Saturday, July 31, 2010

can you start in three weeks?

Or how things go awry in the final hours of a faculty search.

This post was inspired by a recent turn of events in the job-hunting adventures of Rented Life. You can read more about them here and here. I’ll begin by saying that I have no idea what was really going on with the positions for which she had applied months earlier, and then received eleventh hour calls. But I do know that there are many occasions in which a department or a search committee is blamed for circumstances that really have more to do with a dean or a candidate, than with an incompetent or disorganized committee (although there are plenty of those to be found and factored into the mix). The examples I offer below are based on incidents that have happened at my institution—a regional, comprehensive university, and part of a statewide system notorious for the fact that the standard teaching load (in its most uncreative and bare-bones manifestation¹) is a 4/4. That latter fact tends to figure (hugely) into the faculty recruitment issues we experience (no surprises, there). But, similar scenarios can happen just about anywhere—based upon different quality of life/work issues—and with perhaps slightly different outcomes and options for salvaging a search that seems to fizzle out or blow up in the final stage. Academic job wikis have gone a long way toward demystifying some aspects of the hiring process. More importantly, they serve as a public venue for disseminating what might otherwise be thought of as corridor talk about the stage to which a search has seemingly progressed--something that committee members are often procedurally unable to divulge. But here are some examples of things that you do not see posted on them.

Top ranked candidate receives initial job offer in early March and begins negotiation process. Three-weeks into that seemingly positive process, she finds out that the position for which she was second-ranked (at institution with much better teaching load and research support) has lost its top-ranked candidate, so she receives job offer from first-choice institution, but continues stringing first-offer institution along until she determines if she’ll get the deal she wants from first choice—which let’s just say (because it is entirely realistic) hinges on a spousal hire. First-offer search committee chair and dean watch the days tick by and finally decide they must have a decision by x date and notify the candidate, who waffles until the last possible minute, when first-choice institution (having been duly notified of a counter-offer and deadline) finally gets back with the desired deal. Search committee then goes to second-ranked candidate who is interested, but has an interview coming up at another institution. Can he get back to the committee in three weeks when he finds out whether or not he’ll make that short list? Maybe yes, and all goes well.  More likely, the committee says no we aren't going to be strung along again, the candidate wasn’t all that exciting and time is wasting--Move along the list or we may land exactly no one. Go to third-ranked candidate. No luck there—she has already taken another position.

Or, let’s just say she (third-ranked candidate) expresses interest. It is now late April because top-ranked candidate bled as much time as possible out of the negotiation process, and the second-ranked candidate was given a couple weeks to get back to us, but waited till the deadline to back out. So here is how candidate three might play it “Yes, I’m very interested, when do I have to let you know?” Dean gives her 10 days to consider offer. At end of 10 days she phones dean to negotiate some aspect—say salary or course release time—or a delay of start time by one semester or year so that she can take prestigious post-doc. Salary and release time negotiations are one thing, post-doc delay is another. Let’s say the latter is up for discussion. Dean presents this option to the search committee, which considers its options, agrees to the deal, and then come next March, surprise, surprise, the new-hire calls to announce that she has accepted a TT position at post-doc (or other) institution. Now, the department isn’t truly all that surprised to hear this, since they had noticed the job ad with her specialization written all over it. But her contract was in place and not ours to break (this actually happened to a department on my campus quite recently, but I’m sure it has happened manifold times here and elsewhere).

If the department is lucky and the line can be reopened (multiple budgetary issues here) at that eleventh hour (say, a late April application deadline, May review, June interviews), it may well find itself in a similar position to the first scenario I recounted, bringing three or four candidates to campus for interviews in July, only to have their top-ranked candidates turn them down after otherwise seemingly positive salary negotiations. It may even be that they have no other job in hand, but the course load is heavy, after all, and perhaps the candidates' advisors are of the “go do the interview, it’ll be good experience” sort—“but do NOT take a job there, it will be a sure-fire career-killer." This is something with which every candidate who has accepted or been offered a job at a teaching institution struggles. Heavy course loads do not facilitate scholarship—which is nonetheless factored into tenure and the only sure way out of a teaching institution—if one can do it very, very quickly, before the sparkle of “promise” fades into a different patina under the burden of a 4/4, service on umpteen committees, and the morale-withering strain of higher and higher course caps and a crappy state budget. And let’s face it, there isn’t a doctoral advisor on the face of the planet who aims to place her students at a teaching institution. Period. There may be advisors who recognize the limits of their student’s scholarly potential—but most advisors worth their salt are going to advise their students to aim for an R1, or at the very least, a respectable SLAC with a lighter teaching load. So, who can be surprised when candidates drop out at the eleventh hour, of an eleventh hour search and the committee, now afraid the position will be lost entirely, goes back (with approvals from HR et al.) to the long list candidates to constitute a “new” short-list. Or if they were smart—they may have originally ranked more than 3 candidates, and must now set about bringing that next suite of candidates to campus for interviews. In this scenario, a search committee chair would not likely divulge to candidates ranked 4, 5 and 6, that they’d already been through a short-list and come up empty-handed (although wikis can be useful sources of information here). Who wants to hear that three candidates have already turned down a position? At the same time, in this crappy job market, being ranked at all (even on a long-list) is something to celebrate. Especially in some fields that regularly attract several hundred applicants for every single position.²

Here is another scenario. Candidate one gets job offer in late April, negotiates till the cows come home, finally takes the job (as in signs the contract—thereby activating the process by which all other candidates and applicants are thanked for their interest and notified that the search has come to a successful conclusion), and then new hire calls in late June to announce that he or she isn’t coming after all.  Second-ranked candidate had already accepted another job, third-ranked candidate was unavailable for other reasons. Here, the possibilities for re-activating the files to reconstitute a pool and new short list are procedurally too complicated. Position is lost for years. Years.

I could go on like this for pages without having to invent a single story, but let me offer one final instance of how things go awry for reasons that have nothing to do with the search committee. Unanimous decision by hiring committee to rank trailing spouse (of quite a few years and in an entirely different field and division from wife) as top candidate for new position. Committee notifies candidate of ranking and forwards decision to dean, who then refuses to offer the candidate the position based (supposedly) upon his own interest in cultivating his division’s teacher-ly versus scholarly strengths (the realm of candidate’s greatest expertise). I won’t name the field, but Newton comes to mind. Huge outcry on part of department results in death of position. That administrator is long retired, and the candidate (somewhat ironically) is tenured at a local CC, where he is paid substantially better than he would have been at my institution (CCs in my state are nothing like their counterparts in the state where I earned my degrees). I think for the most part, deans are very accommodating of search committees and lines that they have bothered to support up to the point of making an offer, but they, too, play a role in how hiring time lines play out. In my university, it is deans who negotiate salaries and contracts and I’m sure it can be really difficult to discern the distance between candidates who are sincere and likely to come with the right mix of salary and support (and truly need time to consider impacts on spouses and children and themselves) and those who want your offer to simmer on the back burner where they can use it to negotiate a superior offer at a better institution and have absolutely no intention of actually taking (or staying) at the institution. And, who can blame them, really? But it does screw with the process and other candidates and the department, more generally.³ There are loser search committees to be sure, but candidates also have the potential to foul up the search process and the opportunities that may come the way of interested and deserving candidates.

¹Many campuses and departments manage to ease the 4/4 load through a college/division-specific calculus that awards release time to professors who teach sections that are something beyond a double-load (often triple, in fact). Of course, there are rarely graders and small discussion sections to go with those. Another post altogether.  

²Next week, a post on why some of these applications are superfluous and destined to go nowhere.

³I know many faculty (more senior, especially) who have been so "burned” by the hiring process and candidates who would rather stab themselves in the eye than actually teach at a teaching institution (but nonetheless apply for and feign interest in offers from them), that they now tend to shoot for the middle of the barrel when ranking candidates for on campus interviews. This is certainly not a good thing, but it is yet another outcome of the side of hiring that relates more to candidates than to search committee efforts.


Anastasia said...

I'm not sure I'm happy with the way this seems to denigrate candidates who look out for their own interests. With the exception of the candidate who deferred the start date and then didn't take the job, I don't see a problem, even with candidates who ask for time to make their decision and then are granted that time. I don't think that's stringing a department along unless the candidate is being disingenuous in some way and has no intention of taking the job under any circumstance. And that would require you to have more information about the candidate than you do, wouldn't it?

auto ethnographer said...

I'm not denigrating candidates (I think I demonstrate enough understanding of where candidates stand in the process and what is at stake--at least I hope I do). I'm trying to address a single issue: the timeline that looks last minute and gets blamed on the search committee, when in truth, the search committee (and/or [in the case of my setting] a dean) may simply have extended TOO much time to a candidate (or series of candidates) they really wanted to court, but in the end, were unable to--thus resulting in what may appear to other (later-coming candidates) to be bad timing on the part of committee. It becomes a frustrating situation for all. How to fix it? One week or 10 days to accept and complete all negotiations would "save" a timeline from slipping into the late spring and summer, but it wouldn't be fair to candidates either. This is why it is a more difficult process to recruit and land candidates than we sometimes recognize. Sometimes it appears that a committee cannot get its act together, when that may be anything but the case. And sometimes it has nothing to do with actions of the search committee--rather, the ball is in the court of deans and candidates.

rented life said...

From my own experiences: I've been applying solely to CC jobs (this is due to the nature of my field) and it seems fairly "normal", however insane, to post searching for Fall-start jobs in Spring. As early as January, as late as 2 weeks before the job starts. 2/3 places that called me were not re-posts (the 3rd was, and I know the problem that happened there. Basically the TT line turned into a 1 yr line due to budget cuts.)

Of the other 2 jobs-both new searches, 1 had no explanation other that "well it's hard to get a committee to meet. Having served on a number of committees, including the campus' most active one, I hated this response. Whether or not other things were going on I'll never know.

The other job-he flat out said, that they have known they wanted to hire for awhile but the state loops they have to jump through are insane, thus the delay. He was upfront, apologetic even, about this. While I understand--some states have more red tape, he was newer to his position himself so this whole process was new, etc, it still doesn't seem fair to the candidate, especially those with families to uproot. (or for me, a husband in college.)

The last academic job I took was precisely because the person who was supposed to be there backed out last second. end of June I believe. I could feel the desperation during the interview and again when the dean called (every day until I accepted even though he agreed to let me finish an interview at another school before I decided.) So I get it. The same school recently had trouble replacing a line because they waited too long for candidate one, got mad that he took the job that paid better and was frustrated that candidate 2 hesitated to move her husband (who was finishing his degree elsewhere. No, not me!)

I wasn't trying to blame the search committee directly--rather I am concerned about everyone who is involved in this process. Committee, Dean, etc could all consider changes (on many of those forums they even state as much) but they don't. I'm insanely frustrated with the process, but those the recent schools I was angry at how poorly they reacted that I didn't just jump up and down and say "yeah, I'll pay to fly myself down there, pay for a hotel room, interview, wait a week and then hopefully get a response with in 1-2 weeks of school starting. And move in that time." Because these weren't re-posting of positions, and because I have to pay for every single interview, I just feel over stretched. (yeah, that's right, CC's are NOT reimbursing anyone. I've been to enough all over the East Coast to know.)

sorry that was a long comment. Oh yeah, CC's have a 5/5 load.

rented life said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rented life said...

sorry I deleted the other comment because it was the same as the first-I didn't realize it posted because I was told it was "too large to process."

auto ethnographer said...

Thanks, Rented Life--I never saw/interpreted your posts as blaming the search committees/dept. (but this happens all the time--sometimes appropriately--on blogs and wikis)--more as reflections of the frustration and irony of timing. I actually read your posts with lots of sympathy for you, but also/even for the search committee/department. Although your situtations (calls) were different, I was immediately reminded of searches that could look like the ones you were having to navigate (altho I'll admit that I've never heard of a 3 week lead-time/last ditch effort), so the inspiration for the post was about crappy timing and how it is tough to know what has brought the search to that point. I wanted to offer a perspective from my little corner of the world and side of the equation that might be helpful (?) to some candidates who get late calls and have to assess their value/potential (or how that might or might not reflect on the overall quality of the institution calling them). I'm constantly learning things from experience that never, ever occurred to me when I was looking at the same process from a different angle (or as a stakeholder on the other side). On the 5/5 load--I have friends at CCs who manage them pretty well (and I'm truly envious of their better salaries!); and at my place, we get and land lots of great candidates despite our 4/4. Thank god--because having decent colleagues is hugely important to the quality of departmental life.

rented life said...

I did 7 classes one semester (between 2 schools) so 5/5 didn't scare me much. In fact, where I was at there was the opportunity for "over time" (5 instead of 4) so much that I often taught 5. But a lot of people find it scary.

I think it is helpful to know about different situations that might cause a search committee's actions-so thank you! I had sympathy for search commmittees, (most of them) despite this whole frustrating year because I know that they have to make a tough decision--finding someone that they will hopefully want to work with for the long haul, will be good for the department, and deal with the BS that has to get done to hire said person. Even the place that hired me--which happend a day after my 2nd interview-I remember thinking "boy I don't know how they make these decisions." Because frankly so many people could give really good answers to these stock questions. Then what?

auto ethnographer said...

Good question. We have candidates give talks (sometimes/departments--both a teaching presentation and a research presentation), take them for a couple meals (a seriously valuable venue for the two parties learning more about each other), have them meet with students, and of course--have their statement of interest in the position, CV, representative pubs (usually), and letters of recommendation. We also call those referees; every referee responds to the same set of questions (but again, very interesting what one learns about candidates). So it is a mix of factors, for sure.

rented life said...

Not one single school--I applied to well over a hundred and interview at about 7? called my references. Not even the place I was a finalist for. Seeing that told me exactly how a former colleague didn't get weeded out of the process. It was clear to me from the get go he was a bad fit and he had a lot of problems, but my former department didn't check any of the references, stating afterward they felt lied to by the candidate and wished they had checked the references. Um, hiring a new co-worker is a big deal, you'd think you'd want to call? At least call the references for your final few candidates to be sure.

auto ethnographer said...

Calling referees is somewhat idiosyncratic to my insitution, I suspect. And it is a pain, for sure, but it can provide critical information if one crafts good questions. For instance, questions related to collegiality are fairly productive. I think the practice of calling evolved out of a few cases of misrepresentation back in the day on one or another campus. It happens.