Thursday, July 19, 2007

Ask the Administrator: The Best?

A new correspondent writes:

Are community colleges required, either by policy or law, to always
hire the job candidate who is most qualified? And what are their
responsibilities to conduct a fair, expedited search which respects the

My husband applied (this past winter) for a CC faculty position.
He had a telephone interview (this Spring) which he felt went very well. He was
told at that time he would be notified if he was one of three applicants
chosen for a face-to-face interview.

He has still not been notified if he will be chosen for a second interview.

However, we have heard "through the grapevine" that the interviews were
conducted and the job was offered to the part-time incumbent who has held
the position for a couple years.

My husband's credentials and experience met and far exceeded what was
required of the position, in every area, including degrees (terminal). The
person hired is a few classes shy of a master's.

The lack of consideration and communication throughout this process leads us
to believe they were dragging it out, hoping that the job candidates would
drop out. My husband, however, very much wanted the opportunity to interview
and we made (or didn't make) many life changing decisions in these many
months based on his pending job application.

Aside from the gross inconsiderateness, it is obvious they did not hire the
"best" candidate, if best means educational and professional experience
required for the position. Is there any recourse for my husband, other than
a well-thought out letter expressing his opinions on their hiring practices?

We are aware that educational and professional experience must also be
accompanied by "fit" - we don't believe that this would have been an issue
in his application - he felt it would have been a perfect fit.

I'm not a lawyer, and policies vary from college to college. That said, there's a difference between 'not discriminating' and 'hiring the best.' Public colleges aren't allowed to discriminate based on race, age, sex, veterans' status, disabilties, pregnancy, and a few others. (In some states, that list is expanded – rightly, in my view -- to include sexual orientation.) That means that they aren't allowed to use these factors in making hiring decisions. It doesn't mean that judgment, or even error, is forbidden. It just means that the judgments (and errors) can't be based on those factors.

In this market, it's not at all unusual to have to turn down people who exceed the qualifications for a given position. (That's why I'm a little alarmed that you “made (or didn't make) many life-changing decisions...based on his pending job application.” That's a lot of eggs for one abstract basket!) For one fairly recent hire, we had 120 applications, several of which were far beyond anything we had dreamed of anticipating. As good as they were, we had to turn down all but one. The ones who came closest without actually getting it were outstanding, and I couldn't argue with any other college that wanted to hire them. It's just that we only had the one position. (Several of the top candidates brought credentials far beyond what the incumbent faculty had when they were first hired. This is why I don't buy the “academia is a meritocracy” line. In a meritocracy, incumbents would have to defend their positions against newcomers. With tenured faculty, that doesn't happen.)

Some qualifications are easier to quantify than others. Degree status and years of teaching experience are easy to put on a grid. Performance at an interview – and make no mistake, interviews are performances – is tougher. That may sound sinister, but having done and/or sat in on dozens of interviews, I can attest that some people who seem great on paper just don't get it done 'live,' whether in person or on the telephone. I've seen exceptionally well-credentialed candidates stumble on the simplest questions, simply because their priorities were wildly different from ours. I've seen candidates adopt the attitude that they're doing us a favor by deigning to consider working here: that's always the kiss of death. And there are always those mystifying failures of basic communication skills – monosyllabic answers to everything, answering questions other than the ones that were asked, or basic incomprehensibility. None of those show up on paper, but they're all crucial. Even granting the limits of the interview format, I don't want to put somebody incomprehensible in front of a classroom.

All of that said, there are other legitimate (or semi-legitimate) factors that could come into play in any given case. There may be salary constraints such that the topmost candidate is essentially priced out of the job. (That can easily happen in a collective bargaining environment, in which starting salaries are determined by a pretty mechanistic grid. If you score too high on the grid, the college might decide it can't afford you, and if it did a lowball offer, it would lose the grievance.) In some cases, a college might be spooked by 'flight risk.' If a college has lost several rising stars recently to raids, it may decide to lower its sights for a while in hopes of retaining people without raising its pay scale. I'm philosophically opposed to that, but it happens. Sometimes they're doing what I call the “job and a half” search, in which they're looking for someone who can fill the immediate need, but who can also grow into another role in the near future. Say you're hiring a Spanish professor, but you also know that there's growing demand for Italian, and you're thinking about adding a program in Italian in a couple years. Candidate A is the better Spanish teacher, but Candidate B is a perfectly capable Spanish and Italian teacher. Who do you hire? (Either would strike me as defensible.)

There's also affirmative action, which can be a wild card. I don't want to get into that debate; I'll just acknowledge its existence as a variable.

And then there are all the usual human failings. Some colleges have cultures of “waiting your turn,” in which longterm adjuncts are kept loyal through implied promises of being “next.” Some committees won't take seriously anybody who isn't already there. Some chairs reward personal loyalty over performance, or don't perceive the difference between the two. Sometimes committees split, and the minimally-acceptable-to-all “dark horse” candidate wins, despite being nobody's first choice. Sometimes a formally-open job is given to a trailing spouse in order to maintain local comity, or to reduce flight risk.

And sometimes people just get it wrong. It happens.

I agree that candidates are owed respectful treatment and timely notification. But the requirements I've seen for hiring processes are more about what goes into a decision than how it ends up. To do otherwise, you'd have to know the 'right' decision in advance, at which point there wouldn't be any need to go through a process in the first place. It's frustrating, but given the number of unknowable variables out there, it's what has to be done.

Good luck on your next search. The market is brutal enough that any given rejection shouldn't be taken as a reflection on the candidate.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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