Oped

Best practices

  • In the US, stakeholders fiercely defend their right to vote and reject attempts to encroach upon their rights
- Pramod Mishra

Mar 31, 2016-

This past year, I had the opportunity to co-chair my department’s search committee for a tenure-track full-time hire.  Although I had served on search committees both within my department as a member and outside my department as an external member, this was the first time I had a leading role with the chair of my department to run the process.  Even before that in my quarter-century experience in the  United States academia, I had seen presidents being hired in two institutions of higher education—one liberal arts college and one research university.  Coincidentally, even as I was co-chairing my department’s search committee to hire a new faculty, my university was involved in hiring a new president to replace a highly respected, universally loved La Sallian monk who had served the university for the last 28 years and taken it through many landmarks, leaving an indelible mark on the campus.  And, of course, by now I have myself gone on the job market more than once and received jobs, tenure, lost tenure and once again received one.  So, I have been on both sides of the hiring process.

The long process

What has struck me about the process is its democratic nature and the play of multiple variables. At each stage, from the constitution of the search committee and job description to the final offer of a job to the candidate, multiple constituencies and stakeholders get involved, even though a chair of a department for departmental hire, or the provost or president for administrative hire plays a crucial role in constituting the hiring committee.  

Once the budget committee of the university comprising elected faculty members approves the request by a department chair upon discussion and voting within the department, and the dean and the provost approve the line, the chair of the department drafts the job description for the new hire and circulates it among department faculty for feedback, revision and editing.  The chair then sends

the finalised job description to the HR (Human Resources Office), which advertises the job in national outlets, such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and MLA Job Information List (the latter for language and literature hires).   

In the meantime, the chair of the department in consultation with the dean finalises the composition of the search committee, comprising diverse members of the department, one or two external members from other departments and a representative from the dean’s office as an ex-officio member.  Applicants apply online these days by uploading their job letters, curriculum vitae, teaching philosophy and in many cases even letters of recommendation and transcripts.  Thus, for one job we received 147 applications this year.  

The members of the committee sift through the list, dividing work among themselves, determining some criteria to whittle down the list. We decided that we would choose applicants who had a PhD in hand rather than ABDs (All But Dissertation) and who had a focus in their course work, teaching and research in the area that we had need for. That brought the list down to 40. We employed further rigour by closely reading the credentials for tone, details and experience, and brought the list down to 15 and from 15 to 10.  All through this process, the members of the committee vigorously debated the strengths and weaknesses of the applicants and reached a consensus.  We interviewed the 10 on the phone, asking questions about various aspects of the candidates’ profile—teaching, research and service—and their suitability for our institution. While our departmental search was going on, the presidential search, too, was in full swing. The presidential search committee comprised representatives from each constituency of the university—faculty, administrators, student, and members of the Board of Trustees.  

After the phone interviews, we brought down the list to four candidates whom we invited for a campus visit. Each of the four candidates came at our university’s expense on separate dates. We took them to dinner, had breakfast and lunch with them, arranged open sessions with students and faculty and teaching demonstrations, which were evaluated by both faculty and students. The presidential candidates, too, came, escorted by the members of the search committee. They spoke to the faculty and staff separately, each candidate on two different occasions.  

After the campus visits, we held our final search committee meeting with all the feedback from faculty and students and discussed extensively and ranked the candidates by voting.  Then we sent our ranking, outlining each finalist’s strengths and what each would bring to us. With the dean’s and the provost’s approval, the HR then made an offer to the candidate.  In the presidential search, the entire faculty voted, and the Board of Trustees made the final decision and offered the job to the best candidate.  

Demoractic will

This is more or less the process used everywhere in the United States for hiring faculty and administrators. Where faculty will is ignored (and this has happened sometimes), controversies and protests have taken place. But in this process of wide consultation and voting, personal bias or authoritarianism is minimised and the candidate chosen has wide support, trust and goodwill.

Even if a committee member exhibits his or her conscious or unconscious bias, other members neutralise it by offering counter arguments. Even judges, sheriffs, district attorneys, and not just legislators, are elected by public vote. The stakeholders fiercely defend their right to vote and reject any attempt to encroach upon their rights. No doubt there are checks, and the democratic will ultimately prevails.

Published: 01-04-2016 16:13

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