So, What's the Inside Scoop?

March 02, 2004

The voice on the other end of the telephone was familiar, but I couldn't quite conjure an accompanying name or face.

"So ... what's the inside scoop on the position?"

I stammered, "Uh, excuse me?"

"This is Jim -- from the convention. You have an opening in your department. Think I should apply?"

Vague memories surfaced of a brief conversation at a conference earlier that summer. It had been my first conference as a new assistant professor. I recall walking by the job postings and the interview room with a certain frisson of condescension: Poor blighters. I now had a job. What I didn't know was that once fully employed, I would have to learn to navigate the hiring process from the other side of the table. And not just when I was on a search committee.

Now, nearly a decade later, I've only just come to terms with the quandary of what to do when a friend, an acquaintance, or a fellow I met once on an airplane calls and asks for "inside" knowledge about a search in the communications school where I teach. What should I tell them? What shouldn't I tell? Are there ethical issues that collide, such as loyalty to my school and what's best for the program versus friendship or politeness?

In Jim's case (a pseudonym, as are the other names mentioned here), I had a simple answer: "I have no idea. I haven't read the announcement."

Jim wasn't satisfied. "Could you dig around for me?"

I tried. I asked my dean and the search-committee chairman about the position. They didn't have much to say besides what was on the announcement. I called Jim. He persisted, "Sure, but what do they really want?"

I felt like a movie gangster being asked, "So, tell me, who's the guy behind the guy?" But I had no gnostic wisdom about the opening.

The dominoes of dissatisfaction tumbled. Jim applied for the job. He did not make the shortlist. He called me and wanted to know why. Again, I didn't know. The search committee simply had not recommended him to the faculty.

Stupidly, I asked a committee member why my "friend" Jim was not picked. I got an answer, then compounded my foolishness by telling Jim the truth. I thought I was being helpful: items to tweak on his CV, hints to tighten that letter, and so on.

Jim became testy. He closed the conversation (our last to this day) by saying sardonically, "Thanks for helping me out!"

I had learned lesson one. I vowed that in the future I would plead ignorance if called by total, or near, strangers to get the inside scoop. It could have been worse, of course. I had been a fool, but not an outright scoundrel. A department head once told me about a disgruntled faculty member who would call prospective hirees and make up horror tales about the program.

I would never intervene so directly like that.

Then my long-time friend Susan applied for a job in our school. I had no trouble in mustering the energy to boost her candidacy by all means necessary. I was not on the search committee, but I did find out as many details as I could about what we were looking for, and I gave Susan a whole series of talking points about our school as well as profiles of individual faculty members on the committee. I also lobbied hard in the hallways and via e-mail on her behalf.

She did not make the final cut. The chairman of the search committee sheepishly told me so in person. He felt bad; I was incensed. But, suddenly, the clouds parted and I realized that my support for Susan was based less on her CV and talents as a scholar and teacher than on the fact that she was my grad-school buddy.

Worse, I had put the committee and my fellow faculty members in an awkward position. My enthusiasm made them feel that rejecting her was like rejecting me. I wouldn't have appreciated being at the receiving end of such collegial blackmail.

I had learned another lesson. You can suggest and recommend, but don't try to force a decision on your colleagues. It helps no one -- least of all the friend who has the taint of favoritism tacked on to his or her application.

Luckily, the seasoned and good-humored search chairman just chuckled at my mortification. "Oh, we've all done it. But you know we had to pick the candidate who we thought was actually the best."

In other words, being a professor means that you have loyalties beyond that of the personal: The good of the school and the students counts more.

Then there was Tom. He was another friend who applied for a position in our school. He was first-rate and a good fit -- or so I thought. I gave Tom advice about how to focus his letter. But Tom did not get invited for an interview. I later learned that many other faculty members saw the position quite differently than I did. I honestly think the person we hired would have ended up besting Tom anyway, but I had falsely assumed that a position opening was a static, easily definable quantity. Instead, the process evolves, and faculty members may disagree on the "perfect" candidate.

Another cautionary dictum: Insider knowledge may be as off-base as outsider ignorance. The best advice you can give to a friend applying for a position: Be yourself.

Finally, now that I have experience leading and serving on search committees, I believe that there is an ethical and administrative argument to make on behalf of noninterference, or at least nonintervention, in searches.

Search committees are not assisted by gossip, spying, raucous lobbying, feeding information -- or worse, disinformation. Even answering basic questions like "Where are you in the search?" might be problematic, either undercutting or handicapping what the search committee is planning, or has done.

So I try to be candid and polite and even cautiously helpful -- but I also try to respect the integrity of the search process. That's the theory, anyway.

I recently applied for a deanship at another institution. I found myself calling my friend Luke who is on the faculty there and asking, "So, what's the inside scoop? What are they looking for?"

His answer was a disappointingly brief but straightforward one: "To be honest, there are different views on what kind of person would fit the best."

He was right. I ended up visiting for an interview, and it was obvious that there was no consensus among the committee members on the CV or personality to fit their needs. Any "insider tips" my friend might have given me would have been misleading. I didn't get the job, but Luke and I are still friends.

David D. Perlmutter is a senior fellow at Louisiana State University's Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs and an associate professor of mass communication.