• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


The Kinda-Sorta Favored Internal Candidate

Is there a better way than the "sham" search?

January 17, 2019

The Notre Dame job ad with preferred candidates already listed really struck a chord online. Over the years, I’ve lived just about every side of the “preferred candidate” issue at least once.

I’ve been a candidate who was treated with seemingly inexplicable hostility or skepticism, until shortly later I saw that the position went to somebody internal. Suddenly, the “gotcha!” reception made sense; the committee had tasked itself with torpedoing anyone external. I’ve also been the outside candidate who defeated an internal heir apparent who then reported to me.  Luckily, we were both adults, so we treated each other well until she left shortly thereafter for a higher level position with another employer. I’ve been a hiring manager when someone who thought s/he was the heir apparent lost, and I’ve been the hiring manager when the heir apparent was so strong and well-liked that it would have taken either a disaster or a superhero to pull off an upset.

They all happen.

Yes, there have been times when I wished I could have billed a search committee for my time when it turned out that I was basically performing a task for them -- checking off a box -- rather than actually applying for an opening. In a tight job market, in this industry, a finalist puts in serious time and effort. If that time and effort is doomed from the outset, the finalist(s) is/are basically doing unpaid labor.

But it isn’t always as clear-cut as that.  The more common case is the kinda-sorta favored internal candidate. That’s the one where the bar is higher than it would be in a truly open search, but the result isn’t quite pre-ordained.  It’s the “let’s run a search just to see if there actually is someone better” search. As frustrating as those can be, I can’t imagine a rule that would get around them.  Employers simply have more knowledge about internal candidates than external ones. There’s a limit to what they can be expected to un-know.

Sometimes, colleges handle preferred internal candidates by running internal-only searches. That at least has the virtue of saving doomed external candidates’ time. It works pretty well in the short term, though over time it can lead to isolation, inbreeding, and the loss of a bench of talent. It prevents any sort of diversification of employees, and it’s riotously unfair to people who didn’t have the foresight to have been hired there decades earlier. It also creates a really awkward environment when the freeze finally breaks, and the first newbies in a generation show up.  

At the entry level, trying to get your first job, the stakes are so high that any sort of favoritism towards anybody else feels like a punch in the face. Decades later, I still remember that vividly. That probably accounts for the speed with which the Notre Dame ads went viral. Full-time teaching positions in philosophy don’t grow on trees, so seeing two of them at a desirable employer revealed as shams is cynically validating. I get that. Anyone who was offended had every right to be.

But as annoying as it is to be the sacrificial lamb -- having been there personally -- it’s hard to come up with a rule to get around it. “Only run searches if you actually mean it,” which feels right at first glance, winds up legalizing bias. It also strengthens the presumption in favor of internal candidates. “Keep an open mind when you do a search” also sounds good, but it’s hard to regulate minds. As any experienced teacher knows, people think all kinds of things, even when they’re told differently. “Treat all candidates equally” is tough when the information asymmetry between candidates is dramatic.

Yes, Notre Dame deserves a moment of public embarrassment. That’s fine. But by process of elimination, I keep landing on the occasional sham search as the least bad option among a bunch of bad options. (Obviously, a robust hiring market would be preferable, but that’s beyond the scope of any individual employer.) I didn’t enjoy being the Dead Candidate Walking any more than anybody else, but if there’s a better way, I haven’t seen it.

Is there a better way?


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