Thursday, July 21, 2005


Internal Candidates

IHE recently had a piece on "The Mystique of the Out of State Applicant." While it wasn't wrong, it missed some key points.

I’ve been involved with several searches recently – for both faculty and administrative positions – in which internal candidates went up against external candidates. It was awkward for all involved. The committee is faced with trying to be fair when there’s an obvious disparity of knowledge; simply put, we know the internal person better. We know when we have a winner, and when we don’t.

But that knowledge doesn’t solve the problem. Federal equal-employment and affirmative action guidelines force us to post openings and solicit applications from all qualified candidates, so even if we have a strongly positive impression of the favorite son, we still have to bring in all and sundry. No matter what we do, it’s awkward.

If the internal candidate is an obvious star, there’s a question of fairness to the outside candidates. How fair is it, really, to put people through the paces when the conclusion is effectively foregone? If the internal candidate is obviously weak, we face the awkwardness of the new person coming in with someone already here strongly resenting her. If the internal candidate is solid but not spectacular, there’s an element of both.

A strong argument against internal candidates, even strong ones, is that a pattern of hiring them can lead to false hope among the adjuncts (or lower-level administrators). In practice, some departments create quasi-positions for favorite adjuncts, hoping to put them first in line for a tenure-track opening. This system, which I call a farm team, strikes me as the worst of all possible worlds; it exploits the hell out of the favorite adjunct, creating false expectations, and it needlessly hamstrings future decisionmaking.

If we must deal with 'apprenticeships' at all, we do so in the context of graduate school. I don't buy the position that someone years out of graduate school still isn't ready for a real job. If that's true, we need to seriously revisit graduate education.

Another strong argument against internal candidates is the need to change a department’s culture. An adjunct who has been loyal to a stale pedagogy for many years may feel that a position is owed her, but the greater need of the department is for new blood. This isn’t as mercenary as it seems. If a baseball team has six first basemen and no shortstops, the last thing it needs is a seventh first baseman, even if he’s good. It isn’t only about the quality of the candidates. It's about the needs of the institution.

The argument for internal candidates, of course, is that you’re getting a known quantity. If someone has loyally served a program for many years, performing well and creating no drama, there’s value in that. It can be hard to tell from a day of interviewing whether someone from the outside will turn out to be a pain in the neck; with someone who has been around for years, you pretty much know.

It would be nice if we could establish some sort of ‘exception’ system for the stars, so we could at least spare innocent outside bystanders the effort of a Potemkin search. The problem, of course, is that every internal candidate would be an exception. It wouldn’t help.

Diversity is a real issue here, too (and not only in the legally approved sense of race or gender). If an entire department was hired within a few years of each other back in the 1970’s, and some of the loyal adjuncts have been hanging around since the 1980’s, I see an awfully strong diversity argument for bringing in some kid fresh out of grad school. Good luck getting that to hold up in court (they’d call it age discrimination), but it’s true. If nothing else, you’d bring in a new way of looking at things, a new set of contacts, and a new energy level. But we’re not allowed to look at that.

In the business world, this is generally less of an issue, since turnover is much more rapid and jobs much more easily found. In truth, abundance would make this issue go away. But that’s not where we are.

Any thoughts out there?

I think your comments are spot on. I had the good fortune to be a successful inside candidate for a tenure-line position--the first to be successul in several decades. Other changes in our dept. have meant that we now have a big crop of junior faculty, many of whom (both t-t and on visiting appts.) are from the nearest prominent graduate program. In practice, this means that we have a weird departmental dynamic: a shrinking group of senior faculty who have been around more than 20 years, and a growing group who completed their doctorates in the past 5 years. Except for a few regional outsiders, we have a lot of overlap in terms of pedagogical approach, if not to specific "content," This means that our students sense a sameness to their classes that is not good for the dept., and that the senior faculty can *appear* seriously out of step, depending on when a student encounters one of their more "traditional" approaches. Even though I am pretty convinced of the value of my approach to my subject, I can only believe that in 10 years it will be musty and stale, and that our dept. would be much better served by having as much variety in "age of degree" (i.e., which intellectual generation, regardless of actual age) and approach as we supposedly seek in ethnicity, geography, etc. I think your point about the search having to do not just with individual "fairness" (i.e., to a good adjunct) but with the larger departmental or college culture is an excellent one. I also think that the adjunct situation, at least in my Humanities field, is so vile and prevalent that it's easy to see why the larger needs for intellectual diversity get lost in questions of "fairness" to the individual--even if that's unhealthy for the larger body.
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