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Whipping Boy!

I’m thinking of a new career. After a decade or so as a professor of journalism, I’ve discovered a niche I can fill. It isn’t a new webzine or social media outlet or a blog. It won’t bring me billions in an IPO when I take the company public. But maybe, just maybe, it will rescue me from the venality of deans, the banality of department chairs, and the duplicity of colleagues and search committees.

Bitter? Nah. Not really. O.K., maybe a little. Maybe a lot.

Let me pretend this is a movie, like “The Hangover,” that starts at the end and goes back to the beginning, or the TV show “How I Met Your Mother.” That beginning is the new career.

I have been trying to return to the east coast for a couple of years from my current perch in one of those square states out west. And I have found out something profound.

Search committee members lie. Like sailors or politicians. Or scholars. I have had eight campus interviews at major universities and liberal arts colleges in West Virginia (two), Kentucky, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas.

But I was never seriously considered. I was filler. I was the patsy who dreamed of teaching and researching in the West Virginia or Georgia mountains. I was the credibility that convinced upper administration that a real, honest-to-gosh national search was conducted. After all, I had a very long flight to get there. And it always went to the internal candidate. This applied to positions as deans and chairs and plain ol’ professor positions. I have a Ph.D. from a top program, I have tenure, and I am an associate professor with numerous publications and a couple of books. And I lost out to a part-time professor for an assistant professor position, an A.B.D. for another, and an assistant professor for a dean job (he peeked around the corner to look at me), when I was a tenured associate professor.

This isn’t to say those people weren’t qualified. Certainly they were. But there were qualifications specified in the announcement – publication record and college teaching experience – that should have made me a more attractive candidate.

Oh, I should have known better. I was invited to three campuses in the mountains of Georgia and West Virginia without a preliminary phone/Skype interview. Someone from Human Resources contacted me to arrange the coveted on-campus interview at two of them. At one university, I had to rent my own car at the airport and when I got to campus I had to wake up a security guard to let me into the bed- and-breakfast they’d booked me into. The shower had no hot water, there was no ironing board, and it took about four or so months to be reimbursed. At my interview with the president, we spent half the time talking about his daughter’s experiences in Hollywood, not what I could bring to his university. At yet another college, at least I was put up at a nice hotel and the college paid for everything upfront, but everything else was the same, with the same result.

At another university, two professors compared notes and snickered while I was giving teaching demonstration. At a Texas university, only two people showed up for my research presentation (and one was the search chair). At a major private Christian university, I was brought out without a preliminary Skype or phone interview, never provided with an itinerary, and never gave a teaching or research presentation. But I was taken to see an Air Force base and a couple of really nice restaurants, and I got to applaud politely at a year-end awards banquet. I was told by a professor that "off the book" considerations trumped my candidacy.

At a North Carolina college, I was interviewed for a position, but the job was given to the candidate who, as an adjunct, was already holding the job ... despite not having a doctoral degree in the required area (a requirement, according to the job posting). The search chair tried to get me to insist to the dean that I needed a tenured position or I wouldn’t consider taking the job. They gave it to the adjunct, and I was told because she didn’t negotiate for rank (neither did I, actually). There is nothing inherently wrong with a college deciding an adjunct with years of teaching experience deserves a permanent position. My issue here is with a phony national search with faux eligibility requirements.

Should I have sniffed "that bad smell in the basement," as my grandfather used to say? Sure. But I was so eager and trusting and never imagined people with fancy degrees had the ethical structure of drug dealers and politicians. This is just flat-out wrong. It’s fraudulent and cruel and unacceptable. And it permeates the academy.

This does not even count 10 or so phone or Skype interviews I had and despite qualitatively and quantitatively superior experience, training, and publications over the eventual winning candidate, often or usually from within the same college, I didn’t even make the cut to the campus interview. Thank goodness.

The realizations above took me two or three years to believe, to actually accept that people who were trying to instill ethical, honest, fair, and even-handed behavior in students could behave so counter to their (supposed) core values.

So, my recommendation: when you dare to think about interviewing at another college or university, please (I beg you) call first (anonymously or have your significant other call), and ask if there’s an internal candidate. If so, don’t waste your time. And don’t respond to any dinky print ads with elaborate requirements. It’s a setup. But I suppose that hope over experience will trump my advice. Heck, I don’t even take my own recommendations!

My new career and my solution to this unethical and reprehensible behavior in academia? You thought I forgot. Designated Interview Professor. Yes, the acronym will be DIP. For $2,000 a pop, I will research a prospective academic job and be very familiar with the job, and I will write a persuasive application letter. Then, I will submit to a Skype interview (I’ll dress up real nice) and, when asked, show up for a campus interview. I’ll even bring along one of those little schticky lint rollers to keep myself looking really spiffy.

I’ll know, of course, that it is all a charade, play-acting; call it what you will. So will the colleges and universities. I’ll make some money and the search committee will be able to demonstrate to higher-ups (all of whom participated in this sham when they were a lower-down) and gullible oversight boards of trustees or governors that a true national search was conducted and, by golly, the candidate right in front of them was the perfect one all along. What are the odds!? Hands shaking all around. Except for the poor sap waiting for that call offering him the job. What a chump.

Doesn’t he know how it’s done? That wouldn’t be me, of course. I would already be interviewing at another bogus search for another coterie of professors and deans wanting to bamboozle everyone who supervises them. The best comparison? When Dick Cheney led George W. Bush’s vice president search committee and found out that he was the best candidate. Academics have the morals of politicians.

Naturally, I’d be the professorial equivalent of buying a research paper online or a dissertation from that guy in the Paraguayan jungle. No difference. But – hey! – I’m now a tenured, full professor and nobody can touch me. Hah! Bring on the DIPs!

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