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On the Inside Looking In

Nothing in academic hiring incites more controversy and conspiracy theories than the issue of inside candidates, either those who occupy a temporary or interim position that is being replaced by a permanent hire, or those who occupy another slot at the hiring institution and who seek to move into the advertised position. Finally—although this is a somewhat different case—there are the institution’s adjunct faculty members, who may be seeking to be hired for a tenure-track or full-time position.

I come to this discussion with a good bit of experience, both as an inside candidate (once) and as someone who has led searches that included insiders, some of whom obtained the job and some of whom did not. I’ve also at various stages of my career lost out to a couple of inside candidates, and once been hired instead of one, so to some degree I understand many aspects of the predicaments faced by insiders, those who compete with them from the outside, and the hiring institutions involved.

The dynamics of inside candidacy are difficult for everyone involved. Inside candidates have usually made at least some investment in the hiring institution, and have spent time in the limbo of not knowing what their future there might be. The rhetorical phenomenon that many job candidates notice when search-committee members use language implying that they are already part of the community (“you will enjoy working with our students, and you will have great opportunities to engage with the business leaders in town”) is stretched excruciatingly over the whole interim period.

I recall well when I was in my first job, a visiting position, how challenging it was to be both inside and outside at the same time as the tenure-track search progressed. And unlike an external candidate, who has to deal with this somewhat odd rhetorical phenomenon for a couple of days, an internal candidate may occupy the space between in and out for many months.

Similarly, the current and potential future colleagues of inside candidates face the dilemma of how to deal with them on a daily basis. It is very easy to slip into the language of “next year,” and more generally to simply treat a colleague as a colleague rather than as a tentative and conditional member of the institution. Daily interactions are fraught—how to treat the person who may or may not be the chosen candidate when the search is complete? Business needs to be done, and it’s very hard to draw a firm line to treat an internal candidate well but keep him or her out of potentially fraught conversations and interactions.

There is, of course, a tremendous asymmetry between the situation of the internal candidate—whose position is not secure—and those of the established colleagues, and I should not be understood as suggesting that there is not. However, humane and ethical colleagues will still find genuine discomfort in their interactions with an internal candidate. I have been fortunate enough to work at institutions that are genuinely kind and welcoming, and I know from my interactions with internal candidates and their colleagues that dealing with one another can be baffling and painful on both sides.

One apparently attractive way to deal with the issue of internal candidates may be to issue an edict that says no temporary faculty members or administrators are eligible for the permanent appointment in the position they occupy. The University System of Georgia, for example, bars acting presidents from candidacy for the permanent presidency, though this is a policy the Board of Regents in one instance did not follow last year.

The regents’ action (about which I have no inside information) may well illustrate the problem with such a policy: It is possible that an internal candidate will legitimately emerge as the best choice in a search, so an arbitrary rule preventing his or her appointment is distinctly counterproductive, an example of form being valued over substance in the management of an educational institution.

I don’t, therefore, believe that such a policy is wise, though it can certainly make life easier, at least for the established members of a hiring institution. At the same time, it is true that in many cases the internal candidate has advantages of inside knowledge and connections that may distort the hiring process and hide real differences in qualifications and experience that favor an outsider.

So while a blanket policy preventing internal candidacies is perhaps a bad idea, search committees also need to be careful to apply the same basic evaluation to both internal and external candidates, and account in their deliberations for the differences in familiarity between them. Search committees should also be careful not to let the lure of novelty overwhelm the contributions and qualifications of an internal candidate.

In the searches in which I have been involved from the hiring side that included an internal candidate, we have sometimes hired that candidate and sometimes not. I can truly say, though, that at the finalist stage, the fix has never been in either for or against the internal person.

It is imperative not to waste people’s time—that of candidates, search-committee members, and all the others involved in creating an interview process. Institutions need to deal honestly with internal and external candidates, and not falsely suggest that they have a true chance at the position if that is not really the case.

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