• April 19, 2014

Cattle Call

You know it's coming. Any day now you'll get that telephone call or e-mail message asking you to serve on yet another search committee. As a tenure-track faculty member at a two-year college, you'll most likely say yes. Here you go again.

I'm not going to recite platitudes about the joys of service or bore you with legalities. I'm sure your college, like mine, employs professionals to do that. Instead, I'd like to share some complaints from real job seekers who have e-mailed me over the past year to voice their frustrations with the hiring process at community colleges.

Too often those of us who serve on search committees come to see applicants as mere file folders — or worse, as nuisances — rather than as actual people. I've been guilty of that myself. So let's remind ourselves that we're dealing with human beings, over whose lives we have temporarily, and more or less randomly, been assigned some measure of control. We must accept that responsibility with soberness and humility, not arrogance or barely disguised annoyance.

We should also remember that the process of searching for new faculty members is supposed to be mutually beneficial to both the hirer and the person hired. The candidates bring important qualities to the table, qualities we are, or should be, looking for. They come to us hoping to establish careers at our institutions and build lives in our communities.

Committee members, for their part, seek to enhance the academic, intellectual, and social environments of their campuses by hiring the best teachers and colleagues.

In the end, even those candidates who don't get hired should come out of the process feeling that, at a minimum, they were treated with respect and that, ideally, they learned and grew from the experience.

Sadly, that's not usually the case. Sometimes our searches are more like "cattle calls," as one frustrated job seeker put it. "I appreciate your attempts to help prepare people interviewing for positions at community colleges," she says, "but perhaps what's really needed is better informed search-committee members and chairs."

The complaints I received focused primarily on two issues. The first is salary, and specifically, the fact that many search committees won't talk about it. "I wonder," wrote one reader, "if a committee remaining so 'tight-lipped' about something as basic as salary is not hiding other things."

The second concern of job candidates involves their perception that many community colleges are unwilling to give "inexperienced," first-time teachers a chance. "What I found most frustrating about seeking community-college employment," wrote another reader, "is that, unlike almost all other careers, community-college teaching does not seem to have an entry level. Community colleges simply do not hire beginning teachers."

At first glance, it seems there's nothing an individual faculty member serving on a search committee can do about either of those complaints. Or is there?

Let's take the salary issue first. Several readers wrote to say that they felt it was unreasonable for candidates not to be told the starting salary for a position during the interview (if not before), or at least given a range.

So why are search committees often reluctant to talk about money?

The answer is probably because they've been told not to, but that seems like a lame excuse. Can a community college really expect people to make potentially life-changing decisions, to contemplate moving their families across the country, based solely on the notion that teaching is its own reward?

Maybe individual committee members can't do anything about the fact that the college didn't mention salary in the position announcement, as it should have. But you can resolve among yourselves to be forthright with candidates on the subject.

So disclose the salary. You can always cover yourself with the caveat, "Of course, human resources will determine your exact salary," but at least give a range.

The second brings up higher education's version of an age-old conundrum: How do you get a job without experience, and how do you get experience without a job? As another astute and frustrated reader observed, "From the point of view of the search committee, I know the reason [why community colleges don't hire beginning teachers]: The pool always contains plenty of experienced applicants, and, all else being equal, experience wins. From an applicant's point of view, though, this is maddening."

My college has been struggling recently with this very problem. For the past few years, we've made "three years full-time teaching experience" a required qualification in our job advertisements for new tenure-track faculty members. That has led some of us who frequently serve on search committees to wonder if we're missing out on some of the best talent right out of graduate school — promising young scholars whom many four-year colleges would not hesitate to hire.

I know of one case involving a candidate we really wanted, a young woman with otherwise impeccable credentials who had only two years of teaching experience. Fortunately, we were able to hire her in a temporary position, which both sides hope is eventually converted to tenure track. But we nearly lost her.

To avoid losing promising young faculty members, the long-term solution, from an institutional point of view, is to rewrite your job descriptions and either eliminate the experience requirement altogether or at least de-emphasize it.

Maybe you could move teaching experience from the "required" list to the "desired" list, or perhaps you could simply lighten up — require one year of previous experience in the classroom instead of two or three, with two years of part-time teaching counting as one year of full-time.

Of course, once again, individual search committee members can't do much about the way the job ad was written. But perhaps the members of the committee can agree to consider more carefully those applicants who are borderline in the experience department — or maybe even below borderline — rather than simply rejecting them out of hand as an easy way to narrow the field. ("Yahoo! Here's one who doesn't meet the experience requirement. One less folder to read through." Not that that would ever happen.)

And if the committee members find that the best candidate is someone who doesn't have the required experience, perhaps they can go together to the department head or the dean and plead that applicant's case. Few administrators, I think, could withstand the joint plea of several determined tenured faculty members.

Once the search is over, committee members can also take up the experience requirement with their administrations. Ultimately faculty members hire new faculty members — at least, we do all the grunt work. And we're the ones who have to work with new colleagues and advise them.

It's in the long-term best interests of our colleges to reintroduce the entry-level position into the community-college job market. Right now there may be far more applicants than jobs, so we can pick and choose.

But that might not always be the case. As our older colleagues retire, and as the number of students attending two-year colleges continues to grow, we will need constant infusions of new blood, in the form of new young faculty members. It doesn't make sense for us to ignore those who might become some of our best teachers (and friends), just because they are neophyte teachers fresh out of graduate school.

In the end, serving on a search committee may turn out to be the most important thing you did this year, professionally speaking. I hope you will approach the task with sensitivity and an open mind. I hope your applicant pool is deep, filled both with experienced professors seeking a change of venue and with eager young hopefuls plunging enthusiastically into the profession.

Above all, I hope your top applicants refuse to schedule an interview unless you tell them the salary up front.


With this article, we begin a new monthly column on faculty and administrative careers at two-year colleges. If you would like to write for the column, or have a topic to propose — on any aspect of finding jobs at two-year colleges, getting promoted, or doing the jobs — we would like to hear from you. Send your ideas to careers@chronicle.com.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and interim dean of academic services at the Lawrenceville campus of Georgia Perimeter College. He will write occasionally for our new community-college column.

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