Wednesday, June 16, 2010


According to this story from IHE, a provost lost her job after her President found out that she had applied for a position elsewhere. Apparently the President was offended that she was willing to consider working someplace else, and told her that if she interviewed there, he would replace her. She interviewed, she didn’t get that job, and she lost the job she had.

Granting that this President overreacted badly, the incident still highlights a seldom-noted, but very real, issue for administrators looking for new jobs. There isn’t really a generally accepted etiquette for how to do that, or for how the current home institution should react.

Although the search for the first faculty job out of grad school sucks in many ways, one silver lining is that nobody blames you for looking. Grad school is supposed to end, and you’re supposed to go on a job search from there. It’s understood. You don’t have to worry about your references blabbing; if anything, you wouldn’t mind a little help.

Once you get that first non-temporary faculty job, though, things get messier. (I’m not referring to one-year or adjunct gigs, since most people understand leaving those.)

Some employers actually reward external searching through counteroffers. At my cc, the collective bargaining agreement renders that strategy moot. I couldn’t make a counteroffer if I wanted to.

Other employers get huffy and offended, and actually punish attempts to leave. Sometimes that happens overtly, as in this case; more often, it happens through a passive-aggressive whispering campaign in which your lame-duck status renders you ineffective for your remaining time there. In many administrative jobs, getting things done requires agreements in which others believe that you will follow through on your word. If they suspect that you won’t be around to follow through, they’re less likely to accept your word, and there goes your ability to do your job. Once you’re believed to be irrelevant, in some ways, you are. It’s self-fulfilling.

If you’re an administrator without a tenured position in your back pocket -- which is pretty standard in the cc world -- then trying to move between institutions can be risky. You have to try to gauge the local receptiveness to news of searches, and you have to decide who to ask to serve as references. (One tip from the employer’s side of the desk: never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, list someone as a reference without telling them first. Once, in following up on a candidate’s application, I called a listed reference and asked about candidate x. The listed referent* said “who?”) Typically you’re supposed to have one person above you in the hierarchy, one peer, and one direct report, and it’s best to have some gender diversity amongst them. If you’re in a low-trust setting, just assembling a good set of references can be a challenge.

Once you get to the finalist stage, even relative secrecy may not be an option. Particularly for more senior positions, it’s not unusual for the hiring institution (or its agent) to call anyone and everyone at the candidate’s home institution to try to get a fuller picture. (For Presidential searches, they’ll even announce the names of the finalists in the local newspaper.) If you’re trying to escape a low-trust institution and you have a near-miss, you could wind up in a situation like the one in the article.

I’ll admit to having been lucky with my searches. When it came time to disclose to my bosses that I was a finalist at wherever, they’ve been classy about it. I’ve made a point of taking the same approach with others. At PU, I had a brilliant professor who absolutely hated the fact that he worked at PU, and who couldn’t stop broadcasting the fact. He was pretty open about looking elsewhere, but thus far hadn’t succeeded. I made him a deal; I’d do everything in my power to help him on his search, including giving the glowingest truthful reference I could, if he would just stifle the drama and do his job in the meantime. He took the deal, and it worked in its first year, which I’m convinced was the best outcome for all involved. He got out, which he desperately wanted to do, and landed someplace where he was far happier. PU got a good year out of him. Afterwards, PU got to hire someone who actually wanted to be there. Everybody won, and being pissy about it wouldn’t have helped anybody.

In terms of both morals and harm reduction, I’m increasingly convinced that the right move is simply to support people in their paths, even if those paths lead elsewhere. If you find that the people you’ve hired become a sort of farm team for higher-level positions elsewhere, take it as a compliment; it shows that you have good taste. But for the poor candidate trying to escape a vengeful, low-trust setting, sometimes the high road is blocked. I winced at this story, because there but for the grace of God...

*referee? referrer? referent? source? I’m not sure what the most elegant term is here.