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.