Friday, April 30, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Hiring Earlier in the Cycle

A new correspondent writes:

I work in an English Department at a mid-sized community college and currently chair a search committee for my department.

Our department would like to change the way we recruit and hire folks in English for full-time positions.

Currently, we anxiously await the budgetary calculus of Senior Administration (VP level, trustees and president) to find out the number of lines we will be hiring for the next year, although we typically know pretty clearly (based on retirements and/or massive enrollment jumps) whether or not we will be hiring at all. By "pretty clearly" I mean about 95% certainty.

We currently do not have the authority to advertise for positions, conduct interviews, or even recruit for said position(s) until we get The Word from Senior Admin that we are actually going to fund the line or lines. We typically get The Word either just before or right after Christmas, sometimes as late as February 1st. In the meantime, other public CCs and four-years in our state system have put up adverts in October or November in all the usual discipline-specific and CC-specific national publications (MLA job list, CC Jobs etc...) with language along the lines of "position pending budgetary approval."

We feel that the practice I just described allows the most desirable candidates, particularly highly-sought-after diverse candidates, to consider and take other positions while we wait on the sidelines. We would like to change this top-down strategy to allow us to compete with our sister institutions for the best candidates. In short, we want to advertise earlier (with the caveat I just mentioned about budgetary approval, or some such), recruit at appropriate national and regional conferences like CCHA and MLA (something we tried 8 years ago with great results) develop relationships with regional MA and PhD-granting institutions and involve more of our 40 or so FT department members in the recruiting efforts I just mentioned.

The gain for the college, as we see it, would be a better chance at a quality diverse hire (our senior admin puts lots of pressure on departments to make diverse hires) and, of course, a better chance at a quality hire, somewhat lower turnover and all the other things that come with hiring the best people.

Questions: (a) Do the moves we are proposing make logical sense from your "wise and worldly" perspective? Why/not? (b) If such a proposal makes any sense from your administrative perspective, what is the best way to sell these changes to HR (a semi-independent, rule-bound and change-resistant administrative unit with its own VP) and Senior VPs/president?

Been there. (And it's my readers who are wise and worldly. I ride their coattails.)

I get the argument, and I concede that there's a hiring cycle. But the college's policy isn't just persnickety. It has a certain logic to it.

Let's say that your department is as accurate as you claim. Can we say the same for every department? If not, then opening up the floodgates for aspirational advertising will probably lead to a substantial number of false positives for job candidates. Committees will be formed for searches that won't happen. Money will be spent on advertisements for positions that won't exist. Depending on how far the processes go, you might spend money flying candidates in, putting them up in hotels, and covering the various travel expenses. That doesn't count the value of the time the committee members sacrificed on a wild goose chase.

From this side of the desk, I know it's harder to say 'no' to a face than to a concept. Chances are that the savvier departments would talk up their aspirational hires to try to swing the resources their way. Over time, other departments would notice, and before long, everybody who wants to hire would jump the gun. False positives would abound.

And having been an unsuccessful candidate in many searches, I can say that there's a serious ethical issue with putting candidates through the paces for a job that may not actually exist. People devote time, money, and emotional energy in going on interviews; putting them through that for a chimera just isn't right. (For example, imagine the candidate who turns down an interview for a real job to go on an interview for an imaginary one. Ouch. Or the candidate whose job search is held against her at her current institution once it become known through reference checks, all for a job that doesn't exist. Not good.)

Yes, there's usually language about "pending budgetary approval," but that isn't intended to be a blank check. It's typically used to acknowledge the possibility that a position may get yanked at the last minute due to severe external economic changes, like midyear cuts in state appropriations. It's not generally understood to be a free pass to play "what if."

In my experience, position authorizations typically come relatively late in the budget cycle (meaning Spring) because the college is waiting to get a sense of next year's state and/or county budget. In the context of the Great Recession, some caution in that area is almost mandatory. It would be lovely if colleges could reliably count on appropriations to increase at a set pace every year, but that's just not reality. When appropriation bills swing wildly in the last few weeks before passage, asking colleges to guess a year ahead of time is asking a lot.

The argument from "quality of applicants" strikes me as less true now than it has been in the past. Having done some recent hiring, I can attest that the Great Recession has filled even late-season pools with amazing people. Perversely enough, the very instability that makes getting a position harder makes actual hiring easier. In English and most of the evergreen disciplines, there's no shortage of terrific candidates at any time of year. In hot fields during hot years, the argument from quality may hold some water, but in humanities disciplines in this market, it's just not convincing.

I'm not trying to suggest that waiting until after the big kids have had their shot at the market is necessarily optimal. If budgets were more predictable, I could see a compelling argument for aligning your search calendar with your discipline's. But the reasons for waiting can be valid, and the cost of waiting (in terms of quality of applicants) is probably the lowest now that it has ever been. Eight years ago was a different world. And trying to force the issue by jumping the gun could lead to awful results for all concerned.

In terms of convincing your senior management, I'd think these would be the concerns you'd have to allay.

Good luck!

I suspect that the aforementioned wise and worldly readers will have something to say on this one. What do you think of aspirational advertising?

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