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Faculty search committees often pick candidates based on their supposed fit. But rather than a defined metric, fit is a highly subjective concept that opens the door to racial and other biases, according to a new study in The Journal of Higher Education.

Beyond providing a novel analysis of faculty fit and its implications for diversity, the paper is also a fascinating window into the pre-COVID-19 hiring process in general. The study confirms what many already believe or suspect about academic hiring: that it typically privileges perceived research impact over all else and that it runs on what’s been called cloning bias, or homophily.

Still, the paper doesn’t vilify the concept of fit altogether. Instead, it advocates standardizing fit, such as through the use of jointly designed rubrics, to uncover and calibrate search committee members’ preferences and to promote diversity.

A ‘Poorly Suited’ Criterion

Author Damani K. White-Lewis, a postdoctoral scholar in counseling, higher education and special education at the University of Maryland at College Park, said recently that fit, “both as coded language and an overall model of candidate evaluation, is poorly suited to justify academic hiring decisions.”

At the same time, he said, “If we can get away from using [fit] so blanketly, there may be opportunities to use design thinking to promote more equitable hiring.”

Calibrating hiring rubrics and identifying “realistic, agreed-upon thresholds can promote equity by ensuring fair standards are applied that don't disproportionately penalize marginalized candidates,” he said.

Other suggestions: updating search committee training to go beyond implicit bias and making sure that search committees understand how marginalized scholars’ credentials “may be suppressed by the gendered racism they experience in academia regularly.”

White-Lewis’s study found, for example, that search committees generally used basic organizational concepts of fit -- such as whether candidates’ credentials matched language in job ads -- to weed out about 25 percent of applicants.

The rest of their winnowing process was what White-Lewis calls highly idiosyncratic. And while scholars’ ethnic or other identities were discussed in terms of compliance with institutional diversity goals, often to avoid delays in the search, committees often discounted marginalized scholars’ identity-driven work on or with specific populations as too “narrow” or not generalizable.

In a social science committee, for example, one professor said that a candidate's research on U.S. immigration and marriage patterns was topically “narrow,” despite describing the candidate's data set as novel.

“Across every search, research was considered narrow if any aspect of the study or research agenda -- topic, sample, theory, or implications -- was purposefully constricted to attune to a certain population, region, or form of identity,” White-Lewis found.

In a life sciences committee, for instance, a candidate conducting research on antigay bias was critiqued for not being “as much of a scientist as some of the others [conducting] basic science,” and at the same time praised as having an “amazing, long track record and [being] really very influential.”

In this way, candidates' social identity transformed from a competitive advantage when they applied or were courted to apply, to "non-factor" during the review phase, with "many faculty members having different -- albeit still color-blind -- perspectives on considering identity.”

White-Lewis uses the term “color-convenience” to describe a perspective -- espoused by participants -- that is not quite "color-blindness," but "rooted in ideals of administrative compliance and egalitarianism." 

Methods and Results

For his study, White-Lewis gained access to four search committees looking to hire early-career professors, all at the same unnamed university. The committees spanned four divisions: social sciences, humanities, life and behavioral sciences, and the physical sciences. He conducted semistructured interviews with 23 faculty members, chairs and deans involved in the searches and studied related search documents.

All search committee participants were interviewed twice, once after formation of a candidate short list and once against after department votes for candidates. Questions pertained to department features, judgments based on characteristics committee members believe made applicants highly fit, poorly fit and borderline, and to considerations of racial and ethnic diversity in hiring.

Determined that faculty fit merits more than a Potter Stewart-style approach (the late U.S. Supreme Court justice famously said he knew obscenity when he saw it), White-Lewis found evidence of fit assessments across the various disciplines he studied. But the assessments were limited to subject matter expertise and the department’s research infrastructure.

The rest of the candidate winnowing process “lacked sufficient measurement, consensus, and/or relationship to the department, making [for] idiosyncratic preferences rather than criteria-based fit,” White-Lewis wrote. “Fit,” then, shields irregularities and biases throughout the faculty hiring process, and may “perpetuate racial aversion, neutrality and convenience.”

Indeed, White-Lewis found that “racially averse faculty constructed new standards such as ‘impactful’ and ‘narrow’ to evaluate and demerit research credentials, while integrating identity when it was most convenient and least impactful to do so.”

Faculty searches “are as much about the department and faculty than the candidates themselves,” White-Lewis continued, “casting doubt on meritocracy and demonstrating how searches are far less about fit than they are about elevating status, minimizing identity, and mitigating perceived risk for the department.”

Focusing on search committee preferences instead of fit reveals the “entire cast of characters responsible for weeding out otherwise qualified and talented racially minoritized candidates,” he said. That includes aversion to certain “identity-driven research agendas that are considered narrow, perceived collegiality, institutional pedigree, failure to adequately integrate identity into evaluation” and more.

While the study is limited to one institution, White-Lewis said that failing to frame individual departments as primary settings for these kinds of decisions "fails to explain how academic units bound by the same university policies and guidelines -- implicit bias trainings, equity office interventions -- still reach such different faculty diversity outcomes, even when comparing disciplines with similar levels of racial diversity."

Recommendations and Reactions

White-Lewis recommends that institutions adopt criterion-based fit processes and, more generally, equity-driven evaluation procedures. While using hiring rubrics did not eliminate biases in some of the searches studied, he wrote that “jointly creating and calibrating rubrics allows faculty to explicitly state and defend their own leanings, expose their biases, and ensures that equal and fair criterion is applied consistently.”

Rubrics must also include equity considerations, he said, to challenge the status quo of “guarded discussions around racial equity” and “convert biases related to engaged research, teaching, and service into competitive advantages necessary to support twenty-first century learners.”

White-Lewis wrote that committees should also define their searches beyond mere subject area expertise and research considerations. This, he continued, “begs a greater question that would strengthen rubrics and achieve fit: just what is the department and institution about? Is there a common bond that unites the department beyond simply wanting qualified researchers, and what are important institutional and departmental goals that candidates may also satisfy?”

On research, faculty members across departments unevenly applied phrases such as “stand out,” “impactful” and “interesting” to describe what constituted original research that merited hiring, according to the study.

Jeff Buller, a consultant who recently retired as director of leadership and development at Florida Atlantic University, and author of Hire the Right Faculty Member Every Time: Best Practices in Recruiting, Selecting, and Onboarding College Professors, said the potential problem with fit is, “Fit with what?”

If the answer for search committees is “fit with people like us,” he said, that approach “too often becomes an obstacle to diversity.”

If the answer is “fit with the needs and aspirations of the program,” however, “then fit can actually encourage diversity,” he said.

In reality, “most people in faculty searches regard the fit issue as a proxy for collegiality,” Buller said. Someone fits, then, “if they don’t create interpersonal turmoil.”

Hinting at why the American Association of University Professors opposes collegiality in faculty evaluation, Buller said there’s a difference between “someone who challenges others and someone who demeans and disparages others.”

George Justice, professor of English at Arizona State University and author of How to Be a Dean (and an opinion contributor to Inside Higher Ed), said he doesn’t believe in fit, as it's "almost always an excuse to make a bad hire."

“I always believe in hiring for excellence, which I believe strongly will increase diversity. I also believe strongly in some kinds of targeted hiring for diversity and excellence,” he said.

Justice said that he views fit as “always idiosyncratic,” and that instead of fit, search committees should set "explicit criteria of excellence."

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