Friday, November 20, 2009


Politics of Hiring: Riffing on Profgrrrrl

First, if you've ever wanted a sense of academic hiring, read Profgrrrrl's post. Now. Slowly.

It's all true.

Worse, it doesn't stop at the department level.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that your dean/vp didn't just fall off the turnip truck. Any chances that s/he might be wise to some of these factors? (Hint: Yes.)

Facts of life like these are why I have this much patience for the argument that the academic hiring market is some sort of meritocracy. It just isn't. That becomes much more true in the disciplines in which it's common to get hundreds of applications per position. After an initial screen for bright-line qualifications, you'll still have dozens of people who are fully qualified, many of whom will have strong letters, academic pedigrees, and experience. That's where things start to get, if not random, then at least situation-specific.

(And that's before even counting recessions. Is hiring down this year because candidates suddenly got worse? Nope.)

I've been on any number of searches in which I've met extraordinary candidates who did everything right and still didn't get hired. Sometimes it comes down to niches. Smith may be a better hitter than Jones, but if Smith is a first baseman and Jones a shortstop, and I'm already set at first base, I'm going with Jones. Substitute teaching specialties for positions, and you get the idea. That's the non-sinister meaning of 'fit.' Departments usually hire because they have holes; the exact shape of the hole is specific to that situation. If this year's hole is different than last year's, then this year's winner will be different.

I've also seen committees try to rig the outcome by putting forward the one person they really want, and two obvious sacrificial lambs. I put a stop to that by threatening to hire one of the lambs. My position is that anyone on the finalist list is, by definition, fair game. That may sound sinister, but I see it as preserving real openness. If the fix is in anyway, why bother running an open search at all? Of course, good luck defending yourself in court when a rejected applicant from a protected class claims discrimination. Although forcing openness may look like administrative meddling, I'd argue that it actually offers the possibility of fairness to all applicants, which can only benefit the college in the long run.

The more difficult case is the committee member who feels threatened in her niche. I've seen a few iterations of this. One is the senior professor who doesn't want to give up a pet course, so he systematically tanks anyone capable of teaching it. Another is the queen bee who simply refuses to hire any women younger than herself. (I know it's an ugly stereotype, but I've seen it in action.) Since no candidate is perfect, it's always possible to find a flaw if you want to badly enough.

Most of these are symptomatic of the vagaries of luck, circumstance, and what Kant called the crooked timber of humanity. My sense is that good admins need to do what they can to preserve real openness of process, and to challenge what seem like arbitrary reasons. But as long as the demand for slots so drastically exceeds the supply, some wonderful people are going to be shut out for what seem like silly reasons. Common decency suggests that we shouldn't add insult to injury by telling those left out that they just weren't good enough.

Wow. Every day, I am a little bit gladder that the chronicle of higher education and invisible adjunct scared me away from getting a Ph.D and I went to law school instead. Our hiring practices are, comparatively anyway, sane.
One of the unmentioned weirdnesses of academic hiring is how every level of management is involved at least to a minor degree. When I worked in industry, we had two levels of management involved at most. VPs and CEOs didn't have the time or interest to review hiring of engineers or bottom tiers of managers. Part of reason why universities waste time on these issues may be due to the small size of academic organizations, though it's still absurd for the President to spend time approving hires below the dean or possibly chair level unless the university only has around 100 or so faculty.
Having gone through the department interviews for full-time, but never progessing to administration (dean, etc) I think the hiring in academia is a tedious and political process. At this point I am happy adjuncting at a few colleges and always asking the question- would I really want to work full-time with these people? Most of the time my answer is no and it is due to hearing about the petty politics that go on or the arrogant treatment of ajduncts by full-timers.

Some people may say that pettiness and politics are in every industry. It is everywhere, but I expect more from people that are in education or any industry that is assisting others whether it be in healthcare or education. I am surprised someone has not produced a drama about colleges rather than comedies.
Left out of ProfGrrrrl's ruminations is a discussion of where one advertises. Some outlets (let's say, oh, Careerbuilder for academic jobs, where I once received an application from more than one high school graduate for a position requiring an earned doctorate) are a waste of time and money.

The rest of it is oh so true.
Concerning the notion of "fit" in academic hiring, D.D. uses a baseball analogy to describe how committees distinguish between applicants, and writes: "Smith may be a better hitter than Jones, but if Smith is a first baseman and Jones a shortstop, and I'm already set at first base, I'm going with Jones.

Okay, yes, this really is the less sinister version of "fit." Let's try it this way. If we're talking shortstops, and your applicants, all in their respective primes, are Derek Jeter, Luis Aparicio, Barry Larkin, and Robin Yount, how exactly would you decide between them? And let's just say, for the sake of the example, that all will be paid the same amount so their respective monetary cost is not going to be a factor in the hiring process.

I think this might be a slightly more accurate example. I mean how exactly are you going to distinguish between these guys? The only will be to delve into a second, third, fourth, even fifth tier of criteria. At some point, how they comb their hair may come into play.

That's a much more accurate version of academic hiring.
Through the dim glasses of a graduate student, I've seen another side of hiring. This one's caused by attending a state university in an expensive area, which pays new professors as though we're located in Cheap Rural Town.

I didn't see all of the politics behind the selection of the Final Few, who came for on-campus interviews. But our department sets aside time for students to meet with faculty candidates, so I met most of the contenders. And I was aware that offer after offer went out, only to be refused. We've too expensive an area to live in.

It took us three years to fill two positions.
@Karen: Yes, that happens quite a bit now. I have a friend on the faculty at UC-Riverside, and he told me they had three successive failed searches: no one they wanted would take the job for the amount they could pay, simply because of the outrageous cost of living. He figured their only hope was to find a good candidate whose investment-banker spouse had recently been transferred into the area.
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