What does the faculty search committee talk about after the final candidate for the tenure-track job has left the room?
The answer won’t shock you, but I’ve been struck by its consistency over nearly a decade of doing these at two different community colleges.
There’s the obvious discussion of the relative merits of each candidate, both as opposed to each other and in light of current and anticipated departmental needs. Departmental needs weigh heavily, depending on the program. At a basic level, I may not know how to weigh a shortstop against a pitcher, but if I already have a strong pitching staff and I’m hurting for infielders, I’ll go with the shortstop. Another team with a different existing roster may make a different decision, and for entirely sane reasons. That impacts the candidates, but it isn’t really about the candidates. Yes, some of that conversation went into the job description, but at the end there are usually still material differences among the candidates in areas of strength.
Next comes the vaguely guilt-ridden “they’re all great - can’t we hire them all?” Which is followed, inevitably, by the bad guy (hi!) saying that no, we don’t have the budget for that.
Contingency planning comes next. This is the most heartless part of all, in some ways, though it’s necessary. Let’s say you have four finalists for one position. One was the obvious standout, one clearly laid an egg, and two were pretty good but not great. Go with the standout, right?
Well, yes and no. The standout is the first choice. But first choices don’t always come through. Sometimes they get other offers (yes, even in this market). Sometimes their spouses or partners get offers in other parts of the country, and they follow. Sometimes they balk at the salary. Sometimes you learn they were only using you to generate a counteroffer. Sometimes you learn that their immigration status prevents you from hiring them. Sometimes something not-quite-right comes up in reference checking. I have personally seen every single one of those.
Having been through that more than once, I like to leave the room with plans A, B, and C. If the standout doesn’t work out, who is the second choice? And the third? And at some point going down the line, where do we stop? In other words, if it comes to the one who clearly laid an egg, do we really want to make an offer at all?
Committee members are often a little surprised at the discussion of contingency planning, but it matters. If the first choice doesn’t happen, for whatever reason, reconstituting the committee for another round of deliberations isn’t usually practical. (One of the hardest parts of search committees is finding meeting times everyone can make.) Much better to have plans in my back pocket, even if they turn out to be redundant. Sometimes the first choice candidate takes another offer, and the second-choice candidate balks at the salary. In the moment, if you don’t know what to do, you could make a serious mistake.
Making matters worse, in this budgetary climate, it’s not a given that a search deferred will be reopened the next year. It might be, but unfilled positions are always easier to cut than filled ones. This year my own college is only filling half of the vacated full-time faculty positions that exist on its books, dedicating the savings to compensating for a crunch. That’s not unusual. Next year, we’ll be lucky to fill that high a percentage. When there’s a possibility of losing the line, it can be tempting to hire that fourth choice just to ensure there’s a warm body in it. I’m not a fan of that strategy, though, because it’s so difficult to undo a bad hire, and the bad hire can do a lot of damage in the meantime. Better to hire carefully in the first place.
I’ve seen search committees disagree internally, which is to be expected. If they never disagreed, we wouldn’t need committees at all; we just could have one person make the call and be done with it. To the extent it makes anyone feel better, the disagreements I’ve seen have been honest ones about valid criteria; I’ve never seen some of the more nefarious machinations sometimes asserted on the interwebs. Diverse committees that are given green lights to disagree internally probably make better decisions on the whole, just because enough eyes looking from different angles are likely to cancel out each other’s blind spots. And once I became a convert to committees for the final round, I’m not going back. These extra eyes matter.
Coming up with Plan C, after falling in love with the standout, can feel a little awkward. But it’s a whole lot less awkward than hearing that the standout walked away, and wondering what the hell to do next.