Sunday, December 09, 2012


Why Searches Take So Long

It’s entirely normal for a tenure-track faculty search to take the better part of a year.  The same holds for upper-level administrative searches.

Within higher ed, it’s easy to take that for granted.  It’s the way things have been for a long time, and some of us have never seen it any other way.  But in most industries, a timeline like that would -- rightly -- be considered insane.  So why do our searches take so long?

The short answer is inclusiveness.  The longer answer starts with inclusiveness and adds to it.

In much of the rest of the economy, firms have “hiring managers” whose job it is, among other things, to fill slots.  They “network” to find out where the hot prospects are; they raid competitors; they hire at whatever level they need to; they compete using salaries, perks, and titles; and when they find someone good, they’re empowered to pull the trigger.

We don’t do any of those things, at least with full-time positions.  (Adjunct hiring is a very different process.)  Our approach, I think, is rooted in three assumptions.

1. If input on hiring is good, then more input is better.

2. Talent is not scarce.  Everybody wants these jobs, so we can be picky.

3. The world is litigious, and process can keep us safe.

Each of these is debatable and context-dependent, but we don’t usually treat them that way.  They’ve become unspoken, and largely unconscious.  We treat them as inevitable.

The “input” assumption has a lot going for it.  Nobody is a subject matter expert in everything, so it makes sense to include people on searches who have specific knowledge of the discipline being sought.  (Alternately, if looking for a dean, it makes sense to have input from current deans, since they understand the daily reality of the role.)  It also safeguards against cronyism and individual blind spots.  We all have our personal tastes; putting multiple people on the committee makes it less likely that any one’s persons quirks will be dispositive.

But anyone who has ever tried to put a committee meeting together knows that scheduling is not a trivial issue.  The bigger the committee, the fewer the common available meeting times.  That’s especially true when you combine staff, administration, and faculty on the same committee, since all three run on different annual (and weekly) rhythms.  When you need meetings to draft the ad, set the schedule, screen the applications, decide on an interview list, run 8-10 interviews, and decide on a set of finalists, the scheduling alone is a big deal.  And that’s before allowing time for the ad to run, time for candidates to travel, snow days, and the like.

(The sheer size and heterogeneity of search committees also makes it hard to know what a committee is actually thinking.  Introduce enough variables, and it’s impossible to say with any certainty.)

The assumption about a surplus of good candidates works pretty well in certain disciplines, but it isn’t universal.  It certainly does not seem to hold for most administrative positions.  When good candidates are scarce, too much delay can be fatal; somebody else snaps up the best people.  

Oddly, in mainstream higher education -- outside the elite research institutions -- it’s unusual to hire faculty above entry level.  “Raiding” is surprisingly rare.  That’s both good and bad, but it certainly stands in contrast to most other professions.  Raiding relies on speed, so the relative absence of raiding allows us to focus less on speed.  

The point about litigiousness is largely correct, as far as it goes.  When good candidates far outnumber openings, there’s always a danger that a good candidate who didn’t win will claim that it was for some untoward reason.  Following process and documenting carefully adds time, but it makes it easier to prevent untoward reasons from carrying the day, and easier to rebut them in court.  

I’d love to see searches move more quickly, but it’s hard to get around these constraints.

Wise and worldly readers -- especially in higher ed -- have you seen ethically defensible ways to speed up searches?  

For full-time faculty searches, I don't think inclusiveness is the real reason. Rather, it's the rhythm of the academic calendar.

Because we usually teach a 12-14 week semester, it only makes sense to hire someone to start at the beginning of the spring or fall semester. Furthermore, because 4-year colleges and universities are usually hiring from a national pool, often with first-round interviews occurring at an annual disciplinary conference, it becomes hard to hire someone to start in the spring semester. Hence, there seems to be no downside to starting a process in September or October that will lead to a hire starting the following August, because the calendar constrains the possible start dates.

The constraints also operate from the candidates' side. If they have academic jobs, they can't ethically up and quit in the middle of the semester. If they're grad students, they probably need the time to finish their dissertations and to complete their responsibilities as TA or instructors. Perhaps in some fields there are a substantial proportion of candidates coming from the private sector or government, where those constraints don't operate, but that's not the case in my field (history).

As a result, having a lengthy hiring process seems to have a lot of advantages, in terms of time for reviewing applications, doing two rounds of interviews, and then making a decision, while there don't seem to be many disadvantages. The main one is competition from other institutions, especially those that decide to avoid first-round interviews at national conventions in order to make an offer before their top candidate has had a chance to receive other offers.

A flip side is the AAUP standard that faculty should not resign from their positions after mid-April for the following semester. Again, it's because of the importance of the academic calendar and the fact that, at many institutions, it is difficult if not impossible to replace a faculty expert on short notice.

I don't see inclusiveness as a significant factor in any of that. When I've been involved in staff hires, we've moved far faster than on faculty hires, because a clerical or professional employee can start anytime (and usually, we're hiring one because someone has left, sometimes on short notice.)

Whether faculty are as irreplaceable as we assume is another question, but certainly our institutional structures generally presume that's the case.
P.S. I haven't been involved in searches for administrators, so I can't comment on that, though for administrative hires where some candidates are currently in faculty positions, I can see that some of my comments would be relevant.
First, it is not at all unheard of for a professor at a CC to resign or retire on relatively short notice, and if you can handle a death during a semester, you can handle someone leaving for a better job.

As for your question -

Short answer: No. Worst case I know of was a one-year delay forced by HR.

Longer answer: Take faculty schedules into consideration when assembling the committee, and don't have so many meetings. That goes double for meetings that aren't run by "Dean Dad" rules.

For example, it is silly to think that you have to start from scratch writing an ad for a job at a CC rather than simply circulate a draft copy (drawn from past experience) via e-mail for initial comments well before the meeting. We also don't review the folders during a long group meeting with all members present.
We end up doing a lot by e-mail so we can avoid the committee scheduling problem. Also, we don't end up doing interviews until spring semester for positions set to start in the fall -- mostly because we don't have solid budget numbers until then. When I was hired I saw the ad in late February, interviewed in late March and was hired by mid-April with an August start date.

Due to the nature of the semester, I'm not sure it could go any quicker -- and, in many cases faster wouldn't be more effective because folks have to do things like move, take their kids out of school etc... and faculty salaries won't support a two-location family for very long...

I have to wonder if hiring for a completely online position couldn't be much faster?
We used to have certain times of day when no classes were scheduled (1:30-2:30). When we needed to do a search, the meetings and seminars were done during that time. My campus also had an informal no class on Friday rule so most people were free all day that day. But taking this a step further, what if you just blocked off certain hours of the day as "meeting time". If the meetings didn't happen, great! You just recovered part of your day! But if they do, you know in advance that everyone can come because they have that time free.
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