With a Slew of New Hires, Lehigh U. Gets Serious About Africana Studies

These days, academic departments are more likely to lose tenure-track faculty lines, than gain new ones. So it’s pretty easy to see why getting the green light to hire not one, but multiple, professors with plans for them to work together would generate a lot of excitement.

“Cluster hiring,” as it’s called, has become an increasingly popular way for an institution to build up a critical mass of scholars in interdisciplinary research areas and in disciplines it deems important. Cluster hires also help change a department’s culture and they serve as a recruitment and retention tool for potential faculty.

James B. Peterson knows all about cluster hiring’s allure. He is the new director of the Africana-studies program at Lehigh University — an institution which is in the midst of its own cluster-hiring initiative. Mr. Peterson’s position was the first hire in what will ultimately be a four-person cluster in Lehigh’s Africana-studies program.

“When you’re part of a cluster hire, you know that your institution is serious about supporting your discipline,” said Mr. Peterson, also an associate professor of English. He came to Lehigh from Bucknell University. “That really helped close the deal for me.”

There was much discussion at Lehigh about the best way to bring groups of professors on board since the institution is so different from the much larger research universities where cluster hiring often occurs. The University of Iowa, the University of Delaware, and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, just to name a few, are places where faculty have been hired in clusters over the last year or so.

At Lehigh, faculty members submitted 19 preliminary proposals, which a faculty led-committee narrowed down to seven finalists. The finalists fleshed out their proposals and the campus community ranked them in a variety of categories, such as the scholarly impact the cluster was likely to have. In the end, Lehigh’s president and provost selected two “winners” in the spring of 2011. A proposal to hire four faculty members to study smart-grid electricity systems was approved in addition to the proposal from Africana studies. Hiring for both clusters is underway now.

Part of the idea behind faculty clusters at Lehigh was to make the most of the campus’ “interdisciplinary character,” which didn’t always carry over to the institution’s hiring process, said Patrick Farrell, Lehigh’s provost since 2009. “We wanted to see if we could get over the hurdle of thinking in a disciplinary way when we hire faculty.”

The plan is to hold the cluster proposal competition every other year. So new hiring proposals will be accepted again this fall, with hiring for the next round of approved clusters to begin in the fall of 2013. In the interim, Lehigh has made small cluster development grants available to the authors of proposals that fell short the first time around, as well as to faculty who plan to craft proposals for the upcoming competition.

Like many institutions these days, Lehigh is closely watching its bottom line. So for now, the money to make cluster hires will come from existing faculty lines that have been freed up once professors retire, Mr. Farrell says. But it’s possible that down the line, donors may pick up the tab for new faculty lines.

“The notion of hiring clusters of faculty to focus on big challenges really does seem to resonate with them,” Mr. Farrell says of donors. “They understand why we’re so excited.”

As for Mr. Peterson, he wants to convey that same excitement to potential candidates for the assistant professor job he’s currently trying to fill. The advertisement for the position, a joint appointment in Africana studies and history, notes the growth of Africana studies at Lehigh over the last three years. To complete the cluster, two more Africana-studies faculty members will be hired over the next two years, the ad says.

Mr. Peterson, who is co-chair of the search committee, called the applicant pool for the Africana-studies position “exceptional.” The new hire will start work in the fall of 2012.

“This is really an exciting career moment for me,” Mr. Peterson said. “I don’t think people have associated Lehigh University with Africana studies and they’ll have to do that in the future.”

For those of you on the market now, does the possibility of being a part of a cluster hire excite you and why? And if you’ve joined an institution as part of a cluster hire, how is it working out?

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