Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Faculty Hiring: A (Belated) Response
The money quote, for me, is at the end: “Some boats need to be rocked.” Exactly so.
For a harried department chair, there’s often an easy default hire on hand: a long-term (or sometimes short-term) adjunct who has demonstrated ‘loyalty,’ who plays well with others, and who clearly wants the job. The temptation to hire the default candidate is strong, especially when a department is highly insular. Hiring somebody who shows up for class, who doesn’t bring anything new and scary to the table, and who won’t present any sort of leadership threat (read: leadership qualities) is easy, and makes everybody already in the room happy.
The key phrase there is “already in the room.”
Since departments tend to be very small worlds, a top-heavy department with a top-heavy search committee will often fall victim to the temptation to hire a slightly diluted version of what they already have. Someone adequate, traditional, who won’t rock the boat or make the incumbents feel underqualified for their jobs. It strokes everybody’s ego, makes no enemies, and fills the immediate need.
That’s when the dreaded Heavy Hand of the Administration has to make itself felt.
Ideally, the time to come a-knocking is after the committee has been constituted, but before it has started reviewing applications. Issue a charge to the committee detailing what the administration will or won’t accept in a new hire, then step back and let the committee execute its charge. (This is also a good time, as the article makes clear, to reiterate the distinction between ‘minimal’ qualifications and ‘desirable’ ones.) But sometimes that doesn’t happen, or happens but doesn’t get the job done, and the committee sends forward a safe nonentity.
We’ve developed a process of winnowing, wherein the faculty search committee narrows the pile of applications to 7-10 candidates for interview, then puts the best 3 forward (unranked) to the dean. The dean then interviews those three, and nominates the best one to the vice president.
Yes, my criteria for ‘best’ will sometimes conflict with the department’s. That will also be true come tenure time, so I say, better to get that out in the open at the point of hire. When there has been conflict, it has usually been because the department has looked for the cleanest fit, and I have looked for the most potential to bring something new to the table. In the best of all worlds, the same person fits both. But sometimes not, so our process gives the departments a chance to winnow out the truly objectionable, but not to simply clone themselves unchecked.
In the short time we’ve had this process, it has mostly worked. Most departments figure out pretty quickly that the way to get somebody good through the process is to engage early on in a serious discussion of criteria. The process also allows for recognition of good-faith disagreement among the members of the committee, though, in practice, groupthink reigns.
(I’ll admit that the process doesn’t work as well in fields with relatively few candidates, like bio or Nursing. But that’s not the fault of the process; no process will get blood from a stone.)
One department tried to game the system by nominating its first choice and two obvious losers. I actually sent them back with an order to produce more viable candidates or lose the line altogether. Tempers flared, but it was the only responsible thing to do. Their favored candidate eventually won, but at least it was (eventually) a fair fight.
The IHE article falls back on the predictable categories of race and ethnicity as reasons to do searches differently, but I’ve found that those aren’t the only critical variables. Sometimes you need a fresh pedagogical approach, a different specialization, a different set of contacts, or simply a different perspective. (If the law allowed, I’d also say a different generation. But apparently ‘diversity’ doesn’t include age.) Sometimes you need the first non-technophobe, or the first feminist, or the first who can introduce a new subfield. Race and gender sometimes map onto these, but not always and certainly not cleanly.
The comments on the IHE article were puzzling and disheartening. Broad allegations of power-mad administrators appointing puppet committees, mostly. As Alicia Silverstone put it in Clueless, “As if!” In my experience, the administration has to counterbalance the tendency of some departments to try to clone themselves. The idea that I have puppets among the tenured is simply silly. (It may be true somewhere, but I’ve never seen it.) Deans come and go, but tenured faculty are forever, and they know it. Hiring is one of the few moments of true accountability to the institution as a whole; to simply abrogate that opportunity and allow unaccountable faculty free rein to ride their personal hobbyhorses would be irresponsible.
How does faculty hiring work at your college?
I work at a small lib. arts college as an administrator. For a variety of reasons I decided to interview at some large F-500 type financial services firms. I was very struck by the nature of corporate recruiting in terms of the time they (in this case a well-known I-bank) put into selling themselves to perspective candidates and attempting to find the best and the brightest to apply. This particular company is notorious for recruiting the best and brightest in different fields and then teaching them what they need to know (sometimes to their detriment). Nonetheless, the candidate pool I interacted with was tremendously well qualified and included PhDs and ABDs who would be real assets the modest institution where I work.
My question is thus: why doesn't academia take a page from the corporate world here and be more aggressive about courting young grad students? I know that the hiring patterns are completely unpredicable as the only job in a given field may be a Podunk State U. since one person happens to retire... BUT, I would think there must be ways in which colleges, particularly those with a teaching bent, could be more successful in reaching out to potential job applicants and highlighting the opportunities/joys of teaching undergrads, etc... This would have the advantage of increasing the size of the pool, building a reputation at top-tier grad programs and perhaps increasing retention and completition rates among grad students (particularly if they get the sense that a career in academia is not a pipe dream).
A large corporation, such as an F-500, knows it will hire significant numbers of people in certain areas, over time. It makes sense, in that context, to cultivate a pipeline. Discrimination claims are less worrisome, since there are likely to be enough openings to go around.
At my cc, which is mid-sized as cc's go, it's a crapshoot in any given semester as to which departments will get to hire. (One department is making its first hire since 1970!) Generally, for every two f-t faculty who retire, we replace one and adjunct-out the other. But that's a rule of thumb, and some departments do better than others. In that context, developing meaningful feeder programs is simply impossible.
Add potential litigiousness if a pipeline program consistently brought hires from a given race/gender, and the headaches multiply.
Honestly, I'm not entirely convinced that graduate attrition is a bad thing. Numerically, for many Ph.D.'s, a career in academia is a pipe dream, and it's probably better to bail early than to ride it out. We're producing far more Ph.D.'s than we choose to consume, and I don't foresee that changing anytime soon. Pipeline programs could engender false hope, which can't be good.
(There's also the omnipresent specter of age discrimination claims, if most new grad students happen to be younger than most folks out in the field, which they are.)
Academic hiring is badly broken. Better to steer people away early than string them along with promises we can't hope to keep.
Think about it this way, a decent search will end up with about 35% of the applicants being totally unacceptable, another 25% of them make it clear that they aren't good candidates on paper. That leaves the committee with about 40% of the applicant pool to choose from. All of them look good on paper and are qualified.... the decision about who to bring into an interview is probably the hardest step, but once a candidate has cleared that step they have the chance to make their best argument about their performance in the classroom.
If the dean making the final decision isn't sitting in the room during the interviews, how would they know that candidate A left the committee feeling as if the candidate would be condescending to teach with them while candidate C left the committee feeling as if they'd just had a good conversation. While the analogy between teaching and interviewing isn't perfect, it does hold and as such it gives a preview of what our students will feel at the end of the class.
It's the reason why Business faculty salaries are higher than other colleges (including the Engineering colleges, which pisses them off to no end!) I can't tell you how many times I have heard an engineer prof or dean complain that it is "counter-intuitive" why b-school salaries are so high. Imagine their shock when I explain that it is their intuition that needs a re-adjustment! LOL
If, like me, you're at a community college where there are dozens and dozens of part-timers in your department, why not evaluate them carefully, and when a full-time job opens up, choose from the best?
Our hiring procedure works like this: Every part-timer with three semesters of satisfactory evaluations gets an automatic interview. Because we get hundreds of applications for English department jobs, hiring committees--made up of faculty members AND the dean--are obliged to wade through all this paperwork and conduct about 30 interviews. Three unranked finalists go to the President who makes the final decision--but only after he meets again with the hiring committee to discuss his choice. About 2/3 of the hires have been our part-timers; the rest have come from the outside.
It's a time-consuming, exhausting process, but in a department where there's been considerable turn-over because of retirements, in the past ten years we've never hired a dud. We've developed a competent, professional, diverse English department (and, believe me, it didn't used to be like that). Jaime Escalante doesn't work for us, but if you watch "Stand and Deliver" carefully, you'll see that he was divorced from his wife and almost died of a heart attack. That's not in anyone's job description.