Wednesday, April 06, 2011


Speed Kills

How long does a search for a full-time faculty member take on your campus?

I’ve been struck at the disconnect between urgent messages of “we need more full-timers right now!” and the lachrymose “the committee will meet when it gets around to it.” The cynical part of me thinks that if the first message were true, the second wouldn’t happen.

Faculty searches are designed to be inclusive to a fault, which is part of the issue. After a department gets its request approved, it puts together a search committee that includes faculty from within the department, faculty from some other part of the college, and a full-time staff member. (The committee is also chosen to avoid too much homogeneity, whether by gender, race, or age.) The committee meets with the affirmative action officer to go over process and the various legal do’s and don’ts. The position is posted, with a certain amount of time for candidates to submit applications. After that deadline passes*, the committee meets to winnow down the pile to ten or so for first-round interviews. The committee selects three or four finalists that it puts forward for second-round interviews, which are conducted by the chair of the original commitee, the dean of the division, the vpaa, and the affirmative action officer.

The idea behind the process is to ensure that the first round interviews are conducted entirely by people in the trenches, both within and outside the discipline. (The outsiders help prevent too much inbreeding.) The chair is included in the second round to ensure that the face the candidate presents in the second round isn’t hugely different than the previous.

The upside of such an inclusive and deliberate process is that it ensures plenty of pairs of eyes on each candidate, and it tends to result in strong hires. Everyone has her own blind spots, but by including plenty of people, the idea is that any one person’s blind spots should be cancelled out. And it usually works.

The downside is that getting all those schedules to mesh for a series of meetings is remarkably difficult. Faculty are only around when they have classes, but those are the weeks they have classes. (That sentence, by itself, should issue knowing groans among my administrative colleagues.) As a result, searches routinely bog down at that stage, since the committee simply has a hard time getting together. We also have a rule that every member has to be present for every interview -- in the interests of fairness and consistency -- but getting a half-dozen people’s schedules to mesh a dozen times within the space of a few weeks is no small challenge.

The second round is typically quicker, since it involves fewer committee members and fewer candidates. But there, too, you have to allow at least a couple of weeks. It adds up.

The upshot is that, for all practical purposes, it takes two semesters to do a search right. In layman’s terms, it takes a year.

By itself, I guess that’s fine, but it stands in an odd tension with the urgency with which departments claim they need people. It seems to me that a four-month semester should be ample time, if they really mean it. But it’s incredibly hard to be both inclusive and fast.

At PU, the process was fast, but often not inclusive. Here it’s inclusive, but not fast.

Has your campus found a reasonably consistent and defensible way to be inclusive without blowing a year?

*Not every college honors its own deadlines; I’ve seen, and heard of, committees starting to read applications before the application deadline has passed. It strikes me as awful practice and potentially actionable, but it happens.

We got our search approved in Sept. and we just made an offer yesterday.
What's your issue with reading applications before the deadline? Isn't that how it's often done in the business world? Why would you expect those applications received early to systematically vary? Is it any different than reading those applications first after the deadline has passed?
I've seen this vary wildly. Sometimes the committee knows who it wants before the search even starts (those are candidates at a more senior level, of course) and all this inclusivity is just a puppet show. In fact, we had one very embarrassing situation where we could hardly find anyone to meet with Candidate X or attend his talk, because everyone already knew we were going to hire Candidate Q, so why bother? I'm sure you've seen that, too. The whole thing was painfully awkward. But I will say, for once the process managed to move quickly, even though they ostensibly did all the necessary inclusive steps.
We schedule all interviews on the same day. If teaching staff have classes - those are either covered by another staff member in the faculty, or treated as if the original teaching member was off sick.

That way we have to get a small number of people to clear their diaries for a day, which we find much easier than trying to find multiple separate sessions when everyone is free.

What happens if you schedule an interview, and then one of the interviewers is sick? If you go ahead without them, then you've not had everyone attending every interview; if you reschedule that could be a real pain for a candidate who's already travelled.
Our CC has 'activity period' twice a week for 90 minutes, a time where there are no classes held so students can attend clubs and faculty can attend various meetings, so that time could be used if the interview were on a Tuesday or Thursday that faculty are not otherwise engaged.

@JohnInCanbridgeUK--we would never expect faculty to miss class for an interview. The culture at my CC is the teaching of students is prioritized above all else. If someone were sick on the day of the interview, we'd still hold the interview, though.
I'm with Rob: what's wrong with starting to read (individually, not at a group/committee-level) the applications as they come in? It lets each individual stay on top of 'most' of the pile as time goes on, so you're not all scrambling to read the same stack of applications in the few days between the end of the deadline and the first meeting of the committee.

This is how we do it at CanadianU, and it's never caused a problem. It lets you identify automatic 'wow, that applicant is horrible' and the odd 'hmm, that's a strong app, we should make sure to discuss that'. Every application still gets discussed in committee, but people are better prepared.
This is really inconsistent with concerns about the enormity of the tenure decision.
We also have access to the applications before the closing date but only those that are complete with supporting documents. We don't pick our top 5as a committee until after the deadline. I also don't see the issue. If I were to recommend a friend apply for a position, I would recuse myself from the hiring committee.

We posted a job opening in Jan., did the committee interviews last week, and the final interviews with VP and such are scheduled for next week. We expect to make an offer before the end of April.

We have a dead 1.5 hours three times a week so that could have helped with scheduling. It turned out that this particular committee had Tuesday and Thursday afternoons with non-teaching commitments that could be moved.
If you know a search is on the table, can't that be taken into account when classes are scheduled for that semester? It requires planning get the committee set far enough in advance, but it should be possible to schedule in some meeting time twice a week or so for interviews even on campus that don't build that in to everyone's schedule.

If your scheduling can't take these considerations into account, you've got a different issue.
I’ve been struck at the disconnect between urgent messages of “we need more full-timers right now!” and the lachrymose “the committee will meet when it gets around to it.” The cynical part of me thinks that if the first message were true, the second wouldn’t happen.

Here's an alternate take on this (make of it what you will). The reason that the second one happens is precisely because the first one is true. The fact that the faculty are overloaded (and need the hire) may mean that they also have less available time to make these meetings happen in addition to their other regular commitments. We're doing a search right now for someone we need badly -- and some members of the search committee are teaching overload semesters to overly large classes precisely because we don't have the extra needed faculty member.

So "when the committee gets around to it" may be an uncharitable characterization, though I'm willing to concede that you may be right in your context. In my context, what might look like a lackadaisical approach from outside the department isn't really.It's actually a reflection of the staffing need itself!
It takes us about 12 weeks to hire from the date the job is posted, give or take. We conduct interviews all on the same 2 days--and yes, we cancel classes. There would be no other way to do it. It's often a challenge to get the full committee together for meetings, but FT hires are so precious that everyone's willing to make it a priority. We have a dean chair every committe, though, so that might help with the organization.
Dean Dad,

It sounds like the process you have in place includes lots of different decision-makers and is inclusive in that sense. I wonder, however, if you are really getting the best hires by engaging in such a process? When is the last time all those VPs taught a class? Observed a class? Attended a class for credit? Moreover, do you really think anyone (especially in the Humanities or Social Sciences) with outstanding credentials would be willing to wait that long for a job?

I have chaired hiring committees in English for several years and served for a few years before that at my mid-sized comp CC, and in my experience a delay that long may result in “solid hires” but rarely dynamic or interesting ones. What you would get with that, at least in my field and in my part of the NE are former adjuncts that were passed over by the other searches as well as other candidates who missed out for various reasons during their hiring seasons.

My limited experience dictates that even in a job market flush with candidates, the really good ones go to schools that can act more quickly than what you are describing—that is, we know the goods when we see them; if you don’t anymore, perhaps you should let those who do make the hiring decisions.

Unless you are invested in hiring folks who know how to tell non-teaching faculty what they want to hear, and unless you are invested in hiring those who are desperate for a job because their searches for their dream jobs failed and now they’ll take anything, you should revise your search process to correspond with the timing of searches for premier candidates in the disciplines for which you want to hire faculty.

Yeah, I know… Premier candidates go to R1s, right? Well, at least in my discipline in my CC, we have recruited, hired and retained some of those folks, and they contribute loads tour CC and have done so for years!

Our college is a member of a consortium that prides itself on “innovation.” I think of hiring and retaining faculty at a CC from the best candidate pools available to be an “innovation” of the highest order. Getting some of the better minds coming out of grad schools in the US to buy into the CC mission is the best way to “innovate” at the CC level I can think of… Why wouldn’t your search processes be aimed toward that mission, despite all the BS administrative hurdles you have created for yourselves? We’ve been doing it for years, although we still have much to learn.
"I’ve seen, and heard of, committees starting to read applications before the application deadline has passed. It strikes me as awful practice and potentially actionable, but it happens."

That's a mistake. You are confusing a deadline with a schedule, and wasting valuable time.

Posting a deadline binds you to consider all applications submitted prior to the deadline. It doesn't impose a time-and-order requirement.

So long as everyone involved realizes that you will be bound by the deadline, you may still consider and even interview promising applicants while continuing to solicit applications.
Sure. I can suggest a way to avoid this deadlock. We don't experience this deadlock in my (R1) department.

The way we do hiring is a lot simpler. The final hiring decision is made by a vote of the faculty in the department -- all the faculty, and only the faculty. We don't have a hiring committee; we have a recruiting committee. The recruiting committee does not get to hire anyone. They make decisions on who to invite to an interview (but of course the entire department is watching, so they can't pull shenanigans). The recruiting committee is small. And the recruiting committee does not interview candidates; instead, the faculty sign up for one-on-one interviews with candidates.

We don't have any ridiculous silliness, such as "the entire committee has to interview the candidate at once" or "you have to ask the same questions of all candidates". That's just inane lawyers run amok. The only way to deal with that is to stare them down and tell the troll to go bother someone else.

I see no reason why you need to give everyone under the sun a seat on your hiring committee. I see no reason why you couldn't adopt a model such as the one I outlined above. I suspect that it's a risk-avoidance strategy (it was easier to add one more member to the committee than to tell someone no), with the ensuing cost of being extremely inefficient.
Our process is much shorter. This year we had the ad out in October and made the offer in December. The hiring committee was all Chemistry faculty. The three candidates that had on-campus interviews met individually with each faculty member (so classes interfering weren't a problem) and with a dean. Although the decision of who to hire was technically made by the dean, it was really made based on the recommendation of the chemistry faculty, as determined by a majority vote.

Of course, the "Faculty are only around when they have classes" doesn't hold true here either, so there may be significant cultural differences. We're a school that has fairly high expectations for both teaching and research, so faculty (at least in the chem dept) need to be around when there aren't classes so that they can get research done.
My original comment seems to have never made it through the system.

It takes at most 6 months at my CC from start to finish, and has been done more quickly.

We don't bring them back twice. The search committee brings in a medium list of candidates who interview with them and the Dean and the Provost and also meet any faculty who want to talk to them. The resulting short list goes to those with hiring authority, who do any final vetting and make the offer.

The biggest delay is between when the ad goes out and when applications close, followed closely by "reading time".

We used to have delays caused by administrative indecision, but our budget process is now such that the Deans know what searches are going to take place before the semester starts. People who are going to be on the search committee don't get given other service tasks that will conflict with that important job.
My main issue with CC hiring was those searches that involve 3 rounds of interviews that can take over a month to complete -- as someone pointed out earlier, this arrangement works well for local adjuncts who are already accessible, but it is way too demanding for good candidates from out of town, especially if they are good enough to have jobs elsewhere.

We all like to encourage students to take risks, yet the hiring practice in many CCs smells like it is suffering from risk-aversion. If everyone in the committee has reasonable judgment, and you gather a dozen of them at the same time, why not make the decision in a day, instead of dragging it on for a month? "Innovation" sounds like a good idea.
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