Friday, August 01, 2008

Ask the Administrator: President's Interviews

A regular correspondent writes:

Like most places, our screening committees don't hire.  They send a list of three candidates (unranked, in alphabetical order) to the college president who then makes the final recommendation to the Governing Board.  A good president will meet with the screening committee before s/he makes his final choice, but it's not required.

I've always wondered how a president chooses.  S/he has to rely on the fact that the screening committee for math has asked all the math teacher questions and the English committee has asked all the English teacher questions, so what does the president do?  It's hard for me to imagine that the president doesn't talk to the committee chair-the dean of the area that's doing the hiring.  Of course, that's illegal, or at least outside the official guidelines.

To mix a metaphor, in the crapshoot we call hiring, the college president is the joker in the deck.  I'd be willing to bet that if the same three candidates were interviewed by a number of different college presidents, there would be three different outcomes.  So where's the objectivity and fairness here?

A brief and (I hope) illustrative anecdote:  I taught English in China for a year in a very informal teacher exchange between my college and one in Shanghai.  Three people representing my campus went, even though I was the only one who actually taught there.  When we got back, we each received a nice plaque from the Academic Senate thanking us for our participation.  At the awards ceremony, the president presented a plaque to one woman and kissed her on the cheek.  Then he gave a plaque to my wife and kissed her on the cheek.  When it was my turn, I grabbed the president by his shoulders, bent him backwards, and kissed him on both cheeks.  It was absolutely unplanned and completely spontaneous.  Everyone in the room, including the President, howled with laughter.  He liked it, and he liked me.  Afterwards, every time I saw him, he'd call me by name and stop to chat.

Six months later, a full-time, tenure-track position in the English department came open, the first one in (many) years.  I'd been adjuncting for (over a decade).  I got through the interview process and was one of the three finalists for the job.  My interview with the president was a non-interview; we talked about everything except job-related matters.

Of course, I got the job.

I've never been a President, so I can't address that directly. And different colleges structure their hiring processes differently. That said, I have been the interviewer-at-one-remove for several years now, so I can speak to that.

In the systems in which I've worked, faculty search committees do the first screening for faculty candidates. They read and score the applications, do the first-round interviews, and decide who to invite for callbacks. Other than a basic 'rules of the road' charge from HR, they do this entirely without any administrative presence above the rank of department chair.

The idea behind that hands-off period is to defer to faculty expertise on content, including teaching methods. Administrators above the department chair rank, by definition, have jurisdiction over areas beyond their own scholarly training. The smarter ones know that and delegate accordingly. I'm confident that my languages department has a better sense of various candidates' fluency in, say, Italian than I do. (My knowledge of Italian is a blend of dimly recalled high school French and a few food words.) So when the department sends three finalists my way, I assume that all three have subject matter competence and the ability to do the basic job.

When it's my turn, I don't spend time on the subject matter they'd teach. Instead, I try to get a sense of what the person brings that the department doesn't already have. (Put differently, I try to guard against inbreeding.) I ask questions like “why do you want to work at a community college, as opposed to a four-year school?” (“How do you work with underprepared or undermotivated students?” is another favorite.) I discuss some of the strengths of the college, and some of the issues it's facing, and the nature and duration of the tenure process. And I try, within my admitted limitations, to see if the candidate is right for us.

(That isn't the same as locating the objectively 'best' candidate. I've had candidates brag at length about their impressive publication/performance histories, only to segue quickly into questions about course releases for research. Some of them are bright and engaging, but at a cc, that's the kiss of death. If you haven't even received the offer yet and you're already trying to cadge release time for your pet projects, I have my suspicions about how you'll behave once you're here.)

I also look at some really basic stuff that, somehow, some committees don't. Can the person communicate effectively? Does she have a clear sense of what cc's do? Is she on board with our mission? I've found that some search committees get so caught up in counting years or publications that they let some distressingly weak people through.

(One thing that has never come up is the candidate's politics. I don't give two hoots whether the new Music professor is a Republican or a Democrat, and I don't know why anybody else should, either.)

My guess about the President's behavior in this case is that he was already satisfied that you were the strongest candidate, so he treated the interview as a formality to be dispensed with as painlessly as possible. I wouldn't have handled it that way, but some people do.

Wise and worldly readers – what have you seen happen at upper-level administrative interviews?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.