Monday, January 30, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Ethics and Internal Candidates

A new correspondent writes

We are a small department at a CC. We currently 3 full-time, one
one-year and one full-time adjunct. Last year we hired the third
full-time person and the one-year. This year we will fill another
full-time position. It is unclear whether or not there will be an
additional one-year position or whether our course offerings will
expand to allow the adjunct to keep her current job.

I'm working under the assumption that I'll be on the hiring committee
again this year, as I was last year.

I would like to help the one-year candidate to be a better candidate,
and would be willing to help the adjunct as well -- if she asks. I
know I cannot do or say anything when I am actually on the committee,
but what are ethical concerns or limits before the committee is formed?

Also, I could use some words of advise about how to handle bad
potential bad news given to either one of them. Since I'll have a
hand in making those decisions, I'm afraid of being in a hard spot.

What’s a “full-time adjunct”?*

I’ll start with the positive: it’s great that your department is growing! That’s relatively rare these days, and all told, the problems of growth are the problems you want to have.

That said, I see several issues here.

First, don’t do anyone else’s jobs for them. You never actually say that either candidate has asked you directly for help. That’s good; if they don’t ask, you shouldn’t go out of your way. I don’t mean that to be heartless – your first obligation is to run a full, open, and aboveboard search. Too much ‘hinting’ in advance can look like fixing the results. Figuring out how best to package themselves is the candidates’ problem, not yours.

If they do ask, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, at the risk of seeming evasive, don’t overestimate your own power. (Apparently, it’s not even a given that you’re on the committee!) Decisions that are made by committee (esp. if there’s veto power at higher levels) are inherently unpredictable. You might believe in good faith that you’re giving the best possible advice and that your friend is a shoo-in, only to have an unanticipated application simply blow her out of the water. You just don’t know.

Second, a tainted search may be a re-opened search. In trying to do someone a favor, you could be setting up the department and the candidate for disaster. Imagine, for example, that a strong external candidate in a protected class doesn’t get the job, hears about ‘hinting,’ and files a civil rights lawsuit. Ugly, ugly, ugly. Sometimes playing fair requires circumspection, even with friends.

Finally, you really do have an obligation to your department to make the best hire for the department. If that happens to be one of the incumbents, great. If not, it may look like you’re being evil, but you’re actually doing your job.

I’ve faced something along those lines at my current school. There’s a culture of waiting in line, in which it’s simply assumed that long-term adjuncts who show loyalty to department chairs are next in line for full-time jobs. The problem is that, in some cases, the only distinguishing characteristic these adjuncts have shown is loyalty. That’s not a small thing, but over time, it has led to some pretty inbred departments. I know it’s hard to say ‘no’ to a loyal, local adjunct, but you don’t make a permanent hire just to avoid a difficult conversation.

In terms of breaking the bad news, again, don’t do someone else’s job. Usually, it falls to the department chair to break the news. If you’re not the chair, it’s not your problem. If you are the chair (nothing in the correspondence indicates either way), my advice is to break the news as directly, and succinctly, as possible. Don’t try to justify your decision to the denied candidate; nothing you say will make it hurt less, and it could very well hurt more. Simply say that the department was impressed, but has gone with someone else, and good luck in the future. It’s banal, but there’s a reason for that.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

*Okay, grammarians, have at it. Does the question mark go outside the quotation marks or inside them? I know a period or a comma goes inside, but putting the question mark inside scans funny. The entire sentence is a question, not just the part in the quotation marks. Your thoughts?