The Price of Indifference

May 17, 2005

Junior scholars devote an inordinate amount of time and energy to scrutinizing the job-search process. We seek out advice from all corners on how to write the ideal cover letter, how to compose the perfect CV, how to design vaguely defined items like "teaching portfolios," "statements of teaching philosophy," and -- my personal favorite -- "dossiers."

If we're lucky enough to garner a few conference interviews or, even better, an elusive campus visit, we're plied with sage counsel about what to wear, what to say, how to deliver a cracker-jack job talk, how to navigate meetings with deans and provosts, and even how to share a meal with the search committee (as though we've never before eaten with real people, at real restaurants, with real linen napkins).

In a tight labor market, with dozens of qualified candidates eager to fill each vacant position, our scrutiny rarely turns to the search committees. But maybe it should on occasion. If the burden of proof falls on the job candidate, it's worth remembering that the host institution is also on display during the search process.

We job hunters are often desperate. But there are limits to our desperation. That is why I just turned down a job.

I'm fortunate to hold a tenure-track position at a large, prestigious research university in England. My chances at tenure are strong -- we don't tend to chew up and spit out our untenured faculty members here -- and I enjoy working with my students and colleagues.

Still, when a job popped up at a Large Metropolitan University in my old hometown, I eagerly threw my hat into the ring. Both my wife and I would be very happy to move back home, where our friends and family are clustered. We haven't put down firm roots in our new city. And we've always imagined that we'll return at some point to the place we know and love best. All in all, it seemed like a perfect fit.

After clearing two initial rounds, I was invited for a campus visit. The committee chairman informed me that there were only four finalists, and no inside candidate. I'd be expected to deliver an informal job talk, teach an undergraduate class, and discuss my current and future research.

As experience has taught me that more candidates tank their job talks than ace them, and as I tend to work well under pressure, I figured that my odds were a little better than one-in-four.

From my end, the day went off without a hitch. I nailed my sample teaching hour, thanks mostly to a classroom full of very smart, courteous, and challenging students who made every effort to engage with material they hadn't worked with before.

The committee seemed interested in -- and convinced of -- my research. And I managed to get through the day without any real gaffes in presentation or content.

In short, it was one of those rare occasions when everything just seems to fall in place. Nevertheless, as I walked away from the campus, I knew I'd never accept the job, if it were offered.

As individuals, the members of the search committee were attentive and kind. But as a committee -- and as representatives of their department -- they performed dismally. They exhibited zero flexibility and made little attempt to plug their own institution.

The committee members repeatedly warned me that their students were not as academically equipped as my current students, and that I'd have a terrible time adjusting to a new caliber of teaching. (My experience with the sample class I taught actually led me to believe that they were underselling their own students.) By the fifth time they had so alerted me, I began to wonder whether they had already settled on a candidate and were trying to get me to withdraw my candidacy.

They made it clear that they expected a strong record of publication, even as the university demanded a heavy teaching load (four classes the first semester, three the second) without any provisions -- ever -- for paid sabbaticals or for graduate teaching assistants.

They explained without embarrassment that faculty members shared work space -- three professors to an office.

When I asked about the possibility of early tenure (I expect my first two books to be published over the next 24 months), the committee members dismissed the idea out of hand.

I inquired gently about the possibility of deferring a prospective job offer for a year, as I'd like to exercise the research sabbatical I have coming to me at my current job. No, they replied; they needed someone for the fall, and it was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

All throughout, I tried to keep an open mind. Many of the disappointing revelations were clearly the product of institutional constraints well beyond the control of individual faculty members.

But while I was expected to sing for my supper, the department made little or no effort to woo me. There was, in fact, quite literally, no supper. Or lunch. At one point during the day, the chairman handed me a prewrapped sandwich from the student cafeteria, served on a paper plate. I was allowed to feast on this meal -- two pieces of cold, white bread, concealing a thin layer of stale turkey and a piece of American cheese -- while the committee members, who were not eating, plied me with more questions about myself.

Later, on the campus tour, the chairman made a point of showing me the faculty dining room and telling me how good the food was there. I wondered at that point whether the entire day was a test pilot for a new run of Candid Camera. (They had spent considerable money on plane tickets and hotel rooms. Were lunch or dinner going to break the bank?)

My meeting with the dean was even worse. By my recollection, I never got a word in. Bringing new definition to the idea of self-absorption, the dean talked at great length about herself, about the university, and about the very demanding standards -- teaching, research, and committee work -- that untenured faculty members were expected to meet. Not once did she ask about my research, give me an opportunity to ask my own questions, or make a concerted pitch for her institution.

Thirty minutes into the "meeting," I zoned out. Could I make an earlier flight home if the meeting went short? I wondered if I'd have time to grab a hamburger at the airport.

All in all it was an unimpressive day. I left dispirited, and hungry.

I also figured that, however well I performed at my sample teaching and job talks, I hadn't masked my disappointment too well. So it was a complete surprise when, last week, the chairman of the committee called to offer me the job. Granted, I wasn't going to take it. But the chairman even managed to botch the final sell.

Here are the terms of the offer, he told me. "This isn't a negotiation." Take it or leave it.

Wow. And it will be great to work with you, too!

If the second-choice candidate should accept Large Metropolitan's offer, I'm sure he or she will prove an able and enthusiastic member of the department. Let's face it: I'm not God's gift to academe. There are a lot of other qualified candidates for the job.

Maybe, then, in the end, Large Metropolitan University got it right. It's a tight job market, and they don't have to impress anyone. They have a precious commodity at their disposal -- a tenure-track job.

But, still, they didn't get their first choice, and if they don't change their modus operandi, other candidates will turn them down in the future, too.

Even in the world of academic employment, what comes around does occasionally go around. Search committees might remember that there is a price, however small, to be paid for indifference.

Henry Raymond is the pseudonym of an American Ph.D. in history who holds a tenure-track position at a large research institution in England.