Sunday, July 14, 2013


Why Searches Fail

There’s a taboo in higher ed circles about examining failure, since there’s no way to do it without admitting some proximity to failure.  That’s a shame, since we can often learn as much by seeing what went wrong as we do by seeing what went right.

Last week’s piece about the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point and its difficulties in filling faculty positions got me thinking.  My first response, which I posted last week, noted that the salaries that UW is identifying as unrealistically low are actually higher than you’d find at many community colleges, particularly at the assistant professor level.  If they’re scandalously low at UW at that level, then we need to take a serious look at community college faculty salaries, especially at the entry level.  (Admittedly, there’s significant variation by state: the faculty salaries in New Jersey were far higher than they are in Massachusetts, for example.)

But then I started thinking about the faculty searches that I’ve seen fail.  They’re a minority of the searches we’ve done, but they happen.  Given the well-publicized surfeit of good candidates in many fields, why do faculty searches fail?

In no particular order:

- Demand isn’t necessarily where the supply is.  The evergreen academic disciplines tend to have the highest numbers of candidates, but we don’t only hire in those.  We also hire in fields like nursing, accounting, computer info systems, and engineering.  The fact that the market in English is flooded doesn’t make hiring for CIS any easier.

- Two-body issues.  When love and money go together, life is good.  When they diverge, things get tricky.  And we just don’t have the loose resources (or policies) to create positions for partners.  We can only hire where we need to, and sometimes not even there.  It’s hard to compete with someone’s beloved.

- Salaries.  In fields in which industry demand exists, this can be a real issue.  We also get outbid for strong candidates from underrepresented groups.

- Immigration issues.

- Expectations.  Some candidates come in with preconceived notions about the salary and workload that just don’t match the reality of what we do.  They come in with great enthusiasm, but then get the offer, blink in disbelief, and turn it down.  For a whole host of reasons, I can’t just offer more money when someone says no to the initial offer, so that can lead to a failed search.

- Late changes of mind.  I’ve had this happen.  A candidate accepts the position and gives every indication that she will be here in the Fall.  Then, in the middle of the summer, she calls and says that she received a better offer and won’t be here after all.  By that point, we’ve already sent the other candidates away, so it’s not like we can just move to number two on the list.  I’d much rather get rejected upfront than a few months later; at least when it’s upfront, the second-choice candidate is still a very real option.  Some second choice candidates turn out to be rock stars.  

- Timing.  Sometimes another college beats you to your first choice.  Then the second choice chokes on the salary, and the third choice really isn’t a choice at all.  It happens.

- Reference checking.  Once in a great while, something alarming comes up.  And that’s all I’ll say about that.

From a hiring standpoint, most of these are beyond our control.  Salaries are collectively bargained statewide and subject to a pretty strict grid, so we can’t just go beyond them because somebody wants more.  Two-body issues would require the resources and freedom to just create positions on the fly; I’m not holding my breath on that.  Immigration laws, surprising references, and certain elements of timing are entirely external.  (Admittedly, we could work on speeding up our internal processes, which could help somewhat.)  And while it would be lovely if our hiring needs aligned perfectly with where the supply of candidates is, ultimately, we hire based on what we need to cover.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found elegant, legal, sustainable ways around some of these issues?

You've laid out a lot of the common problems in my Fine Arts pea-patch. There's no universal specific, but I've found that--particularly with the overwhelming volume of multi-stage reporting our state institution must provide upon the process--starting early, keeping good records, corralling the committee and keeping them on-track and prompt, communicating swiftly and pro-actively with candidates are about all we can do.
Mmm... is a non-hire necessarily failure? In plenty of cases, no hire is better than the wrong hire.
At my school (or I should say "in my department"), we lose our top candidates when the process isn't fast enough. This is especially a problem in the summer, when upper-level admins (the President and VPs) needed for 2nd interviews and signatures are on vacation. A search that could be conducted in two weeks becomes a 4-5 week endeavor, and our top picks, jittery about the upcoming fall semester, take another job.
There's also the possibility that the hiring department is unusually heavily-populated with tenured whackadoos, which the candidates discover when they come to campus for interviews.
The taboo against defining desired outcomes and assessing failure and success for all administrative areas can only be addressed by those at top. The biggest weakness at my college is that we do not, as an institution, learn from failure because those in charge bury it. This applies to much more than hiring. (Financial aid processes or new-student advising about developmental classes, anyone?)

I think we do a pretty good job of defining expectations with info that goes to all candidates, and repeat that during the interview process. However, it certainly would not hurt if you used your visibility to help spread the word on teaching loads (and no research load) and non-negotiable pay scales. We don't have a union contract, but we still have a fixed pay scale.

One of our big problems is one I think you also share: our salary grid does not allow for the difference between, say, nursing and history as regards supply/demand at a particular wage point.

The timing problem with a third candidate is a side effect of the supply problem.

We don't do it, but late changes of mind could be addressed by an early contract that is binding on both parties. That would also help the comfort level of future faculty worried about a job vanishing in July when a new budget gets adopted. You could even bring them in a month early for new-faculty orientation at part-time pay that would also help with relocation expenses.
High costs of health care drive away many new hires especially those with children.
is a non-hire necessarily failure? Yes - because it wastes a year, a ton of everyone's time, and the hire might evaporate in the next budget cycle. If you get permission to hire, you hire!

At my former school, I looked at our failed searches and our successful ones and figured out a couple of things. We were never successful in recruiting people who came from the midwest or south. Our cost of living was too high compared to our salaries and housing sticker shock kicked in everytime. We also wanted people with a strong research background but were deluded about our own ability to offer those folks resources to continue their work. Many of the faculty hiring wanted strong research which they themselves had never done and had no idea how to fund. The solution was to get a grant that pulled postdocs from a local R1 into our campus for help with their teaching skills. Folks at that R1 had already gotten over the housing prices and liked living in our area. This also allowed us to test drive our candidates and give them the teaching experience they would need to have a real chance at getting hired at a school like ours. It also gave us access to a pool of postdocs beyond those at our partner R1 who had a stated interest in teaching at an institution like ours. It will be another year before we see the first "class" of postdocs graduate from our program but in the meantime, we have some wonderful people to recruit from other programs like ours.
What Sherman Dorn said -- a lot of handwringing about "failed" searches only makes sense if you view faculty as totally interchangeable. If there is any heterogeneity or moral hazard . . .

Salaries at the community college in my Wisconsin community are higher than the UW salaries in the same community (same field). I don't know about the Steven's Point area, though. (I also don't know about the UW colleges compared to other two year colleges in the area.)
My department fails to hire because some of the tenured faculty enjoy teaching six courses a semester and they do all they can to ensure that the search happens very late in the game. They get to chose the timing of the search. Senior faculty are given first choice in chairing the search committee. We recently hired a young woman who changed her mind, so we begin this next year understaffed again. It will be interesting to see when the new search will begin. We are at the lower end of the pay scale seeking faculty in a disciple at the higher end. To be honest, I don't think I would accept a job here now either. You can sense the entitlement among tenured faculty, even on an interview. Such is life.
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