Thursday, March 28, 2013


Ask the Administrator: The Kabuki Search

A thoughtful correspondent writes:

This is not hypothetical—I’ve had to deal with it a couple of times now. I keep asking for ethical advice but no one yet has offered me any that I find really satisfactory. We hire someone to work in a temporary position, and are thus able to do so without a national search. This person turns out to be extremely good, and we convince the administration to give us a new line so we can hire them permanently. University policy nevertheless requires us to conduct a national search to fill the position. So we find ourselves in effect recruiting for a slot that has already been filled. What are the ethics of advertising, interviewing, etc., when we already know who we’ll be hiring? I’m extremely squeamish about this process, but I simply haven’t been able to come up with an alternative.

As someone who has occasionally been a sacrificial lamb candidate in searches that were foregone conclusions, this was tough to read.  I know it happens.

I think the key phrase is “we convince the administration to give us a new line so we can hire them permanently.”  That’s the wrong reason for a new line.  

It’s difficult to separate the person from the position, but to get a handle on this, it needs to be done.  Imagine that the position is vacant.  Is it the single most fruitful way to spend a hire?  Or are you building the organization around the incumbent?

That may seem cold and impersonal, and in some ways, it is.  But it’s also what has to be done.  Say you hire SuperTemp to a contrived permanent role, and she leaves in two years for something better.  Now you have an organization built around a suboptimal use of resources based on personal considerations that no longer matter.  Not good.  You also start to build a cultural expectation that jobs are earmarked for certain people.  For the sake of argument, let’s say the person you have in mind is white.  Then let’s say that an African-American candidate with strong paper qualifications applies, loses, and gets wind that the fix was in the entire time.  She files a discrimination suit.  If you have any record anywhere indicating that the fix was in, good luck defending yourself.

This is why I don’t believe in the “take a number” system advocated by some champions of adjuncts, in which full-time positions would go to the longest-serving adjuncts.  If you do that, you will never -- never -- diversify your faculty.  The same applies on the staff side, just substituting “part-timer” or “temp” for “adjunct.”  You will effectively restrict your hiring pool to people who can afford to work for peanuts for years while waiting their turn.  You will never bring in people from other places, who have other ideas, other contacts, and other experience.   In effect, you will extend graduate school for everybody, which strikes me as unethical in the extreme.

If you take affirmative action seriously, then you need to hold searches that are really, truly open.  For real.  Which can mean having some difficult conversations with department chairs or local faculty who are a little too comfortable with a patronage/political machine model.

Several times, I’ve had to be the scold who has had to tell a department that it couldn’t just award a job to its favorite protege without a real search.  It’s never fun; among other things, I discovered quickly that some people have a very different ethical code than I do.  (They belong to the “help your friends and punish your enemies” school, as opposed to the “fairness even for someone you haven’t met” school.)  In some cases, they have no idea that what they’re proposing is, in fact, fundamentally corrupt.  They think they’re right, which makes the conversation that much harder.

I’ll end with the same advice I’ve offered them.  If SuperTemp gets the job through a fixed search, then there will always be a cloud over her.  But if she’s really as wonderful as you say, she’ll easily win a fair, open fight.  If she wins a fair fight, nobody can say anything.  And if she doesn’t, then you get someone even better.

Besides, putting external candidates through hoops when they have absolutely no chance strikes me as unethical in the extreme.  Job searches take time and money.  They are not undertaken lightly.  Putting people through it just to check a box is simply using them to perpetrate a ruse.  Not cool.

The open search isn’t the problem.  The foregone conclusion is the problem.  Let go of the idea that this is already SuperTemp’s job, and decide whether this permanent role is the best use of the resources that would go to a new hire.  If it is, then run an open search -- a really open search -- and let the chips fall where they may.  If SuperTemp is really super, she’ll win fair and square.  

Good luck!  Although the theory is easy, getting there can be really hard.  Some people will never understand why you’re right.  It comes with the territory.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there an argument for giving up open searches?

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

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