Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why Searches Fail

There’s a taboo in higher ed circles about examining failure, since there’s no way to do it without admitting some proximity to failure.  That’s a shame, since we can often learn as much by seeing what went wrong as we do by seeing what went right.

Last week’s piece about the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point and its difficulties in filling faculty positions got me thinking.  My first response, which I posted last week, noted that the salaries that UW is identifying as unrealistically low are actually higher than you’d find at many community colleges, particularly at the assistant professor level.  If they’re scandalously low at UW at that level, then we need to take a serious look at community college faculty salaries, especially at the entry level.  (Admittedly, there’s significant variation by state: the faculty salaries in New Jersey were far higher than they are in Massachusetts, for example.)

But then I started thinking about the faculty searches that I’ve seen fail.  They’re a minority of the searches we’ve done, but they happen.  Given the well-publicized surfeit of good candidates in many fields, why do faculty searches fail?

In no particular order:

- Demand isn’t necessarily where the supply is.  The evergreen academic disciplines tend to have the highest numbers of candidates, but we don’t only hire in those.  We also hire in fields like nursing, accounting, computer info systems, and engineering.  The fact that the market in English is flooded doesn’t make hiring for CIS any easier.

- Two-body issues.  When love and money go together, life is good.  When they diverge, things get tricky.  And we just don’t have the loose resources (or policies) to create positions for partners.  We can only hire where we need to, and sometimes not even there.  It’s hard to compete with someone’s beloved.

- Salaries.  In fields in which industry demand exists, this can be a real issue.  We also get outbid for strong candidates from underrepresented groups.

- Immigration issues.

- Expectations.  Some candidates come in with preconceived notions about the salary and workload that just don’t match the reality of what we do.  They come in with great enthusiasm, but then get the offer, blink in disbelief, and turn it down.  For a whole host of reasons, I can’t just offer more money when someone says no to the initial offer, so that can lead to a failed search.

- Late changes of mind.  I’ve had this happen.  A candidate accepts the position and gives every indication that she will be here in the Fall.  Then, in the middle of the summer, she calls and says that she received a better offer and won’t be here after all.  By that point, we’ve already sent the other candidates away, so it’s not like we can just move to number two on the list.  I’d much rather get rejected upfront than a few months later; at least when it’s upfront, the second-choice candidate is still a very real option.  Some second choice candidates turn out to be rock stars.  

- Timing.  Sometimes another college beats you to your first choice.  Then the second choice chokes on the salary, and the third choice really isn’t a choice at all.  It happens.

- Reference checking.  Once in a great while, something alarming comes up.  And that’s all I’ll say about that.

From a hiring standpoint, most of these are beyond our control.  Salaries are collectively bargained statewide and subject to a pretty strict grid, so we can’t just go beyond them because somebody wants more.  Two-body issues would require the resources and freedom to just create positions on the fly; I’m not holding my breath on that.  Immigration laws, surprising references, and certain elements of timing are entirely external.  (Admittedly, we could work on speeding up our internal processes, which could help somewhat.)  And while it would be lovely if our hiring needs aligned perfectly with where the supply of candidates is, ultimately, we hire based on what we need to cover.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found elegant, legal, sustainable ways around some of these issues?