Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Speed Kills

How long does a search for a full-time faculty member take on your campus?

I’ve been struck at the disconnect between urgent messages of “we need more full-timers right now!” and the lachrymose “the committee will meet when it gets around to it.” The cynical part of me thinks that if the first message were true, the second wouldn’t happen.

Faculty searches are designed to be inclusive to a fault, which is part of the issue. After a department gets its request approved, it puts together a search committee that includes faculty from within the department, faculty from some other part of the college, and a full-time staff member. (The committee is also chosen to avoid too much homogeneity, whether by gender, race, or age.) The committee meets with the affirmative action officer to go over process and the various legal do’s and don’ts. The position is posted, with a certain amount of time for candidates to submit applications. After that deadline passes*, the committee meets to winnow down the pile to ten or so for first-round interviews. The committee selects three or four finalists that it puts forward for second-round interviews, which are conducted by the chair of the original commitee, the dean of the division, the vpaa, and the affirmative action officer.

The idea behind the process is to ensure that the first round interviews are conducted entirely by people in the trenches, both within and outside the discipline. (The outsiders help prevent too much inbreeding.) The chair is included in the second round to ensure that the face the candidate presents in the second round isn’t hugely different than the previous.

The upside of such an inclusive and deliberate process is that it ensures plenty of pairs of eyes on each candidate, and it tends to result in strong hires. Everyone has her own blind spots, but by including plenty of people, the idea is that any one person’s blind spots should be cancelled out. And it usually works.

The downside is that getting all those schedules to mesh for a series of meetings is remarkably difficult. Faculty are only around when they have classes, but those are the weeks they have classes. (That sentence, by itself, should issue knowing groans among my administrative colleagues.) As a result, searches routinely bog down at that stage, since the committee simply has a hard time getting together. We also have a rule that every member has to be present for every interview -- in the interests of fairness and consistency -- but getting a half-dozen people’s schedules to mesh a dozen times within the space of a few weeks is no small challenge.

The second round is typically quicker, since it involves fewer committee members and fewer candidates. But there, too, you have to allow at least a couple of weeks. It adds up.

The upshot is that, for all practical purposes, it takes two semesters to do a search right. In layman’s terms, it takes a year.

By itself, I guess that’s fine, but it stands in an odd tension with the urgency with which departments claim they need people. It seems to me that a four-month semester should be ample time, if they really mean it. But it’s incredibly hard to be both inclusive and fast.

At PU, the process was fast, but often not inclusive. Here it’s inclusive, but not fast.

Has your campus found a reasonably consistent and defensible way to be inclusive without blowing a year?

*Not every college honors its own deadlines; I’ve seen, and heard of, committees starting to read applications before the application deadline has passed. It strikes me as awful practice and potentially actionable, but it happens.