The Truly Interdisciplinary Search

Michigan Tech decides that to break out of the departmental mode, a university needs a different approach to faculty hiring.
September 5, 2008

Most faculty hiring is done department by department -- a method that many scholars say contributes to the difficulties for those whose teaching and research can't be neatly placed in one departmental box. Professors have complained for years that to do interdisciplinary work, they need to get hired by one discipline (playing down out-of-field interests), and then post-hire or post-tenure, they can branch out. After all, many a search committee is more impressed by a willingness to teach survey or intro courses than a desire to work with the department across the quad.

Seeking to break that pattern, Michigan Technological University used a new system in hiring this year. As in past years, it had about 25 professors' slots open to fill existing positions on its faculty of 305. In recent years, the university has been able to replace those who leave, but hasn't added positions. This year, the university made seven hires on top of replacing the existing faculty positions -- but none of these searches were managed by departments. While those hired are working with one or more departments, they applied and were evaluated universitywide, and all around a single theme: for their ability to contribute to the study of sustainability.

With the new recruits starting, the university is beginning the process of hiring up to 10 more professors for next year -- again around a (new, but not finalized) single theme and hired through a universitywide process. The goal is to continue the process for a total of 10 years such that the faculty will be significantly enlarged -- with the new hires all tenure track and many at the senior levels such that they will arrive with tenure. But by devoting all "growth" hires to this process, the university will eventually have up to a third of its faculty hired campuswide, not by departments. While many universities have select endowed chairs that are chosen universitywide, it is rare to move all new slots from departments and to an institution-wide process.

A typical faculty search committee at Michigan Tech would involve six to eight members. More than 90 faculty members were involved in the interdisciplinary hiring process this year.

"In traditional hiring, it's hard to break out of the pattern of replacing one's self, so to take a jump ahead of the curve, it was important for us to make departments participate as partners in deciding the best possible faculty for the university," said Lesley Lovett-Doust, the provost. The underlying question, she said, was: "How do we make every hire a strategic hire?"

Faculty members report that there was initial skepticism about the approach in some quarters, due in part to passing up the chance for growth in individual departments. But the program now appears popular among faculty members because professors made the key hiring decisions (just not in departmental mode), because the program provided a growth in the size of the faculty, and because people are impressed with the new hires.

Here's the process the university used. A committee that had representatives from every discipline and every research center on campus met to draft a broad statement on the university's interest in sustainability focused faculty members. The statement covered three endowed chairs plus the seven positions (across ranks) that were also being created. Applicants weren't asked to apply for a specific slot, but to describe how their research and teaching fit into the university's sustainability agenda.

About 230 applicants were then considered for in-depth screening. The faculty committee selected three reviewers -- generally from different disciplines -- for each applicant. The reviewers were instructed to judge candidates on a variety of factors, including ability to lead a research program, ability to teach undergraduates, ability to be a mentor to graduate students and so forth. While candidates were evaluated on the basis of how they could contribute to the study of sustainability, they weren't evaluated based on fit in any particular department. Candidates were ranked numerically by the various panels, and the 230 was winnowed to 80 and then to 30, then to finalists who were invited to visit the campus and then, finally, to those who eventually earned offers.

Once candidates were selected, the committee determined possible departmental homes for them. So Audrey Mayer, who is moving to Michigan Tech from the University of Helsinki and whose research focuses on indices of sustainability, will hold a joint appointment in the Department of Social Sciences and the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. Or Shiliang Wu, who is finishing a postdoc in atmospheric sciences at Harvard University, will hold a joint appointment in geological and mining engineering and in civil and environmental engineering. Other researchers moving to Michigan Tech in the program are coming from the Argonne and Los Alamos National Laboratories, the State University of New York at Albany and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

All those hired will be assured of evaluations (and tenure reviews for those coming in without tenure) that also involve multiple departments, with professors in appropriate areas of expertise playing roles.

Lovett-Doust acknowledged that Michigan Tech has advantages over other institutions in experimenting with such an approach. As a science and technology oriented university, it has a clear sense of mission. And as a mid-sized institution (enrollment is around 7,000), "there is more flexibility because disciplines aren't physically distant," she said. But she said she hoped the idea could be applied at larger institutions as well.

She said that the shift in thinking about hiring is notable. "At many universities, there is a long history [in hiring] of departments taking care of their own area first and not thinking about the university as a whole." This approach specifically appeals to the idea of common priorities. "This takes a certain amount of trust. It's like jumping into a mosh pit," the provost said.

Mayer, who is moving to Michigan Tech from Helsinki, conducts research on tools for detecting biodiversity patterns, models that can used to study ecological systems, and the interaction between science and the law in considering sustainability issues. She said she interviewed for positions at other institutions as well and that it can be difficult to win over a disciplinary search committee when your work extends beyond a field.

"In several of the jobs for which I was one of the top candidates, one or two of the faculty -- and in one case, a member of the search committee -- seemed a bit underwhelmed by all of the publications I have in non-ecological journals -- even though they are well known in other fields -- and the extent to which human influences and activities are incorporated into my work," she said. In contrast, her Michigan Tech interview included professors who related to different parts of her work.

She said that the hiring program at Michigan Tech was "the first opportunity for which my interdisciplinary background seemed to be an asset, instead of a potential detriment."

Mayer also noted that the approach of hiring a group of scholars around a common theme also changed the experience. In other searches, she said she never knew who else might be joining the faculty. "The hiring process was certainly different than anything I've encountered," she said. "Instead of the other candidates being a secret, during my interview at MTU I was actually told about other final candidates and how my work would mesh with theirs." She said that the professors doing the interviews "were really looking to build a community of researchers, not just hires who would work in their own little bubbles."

Generally, current professors at the university said that the key to the program winning over the faculty was that while the administration pushed the interdisciplinary approach, it did not try to take hiring in any way away from professors, and in fact ended up promoting much broader faculty involvement in hiring.

Jason Keith, an associate professor of chemical engineering, said that some professors did wonder why they couldn't just get additional lines for their departments. But he said that because the committees overseeing the project all had broad representation, "everyone had someone who understood why we were doing this, and who could explain what was going on," he said.

John Gierke, a professor of geological engineering, said he was a fan of the approach from the start. But he said he was pleasantly surprised by how faculty members from different fields were able to agree on candidates to move ahead in the process, and on whom to hire. "I think people were able to set aside disciplinary perspectives," he said.

Gierke said that in the various evaluations he and others did, they identified some people who didn't seem right for the interdisciplinary positions, but who might be good for other openings. One of the best signs of faculty confidence in the process, he said, was that departments replacing faculty members who had left came to him and other committee members asking about such people. People wanted to know "who was good in our search that they should consider."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top