It is not uncommon, especially in academia, to be in the awkward situation of evaluating someone (for hiring purposes, or promotion, or for a competitive fellowship or prize, or even for admission into a graduate program of studies) who has professional or family ties with someone involved in the evaluation process itself, and/or behind the nomination of the person.
The conflict of interest is clear, and an evaluator is put in a bind, for the candid, dispassionate and objective assessment usually expected of anyone operating in such a capacity, may be sacrificed to the need and desire to keep a peaceful working relationship with a colleague or friend.
I do not have data, here, but my sense is that in academia this may be more frequent an occurrence that in other sectors. For one thing, often times a graduate or postdoctoral advisor is the only person who can speak knowledgeably about a young colleague, e.g., for an award. Inarguably, no one knows the work of a former advisee as much as the supervisor, and it is usually accepted that a junior scholar may simply not have had enough time to establish a broad network of professional connections. That is why, in most cases, it is expected that one of the persons behind the nomination will be a former advisor.
More delicate is the case of someone whose candidacy is advocated by a spouse or parent (obviously not on this ground, but on that of scholarly excellence). I tend to believe that academia may more prone to this predicament than the outside world, based on my non-scientific observation that academics often marry other academics and/or have children who share their passion for their field of inquiry.
I have written in the past about the potential drawbacks of inbreeding, and I do not want to repeat myself. I still think that, in general, graduates of an institution should best find positions at other institutions, doctoral graduates of a scholar should best be hired in the groups of other scholars, that anyone with too close ties with an applicant should be excused from serving on a selection committee, and so on and so forth.
Still, it would be unrealistic, and almost ridiculous, to argue that anyone with some kind of professional ties with a member of an evaluation committee should be automatically excluded from consideration. And it also seems draconian and unfair to exclude those who would otherwise deserve a serious look based on their scholarly record, solely because they happen to be related to someone in the position of influencing the decision.
At the same time, great care must be taken to ensure that no plausible reason be furnished to anyone, to attach an “inside track” label to the person coming out of the selection. If the hypothesis of an outcome inappropriately influenced by considerations other than professional should gain widespread acceptance, the long-term consequences for the standing and credibility of persons and institutions can be deleterious.
Of course, jealousy and competitiveness will always be powerful motivators in any human endeavour. Still, is there a way to operate, when a situation of the type described above presents itself, so as to protect persons and institutions from possible repercussions ? Is it possible to adopt selection criteria that will make it at least difficult, for anyone sufficiently mean-spirited, to suggest that a decision was made based on bloodlines rather than guidelines ?
I think that in general, as long as one sticks to “measurables”, i.e., aspects that can be at least quantified in some objective way, one’s back should be covered. It is difficult to take issues with publications, invitations to speak, grants, awards. Naturally, assessing the relative importance of one publication over another, for example, is a highly subjective proposition, but as long as the candidate selected has a reasonable record of publications, I think that most claims of nepotism would not go very far.
Given the above, I personally have no problem with one influential reference, or supporter of a nomination, being personally very close to the nominee, for whatever reason, including family ties.
I have some misgivings, on the other hand, when the only such reference falls in that category, especially in the case of a competition among junior scholars, whose CVs may not sport much of anything else, reasonably objective. If the nominee is truly excellent, I do expect a significant number of other, independent, prominent scholars or intellectuals to be willing to stick their neck out and vouch for that.
In conversation, I am often confronted with the objection that those additional prestigious references, may have accepted to serve in that capacity simply out of friendship or loyalty, e.g., toward the one (presumably influential) reference close to the nominee. Personally, I have trouble believing that scenario, at least in the vast majority of cases.
Reputation is extremely important in the academic environment, and it can be seriously tarnished by an enthusiastic letter of recommendation written on behalf of someone conspicuously failing later on to deliver on the promise. I do not think that any serious and conscientious academic is willing put his/her name down lightly.