Monday, March 09, 2009


Grow Your Own

This article from the Chronicle, about spousal hiring, and this one from IHE, about administrative searches in a recession, are worth reading together. They're both about the real-world friction that gets in the way of hiring the best people for a given job.

Spousal (or partner) hiring is a tricky business in the best of times. Any preference given to the trailing partner is a judgment call that the overall gain to the college from the primary hire makes up for the suboptimal second hire. (If the second hire weren't suboptimal, no preference would be needed.) In the best case for the institution, place-bound candidates settle for jobs that would otherwise be beneath them, and the college gets better than it pays for. (Historically, this was how sexism kept the cost of public education relatively low; educated women weren't allowed to do much else.) In the worst case, the college takes on a weaker-than-merit hire, and bleeds performance over time.

In a fiscal crisis, the stakes are much higher, since openings are fewer. If you're bringing in a half-dozen new people to a given program, you can tolerate one being a little behind the others. If you're only getting one for the next several years, though, you need to make that one count. And from the perspective of the denied applicants, to find out that you've turned down for sleeping with the wrong person (or nobody) just adds insult to injury. Oddly, that doesn't seem to register as discrimination, though I'd be hard-pressed to call it anything else.

Add to this chronic issue the new issue of nationally-recruited candidates being held in place by houses they can't realistically sell. Depending on when and how they bought, some folks are in a position where selling a house would involve a drastic upfront loss. Add a deadweight loss on the house to the uncertain prospects for a spousal/partner hire, and otherwise-attractive options suddenly become untenable. To the extent that smaller candidate pools result in suboptimal hires, I expect colleges to slowly bleed performance from this for many years to come.

I started hearing about dean and vp searches failing a few years ago, before the bottom fell out of the housing market.  At that point, the issue was mostly the lack of pipeline.  Now the lack of pipeline is compounded by people not being able to stomach the fiscal hit of moving.

Basic demographics suggest that higher ed is facing a leadership crisis over the next several years. Since the average ages of Presidents and Chief Academic Officers have moved steadily upward for decades, at this point, substantial numbers of both are creeping up on retirement. (The lack of faculty hiring has starved the leadership pipeline for long enough that it's starting to show at the highest levels.) If a college in a relatively less popular region doesn't have the internal candidates ready to step up, and nationally-recruited candidates are held in place by economic friction, then I foresee some real roll-of-the-dice hires coming soon, with predictable consequences.

There's no clean and easy way around these issues. Certainly I'd expect relatively farsighted colleges to start doing some more intensive leadership development of their own people -- the "grow your own" strategy.  When that's tenable, it's great.  But 'professional development' is usually one of the first cuts, and the more recent generation of faculty hires had to clear such high hurdles that many of them are single-mindedly focused on their faculty role.  That's individually rational, but over time, destructive to the underlying institution.  And there's something to be said for cross-pollination, for occasionally bringing in a new set of eyes that doesn't take longstanding local habits as given.  

I've mentioned before that one possibly beneficial side effect of the current crunch will be to put the final nail in the coffin of the idea of pure 'merit' in hiring.  For very different reasons, the same thing is likely to happen with administrative roles.  If there's an upside, maybe some of the capable-but-unsure newer hires will have more opportunities available to them over the next few years.  I hope they can overcome the knee-jerk disdain for the role and step up.  If not, things could get even uglier.

By calling partner hires "sub-optimal" one buys into a very mechanical model of merit. Although we evaluate candidates as if they can be arranged in a rank order of excellence, or as if one of them could be the "best fit" for a particular job, such evaluations are highly subjective. Moreover, there's very rarely consensus over such judgments. To my mind, worrying that partner hires will create sub-optimal results already buys into a very reductive way of thinking about academics and academic careers.

In the contexts I'm familiar with, the more significant issue around partner hires stems from the fact that they tend to involve making hires into positions that wouldn't otherwise exist. Very rarely (in my experience) does a partner hire mean that an existing search gets skewed to favor the partner of a candidate from a different search. Rather, deans and departments negotiate a new line, often combining money from the dean's budget and from vacant lines in the department where the partner will be hired (sometimes also from the other partner's department if it's not the same one). So the issue really isn't whether to hire a relatively mediocre candidate; it's whether to hire a specialist in eighteenth-century Polish cultural history, or the neurophysiology of dyslexia, or whatever. Or it's whether the university really needs a second or third specialist in the partner's field as opposed to other specialties.

Those are complicated and contentious questions. I don't think they can be answered in the abstract. Certainly sometimes partner hires are pretty mediocre. But then again, sometimes so are people hired in regular searches. In my experience, just as often partner hires represent amazing opportunities, to get an excellent colleague, or to make a hire in a specialty that simply wouldn't get approved under normal circumstances. Not infrequently, the partner turns out to be a better bargain than the primary candidate.
"And from the perspective of the denied applicants, to find out that you've turned down for sleeping with the wrong person (or nobody) just adds insult to injury. Oddly, that doesn't seem to register as discrimination, though I'd be hard-pressed to call it anything else."

Indeed, knowing that, as a single person, not only do I get to struggle to get by on one salary, but I also have a lower chance of getting hired for certain jobs because I am single, is an amazingly bitter pill to swallow. I finally read "House of Mirth" a few years ago, and was able to identify far too closely with Lily Bart, suffering financial ruin due to a failure to marry. This is not how our 21st century world is supposed to operate.
To keep the "deja vu moment" going, I'll make the same comment I made the first time this thread was launched. Not verbatim of course; that would be unimaginative and tedious.

"Are you sure your best qualified candidate is the one who "found" themselves unable (or unwilling) to sell their home at their current location?"

Just a thought: if you are unable to accept a job offer based on your own circumstances, don't apply for the job.

The issue: Should universities now state in the job description "We will buy your current home at what you paid for it?" Should candidates state clearly in their application package "I can't move now unless you buy my curent home at my asking price?"

Is there a (horrors!) slippery slope hiding in here somewhere?

Or is this just a natural extension of the standard "we cover your moving costs" contract clause we've enjoyed for many years? Buying out the new hirees house is now a "moving cost?"
Two points of contention.

DeanDad - not all spousal hires sub-optimal. I'll give an example. I've never had the guts to ask one of my professors to verify that she was the primary hire. But the facts show that she has the Ivy-League, #1 program in the country PhD and husband has a no name PhD in different but related field. The other fact is that the spouse has a split appointment; he is kind of eclectic, so it works. Thus I've always assumed it was more like the situation Steven describes. While she has turned out to be a great hire for the program, he is by far the more prolific researcher - at a regional comprehensive turning R1 over recent years. Win-win for everyone.

YACP - While I tend to agree with you, it is possible that a professor was not upside down when he or she began the search. Some areas in the country are just that unstable. These same areas are likely to take a decade to stabilize. Should the profession really turn their back on (in most case) mid to high level professors transferring schools for the next decade?
How does one move into administration?
For Anonymous 6:53: Spousal hires are an attempt to deal with a major issue for married academics: the dreaded two-body problem. Considering how competitive the hiring market is, finding two academic positions in the same rough geographical area is a real challenge. I'd say that your odds of getting an academic offer you can accept is much easier if you're single.

That said, the job market in academia is so bizarre right now that I'm inclined to agree with Steven and DRD: that spousal hire might be a real bargain! Not always, of course: I've heard about spousal hires so toxic that in retrospect, the department would have preferred to do without the "primary" partner. A lot of the time, though, what a hiring committee wants does not necessarily add up to the person who is the best fit for the institution.
On the issue of discrimination: all hiring is discriminatory by its nature (assuming more than one person applies for the job). The question is whether the discrimination happens for reasons that, as a society, we deem to be wrong. Legally, these reasons get defined as "protected classes." In most places, family status is not a protected class (although one might argue that it should be) and even where it is, that protection has usually been interpreted as preventing discrimination against people with children rather than single people or even married people without children.

Maybe more than you need to know. But people toss around the word discrimination like it's inherently a bad thing, and also like it's universally illegal. Neither are true.
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