Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Dean's Interview

Today I’m interviewing a few candidates for faculty positions. They’ve already run the gauntlet within their respective departments, and the departments have identified them as their top choices.

I’ll assume that the departments have vetted them appropriately for content knowledge and ability to teach the relevant courses. My job is to explain the institutional realities of the college, and, in the words of my VP, to try to sniff any personal weirdness.

The Dean’s interview is a very different animal from the faculty search committee interview. When a candidate goes before a departmental search committee, s/he is probably one of six or seven to make it that far. If a candidate gets the call to meet the dean, s/he is probably one of two or three. When going before the department, the candidate is trying to stand out; when meeting the dean, the candidate is trying to fit in. Put differently, the search committee looks for something to like; I look for red flags.

At a community college, big red flags would include an inability to stop talking about one’s advisor or research (that screams “I won’t be happy here”); a focus on possibilities for release time (that screams “I want to teach as little as possible,” death at a teaching institution); a superior attitude (why does anyone – anyone – think this will ever work?); or a massive blind spot about the realities of students at an open-admissions college. (I’d actually favor someone who had taught at Midtier State over someone whose entire teaching experience was at Ivy U, just because I couldn’t be confident that the Ivy U teacher could handle underprepared students.)

Another way to look at it: the search committee looks for merit and/or quality, where the dean looks for the needs of the institution. Beyond a certain level of competence, additional brilliance in research just isn’t that important here. I look for people who actually want to be at a teaching institution, and who know what that means. If they’re settling, I’m not interested.

Back in my faculty days, I imagined that deans would be on the lookout for political viewpoints, sexual identity, etc. At least for me, those fall firmly under “who cares?”. I’m on the lookout for folks who will dodge academic advisement at registration time, who will whine constantly about the teaching load, who will pick up stakes and move within a year or two, or who just can’t play well with others.

Is that banal and corporate? I don’t think so; these criteria only come into play with the finalists, who have already (presumably) demonstrated intellectual liveliness and the ability to teach. One of my chairs reported that one of their interviewees, whom he described as “a really nice guy,” made several egregious errors of fact in his teaching demo. That was all we needed to kick him off the list.

My concern is that full-time lines are rare birds, and people who get them tend to keep them for 30 years or more. A bad hire is a lingering pain for a long, long time. A terrible one can be fired quickly enough, but in this climate, it’s not a given that we keep the position. Faculty work in close quarters with each other for years on end; a whiny prima donna, no matter how strong academically, just isn’t worth it. (We don’t have that many, but the ones we do have suck up far more than their share of the local oxygen.)

I don’t mind politics different from my own (at least, not in this context); I don’t care about sex lives or union activism or tattoos. But if a candidate can’t convince me that this would be a happy home, we’re on to the next candidate.