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Ask the Administrator: Charging Search Committees
July 9, 2008 - 10:21pm

A left coast correspondent writes:

What constraints do people serving on hiring committees work under? In an attempt to make the hiring process as fair as possible-which translates as avoiding lawsuits-my California community college district requires that a Hiring Compliance Officer (HCO) sit on every hiring committee. The HCO is sometimes an administrator, but because there aren't enough administrators to go around, the HCO is more and more likely to be a lawyer or a consultant from off campus.

The job of the HCO is to make a somewhat (or maybe mostly) subjective process like a hiring decision as "objective" as possible. Back in the day, when an English department hiring committee got 300 applications for a single position, the first job of the committee was to screen these applications and select 15 or 20 for an interview. Committee members would take a stack of 50 applications home and simply check off one of three boxes: interview, don't interview, and maybe. Right now, hiring committees are writing a set of "objective criteria" which will determine how a committee member decides whether to check the yes, no, or maybe box. I can only imagine what that set of criteria might look like. Starting from the basics, I guess that criteria for a cover letter would have to include stuff like "word-processed, in a standard font with standard margins, laser-printed in black and white," go on to "free from errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar," and end with more criteria intended to eliminate cover letters full of pompous bloviation.

Then things get even stranger. When interviews are scheduled to begin, HCOs inform committee members that they must rate candidates only on what happens during the interview. Any prior knowledge, positive or negative, that they have about a candidate must be ignored and cannot be discussed. So if I've observed someone being abusive to the department secretaries, I have to forget about it. Or if I've heard nothing but glowing comments from students about another candidate, and I've seen her classroom full of students asking questions and continuing a discussion after class time is over, I have to forget about that, too.
Is my college 'way off base here, or are these bizarre practices becoming the rule rather than the exception?

There's a lot here. I'll discuss what I've seen, and my sense of it, but I'd also love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one. My guess is that practices are widely varied, though I don't actually know that.

Every public college I know of has some variation on an 'affirmative action/equal opportunity' officer. (The titles vary, but they usually include one or the other of those terms.) That person's thankless task is to either ensure that fair and reasonable policies are followed to ensure that historically underrepresented groups are given a fair shake, or to trample individual judgment by imposing broad social categories on individual people, depending on your politics. Either way, lawsuit prevention is key.

Search committees, left to their own devices, are strange creatures. I've seen committees in which a single powerful personality dominates, so that it's a committee in name only. I've also seen committees reject the strongest candidate for fear of flight risk. Sometimes a dark horse candidate will carry the day with a committee, despite being nobody's first choice. Some committees go out of their way to replicate themselves, only younger and dimmer; others expect the new hire to magically make all their problems go away. And it's not unusual for a committee to surprise itself as it deliberates.

But the key point about search committees is that the people on them, other than department chairs, are often completely untrained in how to do what they're doing. And in a litigious world, that can lead to real danger.

The rules about what you can and can't ask are complicated, shifting, and sometimes counterintuitive. (They can also vary by state. Some states forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation and some don't, for example.) Apparently, according to my correspondent, California cc's handle that by training a cadre of specialists and farming them out to each group. In the places I've worked, the method has been different. The AA/EO officer prepares a workshop on the latest iterations of the law, and every committee chair has to go through it. I prefer this method, since it spreads the knowledge farther, which increases the chances of its being used as well for, say, adjunct hiring.

In discussions with the HR director at my previous college, I got some great advice that I've shared with my chairs. If there's knowledge you aren't allowed to use, don't get it. So in the course of chitchat, don't ask about or bring up children or spouses or partners. If you didn't know, then you don't have to prove that you didn't use that knowledge. Obviously, this doesn't work for every category – the comedian Zach Galifinakis likes to say he has "blackdar," which is like gaydar for black people – but steering clear of certain topics can save a lot of drama later.

In my experience, the issue with anti-discrimination rules is in the shadow that falls between the idea and the instance. In theory, nearly everybody agrees that, say, racial discrimination is bad. But search committees don't judge theories; they judge individual candidates, each with real imperfections. And it's easy for unconscious biases to latch onto real imperfections and exaggerate their importance. (That's why 'objective' criteria that can be quantified can be so attractive. They anchor the comparison in something at least arguably relevant.) So the role of the AA/EO office is twofold: to try to make sure that the rules of the road are such that everybody gets something approximating a fair shot, and (related, but not the same thing) to keep the college from losing lawsuits.

(Although it would take some finesse, I sometimes wonder if explaining more fully the 'lawsuit avoidance' function would actually improve faculty buy-in. It's not that the college doesn't trust Bob not to be sexist; it's that the courts don't. If accused, the college wants to show that it took concrete steps to ensure that he wouldn't be sexist. The 'concrete steps' part is the important part. 'Trusting Bob' doesn't cut it in court.)

The 'only use what you know from the interview' rule strikes me as bizarre, since it's standard practice to check references, who presumably know the candidate from outside the interview. I've never heard of that one before.

Wise and worldly readers – how do search committees work at your college?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


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