Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Democracy and Hiring

A longtime reader writes:

So, here's a question for you: Is it a good idea for department chairs to value democracy within the department? (I recognize this is not a black-and-white answer).

A little context from my experience: We have regular faculty meetings (1st Friday of the month) where many topics are discussed among the 24-member faculty. We vote on many issues (as required by the bylaws). We have a complicated procedure for voting on the addition of new faculty which is followed very well.

However during the eight years of our current chair's tenure,when the chair has been in the minority in a vote on who to hire as anew faculty member, that "decision" has never come to pass. This is beginning to be pretty statistically significant with n now equal to 8. Eight times we have voted to hire somebody or to search for a particular time of somebody but the chair was not behind the vote. The people who won those votes never joined our faculty.

1. In some cases, it was decided we needed to have another vote. Sometimes we needed a third vote before we got it right.

2. In some cases the chair dutifully brought the offer to the candidate with the most votes but for some reason he turned us down. In such cases I've wondered just how enthusiastic the chair was in making the offer, given that the candidate he supported was number two on our list.

3. In one case we decided that we would ask the provost to search for faculty in specialties X and Y. No priority was given by the faculty; as a group we thought it was a good idea to search for both. During this discussion the chair made it clear that he was in favor of X and not very excited about Y. Next thing we know we are informed that an ad will be placed for X only because we were only given permission to search for one. No subsequent discussion was sought on whether X was more favored than Y now that we had to make the choice for only one. This situation then evolved into case 1 above followed by case 2 above.

So, how much should democracy be valued in an academic department. Do the examples above represent reasonable exercise of the prerogative of the chair or outrageous usurpation of the rights of faculty?

There's a lot to unpack here. In a followup email, he mentioned that at his college, chairs are chosen by deans at deans' sole discretion. There's a norm of consultation with the department, but the final choice rests with the dean. If the chair were elected, my answer would probably be different.

To start on the global level, I'll just say that workplaces aren't democracies. (How would 'one employee, one vote' work with adjuncts? Should votes be apportioned by salary? The potential for conflicts of interest here is staggering.) Citizens don't get downsized. That's not to deny that some democratic trappings might be useful in some contexts, but let's not mistake employment for citizenship. So to my mind, there's no a priori 'rightness' to a democratic process, although there can certainly be a pragmatic case for it in certain contexts. That said, I think the real issue is the underlying, existing understanding of what the local rules actually are.

As to the particulars, I'll start with the easy one. Case 3 strikes me as pretty unobjectionable. If the faculty didn't express a preference, that's their call, but I don't think they then have the right to complain if somebody else does. The protest of no subsequent discussion strikes me as too clever by half; if they decided, after due deliberation, that they had no preference between X and Y, then that's what they decided. To complain that they didn't then get to re-decide strikes me as pushing it.

Case 2 is suspicious, but certainly not damning. I've made offers that weren't accepted. It wasn't for a lack of enthusiasm on my part, certainly. But people turn down offers for lots of reasons, including salary, housing costs, teaching loads, better offers, spousal/relationship issues, perceived cultural fit, and more. It's possible that your chair intentionally half-assed it, but it's also very possible that nothing he did or didn't do tipped the balance. I'd describe the evidence in 2 as thin and circumstantial.

Case 1 jumps off the page (screen?). Why the hell would you need three votes to “get it right”? In the absence of something really glaring, this strikes me as pretty heavy-handed.

I'm also intrigued at your mention of department bylaws. Do the bylaws specify the degree to which department votes are understood to be binding? Do they specify the subjects on which the department gets to vote? If they prescribe processes but not the meaning of outcomes, then you have a much bigger problem.

Many colleges have faculty senates or variations on faculty senates, wherein votes are taken, but the results are not binding on the administration. If everybody goes in with their eyes open, then fine. But I've heard administrators accused of autocratic tendencies for not bowing to a vote that wasn't supposed to be binding anyway. You can't have it both ways. If it's truly binding, then by no means should the faculty have the monopoly on the franchise. If the faculty has a monopoly on the franchise, then its voice should be considered simply that of one important interest group among others.

It sounds to me like there are competing understandings of the meaning of a vote. If the vote is simply a formalized way of consulting for advice, then the chair didn't do anything against the rules. (That's not to say his actions weren't politically naïve or even stupid, but they weren't invalid.) If the vote is understood to be binding, then the chair's actions in Case 1 need some serious explaining. My guess is that different people have different understandings of the meaning of a vote, which is why conflicts like these keep cropping up. Rather than hashing out those understandings, which is risky and potentially demoralizing, it can be easier just to blame the personalities involved.

(Academia has a horrifying tradition of binding non-binding arrangements, in which a given voice is technically non-binding, but expects a level of 'deference' such that it's effectively binding. Again, you can't have it both ways.)

My advice is to make a choice. Either suck it up, or have a clarifying departmental conversation about the meaning of a vote. As long as everybody has different understandings of the rules, I'd expect these conflicts to keep happening.

Long-suffering readers: your thoughts?

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

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