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Lessons From a Search

Last time I discussed a key lesson I learned in my first department-chair job about the importance of seeing the whole institutional picture rather than merely advocating for one’s own department. This time I want to talk about hiring and the various roles the department chair and the academic vice president/dean may have. (I wrote about this  indirectly in an earlier entry.)

My first institution was characterized by that generational turnover in the faculty that everyone was talking about when I was in college and graduate school in the 80s and early 90s but that actually didn’t happen at a lot of places. I started there in 1990, and as of about seven years ago I would have been the senior member of the six-person department. Thus, for the couple of years before I arrived and for the 10 years I was there, we did a great deal of hiring after a long period of relative stasis on the faculty. We did a lot of searches, both in my department and across campus, so my colleagues and I saw a lot of candidates, got to know the market well, and developed a pretty good sense of what we were looking for, though of course our hires didn’t always work out as we planned.

Toward the end of my time there, we undertook a search to fill a position that had had a couple of people in it, neither of whom had stayed very long. We had an outstanding pool, so good that we persuaded the dean to allow us to bring four (rather than the customary two or three) candidates to campus, which of course was going to take more than two weeks to accomplish.

Our first candidate was someone who impressed us in interviews both at the MLA convention and on campus. She was a strong candidate, interesting, and had a lot to offer. However, it was also clear that she was not quite the right “fit” for us in the sense that her academic interests and teaching plans were not in line with the position we had open. This was one of those situations in which a marvelous candidate was clearly not ideal for what we needed, and we agreed immediately that she probably would not get the offer unless the other three candidates were truly weak.

A few days after her campus visit, she called me to tell me that she’d gotten another good offer, which didn’t surprise me at all. It was at a larger institution in another region of the country, and as it turned out they had made an offer to her spouse as well. (We had not discussed her personal situation at all when she was on campus and didn’t even know she had a spouse—she thanked me for the fact that we had not asked her about it.)

As I talked to her, it became clear that the other offer was the right job for her and her spouse. (This has been borne out by the fact that she is still there.) I also knew that while we all really liked her, we had reservations about her rightness for our position. So I wished her well and advised her to take the job.

I then called the dean of the college, who was quite angry that I had done so. He told me that he always wanted to speak to candidates in this kind of circumstance, and that I should have referred her to him. I don’t know whether he wanted to try to talk her out of it, or find out more about why she was interested in the other job, or what, but it was clear to me that in his mind I had violated some kind of unwritten protocol about how we were supposed to conduct candidate relations.

Now that I am well into my time in a comparable role at another institution, I have, I think, more insight. First of all, I would still defend my conversation with the candidate on several bases. I knew that she was not going to be the department’s first choice, except under extraordinary circumstances. I had been the candidate’s primary contact throughout the search process and was the logical person for her to turn to for official advice from our side.

I also thought, as I still do and have advocated here, that the home department or school really has to be the primary source of the hiring decision, since the colleagues there are the ones who will have to work with the new person and who are most aware of the specific program needs that are driving the hire. On the other hand, the dean of the college—or, in my current case, the vice president for academic affairs—is the primary hiring authority for faculty members, and has the structural right to oversee hiring, a fact I did not dispute then and certainly don’t now. However, there’s an effective way to wield that right, and I remain unconvinced that my former dean’s was the best way in that specific combination of circumstances.

I had a great talk with the candidate, and was frankly more interested in her success and that of my department than I was in, for example, trying to hold her candidacy open for us when we already knew the most likely outcome would not be to offer her the position. I knew why she was interested in the other job, and that there was nothing we could do to match the conditions she liked there. Our connection with the candidate was positive, honorable, and painless, which, I think, is about as good as you can get.

And the person we hired is still in place, and is now an effective campus leader.

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