Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Picking the Perfect Search Committee

Although it doesn’t happen as often now as it once did, we do still occasionally hire full-time, tenure-track faculty. And when we do, we have a pretty well established search process.

But some parts of the process are as much art as science. One of those is picking the members of the search committee in the first place.

We don’t delegate hiring to HR, the way some companies do, or allow department chairs or deans to make unilateral selections. The idea is that it’s important to recognize the disciplinary expertise of the existing faculty where possible -- easy in large departments, harder in small ones -- and that nobody should have unilateral hiring authority.

In practice, we usually have five faculty on a committee. But you can’t just pick any five. Considerations include:

- Disciplinary expertise. Of the five, usually four will be from the department in question, and one will have the mixed advantage of being from outside. In my faculty days at PU, I frequently served as an outside person for hiring technical faculty, and kind of enjoyed it; my colleagues judged content expertise, and I offered feedback on clarity to the novice.

- Of course, it isn’t always that easy. Smaller disciplines (at least as measured by enrollment) don’t always have that many members, and sometimes they get spread so thin that they really don’t want to serve on any more committees.

- Demographic diversity. A committee of all men in the sciences, or all women in Nursing, could tend to replicate itself without thinking. We also try for at least some racial or ethnic diversity, though there, too, you have to be careful not to go to the same few people over and over again.

- Personalities. This probably shouldn’t matter, in a perfect world, but there’s really no way around it. Some people just don’t play well with each other, and a few just don’t play well with others generally. I’ve seen committees torn apart by personality conflicts, and it’s just not worth the institutional cost. If you want to be excluded from key decisions, making yourself difficult is a pretty effective way to do it.

The idea is blend something like ‘peer review’ with something like ‘safeguards against inbreeding.’ Since peer review is a form of inbreeding by definition, it’s a necessarily messy process.

Departmental reactions to search committees are revealingly different. The English department, which is the single largest on campus, has internal competitions to see who gets to serve. Most of the smaller departments have internal competitions to see who has to serve. The difference says a lot.

Wise and worldly readers, how does your college select the members of faculty search committees? Have you found an elegant solution? Alternately, have you seen a seemingly rational method crash and burn?

Oddly enough, search committees are formed/ approved by our union. They generally consist of three or faculty members and at least two administrators and a staff person. Generally, only two of the faculty members are from the discipline. Often, the other faculty is from "the other side" (i.e. if the new position is in the liberal arts/science/transfer curriculum, the others will be technical faculty or vice versa). It's all coordinated by the dean that will be the new faculty member's direct supervisor.

It tends to work because the composition of the committee represents a wide spectrum of views of our student body. Often, what the discipline members see as not a problem, the outside folks articulate reasons it is a problem etc.. Generally, on content/qualification matters, the discipline folks' opinions are respected.

I've done this several times -- both hiring into my own discipline and hiring into others.. and the balance seems to work
If you want to be excluded from key decisions, making yourself difficult is a pretty effective way to do it.

Now you tell me!
This probably shouldn’t matter, in a perfect world, but there’s really no way around it.

I totally disagree with this. We need to stop acting like there's something unseemly about the fact that people would prefer to get along with -- possibly even enjoy! -- the people that they most likely spend more waking hours with than they do with their spouse!
I'd think the point is that in a perfect world, everyone would be the type who get along =)
To anon at 6:16;

Anon at 7:14 has it right. Everyone shound be the type to "get along with." You don't have to like them; but you have to respect them. And that includes their differences in opinions, backgrounds, etc.

No one should have as their primary work goal "enjoying the people they work with." The primary goal should be to "get the job done." If you happen to enjoy the work, and/or enjoy your coworkers that's great; but it should not be the primary focus of your job.

I see this as one of the biggest threats to higher education today. Too many of those on the "inside" only want the like-minded to join them. If you don't believe in the same things that they do then you are not "worthy."

This attitude has come across in some of the job interviews that I have had on college campuses. What does my opinion on President Bush, or my opinion on abortion have to do with my being able to do the work? Asking such improper questions or even asking questions to see if the candidate will "fit in" show immaturity on the part of the hiring committee.

Students (remember they are the primary reason for higher education) deserve better.
To Charles: as an administrator I have had to deal with the reality of the personality conflicts of which DD writes - and never have those conflicts been political conflicts (of the sort having to do with presidential politics or abortion). Frankly, I don't know what really causes them - often the apparent cause seems so trivial that it is difficult for me to comprehend that anyone would actually think it worth fighting over. But in any case they are there and they are substantial.

I have often wondered if academics are more liable to those sorts of conflicts because we spend so much of our time working independently. Team-teaching is very rare in my institution, and research collaboration is rare in my discipline, with the result that I have spent 80% of my work life working alone. I think people get out of the habit of working well with others - or they import the diatribes of their scholarly lives into the committee meeting, with dire consequences.
It seems like I get stuck in a meaningful personality conflict with around 0.5% of the people I've worked with in my life. Most of them I objectively know are good at their jobs, but I just seem to get along very poorly with them. A few of them, I truly could not find a way to common ground.

It's part of life, so far as I can tell.
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I'd think the point is that in a perfect world, everyone would be the type who get along =)

You are probably right. I am just feeling a little hot and bothered after last week's meeting about who to hire as our department's next business manager. Note to hyper-sensitive colleagues -- not wanting to hire someone we all know to be a surly asshole from our dealings with her in her position in a closely aligned department does not mean that I think that the workplace should be a congeniality contest. Believe it or not, there is a middle ground!
I have served on a number of hiring committees in the last few years. I am on the technical side of the house, which makes our approach to hiring committees a little different than other academic areas. We usually include the department and/or division chair (since they will be responsible for supervising the new employee), one or two faculty from the discipline, and one or two faculty from an outside discipline. Per our college regulation, the committee must include gender and ethnic diversity. Names of suggested committee members are submitted by the division chair to the Vice President over instruction for approval. Once he approves the committee membership, it is sent to HR to start the process.
At my school, a cc, our fac interview committees are composed of dean of department, vp for the area, one classified staff member, one diversity/equity rep, one student (hopefully), and then three faculty.

The faculty are content experts from the division/department but are chosen through a nomination/voting process at the department level.

Our emphasis is on choosing sane people who can effectively represent our department's interests in the hiring process. So far, it's worked well, I think.
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