In September 2013, the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) published a report of an investigation it had conducted into alleged misconduct at the University of Queensland. The misconduct concerned a decision in December 2010 that a school leaver who did not satisfy the university’s entrance requirements should receive an offer to enrol in Medicine which was not warranted according to the admission criteria at the time, there being 343 other applicants who were more qualified. The person who received the offer was the daughter of the then Vice-Chancellor. A formal complaint was made to the Chancellor of the university about nine months later. The following month the CMC began its investigation. The matter shortly afterwards became public knowledge through the media. Both the Vice-Chancellor and his deputy subsequently resigned their positions.
The CMC’s report contains just one mention of a word which describes the particular form of misconduct that was involved in this case, nepotism. This was in the introduction to the report, where reference was made to how the public became aware of the matter through having ‘read media accounts of irregularities and nepotism at the University’. For the rest of the report, the allegations are referred to as official misconduct and as conflicts of interest. There was no analysis of what ‘nepotism’ means or involves.
Nepotism is a form of patronage. The exercise of both nepotism and patronage may give rise to a conflict of interest. It is noteworthy that there is a special word for nepotist behaviour in most European languages. It is almost invariably used in a pejorative way.
The Macquarie Dictionary defines nepotism as ‘patronage bestowed in consideration of family relationship and not of merit’ tracing it from the Latin for ‘descendant’. My old (4th edition) Concise Oxford gives a more commonly used definition and source, ‘Undue favour from holder of patronage to relatives (orig. from Pope to illegitimate sons called nephews)’ and says the word is derived from the Italian for nephew.
According to an American book about nepotism:
The term nepotismo was coined sometime in the fourteenth or fifteenth century to describe the corrupt practice of appointing papal relatives to office – usually illegitimate sons described as ‘nephews’ – and for a long time this ecclesiastical origin continued to be reflected in dictionaries... The modern definition of nepotism is favouritism based on kinship, but over time the word’s dictionary meaning and its conventional applications have diverged. Most people today define the term very narrowly to mean not just hiring a relative, but hiring one who is grossly incompetent – though technically one would have to agree that hiring a relative is nepotism whether he or she is qualified or not. But nepotism has also proved to be a highly elastic concept, capable of being applied to a much broader range of relationships than simple consanguinity. Many practices that seem normal and acceptable to some look like nepotism to others.
It is necessary to take up two of the specific matters alluded to by the author, Adam Bellow, in that discussion of the definition of nepotism, as well as some of the other issues in his book, which is somewhat aggressively titled, ‘In praise of nepotism’.
First, whether it is appropriate to apply the term nepotism only if it applies to the beneficiary being unqualified.
Second, whether it is appropriate to apply the term outside ‘simple consanguinity’.
The first raises what is one of the most important issues about nepotism, because it challenges the notion that nepotism is inherently improper or unethical. That issue is whether if a relative or other person whose appointment could be described as nepotistic ceases to be so because they hold qualifications appropriate to the position to which they are being appointed. In my view it is still appropriate to use the nepotism label, even if the person benefitting from it is at least as qualified as anyone else who might be appointed. However the beneficiary should not be precluded from the appointment because of his or her familial or other relevant relationship, though there may be other reasons why such an appointment should not be made – for example, it may be difficult to remove such a person from their position if they prove to be unsuccessful, or the requirements of the position may be changed in a way that makes it desirable that they be replaced. What is essential, however, is that an independent observer, fully informed of the facts, can conclude that the person deserved to be appointed for reasons other than the nepotistic relationship. This would normally mean that the position has been open to all, and the merits of those interested in taking it have been properly and independently assessed.
This approach implies that the exercise of nepotism is not invariably or inevitably improper or unethical. It is necessary to determine the facts about its exercise in any particular case before reaching an objective conclusion about whether its exercise is wrong. The fact that there is a word for it does not mean that nepotism must always be condemned.
The second issue raised by Bellow’s definition is how narrowly the term should be defined. Should it be linked, as he put it, to consanguinity. Clearly not. Consanguinity [related by birth] would not include one’s spouse or partner and some other close relatives. But what about close friends and associates (including political associates), mates, business partners and the like? Strictly speaking, such associations would be covered by the term ‘cronyism’ [crony: an intimate friend or companion] but I suspect popular usage now includes cronyism within nepotism. And what about the close relations (children in particular) of colleagues? In what follows I propose to use the word nepotism to describe the appointment by a person in authority of all such people, though later I will extend the discussion to cover the broader issue of patronage, which in relation to this matter, is defined as ‘the control of appointments to the public service or of other political favours’.