The Golden Rule

It's time for search committees to treat candidates with the respect scholars on the panels would expect to receive themselves, and that means basic communication at a minimum, writes Jay Draper.

May 9, 2012

What can academics learn from a Hollywood executive?

In a recent piece for New York magazine’s Vulture website, producer Gavin Polone outlined what he considers proper etiquette between studio executives and potential colleagues. Polone prides himself on returning every call and e-mail he receives, even if that means having his assistant send out a quick rejection e-mail to an unsolicited submission. He believes this is “good business” and notes  that “not having your call returned says that the person declining to deal with you thinks you are not only valueless at that moment but that you won’t be in the future either.” In other words, Polone recommends we treat potential collaborators with respect. This is a practice that academic search committees should embrace.

For years, graduate students going on the job market have complained about nonresponsiveness from search committees. I fear search committees aren’t paying attention.

My first year on the market is now drawing to a close. Over the last few months, I have dealt with a handful of the offenses listed on the venting page and the “dear search committees” page of the Academic Jobs Wiki, from committee chairs who don’t understand the "bcc" function well enough to avoid broadcasting to all applicants for a position who they are up against  to receiving rejection e-mails addressed to the wrong person.

Seven weeks ago, I interviewed for a tenure-track position and was told that the committee would be in touch, even if I had not been selected for a campus visit. I am still waiting for that e-mail. On the plus side, I have now had time to complete my journey through the five stages of grief.

To be fair, search committee members have many other responsibilities and might not be able to give this particular task their full or proper attention. In the rest of this piece, however, I would like to list three reasons why they should.

First, search committees represent their department and their college, not unlike the athletes who represent themselves but also their team and their institution. We chastise the athletes who run into legal trouble for damaging their institution’s reputation. As semi-public figures, their behavior reflects on their colleagues. To some extent, search committees are also placing themselves — and their department — in the public eye. For job candidates, a search committee is often the only window into the inner workings of a department. This is unfortunate, but my opinion of various departments has now been negatively shaped by my interactions with search committee members. Of course, the analogy between professors and athletes only goes so far. In our case, I am simply asking that search committees strive not for excellence but merely for adequacy. To paraphrase a well-known joke, how many Ph.D.s does it take to set up a mail merge?

Second, I am worried that the current job market is perpetuating a culture where people are at best jaded and at worst resentful. This is where Polone’s advice is particularly relevant. By failing to send rejection emails or by sending emails addressed to the wrong people, to name but a few situations, you as a search committee are potentially antagonizing future colleagues, the very people who might one day evaluate your work or that of your university’s graduate students. To some extent, your behavior on job searches will affect your school’s reputation for years to come. I think it is fair to have certain expectations for everyone involved in a job search: departments should strive to present their best side, just as job candidates will try to present theirs. This is particularly important in the final stages of a search, when some of the finalists might receive competing offers from other departments. But I would encourage departments to be consistent throughout their searches and treat all candidates with the same level of respect, even those candidates who will not make the first cut.

Third, sending out proper rejection letters is a matter of professional courtesy. To some (perhaps most), the mistakes I have mentioned will appear trivial. And indeed, those are often small mistakes that could have been avoided. That is precisely why I find them so infuriating. Sloppiness has no place in academia -- not in the classroom, not in our research, and not in administrative matters. Based on personal experience (my own department is certainly not above reproach when it comes to communicating with job candidates), I suspect that the people who demonstrate a lack of professionalism on search committees will exhibit the same lack of rigor in the rest of their administrative duties, potentially creating more work for their colleagues. Honest mistakes do happen, but we are dealing with recurring problems that could easily be fixed.

In closing, nothing good will come out of the current situation. I realize that in a market flooded with overqualified candidates, my plea will most likely fall on deaf ears. In the spirit of full disclosure, as a junior scholar, I would accept any tenure-track offer in a heartbeat. Between joining a dysfunctional department as a tenure-track professor and facing poverty-level wages as an adjunct, I would always choose the first option, regardless of how the job search was conducted. Yet, I maintain that failing to send out proper rejection letters constitutes unprofessional behavior, and we should hold search committees accountable. I do not expect to receive individual feedback on my applications, but I do expect some type of rejection letter. The current system is unhealthy, but there is no reason it has to remain this way. Treat others as you would like to be treated.


Jay Draper is the pen name of a Ph.D. candidate in history at a large Midwestern university.


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