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Sitting on the other side of the desk

October 17, 2011, 6:00 am

The hiring season is upon us. I am serving as an outside member on a search committee (senior hire), our department is hiring faculty and staff members, and I am serving as a reference for friends and former students on the academic market. None of these roles is especially new, but, for the first time, I am the administrator of a unit doing searches.

There have been some very new experiences in conducting hires as the senior administrator. The first big experience was negotiating the areas of need with the faculty. While I had to facilitate the discussion, I also had my own ideas and interests. I know from prior experiences on search committees that these meetings can be full of conflict when the Dean or Chair disagrees with faculty about the direction of the program.I put my own ideas aside and led the discussion, drawing out the suggestions of faculty. I found the faculty thoughtful, open to negotiation, and clear on the goals and needs of the department, revealing a large overlap between my ideas and the perspectives of the faculty. I was pleased that we quickly came to agreement in outlining research and teaching needs.

I then had to write the ads and get them approved by the faculty and Human Resources, another first for me. The faculty reviewed my ads, suggested helpful edits (especially related to area amenities and the university, all of which are still new to me), and gave their blessing on the ad copy. I then sent the ads to HR. The human resources staff member and I negotiated the wording of the job ads. This task took a while to make sure that we met the requirements of the university and needs of the department.

After finishing the ad copy, we discussed where the ads would be placed and determined the costs the department would have to pay for each ad. We celebrated the Department of Labor ruling allowing online ads for academic hires (to show that institutions had attempted to recruit an American for their positions), which will save us a good bit of money. I never thought about having to pay for these ads; I always assumed the university (read Central Administration) paid for advertising. Live and learn. I can’t tell you how excited I was to see the ads posted online!

After the ads were finalized and posted online, I sent them out to several disciplinary listservs. I was shocked by how quickly I started to hear from people, especially since I am not listed as the contact person! I get it–I sent the listings out. That said, it was surprising to me. Some of the respondents are people I know, which is kind of strange. I have had to be clear that the faculty handles the applicant review process; this isn’t about hiring my friends. Another first: someone who works for a very close friend at another school contacted me to ask about this position. I have no problem maintaining the prospective applicant’s confidentiality, but it isn’t anything I’ve done before.

When the faculty elected a search committee, I reckoned with the truth that I am no longer a faculty member. The process at my new school is that the department chair has nothing to do with applicant review until meeting with applicants during on-campus interviews. As someone who has been on search committees at every institution where I worked, it feels very strange to be so distant from the action. My job now is to recruit individuals at conferences and other gatherings, answer questions about the program, refer prospective applicants to the search chair, and wait to hear who the committee wants to bring to campus. And I am going to be having the one-on-one meeting with the candidates, (figuratively) sitting on the other side of the desk. Weird.

Looking ahead to being the person to make the final determination produces an odd mix of anxiety and excitement. A good hire can really help a department move forward, whereas a bad hire can hurt a department for years to come. And these days, hires are few and far between, so the stakes are even higher. I trust the faculty committee to evaluate the candidates fairly and provide a list of acceptable candidates. (Here we don’t rank them, as we did at another school, though I bet that faculty opinions will be clear in their discussion of candidate strengths and weaknesses.) I have found that when faculty disagree amongst themselves and/or disagree with the chair’s decision, the resulting tension and anger can harm department cohesion and sour the experience of the newly hired faculty member (because some faculty member always tells them about the contested process).  I can only hope that the easy agreement we found in identifying areas of need is reflected in agreement on the best candidate for the job.

Here is to a year of firsts on this side of the desk.

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