Putting Together the Search Committee

In a previous post, I asked why it’s apparently so difficult to manage a smooth faculty search that treats candidates with at least a modicum of respect and humanity. A good search committee, and particularly a good chair, can do a great deal to ensure that a search is conducted professionally and thoughtfully.

The challenge, of course, is to assemble a good committee, and that’s not easy. You need several faculty members who are reasonable amd willing to be at least a little flexible. They must have a strong sense of fairness and of program needs, as well as a good idea of what constitutes “excellence” in their particular institutional context. Judging from the comments to my previous entry, some departments cannot seem to assemble such a group, at least not consistently.

One of the best comments I’ve ever heard about hiring came from an employment lawyer, who said that “A” people will do their best to hire candidates who are as good, or better, than they are, while “B” and “C” people will almost always do their best to hire candidates who are not as good. If that comment is true — and, on balance, I think it probably is — it explains a lot about the rush to mediocrity that is so often described in discussions of academic searches.

The trick is to populate your search committees with “A” people who will not be threatened by candidates who appear potentially stronger than the committee members. The process can work well when an institution that is trying to raise its scholarly profile successfully encourages faculty members who were hired under a very different set of priorities, to not only pursue, but welcome, new faculty members who have much more aggressive research agendas.

A search committee should be composed of people who recognize that the most credit comes to them and their programs from hiring the strongest candidate, rather than the one who won’t challenge them. So what can we do to make sure that happens?

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