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.