Monday, April 12, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Is This Normal?

I love this question. A returning correspondent writes:

A month or two ago, I wrote and asked for advice about a phone interview with a local community college for a faculty position. Yesterday, I had the on campus interview. I have never experienced anything like that before (even with all my interviewing in industry) and I'd like to get your take on this.

First of all, the interview was extremely scripted. First I had an interview with the Academic Vice President (45 minutes). Then I was taken to a room for 30 minutes to prepare a teaching demonstration on a topic that was given to me when I entered the room. I was not allowed to leave the room during this prep. One of the staff of the college babysat me while I did my prep. I was given white paper, a book, and pencils. Then the dean came and walked me to a classroom. I gave two teaching demos in front of the committee (the one I had just prepared and a prepared demo that I had brought with me). Then they "interviewed" me for 45 minutes. Each committee member had a written question that they asked in a very specific order. At the end of 45 minutes, the dean took me downstairs and escorted me out.

Here's what they got: everything they wanted to know about me to determine if they wanted me as a colleague. Here's what I got: nothing. I know absolutely nothing about this department. I don't know how they teach, I don't know what books they use. I don't know what their offices look like and what resources they have. I don't know what course management software they use or if they use any. I don't know how they assign courses. I don't know how they mentor new faculty or if they mentor new faculty. I could go on, but you get the picture. So if they offered me a job, I would have no idea if I wanted to work for that department or college.

Is this normal? One of my full time faculty colleagues told me that this is the way they interview also. Apparently, interviewing at a public institution has to be totally the point where the interview is totally one way.

In my previous life in industry, an interview was more an exchange of information. In general, you interviewed one on one with different people and you could ask questions also. You had at least a lunch with the team you would be working with and you could ask more questions. At the end of the day, both sides had a pretty good idea of whether you would fit in.

So I wanted to know if this is the way it is at your community college. What do you do to allow your candidate to get enough information to make a good decision?

Different institutions have different protocols, and it's true that in general, public institutions are much more hamstrung by all manner of things than are private ones. (That's one reason I have much less respect for corporate managers than for academic ones. Can you imagine how easy it would be to manage if you could just make decisions? A reasonably well-trained chimpanzee could do that. And then they have the nerve to call themselves "thought leaders"! But I digress.)

In my experience, scripted questions are normal. They offer several advantages: they ensure consistency from candidate to candidate, to ensure that you're comparing apples to apples. They can be screened in advance for all the HR minefields, so you can prevent the errant committee member going off on variations of "you're not going to have kids, are you?" They keep committee members from tearing into each other, and turning the interview into a mudfight. (I've seen that happen.) Given the size of many hiring committees -- more than once, I've been interviewed by a room of two dozen people -- you need some tight choreography to prevent a descent into chaos.

At my college, there are typically two rounds of interviews for faculty positions. (I'm referring here to full-time positions; adjunct hiring, by necessity, is much more streamlined.) The first round is done by the faculty search committee, which is comprised mostly of faculty from the department in which the position resides. Those are pretty tightly scripted, and the committee will usually interview eight to ten candidates. (This is also where the teaching demonstration happens.) It then puts three or four forward to the next round, which includes the chair of the first committee, the division dean, and the academic vp. At that level, the scripts are somewhat looser, but they still exist. At the end of that one, the candidate is invited to ask her own questions, and the savvier ones come prepared with several.

I've never heard of the spontaneous class prep, and I'm honestly at a loss to explain it. I don't mind having faculty give more than forty-five minutes' thought to a class before teaching it. In fact, all else being equal, I prefer faculty who give their lessons plenty of thought. I don't even mind if they consult their notes while preparing. Improvisational skills are great, but they should be gap-fillers, rather than standard operating procedure. That's especially true if the teaching demo should include technology; preparing a good interactive presentation with visual aids could easily take well over forty-five minutes.

In this market, colleges often assume that they don't really have to sell themselves, and there's some truth to that. Recent searches here have resulted in applicant pools of over 200 each, most of whom were at least minimally qualified for the job. (Note to lawyers: being a lawyer does not, by itself, qualify you to teach anything and everything. I don't know why they think it does, but every liberal-arts position always attracts substantial numbers of applications from lawyers. Not gonna happen.) When it's that much of an employer's market, it's easy for the employer to get, well, cocky. But the danger in that is that you wind up hiring people who've made a number of crucial and incorrect assumptions about the job, and who quickly curdle into malcontents. I'd much rather have people walk in with their eyes open, even if that means a few prospective hires walk away instead. The job simply is what it is, and someone whose heart is really in research and travel will really be miserable here. Better that they know that upfront.

Giving applicants multiple chances to ask questions can work incredibly well as a screen. A few years ago a finalist for a music position asked if we'd mind if she regularly took October off to tour Europe. Uh, we'll call you. If all the questions are about research support, sabbaticals, and course releases, then I know what I need to know. On the other hand, if the questions are about outcomes assessment, efforts to improve student success rates, and ways that new professors can get involved on campus, that tells me a lot, too. Choose your questions carefully, and come prepared with several.

The protocol you describe sounds like it was designed to be maximally lawsuit-proof, rather than maximally useful. I'm all for avoiding avoidable lawsuits, but there's such a thing as too much caution. At the end of the day, I'd rather have enough of an exchange to prevent a bad hire, even if that exchange involves the terrifying risk of actually trusting my own people.

One admin's thoughts, anyway. I'd love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one, since I'm pretty confident that they've seen a lot. What oddball hiring practices have you seen?

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