Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Picking the Perfect Search Committee

Although it doesn’t happen as often now as it once did, we do still occasionally hire full-time, tenure-track faculty. And when we do, we have a pretty well established search process.

But some parts of the process are as much art as science. One of those is picking the members of the search committee in the first place.

We don’t delegate hiring to HR, the way some companies do, or allow department chairs or deans to make unilateral selections. The idea is that it’s important to recognize the disciplinary expertise of the existing faculty where possible -- easy in large departments, harder in small ones -- and that nobody should have unilateral hiring authority.

In practice, we usually have five faculty on a committee. But you can’t just pick any five. Considerations include:

- Disciplinary expertise. Of the five, usually four will be from the department in question, and one will have the mixed advantage of being from outside. In my faculty days at PU, I frequently served as an outside person for hiring technical faculty, and kind of enjoyed it; my colleagues judged content expertise, and I offered feedback on clarity to the novice.

- Of course, it isn’t always that easy. Smaller disciplines (at least as measured by enrollment) don’t always have that many members, and sometimes they get spread so thin that they really don’t want to serve on any more committees.

- Demographic diversity. A committee of all men in the sciences, or all women in Nursing, could tend to replicate itself without thinking. We also try for at least some racial or ethnic diversity, though there, too, you have to be careful not to go to the same few people over and over again.

- Personalities. This probably shouldn’t matter, in a perfect world, but there’s really no way around it. Some people just don’t play well with each other, and a few just don’t play well with others generally. I’ve seen committees torn apart by personality conflicts, and it’s just not worth the institutional cost. If you want to be excluded from key decisions, making yourself difficult is a pretty effective way to do it.

The idea is blend something like ‘peer review’ with something like ‘safeguards against inbreeding.’ Since peer review is a form of inbreeding by definition, it’s a necessarily messy process.

Departmental reactions to search committees are revealingly different. The English department, which is the single largest on campus, has internal competitions to see who gets to serve. Most of the smaller departments have internal competitions to see who has to serve. The difference says a lot.

Wise and worldly readers, how does your college select the members of faculty search committees? Have you found an elegant solution? Alternately, have you seen a seemingly rational method crash and burn?