Thursday, March 29, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Interviewing for a Joint Appointment

A longtime reader writes:

My department is doing a search for a joint position, to be shared with another department. What has become quite clear in the process, however, is that we have very different expectations about search components. Should they teach a class? Give a job talk? Do a formal interview with the committee? Talk to students? Meet with the President?

What kinds of activities should a search committee include in an on-campus interview to get the the information that they need about the candidates (without overwhelming them completely)?

In a subsequent email, s/he clarified that the college is a SLAC with a 4/4 load, lots of first-generation students, and ambitions of greatness.

Joint appointments are a tricky business. They often make sense on substantive grounds, since disciplinary boundaries don't always track the real world very closely, but they're administrative headaches. That's not to say that they shouldn't happen; it's just to say that managing them is more complicated than managing single-department appointments.

The first thing is to make sure that the two departments have compatible expectations for what the new hire would have to do to be considered a success. The classic objection to job-sharing is that you get 50% of the pay for 80% of the work. Will this pour soul be (effectively) fated to do 160% of a job? I'm guessing that some of the disagreement between the two departments on interview protocol may reflect differing underlying assumptions of what this job will actually entail. Get that right first.

Assuming that the job is actually reasonably do-able, I'd structure the interview around the contours of the job. Yes, I know, everybody evaluates the holy trinity of teaching, research, and service, but the reality is that different colleges weight each factor differently. Since you have a 4/4 load, I'll assume that teaching is taken relatively seriously. (If it isn't, you have a much bigger problem.) If so, I'd have the candidates teach sample or simulated classes. Job talks strike me as more appropriate in places where research is really the coin of the realm. (That said, it's sometimes hard to make a clear distinction between a simulated class and a job talk.)

Unless the college is very small and micromanaged to within an inch of its life, meeting the President is probably unnecessary. The department chairs to whom the candidate would report, absolutely. The next level admin up – dean, division chair, whatever – yes, just to make sure the candidate gets an administrative view. I wouldn't go higher than that unless local tradition dictates otherwise.

This may sound heretical, but I've never seen much good come from meeting students. I wouldn't rule it out, but I've never seen it help. I'd leave it off the first draft of a list and see if anybody blows a head gasket. If someone does, allot a half-hour.

Getting the information you need from the candidate is a challenge. First, make sure everybody is fully briefed on the current state of interview rules. Yes, they're mostly common sense, but you'd be amazed at what passes for common sense with some people, even educated ones. (For example, if you're at a relatively rural and/or isolated institution concerned with faculty flight risk, some might think it perfectly natural to inquire about spouse's employment, children, etc. Don't, don't, don't.) This is especially true if it's been some time since the last hire, since the rules have changed.

I've become a fan of a common list of questions for each candidate. Questioners should be free to riff on the list as the conversation progresses, but there's something clarifying about being able to compare answers to identical questions. Questions about 'what did you do when...' tend to elicit more revealing answers than ones that start with 'what do you think about...' or 'what if...' Focusing questions on specific occasions that actually happened can help you get past the theory/practice gap.

I've also had good luck with the question “is there anything in your background that would cause embarrassment to the college if it became public after you started working here?” If the candidate has both skeletons and a brain, the smart move here is disclosure. Failure to disclose constitutes misrepresentation, which is grounds for dismissal. Some people are squeaky clean, of course, and that's great, but some have had past issues that fall under 'embarrassing, but not fatal.' Best to know that upfront. You'd be surprised at some of the answers I've received with that one.

I'd also canvass the secretaries and various support or office staff after the visits about how the candidates treated them. Nobody should lose points for not being gregarious – some nervousness is to be expected -- but someone who is nasty to the staff is someone you don't want around. True colors come out in funny ways. (If you take the candidate to dinner, watch how s/he treats the waiters. Same principle.)

Finally, and I know this sounds trivial but it's very real, build in some time for the candidates for bathroom breaks and at least one uninterrupted half-hour or so of alone time. The gauntlet is exhausting, and we're all professionals here. No need to be sadistic about it.

Wise and worldly readers – what would you add?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

"I've also had good luck with the question “is there anything in your background that would cause embarrassment to the college if it became public after you started working here?” If the candidate has both skeletons and a brain, the smart move here is disclosure. Failure to disclose constitutes misrepresentation, which is grounds for dismissal."

i ran this by my husband who clerked at the EEOC and specializes in employment law and he said you needed to run the idea that not revealing anything "potentially embarrasing to the college" (a very vague and nebualous notion which almost depends on community standards - say I'm gay and hiding it in a conservative christian community) past lawyers who specialize in employment law (a pretty specialized field) to make sure your doing what you think your doing.

For instance if the "misrepresentation" was something that was protected via state or federal law (say time spent in a mental institution, that's pretty embarrasing), you may set yourself up for a lawsuit if you fire someone for not revealing this.

Furthermore, your idea that you could fire a candidate if s/he perpetrating fraud (misrepresentation) by not answering the question truthfully when there is something potentially there (again what is a "embarrasment to the college") would also depending on the contract they signed (what does the contract state they can be fired for) as the written contract probably superceedes any verbal throwaway question you are trying to use as a legal cover.

Yeah, if they do somthing illegal or there is some big secret in there past there should be grounds for firing, but the contract should contain provisions for such things in the first place.

Anyways, I'm not a lawyer and am just repeating (and probably garbaling) a theoretical discussion I had with my husband about what if I had done X potentially embarrasing thing and failed to reveal it in an interview that asked this question (he got tired of my hypothesizing theoretical conditions and went to bed). As someone going on the job market next year it was good to think about what I would do if asked this question.

My first reaction would be to say "define potentially embarassing" but I worry that this answer would make someone think that I was hiding something, when in fact I just want to know what they think is potentially embarrasing to the college - is a bad credit history potentially embarrasing? is a driving ticket? is holding certain ideological [but not protected] viewes embarrasing (say I believe the earth is flat, what about not believing in evolution (for non religious reasons), say I don't believe that we really landed on the moon [hey wired had a whole article on how they lost the original footage], what about believing aliens built the pyramids - you can see why my husband went to bed)? or do they just want to know that they haven't missed anything in the background check - that they haven't found out that in the past I've harrassed students, stole massive amounts of money?

I guess I just want to know where the line is drawn between believing in white supremacy (definitly bad) and believing that aliens have been intervening in earths history (considered wierd by a large amount of society)- both are potentially embarrasing to the college but one is much more shocking than the other. Heh, that's a new questtion for hubby tommorrow morning - "Can I be fired if someone asks me that question and it turns out later that I'm a white supremacist, but I've never advocated the belief (whatever that means) and its purely privately held" - I'm sure he's hardily sick of this issue.

disclaimer - I am not a white supremacist, I do not believe that aliens are influencing history, I buy evolution, no criminal history, etc etc....
This may go without saying, but you should also schedule some time to explain to the candidate how the joint appointment is going to work-- ie who makes tenure decisions, who controls the teaching schedule, how service gets allocated and the like. I know my life in a semi-joint appointment is a lot easier because of periodic meetings with representatives from both, with everyone getting a full list of my committments, and I know I would have been hesitant to take the job if they hadn't shown evidence at the interview that they had thought about such things.
"I've also had good luck with the question “is there anything in your background that would cause embarrassment to the college if it became public after you started working here?”"

*raises eyebrows* I'd be fairly amazed if it were legal to ask a candidate such a question. Back in the day when I was job hunting, if I had been asked that question, I probably would have nervously said "no", looked into reporting said university to the EEOC, and then scratched that university off of my list.

If asked that question by a dean, I'd wonder if he/she loves to run witch hunts and create rumor mills. What, other than the anticipation of a witch hunt or the hope of catching someone making a fatal interview error, could you possibly hope to obtain by asking such a question, DD?
Just a comment about the student interviews -- I doubt they do much for the candidate nor do I think the faculty should put (much) stock in the student's feedback. However, as a young grad student, I learned a fair amount about the the entire hiring process and how things were done elsewhere through the graduate student lunch. I think they are a net benefit, but not to either the search or the candidate.
"I've also had good luck with the question “is there anything in your background that would cause embarrassment to the college if it became public after you started working here?”"

What sorts of revealing answers have you received in response to this question? What kinds of actionable "things in your background" have come up (post-hire) that might have justified termination on grounds of misrepresentation during hiring?
hmm. I'll have to fire this one off to Evil HR Lady and get her thoughts on it.

The question started when, a few years ago, we got a call from a new hire's parole officer. Turned out that he had done time for assault with a deadly weapon. He didn't think it relevant. We did.
In my job interview for a joint appointment (which I currently hold), the meeting with students was the last 20-30 minutes of the teaching demonstration I gave. The students seemed to get a lot out of it and they asked good questions about my background and what kinds of classes I wanted to offer in the future, etc. I think this is a good way to do a "meet the students" thing, since they get to know you through teaching.

Regarding joint appointment service, I do want to stress what alison said about figuring out not only the teaching division of labor but the service and tenure sides as well. Even then, there have been weird issues that are particular to my appointment. In particular, make sure you are clear about which department will "house" this position. Which department will provide office space? Which department receives the support dollars for the position? (i.e., money for photocopying, for professional development, etc.) I had to figure out which department is the appropriate one for me to copy my classroom handouts because the money is allocated to departments per full-time faculty member. Not a monumental issue, but I could really drain the department that isn't seeing support dollars for me over the life of my appointment. Anyway, the joint appointment thing is tricky and you should try to plan for this kind of stuff. But do expect the unexpected!
first anonymous here again:
"The question started when, a few years ago, we got a call from a new hire's parole officer. Turned out that he had done time for assault with a deadly weapon. He didn't think it relevant. We did."

This thing should have been covered in the application and contract though via such standard application questions as "have you been convicted of a felony?"

While running this past evil hr lady is a good idea, a better idea might be running the question by the schools legal council before the next search, because I think there are better questions that could get at what you're looking for.

"potentially embarrasing" is such a vague concept while "convicted of a felony," "been arrested," or "been the subject of a complaint (which was either dismissed or upheld)" or "been subject to censure" are pretty specific. Of course, giving the interviewee a chance to explain what happened (being arrested for protesting against some sort of issue is very different from being arrested for vandalism or assault and battery).
As an undergraduate, I attended a peculiar team-taught music composition seminar. Visiting candidates would often teach a session. This made a change for us (and I suppose it gave the usual instructors a break); more importantly, it provided a not-grossly-artificial environment for the usual instructors to see the candidate in action. But those conditions won't be replicable in most departments -- I'd be surprised if my school still has that class, with no syllabus and a team of instructors.

The idea of candidates with "both skeletons and a brain" is humorous, and in a way a relief -- now I know I was never really professor material, because I only have one skeleton.
On the "what should be in the interview" question, I think this is a good opportunity for "and". If the departments really can agree on what the joint appointment will entail, then is there a problem with having the interview be a sum of what interviews would be like in both departments?

Several interviews I've had spanned two days (full day and half day); some faculty candidate interviews at my current school have been similar. Adding that half day to a one-day interview creates a lot of time for a class, a research talk, meeting faculty, dean(s), etc. It also creates time to have first impressions percolate overnight, with enough opportunity to ask a followup question.
For a variety of reasons that do not include expansion in the size of our faculty, we have done numerous searches in recent years. We always include some time with graduate students (usually over lunch), and find it productive for two reasons. First, the students often report experiences that help in our evaluation of the candidate. During one visit, for example, several students mentioned that the candidate snapped at a student who had asked a reasonable question; this corroborated some suspicions we had, but was much more definitive than any observation we had made. Second, we find that candidates are pleasantly surprised by how smart and capable our graduate students are (most people don't expect our institution to have a strong graduate program). The graduate student lunch is useful for recruitment, then, even when it's not so useful in our evaluation of the candidate. And has already been pointed out, participating in the campus interview process is excellent professional preparation for the students.
Dean Dad, I'm shocked. "Is there anything in your background that would cause embarassment to the college . . . " is a question that even the dimmest of HR folks would reject. "Have you ever been charged with a felony" is marginal. "Have you ever been convicted of a felony" is perfectly acceptable.

I'm amazed that a sane and reasonable person like you can't see the differences.

As for "if it became public": Who on God's green earth wouldn't be ashamed of literally hundreds of things, major and minor, that we've done if they were revealed?

As someone who recently went through this process from the other end, let me just say that I wholeheartedly endorse the concept of scheduled bathroom breaks! I was often reduced to an interaction best left for kindergarten.
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