Thursday, July 10, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Charging Search Committees

A left coast correspondent writes:

What constraints do people serving on hiring committees work under?

In an attempt to make the hiring process as fair as possible-which translates as avoiding lawsuits-my California community college district requires that a Hiring Compliance Officer (HCO) sit on every hiring committee.  The HCO is sometimes an administrator, but because there aren't enough administrators to go around, the HCO is more and more likely to be a lawyer or a consultant from off campus.

The job of the HCO is to make a somewhat (or maybe mostly) subjective process like a hiring decision as "objective" as possible.  Back in the day, when an English department hiring committee got 300 applications for a single position, the first job of the committee was to screen these applications and select 15 or 20 for an interview.  Committee members would take a stack of 50 applications home and simply check off one of three boxes: interview, don't interview, and maybe.  Right now, hiring committees are writing a set of "objective criteria" which will determine how a committee member decides whether to check the yes, no, or maybe box.  I can only imagine what that set of criteria might look like.   Starting from the basics, I guess that criteria for a cover letter would have to include stuff like "word-processed, in a standard font with standard margins, laser-printed in black and white," go on to "free from errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar," and end with more criteria intended to eliminate cover letters full of pompous bloviation.

Then things get even stranger.  When interviews are scheduled to begin, HCOs inform committee members that they must rate candidates only on what happens during the interview.  Any prior knowledge, positive or negative, that they have about a candidate must be ignored and cannot be discussed.  So if I've observed someone being abusive to the department secretaries, I have to forget about it.  Or if I've heard nothing but glowing comments from students about another candidate, and I've seen her classroom full of students asking questions and continuing a discussion after class time is over, I have to forget about that, too.

Is my college 'way off base here, or are these bizarre practices becoming the rule rather than the exception?

There's a lot here. I'll discuss what I've seen, and my sense of it, but I'd also love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one. My guess is that practices are widely varied, though I don't actually know that.

Every public college I know of has some variation on an 'affirmative action/equal opportunity' officer. (The titles vary, but they usually include one or the other of those terms.) That person's thankless task is to either ensure that fair and reasonable policies are followed to ensure that historically underrepresented groups are given a fair shake, or to trample individual judgment by imposing broad social categories on individual people, depending on your politics. Either way, lawsuit prevention is key.

Search committees, left to their own devices, are strange creatures. I've seen committees in which a single powerful personality dominates, so that it's a committee in name only. I've also seen committees reject the strongest candidate for fear of flight risk. Sometimes a dark horse candidate will carry the day with a committee, despite being nobody's first choice. Some committees go out of their way to replicate themselves, only younger and dimmer; others expect the new hire to magically make all their problems go away. And it's not unusual for a committee to surprise itself as it deliberates.

But the key point about search committees is that the people on them, other than department chairs, are often completely untrained in how to do what they're doing. And in a litigious world, that can lead to real danger.

The rules about what you can and can't ask are complicated, shifting, and sometimes counterintuitive. (They can also vary by state. Some states forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation and some don't, for example.) Apparently, according to my correspondent, California cc's handle that by training a cadre of specialists and farming them out to each group. In the places I've worked, the method has been different. The AA/EO officer prepares a workshop on the latest iterations of the law, and every committee chair has to go through it. I prefer this method, since it spreads the knowledge farther, which increases the chances of its being used as well for, say, adjunct hiring.

In discussions with the HR director at my previous college, I got some great advice that I've shared with my chairs. If there's knowledge you aren't allowed to use, don't get it. So in the course of chitchat, don't ask about or bring up children or spouses or partners. If you didn't know, then you don't have to prove that you didn't use that knowledge. Obviously, this doesn't work for every category – the comedian Zach Galifinakis likes to say he has “blackdar,” which is like gaydar for black people – but steering clear of certain topics can save a lot of drama later.

In my experience, the issue with anti-discrimination rules is in the shadow that falls between the idea and the instance. In theory, nearly everybody agrees that, say, racial discrimination is bad. But search committees don't judge theories; they judge individual candidates, each with real imperfections. And it's easy for unconscious biases to latch onto real imperfections and exaggerate their importance. (That's why 'objective' criteria that can be quantified can be so attractive. They anchor the comparison in something at least arguably relevant.) So the role of the AA/EO office is twofold: to try to make sure that the rules of the road are such that everybody gets something approximating a fair shot, and (related, but not the same thing) to keep the college from losing lawsuits.

(Although it would take some finesse, I sometimes wonder if explaining more fully the 'lawsuit avoidance' function would actually improve faculty buy-in. It's not that the college doesn't trust Bob not to be sexist; it's that the courts don't. If accused, the college wants to show that it took concrete steps to ensure that he wouldn't be sexist. The 'concrete steps' part is the important part. 'Trusting Bob' doesn't cut it in court.)

The 'only use what you know from the interview' rule strikes me as bizarre, since it's standard practice to check references, who presumably know the candidate from outside the interview. I've never heard of that one before.

Wise and worldly readers – how do search committees work at your college?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

At my institution, the AA/EO officer meets with each search committee to go over the legal issues, the things you can and can't do, etc., at the beginning of each search. Every single committee - and every member has to be present for this meeting, even if they recently participated in a different search. Then, if I recall, the AA/EO person met with us once more once the search was underway. The person was not on the committee (though they did consult with the search chair as needed throughout the process), nor do I think they should be. (While it's true that faculty may not be trained in the minutiae of the law, somebody without a terminal degree in the appropriate field should not be weeding out candidates in a search for a college professor, for that's ultimately the job training that is required to judge applicants in the first go-around. This is one reason why there are search committees in the first place.)

Finally, yes, search committees can make seemingly weird choices in hiring candidates. So, too, can individuals who have the power to hire. I'm not sure that such a tendency (a human one as far as I can tell) can be corrected with more bureaucracy, with more oversight, with more corporatization of the university, ultimately.
Like Dr. Crazy, every member of the committee goes through a workshop, although we do it in groups to pick up all of the search committees across campus. In addition, the chair is always experienced and repeats the key warnings, as does the dean.

Our first pass is 100% objective, using a checklist. How can you do it any other way when handling dozens (fortunately I have not been on one with hundreds) of applications? It is basically a grading rubric. [How would you defend a "don't interview" decision in any other way?] Every member looks at every folder, but you can stop if you hit a "no" (like lacks the relevant 18 hours or some other requirement listed in the ad). However, we have a column for comments or "plus check minus" rankings to help on the second pass, when we discuss each folder as a group.

By the way, all of those notes and forms are preserved by the Dean.

Our committees only search and exclude, they do not choose. We also do not rank the short list that goes to the dean. Our comments usually make our ranking clear, but no one goes on the short list that we would not want to see hired.

We also are expected to make our judgement only on what happens during the interview process. That is the only way to be fair to outside candidates.

IMO, the only value of prior knowledge is that it gives a baseline to translate a "demo" performance into the real classroom. In some cases, that has been a post hoc process: If that demo resulted in that kind of instructor, we don't want to see that demo in the future. For example, our math department no longer allows any use of powerpoint in the demo class.

It should also be noted that some states were specifically singled out for extended legal oversight under the 1965 Civil Rights Act. Not sure if those are still in force, but they are more careful than others about process.

BTW, nice pair of articles related to job searches at a CC. That will make it easier when I finally blog my reply to a correspondent wondering how to seek a CC job from the R1 research sector.
CCPhysicist points out a crucial distinction between ignoring what happens outside an interview room and what happens outside the interview process. From my perspective, the interview starts the second that the official itinerary says it does and ends when the itinerary says it does. Anything within that time frame is a legitimate basis for discussion.

But from what CCPhysicist and your correspondent wrote, I suspect that your California correspondent was wishing to go beyond the interview process, and CCPhysicist is right about treating internal and external candidates differently.
This is odd - I would check with your union as to whether or not someone who is not a tenure track faculty member or administrator at your college can sit on your search committees. At my school, our search committees are strictly limited to certain people.
From what I've seen of hiring processes, internal candidates were often harmed by the use of information from outside the application and interview process. If I know that Bob is lousy when working on a deadline, and monopolizes discussion in committees, I will want to hold that against him. But for all we know the external candidate has just as many flaws, we just aren't exposed to them. The devil you don't know will be more likely to get hired than the one you do.
What I've found frustrating is the list of questions to be asked and from which the committee is told it must not stray, lest there be an appearance of bias. A candidate says something interesting, yet asking a follow-up question is not one reacts in a way, which, although not phrased as a question, does allow the sharper candidate to respond (the duller candidates don't realize they've been handed a question in disguise....)

I started writing a response, but it got too long. So, I now have a blog entry--which might as well be entitled "fuck legal counsel"! :-)Thanks, DD.
Our committee writes the list of questions, all of which must be asked of all of the candidates, although some come from a standard list used on our part of the campus. However, we can certainly ask "Can you elaborate on X?" if an answer seems incomplete. We just can't go into some other area that will not be explored with every candidate.

Further, anything goes during the teaching presentation, where we play "student". However, any sensible person on the committee will pre-plan some question for that component if a point of comparison is desired. And we can't control what a random spectator will ask.

Yeah, I should have blogged my answer, but I didn't see how long it was until too late.
CCphysicist writes “We also are expected to make our judgement only on what happens during the interview process. That is the only way to be fair to outside candidates.”

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine an ideal adjunct faculty member with many years of service at your institution (go ahead and vamp to your heart’s content here—reinvigorated the Writing Center by developing a new training procedure, named Adjunct Teacher of the Year by the Academic Senate) who, because of nervousness, illness, or whatever, performs (and that’s a key word for me) well, but not brilliantly, during her interview. An outside candidate, whom the committee has known for a grand total of 50 minutes, does much better in his interview.

Should a 50-minute performance by a virtual unknown outweigh years of outstanding work?

By the way, I’m the “left coast correspondent” who brought up this question with Dean Dad. I no longer serve on selection committees because I’m getting close to retirement, and I think it’s better for younger faculty members to choose their colleagues-to-be. More important, I no longer serve on selection committees because I don’t know the answers to ethical (and legal) questions like these.
I, too, teach at a CA cc, and I have served on several faculty hiring committees.

I recognize our process in your guest's description EXCEPT that at a late stage in the hiring committee's deliberations (after all interviews), members CAN bring up what they know about the candidate beyond the interview. That discussion is ALWAYS lively. :)

I personally hate that we can't ask follow-ups, because unless we ask the SAME follow-up of ALL interviewees, we aren't being fair. That's way too confining, in my experience.
My answer to Anonymous 2:21pm is fairly simple:

Quite frankly, if that information was not in that candidates folder (I can think of at least three places it could be listed in the documents each candidate submits) and was not mentioned as part of the answer to at least five questions where it would be relevant, we would be left wondering whether that person makes a better adjunct or staff member than professor.

That should suffice as a reminder to any potential candidates reading this that it is your job to use every opportunity to blow your own horn. If you need to bring notes to the interview so you don't forget something, bring notes. It looks like that goes double if you are in California!

BTW, we see the candidate for far more than 50 minutes. More importantly, we don't make the decision on who to hire - only who we should not hire. At least two, if not all three, of the other people who interview the candidate would already know that information and are free to use it when they make the actual hiring decision.
Clearly we’re talking about apples and oranges.

More than a few responders have noted that the AA/EO officer provides general training for selection committees. At my school, s/he sits in on every single committee meeting, but does not have a vote. Anon 4:12 says on his campus,at some late stage in the hiring process committee members are free to talk about outside-the-interview knowledge they have about a candidate. Where I work, we’d be drawn and quartered for doing so. CCPhysicist states that “we see the candidate for far more than 50 minutes.” Not where I work.

Conclusion: Hiring practices and procedures vary widely. Those on my campus are among the most restrictive (from the point of view of selection committee members) and bizarre--which is exactly what I thought I might learn when I wrote Dean Dad.

Thank you all.

--Left coast correspondent
1) People can't be 100% "objective" (since many believe there is no such thing as "objective truth" this statement is a truism for some

2) Any judgment (based on human observation) is therefore "subjective" to some degree

3) "Subjective" judgments are subject to bias, therefore

4) Any "subjective" evaluation must either be
a. skewed to prefer "diversity"; or
b. Thrown out

Given institutional bias in favor of "diversity," then, we must both:

5) skew our decisions in favor of
a. Objective criteria, and/or
b. Subjective criteria that favor "diversity"


All of that may or may not seem logical to you personally. However, what would happen if yoiu asked for a rational discussion of "diversity?"

Try it at your school.

I did . . . and found myself down the rabbit hole where mathematically (X/Z) > (Y/Z) even though X < Y.

Yeah, you know what I'm sayin . . . Math, it turns out, is a Caucasian Hetero Patriarchal construct with no basis in "Underlhying Truth."
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