A Comedy of Errors

August 03, 2004

What troubles many of my colleagues both in higher education and in the business world is the pure carelessness that often accompanies letters of interest for key positions on our campuses and in our companies.

Academe isn't much different from any other industry when it comes to understanding the importance of recruiting new employees. In fact, it certainly shares some common expectations with other employers in what is required of a candidate.

And since it is "higher education," I suppose we expect more at times from our applicants, but I don't think it is too much to ask that they spell the name of the search-committee chairman correctly.

Having led searches at three institutions, I can live with applicants referring to me in their cover letters as Broaderick or even Brodrick, although both my business card and birth certificate favor Broderick. This spring, however, I was forced to draw the line at a letter in which I was addressed as Vice President Boderick. That's right, I was now Bo-derick. I think I would have been less offended had the envelope been addressed to Dudley Moore.

That example is not an exaggeration where the truth gets in the way of a good story. I kept the letter as a souvenir.

And be honest for a moment: Even if you hail from the hallowed halls of an Ivy League institution, can you not think of a search or two in which cover letters included a gross misspelling of a name or a careless choice of words?

Botching the spelling of the committee chairman's name, however, is nothing compared to incorrectly listing the name of the institution to which you are applying. It's a little hard to feel comfortable about a candidate who can't even spell the name of his or her future employer correctly.

Even worse on the shame scale are candidates who send in properly addressed cover letters, then point out all the wonderful things they will accomplish if hired ... by a different institution.

Again, it can be difficult for many in the search process to take such candidates to the next level -- no matter how talented and qualified -- when they have confused the college they are writing to with another institution.

Granted, it is an honest mistake of the computer generation. How many of us have, on occasion, sent an e-mail, (hopefully, not a cover letter for a job) where we did some cutting and pasting? Strange and inappropriate sentences can appear if we do not execute extreme caution in using this technology.

Personally, I think I could still support a qualified candidate, for example, who confuses Boston College with Boston University. They are completely different institutions, of course, but they do share the same city name. Plus, Commonwealth Avenue will eventually get you to both campuses.

I would urge colleagues to think twice, though, when the cover letter, for example, is addressed to the University of Pittsburgh, yet the applicant mentions the tremendous opportunity at New Mexico State. I think some geographic range must factor into the forgiveness process, and several thousand miles would seem to exceed the limits of mercy.

Dates may also need an amnesty point. Does a search committee feel more connected with a candidate who is looking to the future (with a cover letter dated 2005) or a candidate recalling old times (a letter dated 2003)?

Candidates, however, won't be alone when the comedy-of-errors movie is written about job searches in higher education.

A friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, recently received a letter from one of the country's top public universities thanking him for submitting his CV for a vice presidency. The letter went on to tell him that the search committee was impressed with his credentials, but didn't think he had the breadth of experience they were seeking.

Instead of feeling down about his rejection, my colleague was relieved. After all, he knew he had not applied for the position mentioned in the letter, but for another one in a different department at the institution.

Two days later, he was not so happy. A second letter came from the same university, this time informing him he didn't make the cut in that job search either.

To make matters worse, he admitted, after several beers, that the letter rejecting him for the position he had never applied for was more gracious than the one he received for the job he believed he was qualified to hold.

Another colleague tells the story of getting a call from a prestigious university telling her on a Thursday that she had made the shortlist for a faculty position. She was told that several faculty members on the search committee wanted to interview her by telephone on the following Tuesday. As any good candidate would, she spent the entire weekend brushing up on the department, the faculty, and the university.

On Tuesday, at 8 a.m. sharp, a sheepish secretary called to apologize. She had read one name too far on the list. My friend had not made the shortlist. But she was incredibly well-versed on a university for which she would never work.

I'm sure all of us in higher education recognize by now that our search processes move slowly -- sometimes painfully slowly. In fact, it is a rare search -- whether for an administrative or a faculty position -- that successfully concludes in less than a semester.

So, don't fire off an application the instant you read the ad. You have plenty of time to proofread your materials and still meet the application deadline. A well-written cover letter and a terrific CV can quickly be neutralized by too many grammatical, factual, and spelling faux pas.

If nothing else, I hope this column will assist future applicants in understanding why there is no need to respond to any higher-education job opportunity as if you were facing the NBA's 24-second shot clock.

John R. Broderick is a former journalist who serves as vice president for institutional advancement at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.