Search Committee Snafus

Colleges can undermine themselves with job candidates when their recruiting procedures are disorganized and sloppy, Stephen Winzenburg writes.


December 15, 2010

Colleges pride themselves on being methodical when conducting job searches. Years of experience lead most faculty and staff members to think that they do a pretty good job dealing with potential candidates.

But recent encounters have led me to the conclusion that many searches are unorganized messes, with the details an afterthought and the process often sabotaged by miscommunication.

Having multiple people communicating different timelines, changing what was advertised, making poor transportation arrangements or waiting months to make a decision are all negatives that may impact whether a school’s top choice for the position will decide to take the job.

In mishandling even minor details, academic institutions are giving an impression of what it will be like to work there. An unorganized search process can turn off the very candidates a college is trying to attract.

Scheduling snafus. Often the problem is dealing with human resources representatives who have poor communication and scheduling skills. A New Jersey private university HR staffer e-mailed me to set up a preliminary interview and I told her when I’d be available to take the call. The next day she e-mailed a travel reimbursement form, which was odd because she had never said that this initial interview with the committee would be in person or that flight arrangements needed to be made.

After I clarified that she wanted to fly me in without anyone on the committee having talked to me by phone first, we settled on a new date, with my campus visit to start at 1 p.m. I asked if landing at 11 that morning would give me enough time to make my first meeting; she responded that it would be no problem because they would have a car pick me up, and that I should get the ticket.

The next week, this staffer e-mailed the final itinerary, which now had my interview scheduled at 9 a.m., two hours before my flight was to arrive. When I responded that I couldn’t make the new time since she had told me to get the later plane ticket, I never heard from her again. She refused to reply to any messages or e-mails, and months later they were still advertising for the position. Thankfully airlines give credit for a full-fare last-minute ticket.

Too many cooks. Often there are too many parties involved in the arrangements made to schedule campus visits and interviews. At a Southern state university, an HR rep told me to make my own plane reservation for a campus visit, but she had no idea what times my campus meetings would be held. I was told to e-mail the committee chair, who gave me the general timeline I could use to schedule my flight but said the department chair would be back in touch with the specifics.

Ten days later, the department chair e-mailed an itinerary that required me to be there a day before I was originally told and scheduled my final meeting to end just one hour before the last flight out of the airport that was 30 miles away. It took a week to get the schedule reworked since three people on their end were involved in the arrangements.

This was the same place where two faculty members escorted me to my meeting with the dean, only to be told that it had never been put on his calendar! The committee chair and department chair were red-faced as they had to scramble to find a way to work the meeting into the dean’s schedule.

Unclear or misleading advertisements. In some cases, ads placed by colleges are incomplete or misleading. The position announcement claims that the faculty member will teach a certain class or get release time for departmental service, only to have the entire focus of the interview be about teaching a class you have no experience teaching, or asking you to take on a large overload.

A smaller state university placed a position announcement asking for a CV to be physically mailed to them, along with “the names and contact information of three references.” A few days before the deadline, the committee chair sent me a letter by mail saying “your file is incomplete” and that I still needed to “submit three letters of recommendation.” Yet nowhere in the ad, on their website posting, or in the printed version of the announcement he enclosed with his letter did it say anything about needing three letters!

I quickly sent copies of recommendations I had on file, including one via e-mail. The day the materials were due, the chair e-mailed back that he had needed original letters addressed to his specific school, sent directly from the references through the postal service! None of that had ever been stated in any of their position announcements. If submitting my material was that frustrating, working there would have been unbearable.

Teaching talks. Another aspect of the search process that lacks organization is the teaching presentation that is usually expected of finalists. My experience has been that the committee selects vague topics with little direction about what they want to hear. And then they may ask the presentation to be squeezed into 15 minutes taken out of an unrelated course, which is not the best way to see how a teacher works in the classroom.

A Midwestern state university branch campus required finalists to prepare an oddly titled teaching presentation for students. I asked the search committee chair to clarify exactly what the title meant in the context of their program, but she refused and said I should just take it in whatever direction I wanted.

When I got to campus for the talk, no one was in the classroom except three search committee members, all from outside my field. A class in my academic area was meeting down the hall at the same time, but the students were not brought in to hear me speak. The entire presentation about a contemporary topic was done to those three aging faculty members with no interest in the subject. And even though I had asked to meet with students, I left the campus without ever being introduced to a single one.

My suspicions from that encounter led me to search Facebook and Twitter, where I uncovered that a current adjunct at the school was an internal candidate preparing materials for the same oddly titled speech. Checking online course schedules confirmed that on the day I visited campus, the adjunct was teaching the class that didn’t come to my presentation.

Other warning signs. Then there are the little things that candidates pick up on when dealing with search committees, which may seem petty to outside observers but can keep good candidates from taking the position. One committee chair picked me up in his tiny sports car where my six-foot, five-inch frame was squeezed in, forcing my legs against my chest during an uncomfortable half-hour drive around campus. That, however, was better than the next day’s ride with a committee member whose car seats were covered with long white dog hairs that attached themselves to my freshly pressed suit just before my presentation to students.

The committee showed me the department’s outdated classroom building but said they “didn’t have time” during my two-day visit to take me to the lab in another building where I’d be teaching! They actually drove me past it three times and pointed it out but never let me go inside, commenting that I’d be disappointed if I saw it.

This is the school where the department chair later sent a group e-mail to all the finalists asking for Social Security numbers for travel reimbursement, which allowed me to Google my competition. I was offered the position but turned it down since it was $20,000 less than I was already making. They could have saved a lot of time and money by telling me the incredibly low pay range before I ever visited campus.

I had to laugh when two months later I received an e-mail from the college’s HR office telling me that they had found a more suitable candidate and they were sorry that I was not one of those selected for the position! It was just another example of how the search process has become an unorganized mess.


Stephen Winzenburg is a communication professor at Grand View University.


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