Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Faculty Hiring: A (Belated) Response

There was thought-provoking piece over at IHE last week about faculty hiring at community colleges. (Thanks to PPP for highlighting it.) It’s an account of a discussion at the annual meeting of NISOD about the ways in which cc’s structure faculty search committees and carry out searches.

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?