The Replication Error

“Dr. Incredible” announced her retirement with plenty of notice, so the department conducted a national search for a successor throughout the academic year. Her academic specialty was not particularly hard to come by, but she had been a terrific colleague and leader on the campus, a super-professor who was a mentor for dozens of students, led significant committees, and produced serious scholarship. She even had prepared baked goods for Monday mornings and had donated financially to the department to enhance faculty travel and student scholarships.

As the search committee began to review applications, it became clear that none of the candidates were the next Dr. Incredible. They were solid but not spectacular, promising but not omni-capable. Committee members began to believe that there was no way to replicate their about-to-depart colleague and said so publicly in the faculty lunchroom and in department meetings.

The department chair became frustrated by the committee’s dithering and demanded that it identify two candidates to invite for official interviews. The half-hearted response to those visitors by the department was discouraging to the finalists and maddening to the department leadership; even the students who attended the course presentations sighed, “They aren’t Dr. Incredible!”

Finally the department chair decided to ask the search committee to suspend its deliberations and allow the hiring of a visiting professor to cover the department’s needs for the coming year, with a fresh search to be undertaken in the following year. The thinking was that Dr. Incredible needed to be missed before she could be replaced, that her influence needed to be diminished before a new hire could be poised for success.

Have you ever seen a department commit the replication error of trying to replace a departmental star too quickly or too exactly? Do you think it is ever wise to limp for a year to allow a departing colleague’s magnitude to diminish before seeking a successor? What advice might you offer to a new hire who realizes that she is following in a giant’s steps?

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