Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Talent or Experience?

I have an observation that needs a theory: in faculty searches, we look for talent. In administrative searches, we look for experience. I’m not sure why it’s that way, and not some other combination.

Most administrative job postings require an enormous amount of experience, often at the level at which they are hiring. By restricting the pool to people who have already done the same job elsewhere, colleges are able to deflect discrimination lawsuits, fear of the unknown and/or untested, and blame if something goes wrong. As JK Galbraith noted fifty years ago, if you follow the conventional wisdom and it goes awry, it’s read as a fluke; if you take a chance and it goes awry, it’s held against you. Best to simply hire the tried-and-true.

(This isn’t just a cynical reduction. We actually use scorecards to winnow down the pile of c.v.’s, and points are awarded based on years of experience in given positions. Someone without enough points doesn’t get invited for an interview.)

The flaws in this system are many. First, and most obviously, ‘time served’ doesn’t tell you how well the person did the job. Someone could have been a placeholder for several years, accomplishing little more than not getting fired, but that would ‘count’ in a way that talents demonstrated at a lower rank on the food chain wouldn’t. The word ‘retread’ tells the story.

Second, the fetishistic focus on experience ironically prevents diversity, by simply recycling the same candidates over and over again. What is intended to prevent bias – by focusing on something objectively quantifiable – actually reinforces it. Once you’re in the club, you’re in the club; never mind how you got there, or what you did once you were in it.

(This accounts, I think, for the brain-warping contention that community colleges are facing an imminent leadership crisis. Excuse me? That’s true only if the only possible leaders are those who have already led. Mortality kicks in, eventually. The easy way around this, obviously, is to read the field of candidates more creatively.)

Although I’ll admit it’s harder upfront, I suspect that colleges would be better served by setting relatively low minimum thresholds for experience, and instead focusing on talent.

That’s hard to do, obviously, since it involves thinking through the positions thoroughly enough to come to a consensus on the talents that a given position actually requires. (It’s easier just to count time served.) It also involves identifying those talents, which takes more insight than simply adding up past positions. And I wouldn’t abandon experience as an indicator -- certainly, I wouldn’t want to appoint an academic v.p. directly from the faculty – but I suspect that it takes less than is generally acknowledged. Still, someone with a few years as a department chair and a track record of success makes a far more appealing dean candidate, in my book, than a chair-for-life who thinks it’s his turn.

I assume this position will call forth the usual accusations of subjectivity. Well, yes, but I prefer the term ‘judgment.’ Refusing to use judgment, instead relying on experience, is, in fact, to rely on someone else’s judgment from a long time ago. Better to take a fresh look.

The contrast with faculty searches is striking. Since most faculty searches occur at the junior level, they explicitly look for ‘talent’ (as opposed to experience). The optimal candidate for a junior level faculty position is a fresh new Ph.D. with a book contract. Someone with a five-year-old Ph.D., even with a published book, is less appealing. Once you’ve had your degree for a few years, the thinking goes, you’ve shown what you can do; either you’ve broken through to stardom, or you haven’t. (If you’re still applying to junior jobs, that’s a pretty good indicator that you haven’t.) If you’re brand new, the potential is still there. You’d rather hire someone with a higher ceiling, even if that higher ceiling is largely speculative.

Some have suggested that the overwhelming preference for junior candidates in faculty searches is a way to save money, since entry-level professors work cheaper than their senior colleagues. If this were the only reason, you’d expect to see the same thing at the administrative level, but that (generally) doesn’t happen. Generally, at the administative level, the assumption seems to be the more senior, the better.

(This is how headhunters survive. For administrative searches, they compile rolodexes of candidates with high-level experience. That wouldn’t work if talent, rather than experience, were the main criterion.)

Is it the assumption that grad school provides training to be faculty, but that administrative mettle is proved only in battle? (If so, this has potentially serious implications for the M.B.A. industry!) Is it that (perish the thought!) administrative appointments have higher stakes? Is it that administrative appointments usually have shorter tenures (and therefore, presumably, lower stakes)?

I’m still working on this one. Any thoughts?

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