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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Serving on Appointments While Retaining Your Sanity

I’ve just completed my first semester as a member of my school’s hiring committee. I’m not sure why, but I have always wanted to serve on Appointments and was very excited to be asked to do so this year. In many ways, the job was just a rewarding as I had hoped. Indeed, the task of finding new colleagues is an exciting one. However, there were also a few challenges that I did not anticipate. Below are some of the lessons I learned—lessons I share here for those who may be serving on appointments committees in the future.

1) Be as transparent as you can with the candidates – I might have also entitled this lesson “Be kind to the candidates.” It was only a few years ago that I was on the market, and I very much remember the frustration I felt with not knowing what was happening at the schools I had applied. After all, candidates have worked for years for these jobs, and they are now at a point where they are thinking of moving their entire life (not to mention the lives of their family) to your city. To put it mildly, it’s a big deal for them. Thus, the least we can do is be as transparent as possible while considering their candidacy. For each of the callback candidates who were assigned to me here at UT, I made a conscious effort to keep them in the loop (as much as I could without sharing confidential information) about the status of their candidacy. I found that the candidates greatly appreciated such honesty—even when the news was not good. And when the news is good, the fact that they’ve been treated so nicely up to that point certainly cannot hurt as you now attempt to recruit the successful candidate.

2) Do not get too attached to any one candidate – Have you ever gone into a puppy store, picked up a puppy and then instantly fell in love with it? Your friends are telling you to put the puppy down, that it taking it home doesn’t make sense, etc. However, you refuse to listen. You have to have it! For me, appointments work can be a bit like that at times. It so easy to see something in a candidate that really speaks to you and, as a result, you become quite driven to help that candidate succeed at your school. Avoid getting that attached. For one, despite the power you might have as a member of the committee, you cannot control the eventual outcome. Trying to exert such control will only make you, and those around you, crazy. Second, it’s not necessarily your job to find one candidate that you think would be great and then shepherd that person through the process. Instead, the role of the committee is to put together a rich menu of options from which the greater faculty can choose. Getting too attached to one candidate can distract you from that larger goal. At the end of the day, you are only one person.

3) Be aware of the “hallway chatter” but don’t take it too seriously too quickly – By “hallway chatter,” I mean the incessant talk about a candidate that happens (hopefully outside of the candidate’s earshot!) the day the candidate is on campus for the interview and the next few days that follow. You have all likely experienced such activity – as soon as the candidate leaves one interview, those who were conducting the interview start comparing notes. Another colleague walking down the hall hears this discussion and joins in, etc. Before you know it, the whole faculty is standing in an interview room talking about the candidate’s pros and cons. Then the candidate gives her job talk, and for the next several days, all anyone can talk about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the job talk. Multiply this phenomenon by the number of candidates your school brings back and . . . Ugh! As a member of the appointments committee, you will likely feel a need to keep your finger on the pulse of the faculty as to how well candidates are being received. After all, it is the faculty who asked you to find strong candidates, and you don’t want to let them down. Also, you want to have a sense of what is coming once you get to the faculty meeting where hiring decisions are made. However, what I learned was that the initial reactions are fairly meaningless. Why? Well, once everyone has talked it out a bit, things tend to crystallize in a way that can quite different from the initial reactions. In addition, candidate assessment ultimately seems to have more to do with how that person compares to the others in the pool, so the reaction to one candidate may ultimately be positively or negatively influenced once the other candidates have made their appearance. Finally, for any candidate, there are going to be people on your faculty who feel strongly about them and, at the same time, people on your faculty who hold less than favorable opinions. Listening to these divergent reactions while laboring under the impression that you should somehow try to harmonize them will make you crazy.

4) Take your job seriously, because you have a lot of power – Prior to serving on the appointments committee, I never really thought about all the work that must go into developing the pools of applicants. Instead, it just seemed to me that, around November, a series of people would show up and give job talks and then, in December, we’d pick a few of them to become our new colleagues. Having served on the committee, however, I now see the tremendous power that we, as a committee, wielded. After all, the committee chose the people we would interview in D.C. and via phone (for lateral candidates); the committee selected those we would extend callback interviews to; and the committee then gave recommendations, prior to the ultimate faculty vote, regarding the candidates. At each step in the process, our committee of five was making huge decisions on behalf of the greater faculty. Given then that “with great power comes great responsibility,” remember to take your task seriously. The faculty is counting on you to 1) carefully review all the applications that come in, looking for qualifications that are not merely attractive to you but will be attractive to the greater faculty; 2) carefully select those who will receive callback interviews, choosing no more than necessary to give the faculty a strong slate from which to choose; and 3) at the eventual meeting where hiring decisions are made, carefully report on each of the candidates, laying out the strengths and weaknesses as objectively as possible (i.e., without allowing your personal preferences to influence your report).

In sum, those are the four biggest lessons I took from my time on the hiring committee. I would be curious to hear what others have learned while operating in similar service.

Posted by Michael J. Higdon on December 6, 2012 at 12:11 PM | Permalink

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I wish more people acted on #1. A few years ago, when I was on the market, I would have much rather received bad news than no news at all. It cannot be that difficult to keep the interviewees at least somewhat in the loop.

Posted by: AnonLawProf | Dec 6, 2012 12:57:58 PM

Agree re 1. I am currently on the market and have to hear from half of the schools with which I interviewed at AALS. Almost time for public shaming... The lack of communication is the worst part of this process. I have much more favorable view of schools that showed the decency to reject me within a reasonable period of time than those that I know have already done callbacks and have told me nothing.

Posted by: anon | Dec 6, 2012 1:27:42 PM

It's even worse for laterals: I know of tenured professors who had looksee visits, spent a semester at a school, and then never heard from the committee again. Unfortunately, this is a real and continuing weak spot for appointments committees. So few candidates make it, and so many are rejected, that committee chairs would much rather not have to give out bad news. It is terribly rude, but unfortunately not uncommon.

Posted by: OlderProf | Dec 6, 2012 2:02:30 PM

I am all for the public shaming. Maybe PrawfsBlawg should make a "Naughty List" spreadsheet.

Posted by: Naughty List | Dec 6, 2012 2:11:50 PM

I have never served on an appointments committee, so maybe I am missing something, but the keeping people in the loop thing seems very easy. Simply tell interviewees at the meat market a hard date on which you will be in touch. Put that date on your schedule. If that date comes and you don't know anything, you send an e-mail on that date anyway saying: "you are still in the running, but the faculty has not voted, I will touch base with you on date X." You could blind copy all of the interviewees to save time. Reject the ones that fall out of the running and be clear about the next time you will touch base, even if you don't have news. This is not hard people. It amazes me how many schools don't even give a rough time frame. I realize the wheels of the academy move slowly, but you could still keep people in the loop about what is happening. Please tell me what I am missing?

Posted by: Naughty List | Dec 6, 2012 2:18:28 PM

I like the part where we candidates are like puppies. So eager and energetic and fuzzy!

Posted by: juniorminted | Dec 6, 2012 2:36:00 PM

It would be nice if schools notified unsuccessful candidates but that isn't the general practice (and therefore "shaming" would be meaningless). Most candidates who apply to a school do not get an interview. Most candidates a school meets with at AALS do not get invited for callbacks. Given those realities, the proper assumption should be that a school isn't interested unless it tells the candidate otherwise. At this point in the year in particular, it's time to face reality and move on and make other plans.

Posted by: GV | Dec 6, 2012 8:54:45 PM

GV, most schools will eventually tell you the status of your application. The fact that your school doesn't suggests that it's one that deserves to get shamed. Having served on appointments, it's amazing how many candidates who you see again later in your career. I'm guessing those treated poorly hold grudges, which probably impacts U.S. News rankings. In essence, schools that aren't transparent are shooting themselves in the foot.

Posted by: Tenured Prof | Dec 7, 2012 10:11:07 AM

Naughty List, are you too shy to inquire, or are your inquiries being ignored?

Posted by: gwen stefani | Dec 7, 2012 10:30:45 AM

Gwen: In my experience (not this year), even direct inquiries by email and/or telephone message will be directly ignored. Some people will never tell you anything, even when asked.

Posted by: anon | Dec 7, 2012 10:54:33 AM

I have done two callbacks and am, I guess, on a number of B-Lists. I recognize that the B-Lists are almost certainly dead at this point. I asked my two callback schools. One said "late November/early December" and one said "soon". The answers came in early November and in very late November, respectfully. I can guess that I am not the number one pick at either school, and I would not be offended if they just told me. But I would like a better timeline (e.g., we gave the #1 until Dec. 15 or until after the holidays).

Posted by: Naughty List | Dec 7, 2012 11:48:37 AM

I have chaired entry level and lateral appointments committees, and have moved around some as a lateral, landing at a well-ranked school. In general, I agree that candidates should be given more information and that committees do a bad job of communicating. That said, a variety of considerations go into the question of the date (or even semester) that a candidate will be voted upon. Sometimes a committee that very much supports a candidate will try to sequence/time things in a way that maximizes the generation of an offer that will be accepted, and cannot say much in advance the exact date upon which someone will hear a yes or no. And until a candidate recieves an actual "no" vote from the faculty, which is somewhat uncommon, they are technically still in play, at least a most schools. Finally, getting a "no" does not help a bit with the other schools at which you are interviewing -- and it can hurt you. Being "in play" is better, in the strategic sense, than getting dinged. This is also true for laterals who may be in play at more than one top school. I do entirely agree that direct inquiries should receive some kind of response, even if it is not as specific as the applicant would like.

Posted by: AnonProf | Dec 7, 2012 2:26:16 PM

AnonProf, I completely understand that it is difficult to impossible to give candidates a date by which decisions will be made. However, I do not think it is difficult to say, for example: "We expect to vote in early December, but things change. In any event I will update you on December 15." On December 15, if the candidate is still in play, but not the number one choice, I think most candidates would like to hear: "You are our [number 2, 3, 4] choice and we are negotiating with our number 1. I will update you on January 15." This is not difficult. You could even do it via a short e-mail. Professors are busy, but they cannot be that busy.

Posted by: Naughty List | Dec 8, 2012 9:50:13 AM

I actually agree with AnonProf. A school where you had a callback knows you had, e.g., 3 other callbacks. If they ask you for an update, better to be able to say "as far as I know I'm still in play at all 3 schools and the position hasn't yet been filled" than "2 of those 3 faculties voted no on me."

Posted by: juniorminted | Dec 8, 2012 11:20:16 AM

(Of course, I still hope and expect that if a school's offer(s) is/are accepted and hiring complete, they'll let me know. I sure don't want to tell a hiring chair I'm in play somewhere and have her think "no you're not, that offer was accepted last week.")

Posted by: juniorminted | Dec 8, 2012 11:59:33 AM

In my experience on both sides of this, a candidate who actually provides a reason why they NEED information -- like they or their spouse has an offer with a deadline, or the candidate may need to apply to fellowship if the offer does not come through, or other circumstances -- is fairly likely to get the information that they actually need.

Everyone would like to know whether they are 1, 2, or 3 on "the list" that the faculty voted, or the response deadline for other candidates, or whatever, but there seems some obvious downsides to providing that information from the perspective of the school. And if you don't have any other deadlines/offers, you honestly don't have much leverage.

Posted by: AnonProf | Dec 8, 2012 2:59:28 PM

Luckily, my school won't be able to afford new hires for several years - Faculty (not administrators).

Posted by: 36yearProf | Dec 10, 2012 4:56:35 PM

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