Sunday, December 09, 2012

Why Searches Take So Long

It’s entirely normal for a tenure-track faculty search to take the better part of a year.  The same holds for upper-level administrative searches.

Within higher ed, it’s easy to take that for granted.  It’s the way things have been for a long time, and some of us have never seen it any other way.  But in most industries, a timeline like that would -- rightly -- be considered insane.  So why do our searches take so long?

The short answer is inclusiveness.  The longer answer starts with inclusiveness and adds to it.

In much of the rest of the economy, firms have “hiring managers” whose job it is, among other things, to fill slots.  They “network” to find out where the hot prospects are; they raid competitors; they hire at whatever level they need to; they compete using salaries, perks, and titles; and when they find someone good, they’re empowered to pull the trigger.

We don’t do any of those things, at least with full-time positions.  (Adjunct hiring is a very different process.)  Our approach, I think, is rooted in three assumptions.

1. If input on hiring is good, then more input is better.

2. Talent is not scarce.  Everybody wants these jobs, so we can be picky.

3. The world is litigious, and process can keep us safe.

Each of these is debatable and context-dependent, but we don’t usually treat them that way.  They’ve become unspoken, and largely unconscious.  We treat them as inevitable.

The “input” assumption has a lot going for it.  Nobody is a subject matter expert in everything, so it makes sense to include people on searches who have specific knowledge of the discipline being sought.  (Alternately, if looking for a dean, it makes sense to have input from current deans, since they understand the daily reality of the role.)  It also safeguards against cronyism and individual blind spots.  We all have our personal tastes; putting multiple people on the committee makes it less likely that any one’s persons quirks will be dispositive.

But anyone who has ever tried to put a committee meeting together knows that scheduling is not a trivial issue.  The bigger the committee, the fewer the common available meeting times.  That’s especially true when you combine staff, administration, and faculty on the same committee, since all three run on different annual (and weekly) rhythms.  When you need meetings to draft the ad, set the schedule, screen the applications, decide on an interview list, run 8-10 interviews, and decide on a set of finalists, the scheduling alone is a big deal.  And that’s before allowing time for the ad to run, time for candidates to travel, snow days, and the like.

(The sheer size and heterogeneity of search committees also makes it hard to know what a committee is actually thinking.  Introduce enough variables, and it’s impossible to say with any certainty.)

The assumption about a surplus of good candidates works pretty well in certain disciplines, but it isn’t universal.  It certainly does not seem to hold for most administrative positions.  When good candidates are scarce, too much delay can be fatal; somebody else snaps up the best people.  

Oddly, in mainstream higher education -- outside the elite research institutions -- it’s unusual to hire faculty above entry level.  “Raiding” is surprisingly rare.  That’s both good and bad, but it certainly stands in contrast to most other professions.  Raiding relies on speed, so the relative absence of raiding allows us to focus less on speed.  

The point about litigiousness is largely correct, as far as it goes.  When good candidates far outnumber openings, there’s always a danger that a good candidate who didn’t win will claim that it was for some untoward reason.  Following process and documenting carefully adds time, but it makes it easier to prevent untoward reasons from carrying the day, and easier to rebut them in court.  

I’d love to see searches move more quickly, but it’s hard to get around these constraints.

Wise and worldly readers -- especially in higher ed -- have you seen ethically defensible ways to speed up searches?