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Thoughts on Hiring

A philosophical question and a helpful tip.

August 26, 2021

Since very little full-time academic hiring is actually happening right now, this could be a good time for colleges and universities that haven’t been happy with their processes to examine them. You don’t wait for a storm to fix the roof; you shouldn’t wait for a hiring binge to look at your process.

I’ve been involved in enough hires over enough years, and in enough places, to be able to say that I’m damned proud of my track record. That’s especially true with faculty hires. I was at Holyoke long enough to see my first couple of groups of hires receive tenure, and the same is true at Brookdale. Both groups are terrific.

There’s plenty of writing on the academic interwebs about hiring, but most of it is either aimed at prospective candidates -- interview tips and the like -- or lamenting the lack of hiring over all. Both of those are valid, but they aren’t the whole story. I won’t claim to have the secret formula, but I have seen a couple of practices pan out really well over time.

The first is to ask, and answer, a philosophical question: Is it better to hire loosely and then fire those who disappoint, or to be pickier up front with less carnage down the line?

Both answers are defensible, but they’re rarely spelled out. I’m firmly in the latter camp.

The advantage of hiring quickly and weeding out later is that, at least in theory, you can base decisions on actual performance in the actual context. Sometimes you can find the diamond in the rough that way.

To my mind, though, the costs of that approach are devastating. A bunch of “meh” hires will lead to a bunch of “meh” employees, and a gradual erosion of expectations on the ground. And over time, frequent firings will lead to a climate of fear. While in theory that could “keep ’em on their toes,” in practice it tends to lead to widespread CYA behavior and a really toxic culture of gossip. If I’m working in a place that needs scapegoats, how likely am I to own my mistakes? Worse, changes in supervisors and/or sloppy paperwork can make it difficult to fire the low performers, at which point you are essentially rewarding poor performance and freezing a toxic culture in amber. No, thanks.

Being pickier up front can lead to some failed searches, which carry both the costs of searches and the costs of bridging the gap in the meantime. But it also tends to lead to a higher-functioning group over time, since you have high performers who aren’t scared to admit when something goes wrong. With more talent and less paranoia, you’re likelier to get steadily improved performance, and culture, over time. You just have to be willing to look at a candidate pool that isn’t quite good enough and say no.

A college that doesn’t address this question up front is likely to get a hodgepodge of approaches. Better to have those discussions before search season starts.

The second tip is aimed squarely at senior hiring managers. These are the vice presidents or provosts who are usually the final interview. No matter how much more logistically convenient it might be, never interview alone. I typically have the chair of the search committee and the relevant dean participate in the final interview with me. (When available, I also like to have the diversity officer from HR participate in that round.) That accomplishes several goals at minimal cost. It ensures that someone from the relevant discipline, who has seen the teaching demos and the first round of interviews, is there. It provides additional sets of eyes to notice things I don’t. It provides perspectives from different backgrounds, both professional and personal. And it makes for a nice mix of disciplinary specificity with institutional consistency.

The key is that everyone in the final round has an equal speaking role. We actually take turns asking questions, and when the last candidate leaves, the first-round chair speaks first. The dean goes next, followed by the diversity officer. I go last, though often there’s already a consensus by that point and my input isn’t much more than “I agree.” If there’s disagreement, which sometimes happens, we talk it through until we reach a resolution everybody can accept.

Having those extra sets of eyes is so basic, and valuable, that I’m always a bit surprised when I hear of senior managers who don’t do that. Nobody picks up on everything, and we all have quirks and flaws. I have had the experience several times of a committee member noticing something important that I missed, and vice versa. These decisions are too important to trust to any one person.

This process requires a bit more scheduling, but in the scheme of things, it’s more than worth it.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add? With hiring at an epochal low, this is the time to fix the proverbial roof.

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Matt Reed

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