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The Chronicle has a piece by Carla Freeman, an associate dean at Emory University, advocating a strategy of cluster hiring as a way to diversify the faculty of a college or university. Apparently, it worked well at Emory.

Context matters; I could see that strategy backfiring here and places like here. In fact, I lived in the aftermath of cluster hiring at my previous college and saw the damage it did.

The argument for cluster hiring has some logic to it. Many colleges want to make their faculty and staff more diverse, in hopes of reflecting more closely the student body and/or country. That’s hard to do when many hiring decisions were made decades ago, when the rules and expectations were different. With low turnover of incumbents, it’s easy to default to a stray hire here and another one there. But someone who feels isolated may not stick around. Hiring a group in a small area all at once offers the prospect both of breaking the cycle and of shifting the culture in a meaningful way fairly quickly. And given the surfeit of terrific candidates for many full-time faculty positions, there’s generally no shortage of excellent people to hire.

But there’s a missing variable in the discussion. Freeman mentions, almost as an aside, that “the fact that the college was able to authorize a greater number of offers than initially planned -- seven, instead of three -- helped to soothe tensions and convey the administration’s intentions on this front.” Well, yes. More than doubling the hiring budget can soothe tensions. That’s true with cluster hiring, and without it. Would that we had that option.

In the absence of tremendous influxes of money, cluster hiring means grouping the set of hires you would have done in a given year into a smaller number of departments. Other areas are told, in essence, to wait their turns. The plausibility of that strategy rests on confidence that their turns will come.

I started at Holyoke in 2008, following someone who embraced and practiced cluster hiring. About a week after I arrived, the wheels fell off the economy, and the money went away. The department that got its turn the previous year got to keep its cohort; the next ones in line were stiffed. As a function of timing, a staffing imbalance meant to last a year became effectively permanent. I spent the next several years slowly chipping away at it, one position at a time.

An institution with the resources and endowment of Emory may be in a position to make promises from year to year and know that it can keep them. But most tuition-driven schools, especially with declining enrollment, can’t do that.

Cluster hiring also presumes that most departments are fully staffed, and that the new positions are enhancements. Again, nice work if you can get it; here, most departments are running leaner than I’d (and they’d) like to see.

I’ve been in enough final-round interviews to know that some variation on “can’t we hire them both?” comes up often, and rightly so. The pools are strong. And it’s surely true that a windfall of new faculty in one department can do wonders for that department. But in a zero-sum setting, in which one department’s windfall is made possible only by multiple other departments going without, the damage done across the institution can be significant. Add a shift in the economic winds, and that damage can last for years.

Diversity hiring is often seen as a subset of diversity initiatives, but it’s also a subset of hiring. When hires are scarce, clustering them all in one or two places can do real harm.

Kudos to Emory for finding a way to make its faculty more reflective of the community. But to generalize from such a well-funded place doesn’t make sense. Throwing money at the problem presumes the existence of money to throw. Thanks, but we’ll need to find other ways.

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