Thursday, July 19, 2007


Ask the Administrator: The Best?

A new correspondent writes:

Are community colleges required, either by policy or law, to always
hire the job candidate who is most qualified? And what are their
responsibilities to conduct a fair, expedited search which respects the

My husband applied (this past winter) for a CC faculty position.
He had a telephone interview (this Spring) which he felt went very well. He was
told at that time he would be notified if he was one of three applicants
chosen for a face-to-face interview.

He has still not been notified if he will be chosen for a second interview.

However, we have heard "through the grapevine" that the interviews were
conducted and the job was offered to the part-time incumbent who has held
the position for a couple years.

My husband's credentials and experience met and far exceeded what was
required of the position, in every area, including degrees (terminal). The
person hired is a few classes shy of a master's.

The lack of consideration and communication throughout this process leads us
to believe they were dragging it out, hoping that the job candidates would
drop out. My husband, however, very much wanted the opportunity to interview
and we made (or didn't make) many life changing decisions in these many
months based on his pending job application.

Aside from the gross inconsiderateness, it is obvious they did not hire the
"best" candidate, if best means educational and professional experience
required for the position. Is there any recourse for my husband, other than
a well-thought out letter expressing his opinions on their hiring practices?

We are aware that educational and professional experience must also be
accompanied by "fit" - we don't believe that this would have been an issue
in his application - he felt it would have been a perfect fit.

I'm not a lawyer, and policies vary from college to college. That said, there's a difference between 'not discriminating' and 'hiring the best.' Public colleges aren't allowed to discriminate based on race, age, sex, veterans' status, disabilties, pregnancy, and a few others. (In some states, that list is expanded – rightly, in my view -- to include sexual orientation.) That means that they aren't allowed to use these factors in making hiring decisions. It doesn't mean that judgment, or even error, is forbidden. It just means that the judgments (and errors) can't be based on those factors.

In this market, it's not at all unusual to have to turn down people who exceed the qualifications for a given position. (That's why I'm a little alarmed that you “made (or didn't make) many life-changing decisions...based on his pending job application.” That's a lot of eggs for one abstract basket!) For one fairly recent hire, we had 120 applications, several of which were far beyond anything we had dreamed of anticipating. As good as they were, we had to turn down all but one. The ones who came closest without actually getting it were outstanding, and I couldn't argue with any other college that wanted to hire them. It's just that we only had the one position. (Several of the top candidates brought credentials far beyond what the incumbent faculty had when they were first hired. This is why I don't buy the “academia is a meritocracy” line. In a meritocracy, incumbents would have to defend their positions against newcomers. With tenured faculty, that doesn't happen.)

Some qualifications are easier to quantify than others. Degree status and years of teaching experience are easy to put on a grid. Performance at an interview – and make no mistake, interviews are performances – is tougher. That may sound sinister, but having done and/or sat in on dozens of interviews, I can attest that some people who seem great on paper just don't get it done 'live,' whether in person or on the telephone. I've seen exceptionally well-credentialed candidates stumble on the simplest questions, simply because their priorities were wildly different from ours. I've seen candidates adopt the attitude that they're doing us a favor by deigning to consider working here: that's always the kiss of death. And there are always those mystifying failures of basic communication skills – monosyllabic answers to everything, answering questions other than the ones that were asked, or basic incomprehensibility. None of those show up on paper, but they're all crucial. Even granting the limits of the interview format, I don't want to put somebody incomprehensible in front of a classroom.

All of that said, there are other legitimate (or semi-legitimate) factors that could come into play in any given case. There may be salary constraints such that the topmost candidate is essentially priced out of the job. (That can easily happen in a collective bargaining environment, in which starting salaries are determined by a pretty mechanistic grid. If you score too high on the grid, the college might decide it can't afford you, and if it did a lowball offer, it would lose the grievance.) In some cases, a college might be spooked by 'flight risk.' If a college has lost several rising stars recently to raids, it may decide to lower its sights for a while in hopes of retaining people without raising its pay scale. I'm philosophically opposed to that, but it happens. Sometimes they're doing what I call the “job and a half” search, in which they're looking for someone who can fill the immediate need, but who can also grow into another role in the near future. Say you're hiring a Spanish professor, but you also know that there's growing demand for Italian, and you're thinking about adding a program in Italian in a couple years. Candidate A is the better Spanish teacher, but Candidate B is a perfectly capable Spanish and Italian teacher. Who do you hire? (Either would strike me as defensible.)

There's also affirmative action, which can be a wild card. I don't want to get into that debate; I'll just acknowledge its existence as a variable.

And then there are all the usual human failings. Some colleges have cultures of “waiting your turn,” in which longterm adjuncts are kept loyal through implied promises of being “next.” Some committees won't take seriously anybody who isn't already there. Some chairs reward personal loyalty over performance, or don't perceive the difference between the two. Sometimes committees split, and the minimally-acceptable-to-all “dark horse” candidate wins, despite being nobody's first choice. Sometimes a formally-open job is given to a trailing spouse in order to maintain local comity, or to reduce flight risk.

And sometimes people just get it wrong. It happens.

I agree that candidates are owed respectful treatment and timely notification. But the requirements I've seen for hiring processes are more about what goes into a decision than how it ends up. To do otherwise, you'd have to know the 'right' decision in advance, at which point there wouldn't be any need to go through a process in the first place. It's frustrating, but given the number of unknowable variables out there, it's what has to be done.

Good luck on your next search. The market is brutal enough that any given rejection shouldn't be taken as a reflection on the candidate.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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

I can't agree more with most of what Dean Dad said above...

I've been on a couple of searches so far, and if a candidate goes into any level of interview with the near presumption that they'll get the job, it became a problem for me. Likewise with the candidates whose attitude said 'I'm much better than this place, but I'd do anything for a salary and permanent position' --

Something that Dean Dad didn't bring up is that some departments seem to prefer MAs. I can think of one department at my CC that only has ONE PhD, out of more than a dozen tenured profs. This is probably because the power players in the department have been around forever AND have MAs. These people aren't worried about flight risk, but they are concerned about rank and status and don't want the new people to out status them..
Public colleges aren't allowed to discriminate based on race, age, sex, veterans' status, disabilties, pregnancy, and a few others. (In some states, that list is expanded – rightly, in my view -- to include sexual orientation.) That means that they aren't allowed to use these factors in making hiring decisions.

Or, more precisely, they aren't allowed to use those as negative factors in making hiring decisions. It's generally ok to note race and sex as positive factors.
I agree with everything DD has said, but I want to place special emphasis on this: in an academic job market, it is very common for EVERYONE on the short list (even the long short list) to have exceeded what is "expected" for the job.

In the four searches I've been a part of over the past 2 yrs, EVERYONE we brought to campus not only "exceeded" expectations, but did so by a wide, wide margin.

At that point it becomes about "fit", which is a difficult thing to measure.

--Maggie May
Many of DD's remarks should be required reading for any person seeking a position at a CC, but particularly those with advanced degrees and experience relevant to a t-t job at a university. (There was an excellent article on this subject in the Chronicle some years back, IIRC). This candidate's idea of a positive phone interview might be a CC's idea of a negative one.

One thing that caught my eye was "a few courses short of a masters". At our CC, that candidate's folder would not have made it out of the first stack if (as is the case for most CC positions) a masters is a requirement for the job. If they take that lax of a view of the credentials required by their accrediting organization, maybe you don't want to work there.
Might I also add that it might be an institutional sense of "not good enough?" I'd love to have a dollar for every time I heard "X is a great candidate, but s/he would never come here." My answer: why not? Didn't you come here? Leave it up to the candidate to decide!
As part of an academic couple, I've been through this sort of thing many times and now that I'm in a position to be on hiring committees, I agree completely with Dean Dad. But let me add this:

One of the things the correspondent mentioned that no one else has brought up is that he's considering writing a letter objecting to the hiring practices. For the love of god, don't! Academics are petty and have long memories. What do you have to gain except making yourself feel better (I try to suggest that we should never take action that only serves to make us feel better, but ...)? You have no idea how burning this bridge will comeback to haunt you later. I can imagine that the letter would be passed around and read not only by the committee, but by the entire department and might even be the talk of conferences in the future.

I really do sympathize with you and understand how frustrating this can be. The job search is so emotionally draining and so time consuming that it's hard to see anything else but any kind of retribution or any kind of response other than "thank you" could be a milstone around your neck and will certainly disqualify you from future positions at this school, or any other school where the committee might teach.

If it helps, you just have no idea why they didn't hire your husband, nor will you. You can ask for feedback on your performance, but it's unlikely that you'll get anything of substance. I've come to believe that academics are squeamish about telling people no and about making the tough decisions. When you're on the hiring committee, you like lots of people and it's difficult to tell those nice talented people that they didn't get the job. All you can do is swear that you'll never be part of a committee that does this and insist, once you're in that position, that the applicants are apprised of the progress as much as is legal and feasible.
Dean Dad (and readers) recently answered a question for me about an upcoming interview and teaching demo for a full time position (thanks again!) and out of 87 applicants I was one of three final candidates for the final interview. I didn't get the job.

Here is the thing. I already work at the school as a part-time (adjunct) faculty member and have for four years. I was encouraged to apply. I have no idea who got the job, or why I didn't. What I got was a form letter with my name misspelled. The entire thing was very eye-opening and I have learned a lot about the process of hiring at CC's...mostly that it is pretty mysterious and frustrating.

I , too, and toying with the idea of asking for feedback but in the end will probably just decide to look elsewhere...

Sorry, no advice, just empathy!
I don't disagree with anything written so far. The hiring process is tough on both sides (interviewers and interviewees). If all CC's do it like we do, a committee is formed of faculty and staff that have little training in the process. Most are interested but some cmte members simply don't care...they have to serve to get their yearly chit for their personal evaluation.

That being said, never give up. We have a person on board who applied for several different jobs. Everyone loved her at each search and knew she was a real "keeper" but for one reason or another, never got a job until she applied for the one she has now, where she is very valuable and has more influence than the other positions.

As another writer said, even before you get to the finalists, many meet the qualifications. We have "minimum" requirements and "preferred" requirements listed on the opening and often can cull out the minimums because so many preferreds apply.

In the case where there is an adjunct, at my institution that person has to be marginal at best to get overlooked. We try to take care of those that have helped us in the past, which might be the issue in the original post.

When it is all said and done, the hiring process is more art than science....sad but true.
Hiring committees at my SoCal cc are forbidden to discuss their decisions during the process and after it's over, too, for obvious legal reasons.

So if a candidate comes to you with a simple, straightforward question like "How can I improve my interviewing techniques?" you can't say a thing. This is "frustrating" for everyone, but it's "mysterious" primarily because we live in a litigious society.

What's really "mysterious" to me in the whole process is what happens after a hiring committee has sent three finalists to the President or VP for Academic Affairs or whomever. The hiring committee has asked all the English teacher or math or history teacher questions, so what do finalists and top administrators talk about?

Agreeing with everything said above, I have to add that if a school cannot treat your husband with respect when he doesn't yet work there, can you imagine how badly they might treat him once he's hired? I realize that this statement may reek of sour grapes and rationalization, but it's one that's gotten me through a lot of ego-crushing developments in my own job search. The school that could not take the time to send me a rejection letter, or that did send a rejection letter with an incorrect title and my name misspelled, is likely not a school that puts enough effort into supporting its faculty. If they're sloppy during hiring what would make us expect that they'd be better with the day-to-day?

Unfortunately the job search is an awful lot like dating. If one partner, whether it's you or the school, doesn't think there's a good fit, then there isn't a good fit. And you will be happier -- much happier -- elsewhere.
I am in such position where the line will be going from temporary to permanent and I will be the lowly person with the MA hoping that my loyalty and those "promises" actually pan out, even if there is a "more qualified" candidate. Sure some one else might have more years of teaching, research and a better degree but I fit (I've been told) with the feel of the department which has little to do with my degree and years of experience.

As for writing a letter to the's not worth it. I've gone through enough job hunting to know that no one let's you know what's going on (cc or not) and you can't take it personal. It's the nature of the beast
I don't have answers, only observations. I recently relocated to another state and applied to two 1-year term visiting teacher assignments. I received no notification that I had not received the jobs, no surprise. At this stage in my career I am left with no alternative to teaching part-time adjunct. But because these assignments are far from being pro-rated to full time faculty, I am essentially forced to turn down these assignments, should I wish to consider my primary vocation that of an instructor. Contrary to popular belief, the only feasible way to successfully teach adjunct is to teach very little, because of the financial detriment that comes with every hour of my life spent it a classroom for sub-poverty wages. Five, six, or seven sections may add up to a livable wage, but a law of diminishing returns kicks in quickly. Adjunct work is no longer a path to professional pedagogical development, but a guarantee that the instructor, student, and institution suffer equally without future promise or recourse.
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