As academics, we regularly scan the job listings to learn about vacancies and read essays about the ins and outs of the hiring process, but little has been said about what takes place before the job ads ever appear.
Behind each position is a mini-drama -- the story of how a department secured the opening in the first place.
As director of the journalism school at Iowa State University, my program currently has two openings. The short version of our story: One position came about when a talented new hire was recruited elsewhere and another as a result of a start-up package I negotiated before accepting the directorship in 2003.
In any given week, job openings advertised in academe may have occurred because of the climate (social or meteorological), recruiting raids by rival institutions, consolidation of programs, reallocation of resources, new strategic planning, and, alas, tenure denials.
Other positions are new, hatched by deans who have recouped money from the retirement of senior professors and redistributed it to finance new "faculty lines," as we in academe call them, usually at the assistant-professor rank. Still others are created when money is confiscated from one department and given to another, because a chairman failed to plan accurately or perhaps made a weak case to retain a line.
At public institutions much of the drama plays out in the summer when most states' fiscal years begin and many professors are away. That's when department administrators learn exactly how much they can expect in state revenues.
But as early as January, astute department heads have begun collecting enrollment data, assessing needs, and communicating them to the deans. Planning is imperative, particularly when professors announce their retirement. However, some vacancies occur without warning and often at the worst possible moments. Because of that, effective department heads know that continuous communication with deans is as vital as planning.
One of the challenges for chairmen is figuring out whether to share those communications, or some part of them, with faculty members. Many hesitate to do so because of sensitive budget and personnel issues.
But a department head who has not adequately informed faculty members about the administrative process for determining who keeps what lines and why, can run into trouble quickly. In these tight financial times, when a department loses a faculty member -- for whatever reason -- it is by no means assured of keeping that position. Hence the drama.
Let's say that a chairman has known since spring break that Professor X will take a year's sabbatical, Associate Professor Y will take early retirement, and Assistant Professor Z will take an offer at another university. The department's faculty members may envision three vacancies: a one-year visiting post to fill in for Professor X, a search at the same rank as Associate Professor Y, and an entry-level, tenure-track opening to replace Assistant Professor Z.
Here's the reality: In a good legislative year the chairman of a strong program may indeed receive approval for a visiting professor and two tenure-track searches at the associate- and assistant- professor levels. But there hasn't been a good legislative year in many states for about five years now.
So an effective department head in this case might get adjunct help for the professor on sabbatical and approval to search for two tenure-track positions at the assistant-professor rank, with the dean hiring more adjuncts to cover classes while the searches are in progress.
A less-than-effective leader who puts forth a weak case to the dean will lose one or both of the tenure-track lines. That does wonders for faculty morale.
In either case, the departmental budget is reduced accordingly, and the dean typically saves the money for next year's start-up packages and/or redistribution to other units for new positions.
While professors still think of faculty positions as "lines" belonging to their departments, many administrators don't. Abandoning that approach gives them more freedom to reassign positions and keep programs aligned with college or institutional priorities.
Ron Wallace, co-director of the creative-writing program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says the "whole concept of lines has pretty much disappeared" at his institution.
"When a faculty member retires or moves on," he says, "the position, for all practical purposes, vanishes. The department chair can make a case to hire additional faculty, and argue that we've lost faculty, but a 'line' isn't there to be filled. This is a change from 15 or 20 years ago when 'lines' did exist and could be replaced."
Nonetheless, Wallace and the creative-writing faculty -- working with the head of the English department and its executive committee -- have been successful in securing two tenure-track minority hires, an adjunct position for a spousal hire, and a tenure-track position, presenting a persuasive argument to the dean based on the strength of the unit.
Savvy department heads know that nontraditional hires were born out of this new process for allocating positions. They play to that process in their planning.
Paul Nelson, chairman of the communication department at North Dakota State University, experienced that process from the dean's perspective as head of the College of Communication at Ohio University.
"When I was a dean," Nelson observes, "I expected directors of schools to make a case for replacement. I often replaced departing faculty with entry-level faculty at lower pay and lower rank while using any salary savings to build possible additional positions somewhere in the college."
Working with other administrators at the university, he was able to use salary savings to generate several new diversity-related hires -- so much so, Nelson notes, that the new hires were quickly stolen away by other universities, newspapers, or broadcast companies.
One chairman's loss was another's gain. But deans are forced to operate this way especially during difficult budgetary times. Sustaining senior professorships in one unit means they cannot create new positions in another.
Job-hopping professors don't help the situation. New hires who leave their units in the first or second year end up costing programs tens of thousands of dollars in recruitment costs, moving expenses, start-up packages, research support, and more.
"Professors who hop around leave disaster in their wake, especially when they are associate or full professors," says Michael Whiteford, dean of Iowa State's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "Not only does the home department usually lose funding, with senior lines reduced to assistant-professor lines, the experienced colleagues leave holes you cannot fill in a program."
Whiteford is my dean. I communicate with him regularly via telephone and memo but also through monthly newsletters describing the contributions of faculty members. That's a time-consuming task for me, but a vital one to maintain support.
Contrary to what many professors and some chairmen believe, it is risky to argue that your program is weak because of a lack of hires. That can make a dean wonder whether your program is worth supporting at all. Promoting, recognizing, and rewarding faculty members for achievements sends another message: We're worth the money.
Whiteford communicates those concepts openly to department heads at regular meetings. He emphasizes the importance of planning and often issues this challenge: What if you knew that the number of full-time positions available in your department would not change in the next five years, and during that time you would experience a 40-percent turnover in faculty members? How would you reallocate resources?
Questions like that inspire me to work with faculty members to change the direction of programs in ways that will get financial support. At the moment, we're in the early stages of developing a Ph.D. program in science and risk communication. That seems appropriate for a journalism school at an institution whose official name is, after all, Iowa State University of Science and Technology. So when we make a case for a new line in science communication, the dean may take note that it supports the mission of his college and the institution's new strategic plan.
"Too often," Whiteford states, "faculty and chairs make cases to fill lines based on whose turn it is without necessarily thinking about their own future needs, the college's priorities, and the institution's strategic plan."
Communication between department heads and deans is vital in recognizing those priorities.
Terry Hynes, dean of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, gets as much feedback as possible before making a decision on how to distribute money for new or vacant positions.
"I have a conversation with the college's Administrative Council, which includes department chairs and a faculty representative from each department, among others," she says. "We talk about faculty needs and how they fit the college's and university's strategic directions. Then, I make a decision about where the position will go."
Of course, she has to persuade the provost to keep the position in her college. "The most successful strategy for me," she says, "has been to make the case for faculty lines showing how they fit the college's and university's strategic vision and directions, as well as the department's needs."
On occasion, the competition among departments and deans to secure money for new positions can get intense. Chairmen and deans then have to make a choice: Act quickly in the interests of their unit without discussing the matter with their faculty members, or wait to have that discussion and risk losing a shot at the money.
That is, perhaps, the grayest area in which administrators must work.
John Soloski, dean of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, usually allows a department that has lost a line to search for a replacement, as long as it makes a compelling argument.
However, Soloski recalls, he found himself in that gray area during his first year as dean. He had an opportunity to participate in a joint hire with another college. "This was at the full professor level and with tenure," Soloski notes. "A decision had to be made quickly, and because it was spring break, most faculty members were not available, I made the decision to hire this person.
"And did I catch hell for it."
One faculty member reportedly told the dean, "I have no objections about whom you hired, but I have serious objections to the way you did it."
Soloski concedes the professor had a point. "But the buck stops in my office, and sometimes I have to do things I don't like to do to benefit the college."
Job applicants are usually unaware of any behind-the-scenes drama when they apply for positions. But if, during your interview, members of the search committee and administration seem less than cordial to one another, or to you, consider that there's a story behind it that you may never know but that has little to do with you or your qualifications.