Rebecca Schuman did a characteristically smart and funny piece this week on the sheer agony that higher education faculty candidates go through in the job search. (She focused in particular on candidates in the humanities, where the issues seem to be the most pronounced.) That said, though, it struck me that some of the reasons that faculty searches take so long that are obvious from an administrative perspective may not be obvious from the outside. So in the spirit of an attempted good-faith answer to a serious question -- and hoping not to be guilty of “mansplaining” -- here goes. Why do faculty searches take so long?
I’ll clarify here that I’m working from the perspective of a teaching-focused, public institution. Searches at research-intensive places may be very different; I simply don’t know. Any wise and worldly readers who can shed light on that are welcome.
The easiest contrast is to hiring in just about any other industry. In most businesses, either the “hiring manager” for a given area, or the human resources department, does the hiring. That tends to happen quickly, because it’s relatively simple and the relevant players are few.
But in higher education, we have “shared governance.” In the context of hiring faculty, that means that faculty and staff are entitled to significant input. We typically accomplish that through a “search committee,” which in itself would be a foreign concept in most industries. A search committee has to be chosen, has to meet to schedule itself, and has to agree on the wording of the job posting. That posting has to be reviewed in HR, among others, to ensure that it’s in compliance with the many, many, many regulatory and contractual rules to which we are subject. For example, designating a given qualification as “required,” rather than “preferred,” puts real limits on the discretion of the committee. And we have to avoid strenuously any language that smacks of favoring one demographic type over any other. (For example, a reference to “fresh perspectives” could be read as coded age discrimination.)
As public employers, we have to post each position for at least a set minimum amount of time, and we don’t start screening until the deadline has passed.
Anyone who has assembled committees around teaching schedules knows that getting groups together repeatedly is a task in itself. (On my own campus, we count search committee membership as meeting the “college service” requirement. In other words, they’re excused from other committee work, to open up time to do it.) The committees need to be large enough to be representative, without being so large as to be unwieldy. And they can’t be entirely of one demographic type. Given the gender breakdown here, it sometimes takes conscious effort to avoid all-female committees.
The search committee goes through the applications and decides, in consultation with the campus affirmative action officer, who to invite for first-round interviews. Each interview has to be scheduled, which involves finding open slots not only for every committee member, but also for each candidate. Our first round interviews involve teaching demonstrations, and we routinely invite people from outside the geographic area, so the time commitment is significant. It’s not unusual for the first round of interviews alone to take two weeks.
After that, the committee decides on a few finalists to send forward for second round interviews, which again have to be scheduled. The second round includes the dean, the academic vp, the affirmative action officer, and the chair of the first round. We include the first-round chair in the second round, so there’s someone at the table who saw the first round interviews and teaching demonstrations. Finally, the reference checking, salary calculations, and initial offers get made. If the first-choice candidate is balky, which sometimes happens, it might be another week before the second-choice candidate gets a call.
It would be possible -- hell, it would be easy -- to construct a much faster process than this. We could simply designate one person whose job it is to hire. Maybe that’s the dean of each area, or the CAO, or someone in HR, or the department chair. We could do away with requirements to post, and just hire on the spot. We could even establish a take-a-number system among incumbent adjuncts, and hire entirely on autopilot. Any one of those would be significantly faster, and in other industries, would not be considered weird.
But culturally, we aren’t willing to do that. Defaulting to a single hiring manager across disciplines would make it difficult to insure content expertise, since nobody is an expert in every discipline. Defaulting to department chairs would make inbreeding entirely too likely. Defaulting to any one person, no matter who that person is, would ensure that the one person’s blind spots would be coded into the DNA of the organization. Search committees and multiple rounds are exhausting, but they also offer the prospect of cancelling out any one person’s hobbyhorse.
For many positions, especially in the evergreen academic disciplines, qualified applicants far outnumber available full-time positions. That tends to dampen the urgency to streamline the process. If we have to balance concerns about field coverage, fluency with new technology, sensitivity to student needs (such as students with disabilities), demographic diversity, affirmative action, contractual guidelines, and shared governance -- all while assuring both content expertise and solid teaching skills -- we can, but it won’t be quick. Or we could privilege speed, but only at the expense of some of those other considerations. As long as the market price of moving slowly is low, and the legal/cultural costs of speed are high, searches will take a while.
None of which mitigates the real frustration that candidates feel as the months go by. Been there. The shortage of positions is bad enough without adding insult to injury. And committee members have an ethical obligation to do what they can to respect candidates’ dignity, such as getting down to business as quickly as possible after the application deadline passes. (We don’t do conference interviews, which are an issue in their own right.) But even if everyone in the process performs her role well, it will still be slow. To get around that, we’d have to abandon some pretty core assumptions about how academia works, and start acting like just about every other industry.