Ask Us Anything

More than ever, job candidates want answers to questions they feel uncomfortable asking, and colleges should make it easier for them to get that information, writes Rachel Gabriele.

October 18, 2022
Icons representing questions and answers.
(Hiranmay Baidya/istock/getty images plus)

Of the many ways that interviewing for a faculty job can be both frustrating and terrifying, one of the worst is that the questions you actually care most about are the ones you’re never supposed to ask. Things like “How do I handle it when I get pregnant?” “What if I need a tenure-clock extension?” “How does this community treat Black people?”

Few candidates would feel comfortable opening up to a search committee about their desperate need for childcare or dual-career support. Yet now more than ever, in the era of the Great Resignation, job candidates are weighing factors like quality of life, work-life balance and community culture as they make decisions about where to work—when they can get the information. Many colleges and universities are not making it easy for them.

More than 10 years ago, a National Science Foundation Advance Grant led us to create the Virginia Tech Work-Life Liaison program, which is now run out of our Office of Faculty Affairs. Here’s how it works:

  • Every finalist for a faculty position—more than 360 in the 2021–22 academic year—meets with one of 18 liaisons, composed primarily of tenured faculty members.
  • Meetings last 30 minutes and are totally confidential.
  • Liaisons present information about Virginia Tech’s work-life programs, policies and culture—including dual-career resources, tenure-clock extensions, parental leave and modified duties, commitment to diversity, and community resources.
  • They answer any questions the candidate asks, honestly and authentically.

Some questions come up frequently: What are your maternity leave policies? How can my partner find a job, too? How many people get tenure? What are the public schools like in Blacksburg? What are the best neighborhoods? How can I find childcare?

Other questions can drill down into a candidate’s specific needs: Where can I find kosher food? Is there a Chinese community here? What kinds of services are available for my child with autism?

When liaisons don’t know how to answer a question, they come to me or other liaisons, or we bring in someone else on the campus who can help. Often, we create new resources or develop trainings so liaisons can respond successfully in the future.

Key here is that liaisons never meet with candidates being hired in their own department. They are intentionally outside the search process. “There's not really a vested interest in me trying to sell them Virginia Tech,” said Quinton Nottingham, head of the business information technology department and a work-life liaison for the Pamplin College of Business. Liaisons typically don’t even find out who got the job in the end until they bump into them around campus months later.

The most surprising thing about work-life liaisons is they’ve become a de facto advocacy group for improving the quality of faculty life at Virginia Tech. Because they’re on the front lines meeting every faculty candidate, they know what people are worried about and where potential challenges for both recruitment and retention are. They relay concerns—anonymously—at our monthly meetings, and when we repeatedly hear the same questions, we know we need to take action.

For instance, like a lot of college and university communities, our town of Blacksburg is in the middle of an affordable-housing crisis. To make sure our liaisons had the most up-to-date information, we invited a member of town staff to speak to us about the issue. Informed by that conversation, I have gotten involved in town and county committees addressing issues related to affordable housing, and I’ve been able to add a faculty voice to those conversations.

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Normally, we’d think something like that was outside the purview of our faculty affairs office. But after those conversations with liaisons, we saw how imperative it was for us to be able to both have a good understanding of the landscape for housing in the area and to try to improve that landscape for our faculty.

Liaison feedback has ultimately moved the needle on other concerns, too—turning childcare access into a campuswide, presidential-level conversation; calling for the creation of lactation rooms on campus; and encouraging post-COVID tenure-clock adjustments and course buyouts.

Our liaisons often hear from job candidates that they’ve never encountered a program like work-life liaisons anywhere else—a fact that we’re simultaneously proud of and surprised by. We love that our liaison program gives Virginia Tech an advantage in hiring and retention. But we also think most campuses could do better for job candidates and new faculty.

One work-life liaison recently took a position at another university. (It happens.) In all her interviews, she never found a way to ask about schools, childcare, community life and other issues that she, a mother of two, was deeply worried about. Afterward, she told me, “Having been through this process at another university, I see how amazing it is that Virginia Tech has this program. I had to talk to five different people to find out half the information that I used to give to candidates in just one of those meetings.”

Maybe one day higher education will move toward a culture that more often acknowledges that faculty candidates aren’t just research- and writing-producing machines but whole humans with families, lives, cultures and interests. Then asking a search committee about, say, a lactation room or a job for a spouse will be no big deal. Until then, work-life liaisons are a valuable resource. “Ask me anything,” they say.

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Rachel Gabriele is assistant provost for faculty initiatives and policies at Virginia Tech and facilitator of the university’s Work-Life Liaison program.

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