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.

The "you have an organization built around a suboptimal use of resources based on personal considerations that no longer matter" example only holds up if you assume the position was unnecessary in the first place. That isn't usually how it works - at my institution, anyway. The need for a warm body tends to come first, followed by the desperate hiring of temporary personnel because it takes the effort of a thousand acts of god to get a permanent hire these days. Once someone is doing the job temporarily, and doing it well, we have a much stronger case for that permanent hire. We have data. Look at how well things are going, look at what has been accomplished now that this job is filled, don't we want this permanently? And more often than not, the answer is yes. Then we move on to search. We don't just create the position simply because we like this person, full stop.

But when you use someone's good work in order to create the permanent job to exist in the first place, it is an insult to say that there might be another, more ideal, person out there who can do the job better. I understand the need to search it out anyway to avoid lawsuits, and I do agree that if you have the best person working there already, he/she will rise to the top of the search pool. But we are fooling ourselves if we say this does not contribute to the huge morale problem in higher ed (again, at least at my institution.) It is reasonable for high-performing employees in any field to want opportunities for advancement, and to also expect that their past good work at the organization will contribute to their chances for advancement. To make these folks run a gauntlet to get a job they are already doing well is a special kind of spit-in-the-eye, even if there are sober and sensible reasons for doing it to everyone.
I usually complain about comparisons between business and academia, but "The Kabuki Search" is one of these moments when I can't help noticing that pretty much everyone would be better off if the department simply hired the person they already know: the search committee wouldn't have its time wasted; the national candidates wouldn't have their time wasted; and the good-fit-for-the-job wouldn't have to bite their nails. Most businesses, if they want to hire someone, simply do it, for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that searches have costs too, even if they don't appear directly on a bottom line.

In this respect academia should work to emulate business.
I'm late on commenting, but I wanted to agree with Dean Dad. It is very dispiriting to find out after you applied and interviewed for a position that it was already "filled". Didn't leave a very high opinion of the organization in my mind. I agree the practice is unethical.

If Super Temp wasn't promised a permanent job when hired, Super Temp has no complaint. Super Temp should do fine in competition if s/he is really that good. Also, Super Temp already has a head start on any other candidates if s/he did a good job...s/he has experience in the job.

The action of having a false open search smacks of manipulation and "trying to get around the rules" because the rules apply to somebody else. You wouldn't like your students doing this, why should their profs and admins do it?
Another problem when SuperTemp doesn't get the job - were they actually compensated for the work they did developing the program to the point where it could justify hiring a FT employee? If they were paid at the same rate as all of the other temps, they could bring a case against the school as well . . . or just stop doing more then any of the other temps, and leave the grapevine to fill in the pieces on how much value the school places on doing extra work such as the extra project SuperTemp was known to have been working on.
I am actually of two minds on the matter of the “sham search”.

I remember back when I was working at Federal Research Laboratory on a summer internship when I happened to spot an ad for a full-time position at the Lab that I might be able to fit. I dashed right over to the office to apply for the position, only to find that the position had already been filled two months earlier. Apparently there was a rule that required that all job openings be advertised, but there was no rule that says that you couldn’t post your ad after the opening was filled.

I was sort of amused by all this, but I can imagine that a job applicant in a tight market would be annoyed at wasting their time in applying for a job that does not exist.

Back in the day, I used to see a lot of job ads that asked you to send your application to the affirmative action officer of the institution. A lot of people at the time said that this was a sure clue that the job you were applying for did not actually exist. The employer was simply collecting a fistful of resumes just to show that they were conforming to AA regulations.

Here at Proprietary Art Institute there hasn’t been a new full-time faculty hire for quite some time, but in the past part-time faculty who performed well could and indeed were on occasion promoted to full-time status. I don’t think that there was any sort of outside search that was carried out for the new full-time position, sham or otherwise. But in the current environment there is absolutely no chance of anyone being hired full-time at our school, from either the inside or the outside.

If I were a part-timer who had attracted enough positive attention that the management wanted to give me a full-time job there, I would resent being forced to compete for the position against a whole bunch of superstars from all over the country. On the other hand, if I were an outsider applying in good faith for a job which I imagined could be a good fit, I would be angry to find out that I was wasting my time because the “fix” was in--they already knew who they wanted to hire and that they were carrying out this sham search just because they were required to do so.

Here's a problem that I've seen with the route that DeanDad advises. Suppose that SuperTemp (who is not really a Temp, but in fact a career professional, probably with the advanced research degree and proven teaching record to prove it) is doing a fantastic job and applies for the new permanent position. Still, many of our tenure-track colleagues seem to get "flavor of the month" disease and succumb to the thinking that some new, unknown candidate, will be EVEN BETTER, because they're new and not tainted with the "adjunct" or "temp" label. Of course, every person has their flaws too, and SuperTemp's flaws may already be known, while the new candidate's flaws are as-yet unknown and so assumed not to exist.

I've seen an awful lot of my otherwise thoughtful colleagues look at a pool of unknown candidates with just such rose colored glasses while also discounting the flesh-and-blood colleague who has been teaching (well) in their midst as an adjunct. This is a problem.
I have been involved in two of these “Kabuki” searches – once as a candidate and once on the committee. In the first search, the faculty from the hiring department had their pre-determined candidate fail to get selected after the second-level interview. I got the job and the group was less than welcoming. I am not exactly sure how we got the line to hire again shortly after that, but the result was the same and favored candidate did not get the job. This time there was hell to pay. The favored candidate was obviously unqualified to everyone except the faculty pushing for the hire. My life would have been less stressful if I had turned down the job offer years ago.

I react strongly when I hear colleagues talking about how someone ideal “deserves the job” and what a shame it is that we are “forced to do a search”. Personal relationships can interfere with good judgment. We are here to serve the needs of the institution and not to our bolster our social circle.
While I agree that hiring from within is potentially problematic if done too often, a few thoughts:
1) The diversity argument is weak. There are plenty of people from under-represented groups who are stuck in adjunct, postdoc, and other low-security jobs right now. If you hire one of them, you are still improving the diversity of your institution. And you're doing it by hiring a person who has spent some time in the locale, has perhaps sunk some roots there, and thus is less likely to leave some day and set back your diversity efforts.

To make this concrete, I can think of a female of color and STEM faculty member in a non-TT position who was, by many measures, more productive than some TT folks I could name. (She was not in my department, to be clear.) She did not get moved up to the TT, and she eventually left for a more interesting job elsewhere. There's a lost opportunity to improve both the diversity and the overall level of accomplishment in the institution.

2) I don't know that hiring from within makes the system any more exploitative. If you look at the big picture, every year there are a few full-time and secure positions that open up in the academy. Those positions will go to a handful of people, most or all of whom were previously in less secure positions. One way or another, if you want a secure position you will spend a bunch of time in insecure positions. The only question is whether you'll have to move long-distance when you finally get a secure position.

3) One reason why internal hiring is often problematic is that the TT faculty typically have limited interaction with the non-TT faculty. I'm as guilty of this as anybody else. If we consider hiring from within, we're going to be doing so based in large part on the opinion of just the Chair, who has a valuable perspective but does not have the only perspective.

The thing we have to work on is making the non-TT faculty visible, so that by the time a candidate is presented as "So good we need to keep them!" this is apparent to many people from many different types of observations. In a strange way, I think I know more about some of the recent candidates who interviewed here than I do about people who have taught here forever, because of the interactions and documentation that we had.

In general, I'm in favor of competitive searches. But I'm also in favor of retaining exceptional talent via processes that are fair to all concerned.
DD buries the lede if he's taking the causality seriously. If lines appear because of the quality of the temporary hire, and not because they were going to appear anyway, then the temporary hire obviously "deserves" the job. They created the line, they get the line.

If the line is somehow independent of the temporary hire, then that's dicier. But this sounds like a profoundly dysfunctional management system, so the ethical thing to do is stay the fuck away and keep your CV current. You have no power in the situation, and the people who do don't share your values.

For a change, I'm with DD on this one.

In my organization we've built several structures around people who wouldn't have got the job if it was an open competition, but incremented up from 'volunteer who wants recent work experience' through 'part-time temp' up to 'full-time contract'. At each step it was rationalized that it was really 'their' job, as they were doing it anyway — but we've ended up with a job built around a person.

And one reason morale is bad is because this culture makes moving around within the organization difficult, as many 'openings' aren't really open, so people are stuck in their position without a chance to compete fairly for something more rewarding.

As to "But when you use someone's good work in order to create the permanent job to exist in the first place, it is an insult to say that there might be another, more ideal, person out there who can do the job better." — that's not an insult, it's the truth.
What would you think of a man who told his girlfriend that in order to become his wife, he would have to compete in a national search against all possible well qualified candidates?
I'm reminded of the Tim Minchin song ("If I didn't have you"). Maybe those other job candidates are smarter. Or dumber, but better at navigating unpleasant tasks nobody else in the department enjoys. There's always a more ideal candidate.

It's silly, and not just because personal relationships are different than business relationships. It's because proven interpersonal compatibility MATTERS. A lot. Enough so I think the most ethical system is one in which national searchers are not required.
It's because proven interpersonal compatibility MATTERS. A lot. Enough so I think the most ethical system is one in which national searchers are not required.

So the best system would be one where departments hire friends and spouses, because they know those people will be compatible?
"They created the line, they get the line."

Why? I might be good enough to ‘build’ the position but there could easily be someone better qualified for it. Maybe I’m over qualified for it. Maybe through hard work, vision and ambition I ‘created’ a job that really needs someone good at conscientious routine. I have someone working for me right now that created a position he’s really not suited to run. He’s very aggressive and blunt. This helped him demonstrate the need for the job and get things started but his bull in a china shop approach is making it really hard to get all the key stake holders to work together. I’m going to add resources and move this work to someone else. He’s not going to be penalized, what he did was great and we will find other opportunities for him. But this isn’t the right spot any more.
Also, if your organization is growing it can be a very good thing to bring in really great people before you know for sure what they’ll be doing. I know that higher education doesn’t have this problem; but there are some places where getting qualified people is the big problem. In those places you don’t turn down the chance at an all-star just because you’re not sure what you need them to do.

I'm with DeanDad on this. SuperTemp is exactly that, a temp. The permanent job line is a different line, ergo a different position, even if the required job duties are identical. A (super)temp was hired with the implicit understanding that s/he won't be around forever. If you promise more than the policy will you let you deliver, then you're on the hook if/when it goes wrong. You need to do a public search because your institution uses public money, unlike private business. Since the institution's stakeholders (i.e. electorate) demand transparency, giving a job to a guy you know isn't going to go down well.
This is one of those posts that reminds me how much I learned working for the university as opposed to taking classes from it, and that I'm glad I don't have any stake in that world aside from my son picking a college / university to attend in a few years.
As someone who has been in the position of needing to compete for a permanent role that Ove had encbency for, I prefer the knowledge that I was the top candidate. I've also been on committees where a clear incumbent exists. Our committee was open to the notion of a better possible candidate, but in that case the incumbent was just far and away more able to address the issues we asked about in the interview, partly by virtue of her incumbency.

The one issue I do have is when a temp person is told they are doing great and then doesn't get any feedback as to why they weren't hired. I realize there are legal sensitivities, but if you get knocked out of the running because the committee was not as impressed with your work as they have told you in the process of supervising you, then that is where the biggest ethical problem exists.
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