The Ins and Outs of Academic Searches

September 15, 2000

It was difficult to give up a tenured position in the arts to go back to graduate school. My tenure at a small, church-affiliated, liberal-arts college in the Midwest was secure with an M.F.A. in dance, and my status as a gay man was well-known and accepted. But my professional interests convinced me that a return to graduate school for the Ph.D. would be worthwhile. What I hadn't considered was what it would be like to go back out on the job market as a gay man.

Now, in the final stages of my doctoral program in cultural studies, I am beginning my second year-long job search for a tenure-track position.

Last year, I was short-listed for tenure-track jobs at three universities and two colleges. I had assumed that my being gay was evident from at least my dissertation title, "Rehearsing Heterosexuality: Secrecy & Denial in Gay People's Lives," or if not, then surely from my publishing record in areas like gay epistemology and most recently, an article comparing weddings to drag shows. I assumed prospective employers would know, or by virtue of the search-committee structure, would figure it (me) out.

Some of the interviews, on campus and by phone, went well -- interviewers asked supportive questions about my research, provided information about gay and lesbian groups on campus, and expressed interest in my partner's career plans (he's also an academic). So, I assumed not only that search committees knew I was gay, but also that it was not a problem.


I must have been suffering from some strain of liberal-doctoral-fellow dementia. My delusions were perhaps best revealed in the spring when I was short-listed for an assistant/associate professorship at a small, Baptist-affiliated college in the East.

I applied for this particular position for a number of reasons, both professional and personal, as many of us are now doing in attempts to balance the importance of family and career. The description and highly specific qualifications for this position uncannily matched my experience, areas of interest, and scholarly research. The fact that it was a small, liberal-arts, church-affiliated college, near a large metropolitan area, also coincided with my experience and interest, having held a tenured associate professorship at a similar institution for nearly 11 years.

Personally, the position was appealing because my ex-wife, with whom I share joint custody of a 15-year-old, had recently moved to the East Coast; the proximity of this position would enable more frequent and extended visitation time for my daughter. In addition, relocation would open up more job opportunities for my partner, David.

In short, the position had my name written all over it, one of those job announcements that peers send copies to you with "I assume you've applied for this" scribbled at the top. Like many of us who have lived through arduous job searches, I hurriedly reworked a previous cover letter, tailoring my expertise to the specific position description, requested letters, sent transcripts, and then just as quickly, forgot about it. I remember the days when I'd actually get excited about receiving the postage-paid affirmative-action card. Not any more. Apply and forget.

To be honest, with my heavy teaching load that semester -- I was a teaching assistant at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an adjunct instructor at a nearby women's college -- it wasn't until I received a request for further application materials that I remembered even applying for the position. What college? Did I apply for that?

Fortunately, being short-listed tends to jog one's memory. I was, in fact, one of the committee's finalists. In late April, I was asked to complete documents about my beliefs regarding colleges of the church in general, and more specifically, my commitment to Christian ideals both in and out of the classroom. Having taught in a church-related college for many years, I knew well the strengths and weaknesses of church affiliation in higher education. At my previous institution, my spirituality and sexual orientation had been respected.

What I had never encountered was a request for written documentation of my Christian beliefs. I must admit -- remember I'm in a cultural-studies program, the red flags went up at this point.

And so, I agonized -- a lot. I contemplated: Do I even want to proceed with this? How can I be under serious consideration for this position given that I'm gay and they're most likely entrenched in Christian conservatism? I surmised: Well, they must know I'm gay. It's written all over my vita, sort of. Maybe they haven't figured it out. Or, maybe they have figured it out and it's not a problem. If it was a problem, wouldn't they have dropped me from consideration much earlier?

Then I thought: Hey, I'm religious; they're religious. Maybe this college hasn't lost the overriding tone of love and compassion in the Bible, and I'm the prospective hire the committee wants to most strongly recruit.

You can see where all this was going -- nowhere. The grand results of deconstructing the situation only produced several futile attempts to move beyond merely picking up the Christian commitment questionnaire, only to set it aside again.

My decision to proceed was prompted by a phone message from the chairman of the search committee asking that I return the documents requested as soon as possible and return his call for an interview. My initial response to the call was to forget the entire situation. A languishing paralysis, which I think many gay and lesbian people confront repeatedly, had set in. Having to confront rejection as a gay man (you're unfit for this job) in the context of affirmation as a finalist (you're perfect for this job), left me feeling empty and without recourse.

My partner urged me to proceed, despite the ethical tantrums and pseudo-psychological narratives that I was spinning. Did I mention I was in cultural studies?

Now absolutely convinced I might (notice the conviction) continue the application process, I decided to visit the college's Web site for some background information: Does the college have active support groups for gays and lesbians? Do they have a gender-studies program? How diverse is the population?

What I found on the Web was a highly diverse campus population committed to social change, justice, and equality. One particular student group at the college I found, has as its sole purpose, feeding the inner-city poor. Great, I thought. The college, I discovered, is affiliated with a Baptist convention that is more moderate in philosophy, not the staunchly conservative right-wing segment, which recently reaffirmed its ban on gays in the clergy. I was more hopeful, yet by all accounts, no gay-lesbian-bisexual support groups are active on the campus.

Now even more curious, I needed some kind of resolution. So with script in hand -- I didn't want to improvise this one -- I called the chairman of the search committee. Luckily, he was in his office.

We quickly exchanged professional pleasantries, and before the interview could begin, I stated that I had received the requested statement of religious beliefs, but had reluctantly not returned it, not because of an inability to articulate my spiritual vision, but because I was gay and in a committed, monogamous relationship with another man. I went further -- remember this was scripted -- to say that I had surmised that my sexual orientation might render my application unacceptable; dismissed, that is, on the grounds of my homosexuality.

Without messing a beat, the chairman applauded my "astute interpretation of the college," more glowing affirmation of my expertise while tempered in a piercing rejection of who I am. "As defined in the college handbook," he continued, "a moral turpitude clause would preclude you from any further consideration for the position."

I assumed he was not working from a script, although considering his expeditious delivery, I may have been wrong. I clumsily searched for words. "OK," I said. "But I was on the short list, right?" He confirmed that, in fact, I was, and went further to say, "yes, under serious consideration."

I'm not sure how the conversation ended, but I am absolutely positive it's the shortest, if not the most enlightening, phone interview of my career.

For gays and lesbians searching for positions in higher education, the recounting of this story offers at least two important reminders: first, we are still unhireable at certain institutions, and second, that no matter how "out" we are, we are also always "in" to some degree, depending upon the particular institution, department, and search committee.

Some of us even "in" ourselves unknowingly when we speak of ex-wives and children. To be sure, what we say and do in the interview process is interpreted exponentially. And of course, timing is everything. It's obvious from the preceding story that if I had waited until the campus interview to clearly disclose my sexual orientation, the result would have been more than awkward for all parties.

Doug Risner is a doctoral fellow in the department of educational leadership and cultural foundations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.