Monday, November 28, 2005

Who Would You Hire?, or, Merit in Action

I’ve been reading a lot about ‘Merit’ lately. It’s offered as an all-purpose explanation for academic decisions – admissions, hiring, setting funding priorities, etc. It’s used as a trump card to defeat context – in all cases, hire according to merit, and all will be well.

But merit is always contextual. Put differently, it’s not just about the candidate.

I’ll make it concrete. Assume you’re the hiring decision-maker at Hypothetical State. You’re hiring for a tenure-track position in English. The position involves some teaching of composition, though the majority of the courses are literature and/or film. The department search committee sends you three finalists:

Earth Mother: ABD from Respectable State, “almost done,” lots of composition experience at multiple colleges, great committee work and collegiality, likable personality, teaching awards, a few conference papers.

EuroDude: Ivy Ph.D., book contract, references from gods, great job talk, contacts/experience in film industry, slightly icy personality, minimal teaching experience, has never breathed the word ‘composition’ or taught outside Ivy U.

Sisyphus: M.A. from They Have a Graduate Program? State, longtime internal adjunct, trailing spouse of bigshot at Nearby U, faithful to the department for 15 years, plays well with others, taught everything from soup to nuts, no plans for a doctorate, never published.

Which one has the most merit?

The only intellectually honest answer is: it depends.

In a community college setting, I’d lean towards Earth Mother. Student success is our reason for being, and she is the likeliest to improve that. If Hypothetical State is mostly about teaching, and especially if it has retention issues, she’s the best.

At a research institution (or, more commonly, a wannabe research institution), EuroDude is the easy winner. Degree in hand beats ABD every time, and a book contract beats a sharp stick in the eye. Arrogant? Who cares? He’ll need it to navigate the snakepit of departmental politics. Besides, he’s the only one who has shown the potential to get tenure.

Sisyphus could carry the day in a fractious department. If the department is divided into warring camps, or if the dean and the department are engaged in a war of attrition, Sisyphus could emerge as the dark horse, compromise candidate. The department won’t meaningfully advance (or even change) with that hire, but a political firestorm could be avoided. There are times when this is the most prudent route. A manager might be saving political capital for some other high-risk, high-reward project coming up, and might elect to keep his powder dry by taking the safe route here. If hiring Sisyphus makes another, more important decision possible, then Sisyphus is the best choice for the college as a whole. (Sisyphus would also be a compelling choice if the college had recently been burned by a few ‘flight risks’ flying. At least s/he could be assumed to be place-bound).

Alternately, you could look at it negatively: what would a manager be accused of in each case? In hiring Earth Mother, I’d be accused of ignoring both excellence (EuroDude) and loyalty (Sisyphus). In hiring EuroDude, I’d be accused of ignoring teaching (Earth Mother) and loyalty (Sisyphus). In hiring Sisyphus, I’d be accused of lowering standards and inbreeding.

Comes with the job.

A few key points:

- The needs of the department are usually defined, in part, by hiring decisions made 20-30 years ago when the market was a very different animal. In a true meritocracy, incumbents would have to defend their positions against newcomers. Since incumbents have tenure, they don’t have to.

- Needs depend on the self-definition of both the department and the college. Is the college changing its mission? Is it “raising its academic profile,” or focusing on retention? Does the college even know its mission? (Most don’t.)

- Geography can play a role. A trendy urban school might take a flyer on EuroDude, figuring that location would cancel out ‘flight risk.’ A suburban or rural school that hired EuroDude would have to assume that he’d leave when something better came along. If a department can’t be sure that it would keep the line when he left, his candidacy would be doomed.

- I haven’t even mentioned hiring for diversity. That variable makes this exercise even more fun.

- Two of the three candidates will think that something they did caused them to fail. They will both be wrong. It’s Not About You.

Who would you hire, and why?