We had three candidates: Dan, Barbara, and Christine. Deciding among them would have been difficult enough in a normal search, but this was a joint hire. And before it was all over, an area-studies program and a traditional humanities department would have to come to some agreement. But could we?
I've been writing a column about my experience with this joint search at a large research university in the East. I've described how we came up with a shortlist and how we handled the interview process. In this, my final column, I will share the outcome and offer some reflections on what I learned.
As I've mentioned, I'm an assistant professor in a traditional department (not the one involved in the search). But because I am unofficially affiliated with the area-studies program, I served as its representative in the search.
The area-studies program wanted to hire Dan. However, we knew that a couple of senior members of the traditional department (hereafter known as Department X) had some reservations about him. We didn't want to give them the chance to shoot him down for a lesser candidate.
So, at the final summit meeting between members of the area-studies program and of Department X, our strategy was to present a united front and basically give the department no choice: Rather than present a ranked list of candidates, we would put forth Dan's name only.
It fell to me, as the primary architect of our strategy, to make the case for Dan. This was risky business, to a degree, since Department X was expecting a ranked list. I approached Len, a senior colleague in my home department and something of an Obi-Wan Kenobi figure for me, for advice on how to proceed.
"Well," he said, "why not do what we do?" Why not, indeed?
Here's how we do it in my home department: At the conclusion of campus interviews, the head of the search committee convenes a final meeting of the entire faculty, provides a brief overview of the applicant pool (in terms of numbers, gender, and geographical range), and discusses each finalist's strengths and weaknesses, including specific comments canvassed from members of the department. The committee then makes its recommendation to the department as a whole.
Collective discussion of the committee's recommendation ensues, and if an enthusiastic consensus forms around a given candidate (in our case, that means 90 percent of the faculty expressing support, not just holding their noses), an offer is tendered.
That's an exhaustive process, and one that leads not infrequently to failed searches, but we like to be able to tell the people we hire that they are entering a department that wants to see them succeed.
Although I had now figured out how to approach the summit meeting, the question remained: How would Department X react to our recommendation?
After two frantic days of preparing talking points, I accompanied my program colleagues into one of Department X's seminar rooms for the final summit. Large numbers of people from both the program and the department attended, which I took as a positive sign -- at least people were taking the search seriously.
The format of the final meeting, however, had not been discussed in advance. Fortunately Eric, the chairman of Department X, welcomed my colleagues and me as guests on its home turf, and invited us to speak first.
That courtesy allowed me to discuss our program's perspective on the position, where it fit with our future plans, and how we envisioned the successful candidate as someone who could act as a bridge between the program and Department X. I then offered a narrative of our program's assessment of the three finalists.
I began with Barbara, whom several members of our faculty considered a viable second choice. I noted her strengths in teaching and the innovative character of her research. Already employed in a tenure-track position elsewhere, Barbara had a solid record as a citizen in her department. Yet I also communicated our faculty's concerns over her inability to articulate the true significance of her work for the field and her lack of compelling future research plans.
Christine, whom our faculty had ruled out as an acceptable candidate, came next. I highlighted her detailed and interesting scholarship but pointed out her limited capacity to offer courses for our program and her lack of experience with the population our program serves.
I wrapped up with an extensive discussion of Dan's distinctive qualities: his diverse range of research and teaching abilities, his national-level awards, his pathbreaking scholarly revisionism, and his unique ability, out of all the finalists, to offer the most benefits to each of the academic units that would hold a share of his appointment.
I concluded by making clear that Dan was our unanimous top choice. I did not mention the other candidates.
My rather lengthy opening monologue, along with my failure to provide a ranked list of the finalists, took some members of Department X by surprise. Clearly, that was not their standard operating procedure, and by the looks on certain faces I could tell that some individuals now regretted having let me, the program's representative, initiate the proceedings.
The discussion then shifted into Department X's preferred mode -- an open floor for comments and opinions on any of the candidates. It quickly became apparent that Barbara lacked any significant support within Department X, but several department members indicated their preference for Christine over Dan. The conversation finally came down to a debate over the relative merits of Dan and Christine.
Some felt that Christine's work was more empirically grounded than Dan's, but others responded that her conclusions were far more limited and less interesting than those Dan advanced. Furthermore, Dan had conducted his research independently, while Christine's was a component of a much larger project undertaken by her dissertation adviser.
Some aspects of Dan's planned second research project antagonized a small minority of Department X, but one of our program's faculty members pointed out (rather cheekily) that at least he had such a plan.
After more back and forth, Eric, the chairman of Department X, finally called for a vote. We were disappointed, but not shocked, when none of the program's faculty members at the meeting was offered a paper ballot: The only votes on this "joint hire" would come from faculty members in Department X.
After some tortured chalkboard mathematics, the final tally came in: Dan had received slightly better than a two-thirds majority. The offer would go to him!
The temptation at this point would be to gush about happy endings, about how the process works, and about everyone's coming together for a common cause. But I'm not going to do that.
True, we got the candidate we wanted, and he has proved himself, thus far, to be everything we'd hoped and more. Yet there was enough wrong with the process as I experienced it that I would like to offer up four concluding reflections in the hope that others affiliated with area-studies programs contemplating (or charged with) a joint search (especially one with a more powerful traditional department) might avoid some of the pitfalls we encountered.
Get things in writing. It sounds simple and obvious, but the stakes for all parties concerned are too great to rely on oral agreements and tradition. Insist on careful documentation at every step, circulate information to all parties of the search, and procure signatures.
How will the advertisement for the position be written? How will the search committee be constituted? How will the finalists be determined? How will the campus visits be structured? How will the vote on an offer proceed? In a perfect world, all of this would be done before the advertisement for the position appears.
Act like an equal partner, even if you're not. Faculty members in area-studies programs should treat these opportunities as precious commodities in the quest for building institutional credibility. We cannot assume that all constituencies on campus regard area studies as legitimate.
In order to be taken seriously, we must act seriously. When area-studies programs are offered a stake in a tenure-track faculty line, even if the line's "tenure home" is elsewhere, it makes all the sense in the world to act like an equal partner in the process. Make sure that program faculty members are involved and active in all areas of the search. Offer thoughtful advice and work to shape the process to your greatest advantage.
Consider what life will be like for the successful candidate. It behooves all parties concerned to map out the entire pretenure period for any jointly appointed candidate. Indeed, as I watch Dan rush from meeting to meeting this semester, I can't help thinking we might have done more to map out his service and committee responsibilities in a more rational manner.
I also wonder, given Department X's tendencies, precisely how Dan's mid-tenure and tenure reviews will be conducted. Senior members of our program will have a voice in the process, but will we have a vote? Since our program ultimately cannot grant tenure, my personal view is that we must encourage Dan to satisfy Department X, even if it "costs" the program some of his time and energy. But wouldn't it have been much better to have resolved all that beforehand and then put the details in the letter we sent offering him the appointment?
Choose your search partner carefully. If you are in a position to decide on potential suitors for half of a tenure-track job, ask around about different departments and try to assess their capacity for constructive cooperation. In our case we had little choice: We desperately needed a person with the disciplinary expertise represented by Department X.
And while it was far from a wholly distasteful process, I would liken our experience with Department X to mud wrestling with a porcupine -- not an insurmountable task, but success did not come without things getting a bit messy and prickly. It was a very educational experience, however, and program faculty members carried away some instructive lessons.
This semester, we're at it again. We have a joint search with another department, one that is in a rebuilding phase and hungry to get better fast. Significantly, we kicked off the search with a meet-and-greet session between the respective faculties. Over coffee and muffins, we were able to put faces to names and get past the awkward "first-date" questions that need not be asked in front of candidates.
We've just now completed the initial review of applicants and prepared a list of four finalists to invite to the campus. The future appears bright: Our program and our new departmental partners independently crafted identical lists of the four individuals we regard as potential appointees. Bring on the campus visits.