Friday, April 30, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Hiring Earlier in the Cycle

A new correspondent writes:

I work in an English Department at a mid-sized community college and currently chair a search committee for my department.

Our department would like to change the way we recruit and hire folks in English for full-time positions.

Currently, we anxiously await the budgetary calculus of Senior Administration (VP level, trustees and president) to find out the number of lines we will be hiring for the next year, although we typically know pretty clearly (based on retirements and/or massive enrollment jumps) whether or not we will be hiring at all. By "pretty clearly" I mean about 95% certainty.

We currently do not have the authority to advertise for positions, conduct interviews, or even recruit for said position(s) until we get The Word from Senior Admin that we are actually going to fund the line or lines. We typically get The Word either just before or right after Christmas, sometimes as late as February 1st. In the meantime, other public CCs and four-years in our state system have put up adverts in October or November in all the usual discipline-specific and CC-specific national publications (MLA job list, CC Jobs etc...) with language along the lines of "position pending budgetary approval."

We feel that the practice I just described allows the most desirable candidates, particularly highly-sought-after diverse candidates, to consider and take other positions while we wait on the sidelines. We would like to change this top-down strategy to allow us to compete with our sister institutions for the best candidates. In short, we want to advertise earlier (with the caveat I just mentioned about budgetary approval, or some such), recruit at appropriate national and regional conferences like CCHA and MLA (something we tried 8 years ago with great results) develop relationships with regional MA and PhD-granting institutions and involve more of our 40 or so FT department members in the recruiting efforts I just mentioned.

The gain for the college, as we see it, would be a better chance at a quality diverse hire (our senior admin puts lots of pressure on departments to make diverse hires) and, of course, a better chance at a quality hire, somewhat lower turnover and all the other things that come with hiring the best people.

Questions: (a) Do the moves we are proposing make logical sense from your "wise and worldly" perspective? Why/not? (b) If such a proposal makes any sense from your administrative perspective, what is the best way to sell these changes to HR (a semi-independent, rule-bound and change-resistant administrative unit with its own VP) and Senior VPs/president?

Been there. (And it's my readers who are wise and worldly. I ride their coattails.)

I get the argument, and I concede that there's a hiring cycle. But the college's policy isn't just persnickety. It has a certain logic to it.

Let's say that your department is as accurate as you claim. Can we say the same for every department? If not, then opening up the floodgates for aspirational advertising will probably lead to a substantial number of false positives for job candidates. Committees will be formed for searches that won't happen. Money will be spent on advertisements for positions that won't exist. Depending on how far the processes go, you might spend money flying candidates in, putting them up in hotels, and covering the various travel expenses. That doesn't count the value of the time the committee members sacrificed on a wild goose chase.

From this side of the desk, I know it's harder to say 'no' to a face than to a concept. Chances are that the savvier departments would talk up their aspirational hires to try to swing the resources their way. Over time, other departments would notice, and before long, everybody who wants to hire would jump the gun. False positives would abound.

And having been an unsuccessful candidate in many searches, I can say that there's a serious ethical issue with putting candidates through the paces for a job that may not actually exist. People devote time, money, and emotional energy in going on interviews; putting them through that for a chimera just isn't right. (For example, imagine the candidate who turns down an interview for a real job to go on an interview for an imaginary one. Ouch. Or the candidate whose job search is held against her at her current institution once it become known through reference checks, all for a job that doesn't exist. Not good.)

Yes, there's usually language about "pending budgetary approval," but that isn't intended to be a blank check. It's typically used to acknowledge the possibility that a position may get yanked at the last minute due to severe external economic changes, like midyear cuts in state appropriations. It's not generally understood to be a free pass to play "what if."

In my experience, position authorizations typically come relatively late in the budget cycle (meaning Spring) because the college is waiting to get a sense of next year's state and/or county budget. In the context of the Great Recession, some caution in that area is almost mandatory. It would be lovely if colleges could reliably count on appropriations to increase at a set pace every year, but that's just not reality. When appropriation bills swing wildly in the last few weeks before passage, asking colleges to guess a year ahead of time is asking a lot.

The argument from "quality of applicants" strikes me as less true now than it has been in the past. Having done some recent hiring, I can attest that the Great Recession has filled even late-season pools with amazing people. Perversely enough, the very instability that makes getting a position harder makes actual hiring easier. In English and most of the evergreen disciplines, there's no shortage of terrific candidates at any time of year. In hot fields during hot years, the argument from quality may hold some water, but in humanities disciplines in this market, it's just not convincing.

I'm not trying to suggest that waiting until after the big kids have had their shot at the market is necessarily optimal. If budgets were more predictable, I could see a compelling argument for aligning your search calendar with your discipline's. But the reasons for waiting can be valid, and the cost of waiting (in terms of quality of applicants) is probably the lowest now that it has ever been. Eight years ago was a different world. And trying to force the issue by jumping the gun could lead to awful results for all concerned.

In terms of convincing your senior management, I'd think these would be the concerns you'd have to allay.

Good luck!

I suspect that the aforementioned wise and worldly readers will have something to say on this one. What do you think of aspirational advertising?

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

Oh, we're still hoping to hear from our administration that we can hire a replacement for at least one of the two permanent positions lost just this past year (if not, let's just say that the plates we've been juggling in the air start to come crashing down).

At this point, we're looking at a best-case scenario of running the hiring during June, maybe July/August with start date of September 1. We'll be phoning departments and individual faculty in related areas to try and get the word out because the deadline will be so tight. So much for really generating a broad pool of candidates.

This strategy saves the administration money (instead of starting the hire on our usual contract date of 1 July, etc.) but is hard on candidates who have to scramble to apply and, if successful, find a place in a 0.2% vacancy rate city on two weeks' notice. Faculty involved in hiring have had to reschedule or cancel research trips as well as vacations in order to get this all done in the last few weeks before term time.

We appreciate the financial pressures but we know our provincial budget and tuition increase have been set for the year so now we feel as if it's more stonewalling than financial prudence. If there was just a bit more communication of a hopeful timeline, even, that would help reduce faculty anxiety (and maybe let us know that we really ought to make that research trip in June if the hiring won't be possible until July).
It's been years since I was really actively job-seeking, but I well remember the cynicism that developed over seeing jobs advertised "pending budgetary approval." Even as a new graduate literally applying for everything--in a tight market--I came to look on those positions with extreme skepticism. Now, if such a job were absolutely perfect in every way, I still wouldn't apply unless I could make contact with the search committee chair to determine just what the deal was: a hope for a position, or typical language to cover unexpected budget crashes.

But it seems to me that this is why late-season jobs are sometimes advertised as one-year replacement positions. If the deal can be struck with administration, a department can hire from a smaller pool, knowing that the full-scale search has been authorized for fall.
Couldn't the advertising question be separated from the rest? For instance, could you get permission to advertise (pending approval, etc.), but agree not to proceed with the rest of the business of the search until you had confirmation of the position? If the advertising occurs promptly, there will be a pool of applicants already in place when the approval is received. If the position is never confirmed, the college has lost the money invested in advertising, and the applicant has lost his/her investment in the application, but overall these are small costs relative to the time entailed in a full committee review of applications, or the cost of a campus interview. Doing only the advertising before approval would give you a month's head start without involving most of the risks that Dean Dad identifies.
All of this assumes that getting approval for a new hire in October, beginning advertising right afterwards, interviewing during the Spring, and hiring on, say, June 1 will produce a bigger, better pool of candidates, and, ultimately, the best possible teacher.

Maybe yes, maybe no, but there are certainly thousands of well-qualified and experienced English teachers out there. I'd be willing to bet that there are dozens of the same already teaching at this mid-sized community college--they're called adjuncts.

If this assumption IS true, and you don't get approval for a new hire until mid-Spring, then why not simply wait until the next Fall to begin the process?

Since I've just gone through the job market, I have to say that I have sympathies on both sides. I ALMOST took a job offered at a big state U (a back up application) because they were able to act faster than the many CC jobs I'd applied to. So, I would have really liked to see more CC's advertise/interview earlier.

That said: there was ONE cc that was on the ball-- or so I thought. And I had 3 interviews by Jan 1st, met with the president, was sent home with a hire packet, told the funding was there, but then told the position wasn't going to be filled 3 days later. It was heartbreaking for me (and I think for the dept). So, please, make sure there is a position there, and only hire when you have the complete ok. There were many jobs that had the "pending approval" note-- but this year I almost expected it. It never scared me away-- but I did expect them to have at least 90% of filling it if they were advertising.

This all said, while I am now done off the job market, I know of 2 other ppl in my field who are still available and good candidates. So the field isn't dry at this time of year, it just has applicants who may not have as much experience and may be quite frustrated (they've been applying since Sept/Oct, remember).

Great question! In a rational world, that's what we'd do: we'd get approval in Spring, then do the hiring process starting in the next Fall.

Unfortunately, the world of academia is not rational. It is byzantine. Let's compare the two options:

Option 1: Hire this year (late in the cycle). Maybe we can get another slot next year, too!

Option 2: Don't hire this year; request the campus to save our slot for next year. (On my campus, even if the campus agrees to save it, there are no guarantees it will be there: there's a 10% chance that it will be withdrawn due to a hiring freeze, or change of Dean, or something.) Next year, realize that our odds of getting a second slot are low, because people are going to say: you already have one slot, why do you deserve the extraordinary allocation of 2 slots?

Now if we had some guarantee that saving up a slot would not be used against us next year, and would not affect our allocation for next year, then your suggestion would certainly be the right thing to do. But there are no such guarantees, and there is a significant risk that delaying hiring till the next season will reduce the total number of slots you get in the short term. So there are game-theoretic reasons not to delay hiring until the next Fall, sad to say.

I realize this is dysfunctional. It's broken. But for an individual department in this position, what can they do? Unless the campus has done an extraordinary job of building trust on this specific issue over the past decade or two, departments are probably not going to want to take the chance of something going wrong; they'll take their money (their slot) and run, before it disappears.
AnonEngineeringProf: Rational decisions at a dysfunctinal college aren't gonna happen.

But how about the first part of my comment? Your department almost certainly employs adjuncts. A few, some, most, many, all (take your pick) of them are doing good, solid, more-than-competent jobs.

I think galaxy-wide job searches assume that there's some pedagogical magician out there who's going to show up on campus, wave his or her magic wand, and suddenly convert some, most, many, all (take your pick) of our under-prepared and unmotivated students into budding scholars.

That ain't gonna happen, either.

It's a cliche to warn against buying a pig in a poke, but all too often, fancy paperwork and a
45-minute interview from an apparent superstar outweighs years and years of good teaching from a dependable, conscientious, and productive someone everyone already knows.

Sorry about another cliche, but the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence. When reality sets in, however, it's disappointing--and unfair.
Anonymous: Thanks for your note. However, I don't understand how that relates to my point, which is that there are game-theoretic reasons to hire as soon as you can without waiting, even if on the surface that seems irrational.

It may be dysfunctional, but that's not the point. The point is that the phenomena I described appear to be a fact of life at many academic schools, and if you want to understand why things work the way they do, the first step is to understand the very real reasons why departments behave that way.

(For what it's worth, your assumption is wrong: I'm fortunate to be in a department that uses very very few adjuncts, long may it last. But I suspect my points are likely to be valid at many places, based upon discussions with colleagues elsewhere.)
As someone who has worked her fanny off as an adjunct for a number of years, I don't think a nationwide job search is necessary at a CC. You have a whole bunch of people right there who have been doing a good job (or good enough to keep them on)working part-time with no benefits and to hire externally is a slap in the face to all of them. It's like, oh, you're good enough when it comes to grading hundreds of freshman comp. papers for low pay, but we want someone better when we have an actual job. As far as I'm concerned, community colleges, for the sake of morale and ethics, should never do outside hiring when filling their full-time positions.
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