Thursday, February 21, 2013

Participation or Efficiency?

Oscar Wilde supposedly once claimed that he would have been a socialist, but he liked to keep his evenings free.  All that civic participation would have crimped his style.

I was reminded of that this week in discussion with some faculty who were balking at the time commitment involved in serving on search committees.  They all believe in heavy faculty involvement in searches, but all that participation really adds up.

They’re certainly right that search committees are major time commitments.  We have some pretty sophisticated protocols for staffing them, trying to balance veterans and newbies, faculty and staff, men and women, subject matter experts and fresh eyes.  Unlike many private sector companies, we don’t let HR do the first round of screening; the search committee culls through the entire set of applications before deciding on who it would like to invite for first-round interviews.  Depending on the position, the applications can run well into three digits.

Just scheduling committee meetings is a major endeavor.  Faculty have different teaching schedules from each other, and staff members’ calendars are different still.  Each committee has to be “charged,” to get its affirmative action training, and to have its “what are we looking for?” conversations.  Then it decides who to invite for first round interviews and has to arrange the internal logistics for 8-10 of those.  Finally, it has to decide on 3-4 finalists to send forward.  

It’s a lot of work.  We have a rule that anyone on a search committee is excused from all other college service for that semester, in recognition of the time it takes.  (College service refers to other sorts of committees, but not to teaching.)  Even with that, some people find the task too onerous.

But there’s no appetite for streamlining, either.  

It wouldn’t be all that hard to streamline.  Let HR decide who to invite for first-round interviews, and bring the committee into play for the first time at that point.  Done and done.

Culturally, though, that’s just not an option.  The committees don’t want to give up control, and control requires work.  The process can be participatory, or it can be low-impact, but it can’t be both.  Participation takes time.

In a context in which most people are teaching four or five classes per semester, that’s not just carping.  Time is at a premium.  That’s even more true as the semester progresses, and just fitting in all the interviews before the deadline becomes a challenge.  And course releases for search committee members are neither economically sustainable -- you’d be surprised how quickly the cost adds up -- nor practical, given that hires tend to come in areas where we’re short-staffed already.  When a department is already running thin, adding several course releases makes it even thinner.

Wise and worldly readers, has your college or company found a relatively practical and sustainable way to balance participation and efficiency in hiring?

(Program Note: Due to some life events, the blog will be quiet next week.  I’ll return on Monday, March 4.)