber to take him back, and it changed the future journalist's life.

What I learned from observing Farber, and similar aging professors, was to not confuse outward reserve with lack of energy. Often the teachers who are the most qualified and have the greatest impact are those whose bodies may not show large amounts of vigor. They simply ask a well-timed question or quietly make a life-changing observation.

It's time to rethink whether "energetic" has any place in the academic hiring lexicon or if it can be better defined so as not to discriminate against those who calmly meet professional standards.

Stephen Winzenburg is a professor of communication at Grand View University and author of "The Communication Job Search Handbook" and "TV Programming Perspectives."