When many of today's community colleges experienced their most serious growth in faculty hiring -- in the 60s and 70s -- administrators had a lot of control over the process used, who was hired, and what they were hired to teach.
Today, faculty members play a much larger role. And as many community colleges prepare to replace the Baby Boomer faculty members brought on in the last hiring boom, most of whom are at or approaching retirement, institutions need to better define what that role should be. So said William Moore Jr., a professor in the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin, Tuesday. "Hiring is truly the most important function," he said.
But in a discussion he led at the annual meeting of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, he suggested that many hiring practices at community colleges need a radical overhaul.
Too many search committees, he said, act as "gatekeepers" that keep the wrong people outside the gates. Based on his experience advising colleges on searches, he cited numerous examples -- the candidate who lost a job for "undesirable speech patterns" (meaning a Southern accent), the candidate who was told to dress informally for an interview and whose tattoo was then visible and offended a search committee, etc. -- where good people who should have been hired were not. As colleges' student bodies diversify, many times the gatekeepers end up keeping out minority candidates, he said. One way to change the dynamic of a search panel is to put someone from outside of academe on the committee, he said. "They keep you honest."
He also said that search committees need to be given the resources to literally get out of town. On the recruiting side, he said that too many community colleges take the approach of "we wait for people to apply" and then consider them. He said that two-year institutions, like their four-year counterparts, need to go after specific candidates. While a research university might go after a top grant-winner, a community college might well find it worth the money -- if looking for a counselor to help Asian-American students -- to go to a college with a large Asian-American population and check out the talent there.
Similarly, when evaluating candidates, he said that search committees need to go to their current colleges and talk to people -- in churches, bars, or wherever, rather than just relying on references. While all of this costs money, he said, the cost of a poor hire is greater. Moore also said that he thought colleges paid too much attention to the teaching sessions candidates do when they are finalists for an opening. Many people can deliver a great on-campus lecture, keeping everyone entertained, and turn out to be lousy teachers, he said. He suggested that colleges would be better off if they focus on data on what students learned -- do a candidate's students do well in college, and -- where applicable -- are they passing the right tests?
From the discussion among audience members -- most of them faculty leaders or deans -- the proper way to structure search committees is attracting considerable attention. Several of those at the session shared Moore's concern about the gatekeeper role and how it was being used. One dean said that she was pushing for her departments to make certain decisions, such as which qualities are "minimum" vs. those that are "desirable" prior to when openings become available. That way, she said, these qualities can be agreed upon before they are associated with endorsing a particular candidate.
Another dean described a process being used at her institution in which a set of qualities (such as leadership skill) are agreed upon. Then during interviews, members of the search committee are assigned a particular quality on which to focus their questions. This dean then uses a system in which the committee must then submit three to five names, unranked, with the understanding that all members of the committee "could live with" any of the names on the list.
The question of who you can live with is one of the trickiest when it comes to faculty search committees. One member of the audience talked about a campus debate over how to handle candidates who had the right paper qualifications and who didn't botch anything, but about whom some search committee members had doubts about "fit." Search committee members want to know "will they fit in on our team?" she said.
This audience member acknowledged the dangers of such a line of thought. "We don't want cookie cutter candidates," she said. And she agreed that people could use "fit" as an excuse to avoid diversifying their departments. Some in the audience questioned whether some uses of "fit" might be illegal as a discussion topic, and the woman who raised the issue said (perhaps in jest) "we throw away our notes."
Another administrator in the audience said that the appropriateness of considering "fit" related in part to whether a department was in good shape. Administrators, she said, need to carefully consider whether a department needs change. If a department is in great shape, she said, it may be a problem if a candidate "is someone who will rock the boat," but she added: "Some boats need to be rocked."