September 09, 2003

Academic Hiring: An Ethical Dilemma

Joseph Duemer posts about an ethical dilemma in hiring:

Your division hasn't hired a tenure-track line for four years & those hires were to replace someone who resigned & someone who was denied tenure; you have been making up the slack with adjunct faculty & 'visiting' full-time faculty. In fact, demand for electives is at a fifteen-year high. Class sizes are ballooning....

...Okay, now imagine that the incoming president--a respected civil engineer who has risen through the ranks at your institution, beating out two outside finalists for the job--has authorized searches for two tenure-track positions. You need someone who can do the ancient world outside of Greece & you need a political philosopher, preferably with an interest in Science Studies. It also happens that you have two long-time 'visiting' faculty members who have been meeting these needs for a number of years. They are both strong & popular teachers, one with an Ivy League PhD & one with a SUNY research university degree. The voting faculty of the division is on record as supporting the conversion of these two faculty members to the tenure track without a search, but both the outgoing & incoming presidents have refused to go along.

You & your colleagues are being asked to run national searches for the two positions. And while everyone from the president on down to the interim associate dean is telling you that you cannot run a phony search, you have also been told that if your internal candidates wind up among the finalists that you do not have to bring anyone else to campus for interviews & can offer the jobs to your internal candidates.

The fact that the incoming president was an internal candidate is a nice touch.

So if support for the internal candidates is strong enough, then the search ends up a phony: they will go through the motions, but without bringing in external candidates to interview. This is obviously unfair to the external applicants. And it's the type of practice that contributes to the perception that academic hiring is an inside game.

On the other hand, if they are seduced by the novelty of the unknown quantities and drop the internal candidates from their short list, then two people who have already proven their worth are tossed aside like old shoes. And the case becomes another example of the barriers to moving from the contingent to the tenure track. Of course, if we were talking about some other kind of employment market, we would point out that there's nothing to stop these two from applying for tenure-track jobs at other institutions. But this is the academy, where the distinction between tenurable and nontenurable increasingly functions like an old regime division between noble and commoner: if these two have been teaching as "visiting" professors for more than a couple of years, then they will be stigmatized as second-rate on the academic job market, and this no matter how impressive their publication and teaching records.

What if they dropped the plan of not bringing in external candidates if the internal candidates make it to the short list? In formal terms, this is the only ethical solution: if you're going to conduct a search, you conduct it properly. In practical terms, if hiring the internals is all but a done deal, then this would be even more unfair to the other finalists: better to be rejected early on in the process than to have one's hopes and expectations raised by a campus interview that is actually a fake.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at September 9, 2003 09:31 AM

At my institution, anyway, "diversity" would require an external search, unless the internal candidates were "diverse", in which case it would mandate their immediate hiring. The professional association of my discipline, I believe, would demand this, as well, and federal laws might equally apply.

Posted by: Lucy S. at September 9, 2003 09:38 AM

It's interesting that these questions of diversity and national search often only apply when looking for tenure-line hires, isn't it? Adjunct positions, meanwhile, can often be filled by a call to a colleague -- do you know anyone who can teach this course at short notice? -- at least in my own experience.

Posted by: Rana at September 9, 2003 11:11 AM

I've posted on this. The position in which I teach (please note my studied avoidance of a possessive pronoun) will be converted AFTER this year to a tenure track position, but in part because I was identified in a national search.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at September 9, 2003 12:18 PM

Michael, that happened to me, too, many years ago now, except that it was made clear that I would not be considered for the position under any circumstances despite having been hired in a national search. Wrong sex. A woman I went to grad school with & for whom I wrote a recommendation got the job.

Lucy,Rana: "diversity" is part of the reason for these searches too. One of the internal candidates is a woman, one a man. I included information in my original post about what kind of institution this is partly because the realities of the job market make it very difficult to attract minority candidates. Our department is roughly half women, though.

Posted by: Joseph at September 9, 2003 02:35 PM

I wonder what happens more often: the national search, or internal candidates being considered first. It seems to me that reliable, experienced adjuncts are continually passed over for the outside candidate, but I could be wrong. Does anyone know which is more likely to happen?

Posted by: Cat at September 9, 2003 02:41 PM

What if they dropped the plan of not bringing in external candidates if the internal candidates make it to the short list? In formal terms, this is the only ethical solution: if you're going to conduct a search, you conduct it properly.

I definitely agree-- this is the only reasonable way to do things, even though it does lead to some nonsensical results. The members of my department who were converted from visiting to tenure-line jobs (I was the first direct hire into a tenure line in quite a few years) had to go through the same interview process as outside candidates. Verging on theater of the absurd, the current Dean, an internal candidate, had to go through a phone interview when she moved into the Dean's office-- she sat in her office, while the search committee sat in another office at the end of the hall, and they talked on the phone...

I have to say, I haven't noticed any particular resistance to the conversion of visitors into tenure-track faculty (at least half of the members of my current department were visitors first), but then, I've had all of two years' experience on the hiring side of those decisions, and only at one insitution, so I wouldn't care to generalize.

Posted by: Chad Orzel at September 9, 2003 04:57 PM

when the current prez was hired, we had to offer him & his wife a campus tour, even though they had lived in town for twenty years!

But I'm not so sure about the idea of bringing in candidates who are very unlikely to get the job over the internal candidate. We're small enough that each of us meets with & interviews candidates in our offices solo, though sometimes we might double up with a colleague. But the idea of sitting in my office talking to a job seeker who is very unlikely to get the job & pretending that everything is on the level gives me the screaming heebie jeebies, ethical division. It's a perversion of discourse & a violation of collegiality (I consider everyone on the teaching side in academia a colleague). The whole idea makes me feel vaguely sick.

I'm going to try to post a bit more over at my blog on this. I really appreciate everyone's comments, by the way.

Posted by: Joseph at September 9, 2003 07:28 PM

This is sort of off the topic, but Joseph, haven't you ever had a candidate where you knew by the second day of the interview that they were not going to get the job? Most of our recent hires have been pretty obvious and I have had the rather creepy experience of driving people around town, pointing out neighborhoods and interesting bits of local history to someone I knew would never be here again. Perfectly nice guy, but not going to get the job.

For what it's worth, one of the reasons that guy was not going to get the job was that the other two each had several years of solid adjuncting experience and he just could not compete. At a teaching school having been an adjunct is a real plus, although at a research school it is probably the kiss of death.

Posted by: Ssuma at September 9, 2003 09:53 PM

I don't see the two situations as exactly parallel. One is the result of a fair & open process, the other the result of a game rigged from the start.

But you remind me to mention something else: both our internal candidates are excellent, innovative teachers. My school is dominated by a large school of engineering & our students are not the easiest to teach. It seems to me that if we include "relevant teaching experience" in our job descriptions, our internal candidates would have a lock on the positions.

Posted by: Joseph at September 10, 2003 08:38 AM

Do that. It'll be one more bit of evidence that teaching skills should be rewarded.

Posted by: Barry at September 10, 2003 09:12 AM

I find the entire process of academic hiring to be cumbersome and hypocritical. If a strong inside candidate is identified, why conduct a national search? "Because that's what we've always done" is not an acceptable answer. Precluding an internal candidate from applying is unfair. In business, "temp to hire" plans are an excellent route to full-time employment, but that seems verboten in academe. In fact, the strong disposition against hiring internal candidates argues against the quality of the academic organization, as well as discouraging employee loyalty to the institutions. Strong, stable businesses promote from within, and offer advancement opportunities to their employees; no business can thrive if it must constantly go outside the organization for new talent. In academe, however, it seems to be the very opposite. As a result, the contortions that academic institutions must bend into so that they can comply with the dicates of a "national search" are simply ludicrous. What value is gained in exchange for the sacrifice of efficiency, stability, and loyalty?

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at September 10, 2003 12:40 PM


I agree! It makes no sense to leave veteran adjuncts out of the chance to participate in a job search where they currently teach. I've even heard of instances where internal candidates are automatically rejected, without consideration.

Posted by: Cat at September 10, 2003 01:31 PM

In the case I proposed for discussion, the internal candidates are the first choice of the faculty. This search is being run for administrative reasons: 1) The president's duty to assure that the university has the best possible faculty; 2) diversity.

Both of these are worthy goals, of course; but abstraction is trumped by reality, I think. And in this case the reality is that we have two excellent colleagues who have made a commitment to the institution & the community.

I can see validity of the argument, advanced above, that in the long run it will serve our internal candidates well to have gone through a search; nobody will be able to suggest that they came in through the fire exit. Still, the whole thing seems like an exercise in proceduralism to me.

Posted by: Joseph at September 10, 2003 07:39 PM

This does not pose an ethical dilemma. A national, external search does not mean you must bring external candidates to campus. If those internal candidates are so strong, there is no need to bring an outside candidate on campus just to have a face-to-face meeting with that admittedly less qualified candidate. In fact, if that external, less qualified candidate came to campus, you'd be doing your own institution and the candidate a disservice. And you'd be being dishonest. The unspoken problem may be that these 'strong' internal candidates are not really that strong. Do they have the documented relevant record to demonstrate these strengths beyond your familiarity with them? If they are documented to be the best qualified, an (on campus) interview is not reqired to establish that fact.

Posted by: Peter at September 10, 2003 08:03 PM

Not only are the internal candidates excellent, innovative teachers (by Joseph's assessment; I have no other knowledge of them), but they have years of experience at the hiring institution. An excellent external candidate would need at least a couple of years to get up to speed on how things are done, how that particular kind of student is taught most effectively, how the academic programs in questions should be built, etc. Other things being equal, it is to the college's advantage to hire people who already have experience teaching there.

Posted by: Cleis at September 11, 2003 10:38 AM

Responding to Peter: Our internal candidates are indeed very strong. One of them would, in my estimation, be qualified for tenure & promotion to Assoc. Prof. right now; the other is not far behind in terms of publication, teaching, service, etc.

The question here, as I have come to see it, is whether it makes sense to have a search that subjects our internal candidates--that is, our colleagues--to an exercise in proceduaralism. The one rationale I can see for taking that route is that those candidates will be officially validated by the process. Still, it seems like an unfriendly thing to do, given that we are on record as being satisfied with their performance.

I agree with Cleis (above) that our internal candidates' experience in our institution is an important part of what makes them competitive in the current searches. I have no doubt that we will receive files from people who look very good indeed on paper, but who would be unsuitable at my institution. And, all else being equal, I'd rather be unfair to strangers than to colleagues.

Posted by: Joseph at September 11, 2003 08:36 PM

Responding to Joseph: Rather than an exercise in proceduralism, confirmation of the original 'strong' evaluation can be achieved empirically and comparatively while also conforming to a reasonable attempt to recruit for diversity. Even a 'very strong' internal candidate should be pleased and helped to have this validation. Simply being happy or even ecstatic with his/her performance to date is an insufficient justification and to claim otherwise reinforces the fears of those who ask schools to look outside their insular (or at least their allegedly tightly linked internal good old boy networked) worlds.

Yes, there are procedures to follow and decisions to make, but let's not make this an ethical dilemma.

Posted by: Peter at September 12, 2003 12:16 AM