• April 20, 2014

The Hazing of Academic Job Applicants

We hear a lot about student hazing on campuses, but there is another form that rarely gets noticed: the hazing of academic job applicants.

Last spring I experienced this firsthand when I was a finalist for a faculty position at a college in another state. Coincidentally, I was also head of a search committee for my own mass-communications department. The two experiences gave me a greater appreciation for each side of the hiring game, and for why such hazing develops in the first place.

My candidacy started simply enough. A friend on a search committee asked me to apply for a senior position that would offer new challenges at a well-known university. Since I counted several members of the faculty there, including the dean, as friends, I assumed I would be a finalist. So I was not surprised when the call came inviting me to the campus for interviews.

It had been 10 years since I was a job finalist, and I was a little rusty at always showing a happy face. Still, it was a positive experience to give reports on my research agenda and to have it challenged, particularly by cranky graduate students. Not enough critical examination goes on in most institutions, especially after you've become a full professor with tenure. After many long talks, good meals, and informative tours of the town, there were the typical glad-hands and smiles all around at the airport.

Then silence for two months.

Remember, these were friends. Imagine if I were a stranger.

The first official letter I received arrived eight weeks after my interview. It was an apology from someone about the delay in repaying my airline flight, advising me that if I returned a form, the check would be in the mail. When I finally broke down about a week later and e-mailed to ask about the status of the position, I was angry. So when I didn't get a satisfactory response as to why I hadn't heard in so long, I responded, "Communication -- it's not just a concept."

Needless to say, I didn't get the job (although, because this is a small world, I was pleased that a good friend was hired for the position). About three months after my interview, I got a stiffly worded "thanks but no thanks" letter.

As I reflect on the weeks of silence, I realize that what I wanted were continuous e-mails, phone calls, and letters explaining the status of the position. When I asked why no such barrage had ensued, I was told, "We were really busy," which I understood. But it seemed that no one had thought about putting together a system to keep candidates informed about their applications. And, after some research, I've found that most campuses either don't have any such plan in place, or don't follow the plan they have.

While my search for a new job was going on, I was also the one in the catbird seat: I was in charge of a search committee looking for three new faculty members for my department.

You might think that as a finalist, I would have learned how to communicate clearly, effectively, and ethically with the 10 finalists we brought in for interviews and about 80 other applicants. I didn't. It still took weeks to send messages to finalists about their applications. Payment for air travel and other expenses took too long. And, in the end, we hired only one person. (As it happened, the person we hired was on the welcoming team that had met me at the airport when I was a finalist for the out-of-state position.)

We reopened the search for one of the remaining positions and discontinued the other search when our first choices decided not to join us. What a nightmare. And unless they called, all those who applied were left uninformed about their status as the process unfolded.

I thought: There must be a better way. If there were some sort of organized movement -- a candidate's Bill of Rights, so to speak -- departments would know how to treat their applicants in the best possible way. I passed that idea along to subscribers on a few electronic discussion lists for their reaction. I received a fair number of e-mail responses from kind souls who had been similarly frustrated by their experiences in academic searches.

Along with some of my own ideas, here are their responses about how colleges could make the academic job search a more effective and humane process:

Preliminary Steps

If the head of the search committee is new to the job, make sure he or she is thoroughly briefed by the previous head, with procedures and requirements described in writing. Everyone involved in the committee -- members, chairman, dean -- should understand what is expected of the new hire, and should be well acquainted with the position they are hiring for. If there is not a consensus about the duties of the new hire, mixed expectations will be communicated to the candidate.

One case cited by the respondents involved the selection for an endowed chair: Many faculty members expected the new hire to teach a full load. Others -- including the two final candidates -- expected a course-load reduction in exchange for leadership. The search had to be suspended while the faculty members spent a year reevaluating the position.

The affirmative-action office and members of the faculty should be notified about the search and asked about their ideas for advertisements and mailing lists. And the budget for the entire search process should be clearly defined, including who (the department, the dean's office, or the university) is paying for what, and when.

The Job Advertisement

Be as specific as possible about the job duties. A list of interests can be general, but if you are really looking for something specific, say so. Make sure the ad is consistent with your university's policies on responsibilities, qualifications, and salary, and that it is approved by the chairman and the dean. Many times a search-committee head is forced to produce a display ad under deadline pressure for a journal or trade magazine.

Make sure you have an able graphic-design instructor to help with the ad for print and for your college's World Wide Web site. Identify the head of the search committee, and present an open invitation for those interested in the position to contact that person. Ask for letters of recommendation only from finalists.

First Contact With Applicants

Acknowledge every application within 10 days, by letter. Indicate a timetable for the search. A spreadsheet program that logs the qualifications of all who apply for the position, and that is tied to a mail-merge program, will speed the process along.

Make sure you check outgoing letters. One case mentioned by a respondent involved an office assistant who mistakenly sent acknowledgment letters for the wrong position to several applicants. Each confused applicant who called or e-mailed had to be assured that she was in the correct pool of candidates.

Dealing With Candidates

Send regret letters to those who are not among the finalists. Avoid clichés like vague references to their qualifications or optimism that eventually their job search will be successful.

Be clear among yourselves about what will be communicated to an applicant who asks why she received a regret letter. Return any portfolios and special materials to the nonfinalists. Some respondents reported that expensive portfolios, including books, videos, and photographs, had never been returned.

Dealing With Finalists

Write a letter to the finalists letting each of them know that they are on the short list. Give a specific timetable for the next steps in the process. Let the finalists know the names of the members of the search committee. As in corporate hiring situations, finalists should never have to pay in advance for anything, including airfare and meals. Phone interviews, too, should be at the department's expense.

Finalists should be given the opportunity to give presentations that speak to their specific strengths. The finalist and the faculty member who plays host to a lecture or presentation should agree in advance on the topic. Some respondents suggested that finalists be paid for class lectures and presentations. Certainly controversial, that's a fine idea.

Make sure that all search-committee members meet with finalists in a variety of settings. Prohibit questions regarding age, marital status, religion, and political views. Treat all finalists on a level playing field -- don't give out inside information to a favored finalist about how to handle specific faculty interviews, for example.

Make finalists aware of the following: conditions affecting employment, like tenure caps at the university; expectations for teaching, research, and service; salary range; specifications or restrictions regarding tenure and rank; the number of other candidates; whether there is an internal candidate; affirmative-action mandates or quota restrictions imposed on a department; and any extraordinary financial situations within the department or the university that would affect prospective raises.

Also tell candidates about housing and general costs of living; major professional or personal disputes among faculty members (perhaps such embarrassing information should be avoided, but finalists have a right to know); details of the employee insurance-and-benefits packages (not just a brief run-through from the dean); and what office equipment is provided.

After the interview, send a thank-you letter the next day, with an updated schedule for a decision. If the search is extended or terminated, finalists should be told promptly, and told why such an action was necessary.

If word of the status of a search is not communicated in a timely fashion, then all candidates have the right to complain to the head of the search committee and higher.

The Hiring Process

Make an offer by phone, e-mail, or fax, followed up by a letter confirming the offer and including a signed contract. In one case, a finalist was not hired because although an offer was made over the phone, the dean forgot to send a formal letter. In the meantime, the candidate received a better offer in writing and took it. Set a date by which the finalist must inform you of her decision. Send regret letters to finalists who were not selected. Make sure it's clear who is supposed to write those letters. Return any remaining portfolios. Define what expenses for moving and travel your college will pay for, and be sure that those expenses are paid in advance.

Post-Hiring Procedures

Have a meeting between the new hire and the search committee to see how things worked and how they could be improved. Since we routinely use student evaluations to assess teaching, why is such a step not automatic? It might be useful to get evaluations from other candidates and finalists, too, about how well the process worked for them. You could use a form similar to that for a student evaluation.

Search-committee members and faculty members sometimes assume that those applying for positions are desperate and thus willing to put up with whatever abuse comes their way. Unfortunately, those assumptions are probably right: Many job seekers too often accept rude or indifferent behavior as part of the process.

It is in everyone's best interest to treat all applicants with dignity, respect, and timely communications. Treating a new hire badly will most likely result in that new faculty member's starting with a negative attitude about your campus. And it will very likely perpetuate the same type of behavior when that member joins a search committee.

This form of academic hazing must stop. If your campus discusses and adopts a candidate's bill of rights, it might be taking the first step to break the hazing cycle and make the hiring process more productive as well as enjoyable.

Paul Martin Lester is a research fellow with the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana.

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