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How to Proceed With Those Back-Door Hires? Fairly and Transparently
July 25, 2013 - 5:22pm

I received another anonymous question regarding academic nepotism from those who are left to confront the practical, and real, organizational quandaries it presents. I wanted to respond before moving on to another topic, and can revisit this again if there are more questions.

Interestingly, the questioner tells a story similar to one I learned about recently from a friend: a valued administrator -- i.e., one who has been at the institution for a while and is performing well -- uses that leverage to “insist” on a tenure-track position for his or her spouse as a condition for staying at the institution. 

In the questioner’s case, the department has been put into a very difficult position, because the hired spouse -- let’s call the person X -- was literally forced upon them after some pretty clear indications that X was not wanted. X had previously applied for a position multiple times and had not been selected for an interview. I do not know if the department was aware of the relationship of X to the administrator at the times of these rejections. If so, there is a question of whether the institution was trying to send a strong hint that X should be hired without bypassing the process entirely, and then when the hint was not taken, went ahead anyway. Regardless of whether the department knew or not, their decision was clear: this is not someone who, from among others in a competitive process, we would select for consideration. They said this not once, but several, times.

But now X has been forced upon them, and the question for the department is: now what? As X goes through the tenure process, what if X is actually terrible? They are already concerned that this might be the case. From an organizational perspective, “terrible” strikes me as a very low-expectation way to think: will you be happy if X turns out not to be absolutely terrible, but only bad, or mediocre? For those all-too-rare tenure-line positions, presumably the faculty would like to choose whom they believe to be the very best they can obtain. Of course it is difficult to predict under the best of circumstances who is going to be great. But honestly, you can maximize your likelihood with well-designed recruiting processes.  

The questioner says that X does not want to be treated as a spousal hire. Well, that’s very nice, but of course he/she is, and was perfectly willing to come in on that basis. But it does give the department a basis for developing a perhaps more explicit -- not more rigorous, as it should be equal to that for others -- procedure for this different hire, given that, according to the questioner, the highest levels of administration at the institution were involved in providing X the job.

Information and communication are the keys, with clear documentation. First, document the history: a comparison of the application of X with those who were finalists/hired in the prior searches for which X unsuccessfully applied would be a good start; use standard dimensions like doctoral institution and program; quantity and quality of publications; alignment with department teaching and research preferences at the time of the postings, number and size of grants obtained, etc.; it may be well worth also doing a comparative analysis with others who did not make it into the pool, as some may have been more qualified than X. 

Second, review and document the records of those on the tenure track who have passed milestone evaluations, and those who have received tenure, for some applicable period in terms of currently relevant standards for tenure -- e.g., for the past 10 years. If your tenure process is at all systematic, this will give you a set of benchmarks, preferably a weighted one. A pattern or set of criteria for evaluation should emerge, which may comprise both quantitative and qualitative measures, and may give you a basis for constructing expected values. Use this analysis as an opportunity to codify your tenure process if it has not been explicit before. You may wish to tweak it based on what you find, but should deal with X on the terms on which others have been dealt. That is, you need to go into this free of bias, despite how X was hired, and conduct as objective and fair an evaluation as possible based on historical criteria.

If it were my department  (meaning Chair, and this assumes your Chair is of the same mind about X as you), I would then meet with X, as soon as possible, for a chat -- and make a record of that meeting. I would say that we understand that X doesn’t want to be treated any differently just because he/she is a trailing spouse, and so want X to know that he/she will be evaluated with the same rigor as everyone else, and want to fully explain the process and criteria. I would provide those criteria in writing to X, asking X to sign that he/she has received a copy and understands them, just as with any policy or notice. It would not be a bad idea to make this provision and explanation a regular part of the process for new hires. Ensure that on all dimensions of evaluation—teaching, research, service -- X is offered opportunities comparable to other hires.

It is then largely up to X to do what he/she has to do in order not to be treated differently. He/she will either meet the criteria laid out or not, and will not be able to claim either ignorance or inequitable treatment if performance falls below expectation on the set of measures identified.  And the department will have some discipline around a situation that could otherwise be too emotional for those annoyed by the circumstances.

Of course, if the department finds X to be “terrible” or otherwise sub-standard, the same people who gave X the job in the first place may try to over-rule the department if it makes a decision not to renew or tenure. But you will have an awfully good case to make—10 years of historical data, a set of standard criteria, and an equitable opportunity process. Rejecting the department’s decision under such circumstances would be a very public acknowledgment of not only their willingness to intrude on faculty decision making, but also that academic jobs can be bought and bartered.

I’m certainly aware that many departments avoid being too explicit about their tenure policies. They like to say it is too individual, or too complex, to get too precise; many want flexibility to be more subjective when the time comes. But black-hole evaluation systems are not good for organizations: people need, and deserve, to know what is expected of them and how they will qualify for raises and promotions, and to feel like they are being evaluated like everyone else.  And in the case of the questioner, a clear evaluation system is your only defense. If you yourself cannot point, specifically and publicly, to what constitutes acceptable performance for evaluation or tenure, you leave yourself wide open to challenge, and to others making your decisions for you.

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