Tuesday, March 02, 2010



Last week I heard someone drop the "administrative meddling" line. "Meddling" is one of those words that makes me skeptical the minute I hear it.

A few years ago, I was accused of 'meddling' in the search process by insisting that committees follow the rules.

I won't go into the specifics, since that wouldn't be appropriate, but the broad outline is that I asked committees to stop violating the college rules for search committee processes. Nobody really argued that the rules were wrong in themselves. (There was some pushback on affirmative action, but that's to be expected.) But when the rules were actually invoked, the reaction was a shocked "but don't you trust us?"

Well, yes and no. I trust that the committees meant well, and that they did what they considered the right thing. But when their definition of the right thing wasn't legally sustainable, I had to raise a red flag.

Pushing a little, I found that some rules had been inconsistently enforced in the past, so some committee chairs came up with informal rules of their own. For example, some of them believed that years of service as an adjunct at the college should be a prerequisite for a full-time position. Over the years, some even gave the impression that there's a "take a number" system as a way to keep the best adjuncts around. As far as they're concerned, it was so-and-so's "turn."

In that context, an administrator saying "you know, the fix can't be in, and you have to take diverse candidates seriously" can look like meddling. But that's not because the administrator is wrong. It's because the committee is.

Although some of the committees don't like to acknowledge it, the fact is that every personnel decision a college makes -- including hiring -- is open to external legal challenge. If a denied candidate made a discrimination claim, and could show that the fix actually was in, we'd lose. Badly. And the damage would take years to undo. If I failed to take preventive measures against that, I wouldn't be doing my job.

In the abstract, most people on campus can acknowledge that. But when we get to cases, the ideal of "we choose our own colleagues and you write the checks" kicks in.

At some level, they seem to think that the rules are only relevant if you don't mean well. I'm not racist, so why are you questioning me?

Because, at the end of the day, it isn't really about what you think. It's about what you do. And when what you do has the effect of putting the college at risk, I have to stop it. Call it "meddling" if that makes you feel better, but I'd sooner answer that than a subpoena.

I've never been accused of meddling. Now, 'micro-managing', that's another story entirely. I have a feeling that some faculty use these words interchangeably whenever an administrator tries to enforce laws, rules, or contract provisions.
One problem is that the "rules" seem to change from year to year.

We had an HR person refuse to forward several application packages(s) to a faculty hiring committee because they were "incomplete": A page from a letter of recommendation or part of someone's CV was missing (apparently inadvertently). Can't a committee decide for itself whether to consider an application that's incomplete, but only trivially so?

Currently at my campus, the ONLY things a hiring committee may consider are 1.) the paperwork that's actually in front of members, and 2.) whatever occurs during a 40-minute interview. Everything else is off-limits.

Members are required to ignore everything else they might know about a candidate. If they've observed someone doing a good job adjuncting year after year, well, that does not and cannot count. If they've observed someone being abusive to students, that does not and cannot count, either.

Candidate A might be consistently genial and plesant while Candidate B could be a bite-the-head-off-the-department-secretary ogre, but a hiring committee can't talk about that, either.

Asking folks to forget about their real-world everyday experiences probably isn't "meddling," but it sure seems crazy. These "rules," intended to promote fairness and objectivity, simply move committee members' discussion into the hallway or the parking lot where legal problems are that much more likely to occur.

Right on Dean Dad! Legal defense costs as much or more than a f/t professor. The chance isn't worth it.
As someone leading a search in an English Department at a CC, I could not agree more. I think search committee service defines the committee members' committments much more than most other types of committee service.

Faculty members who are committed to the institution rather than only the department or division tend to recognize the value of "rules" like those you discuss in ways that those committed soley to their department's interest may never see.
Philip, it's about the difference between accountable information and irresponsible gossip (positive or negative). Is there anything in your policies keeping people from writing up the things they think they know in the form of a supplemental letter to be included in the paperwork?

At my place we've talked about this in relation to t&p. It's a matter of elementary fairness to candidates that the evidence for and against them be transparent in the file, just as in the law nothing may be considered that has not been authenticated and admitted into evidence.

I don't doubt that these reasons get lost sometimes in rules, of course.
Carl asked: "Is there anything in your policies keeping people from writing up the things they think they know in the form of a supplemental letter to be included in the paperwork?"

Answer: There's nothing in our policies (other than a requirement that all information be based on first-hand observation, rather than hearsay) that would prohibit a "supplemental letter."

Of course, candidates' files can and do include offical letters of recommendation--which are almost always glowing.

But if I were on a hiring committee, and a candidate's file contained UNsolicited letters, I'd be suspicious of them, especially if they were numerous.

I'd bet that the hiring compliance officer, who sits on every hiring committee and has a great deal of power, would exclude any such unsolicited letters--positive letters probably and negative letters almost certainly.

And if I were on a hiring committee and I wrote a strong letter of recommendation, I'd probably be excluded from the committee.

The point I'm trying to make is that in an attempt to be as fair and objective as possible, the policies and procedures (at least on my CC campus) for hiring committtees have become so rigid and non-commonsensical that they're getting uncomfortably close to being UNfair and UNobjective.

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