Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Position Descriptions and Wish Lists

A few departments are currently in the process of crafting position descriptions for full-time hires they are hoping to make in the near future. (Yes, it's very late in the season, but that can happen at colleges with tight budgets. The Board wants to make sure the money will be there to make doing a search worthwhile before they'll approve either the line or the search. The bright side is that we don't run searches only to pull them at the last minute, and tell everybody involved “only kidding!” The downside is that we miss the season when the most candidates are paying attention.)

Position descriptions are a genre unto themselves (itself?). They're a funny blend of screening and sales, with conflicting imperatives for specificity and flexibility. They usually go into the ads pretty much verbatim, so they have to be written in ways that won't cause legal issues, but will still appeal to the candidates we most want to appeal to.

I've taken to sitting down with each department's search committee before it even drafts the description, just to let them know some of the technicalities, and to give me a sense of what they want. (I try to keep them open enough that they won't read like a cartoon I once saw: “must work on the second floor, and be named Eric.”)

It's a revealing exercise.

One of the departments takes a very traditional approach to its discipline. It does what it does quite well, but it's very traditional. I asked what they thought about finding somebody with strength in (huge new area).

You'd think I had suggested a lab course in clubbing baby seals.

(Apparently, I violated the spirit of “open lines of communication” by actually communicating something. My bad.)

Another department is hiring in preparation for starting a new program that we all hope will be a hit. The catch is that the program doesn't exist yet. The chair and I had to negotiate some very careful wording to ensure that we indicated that we want someone who can go beyond the current curriculum, but we couldn't actually name the program, since it doesn't exist yet. This is harder than it sounds, since a premature assumption of a program could lead to all manner of legal issues.

It also involves finding somebody willing to go beyond teaching-well-and-going-home. It's hard to advertise for that without it seeming merely formulaic, or, alternately, being so horribly unattractive that nobody would apply. So there's a coyness by necessity.

Coyness is tricky. From a legal perspective, as I understand it, hiring in contrast to the ad is a recipe for a lawsuit. So you have to craft language that will leave you the flexibility to hire the best candidate from the pool that actually applies, even if that means going in a slightly different direction than originally hoped. I'm consistently surprised by the composition of candidate pools. Sometimes they're better than I expect, sometimes leaner, but they're never quite what I think they'll be. From asking around, this isn't just a function of my own myopia; there's apparently a great deal of randomness in determining what kind of pool you get at any given moment. If you hit a fallow period, too specific a position description can lock you into a weak hire, simply by default. Since opportunities to hire are few and far between, weak hires represent real waste. From the outside, it's easy to assume that words like 'judgment' are simply cover for racism or sexism, and that certainly can be the case, but when you have a pile of 50 applications, of which 20-30 fit every published criterion, you have to use either judgment or a lottery. I vote for judgment, imperfect as it is.

(The same is true of 'collegiality.' Yes, it has been used to cover any number of sins. But there's also the reality of not wanting to hire a highly-qualified jackass. “Plays well with others” is a real strength, even if it's harder to capture on paper than, say, the number of articles published.)

Assembling search committees is a strange mix of art and science. The composition of a committee can affect the choice it ultimately makes, so it's more than just “who's willing to serve.” (Exception: tiny departments, in which there's a committee of the whole, by default.) I like to have committees that cross cliques whenever possible, just to prevent groupthink and/or asexual reproduction. In my experience, the most effective committees are usually those composed of people who don't often work together. Once a group gets into a rut, it loses its usefulness as a group.

Finally, there's the iffy question of who decides. Although the paper trail is clear – ultimately, only the Board of Trustees can actually approve a hire – there are varying levels of expectation of deference to the initial committee. If everybody higher on the food chain is reduced to rubber-stamp status, there's nothing to stop inbreeding, or the hiring of close friends, or flagrantly illegal questions. On the other hand, if the committee's recommendation is brushed aside too lightly, good luck getting people to serve on committees. I try to take the approach of deferring when the search has been handled reasonably, even if the final choice wouldn't be mine, but 'reasonably' is one of those words that different people define differently. This is one of those cases where it's impossible to remove 'judgment,' even if it makes people uncomfortable with its inevitable squishiness around the edges.

Have you seen something in a position announcement that made you howl or cringe?

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