Creating a diverse pool of finalists for faculty jobs

Dive into the pool!

Nicoleandmaggie from Grumpy Rumblings of the Untenured left a very smart comment in the peanut gallery of the last post that I thought deserved highlighting and discussing.  They write:

My department has had huge success hiring high quality women and minorities. (We’re almost all women and minority assistants and associates, in fact.) How do we do it? Well, we recruit widely and we pretty much just use rubrics to hire advanced assistants and new associates. We initially cut the pool by number of publications in a specific tier of journals. We look through the rest and rate on specific things in a grid using numbers. Then we compare people at the top with numbers that are above a certain threshhold. Then we double check all the women and minorities. We’re also good about policing potentially sexist and racist language and we almost completely ignore letters of recommendation.

We don’t assume that the woman or minority is the trailing spouse. And we end up with really strong final candidates even though our teaching load is a bit higher than average and we’re in the middle of nowhere. And then they accept the job. (Turns out hubby or partner is willing to be a trailing spouse and single women actually will take jobs in the middle of nowhere.)

I hear people (in other departments) say, “You can’t hire good women and minorities because they’re too hard to get.” But their only experience is trying to hire a shooting star woman or minority who is going to end up at a top 5 program. If the same person were a white man, our school wouldn’t even be trying because we know it would be a waste of time. But places aren’t willing to look at women who are objectively equivalent to the men they hire. Women (and minorities) have to be much much better, but women who are that much better go elsewhere. So we end up with folks who are higher quality than the men we could attract, just by using objective statistics. (Even though in our non-blind field, those objective statistics are already biased against women and minorities. Meaning their intrinsic quality is even higher just to get the same statistics. Even if the recommendation letters that are supposed to measure intrinsic quality are generally useless.)

Now, Nicoleandmaggie are economists, and what works for economists (rubrics, numbers of articles in a certain tier of journals) won’t work for every discipline.  But I think their essential point is an excellent one, which is that when your goal is to create a fair process and apply the same standards fairly, you will almost always come up with a very diverse pool of applicants.  We do this at Baa Ram U., too, with a form on which we check off the required training and expertise and the desired attributes for which we advertised.

Next, I like their skepticism about letters of recommendation, which anyone with a brain will figure out how to read carefully not just because they’re frequently comically inflated, but because they can be mined with racist and sexist language and assumptions, as the Grumpies noted.  In my experience, letters of recommendation are useful mostly as talismans the search committee can use in order to win the department’s endorsement of their choices for job finalists.  The good ones explain clearly the candidate’s research and its significance, but decent committees figure out quickly what’s going on in the fields in which they’re searching.  Letters of recommendation are mostly just windows into the souls of their authors, not their subjects.

(My favorite  example of a solipsistic letter of recommendation was one I encountered in a search over a decade ago.  It was from a notorious attention-hog near my field, the kind of person who published one big article and publicly engaged a big scholar in the field, and then retreated resentfully into near-obscurity.  It began:  “This request for a letter of recommendation comes at a particularly difficult time for me, as I am in the middle of a move to [another country] in order to take [a semi-prestigious visiting professorship]. . . ”  Of course, we don’t care, and this information is totally irrelevant to the candidate’s future.  The rest of the search committee and I just laughed at it, and swore an oath not to hold it against the poor schlep who was stuck with this person for hir adviser.)

Finally, refusing to pre-judge whether or not a candidate would be willing to take a job offer is key.  I hate, hate, hate it when a colleague asks in a hiring meeting, “but will ze come here?”  I always say, “Well, we’ll never know unless we offer hir the job, will we?”  White heterosexualists with children who love the outdoors and skiing or snowboarding are not difficult to recruit, but is that really all we want to be?  I say no.  And guess what?  Some outdoorsy white heterosexualists have even turned down our job offers, so there.

10 thoughts on “Creating a diverse pool of finalists for faculty jobs

  1. One of us is an economist, but we’re both social scientists. 🙂 (But yes, this comment was from the economist.) One thing about the economics job market is that generally assistant professors are hired before they have PhDs in hand or any publications. We’ve been focusing our recent searches on people who have been able to demonstrate productivity rather than us having to rely on what their advisers say about potential.

    One of my friends at a different school (0/1 teaching load for assistants, smart grad students etc.) says the gentlemen are always bemoaning the guys that they didn’t tenure. They had so much potential. But if they didn’t accomplish anything under the most fertile circumstances, how much potential did they really have?


  2. Word. And, here’s a dirty secret that I’d never say to a dean or an administrator: people who are going to publish publish. People who won’t publish, won’t, irrespective of teaching load, working conditions, etc. Now, of course, teaching and service loads and institutional support for research set parameters around one’s scholarly productivity, so it’s not like they’re irrelevant. But they are not entirely determinative of a colleague’s productivity as a scholar.

    “Potential” is such a bull$hit criteria in a search, anyway, one that can mean “he went to the right school and has the right adviser.”


  3. One cannot argue with academic success. Disciplines, however, do differ widely. Graduating assistant professors have naturally a limited published record. If beyond rudimentary, it is more a function of the prominence of the adviser or major star. We do rely on recommendation letters in my discipline. Deciphering a letter is an art form with a substantial tradition. The potential hire must visit, give a talk, attend lunches and dinners and speak with several faculty members. Impressions from the visit, e.g. fast thinking, friendliness, interests of all sorts, personality, figure in the final decision. We have no minorities but women are extremely important and successful in our department.

    I doubt whether any department can serve as an example for others; as the math guys say, we are all special cases.


  4. We don’t use explicit rubrics (we’re a very interdisciplinary program, so we’d create a new set of rubrics for each search) but like H’ann and her colleagues, we have a spreadsheet that asks about ways in which people meet the requirements. And I’ve learned how much fields differ. For instance, a person who is finishing in a lit field almost always has a publication, but a new Ph.d. in history much less often: usually historians don’t get into the archives until they are working on their dissertation, so the publishable stuff comes out of the diss, not course work. Lit faculty write long letters of rec — I think they average 3-4 pages, and some ran to 6.

    I tend to read letters last: I focus on the cover letter and statement of research and teaching, and then the CV. I’m really interested in how someone can talk about their work in a way that engages me. Letters can throw out danger signals, but on the positive end are pretty useless.


  5. May have misinterpreted “advanced assistants.” Here it may mean assistant profs with several years of experience. We do hire such people but their record must be excellent. It’s a heavier burden that fresh out of school candidates. “Excellent” record turns out to be a widely open term. Some count papers, some look excellent journals and the picky schools ask for research impact. The latter is a tall order only top schools demand.


  6. Bravo on the strictures on committees asking rhetorical questions of the “empty chair” variety: “will ze come here”–that could only meaningfully be asked of an actual applicant in situ. There are a wide variety of solilloquies that fall into this category, and as screening tools, they are fairly demented. On publications and load factors; it really is sometimes kind of remarkable. You sit there thinking “if I only had an X/X teaching load, plus some steady funding, I’d surely publish X/Y+D(d)2t#syc number of major articles.” Then you scan the lonely night sky of the uni-verse, and say “by the way, what ever happened to…” Agree. Potential is (often) a b.s. term of art.

    I’m writing letters right now, albeit for somebody’s admission to graduate school, not the job-o-sphere.


  7. “Potential” is such a bull$hit criteria in a search, anyway, one that can mean “he went to the right school and has the right adviser.”

    I have seen this up close in my field. When I went on the entry-level jobbe market {mumble} years ago, I was competing with a bunch of people who received their graduate and/or post-doctoral training in famous labs. Some of those were genuinely productive and had a good number number of high-impact first-author publications, and some were less so. While they all got great jobbes, many of the latter fizzled out and never established their own independent research programs.


  8. I love it when academics act like finding a diverse pool of candidates is some impossible task they cannot possibly perform. My (mental) response to folks in my department was always, Um, don’t be racist. That’s step #1. Then, don’t be sexist. Problem solved! Recruitment and retention are not rocket science. I find people deeply unwilling to confront their own bias, especially the more subtle forms; they expect bias to look like white supremacy-style race baiting, when it’s the more subtle ones, like confirmation bias, that are the culprits in job situations. “Potential” as well as “pedigree” are two ways of sustaining bias.

    @Historiann, I agree with what you say about publishing – I think Dr. Crazy is an excellent example of someone who keeps pushing forward in publishing in spite of a high teaching/service load as well as pushback from colleagues who appear occasionally jealous or resentful of her publishing. OTOH, I do think environment matters. If you teach at a place with a teaching/service load and colleagues who are not publishing, and you are intellectually lonely and isolated, it can slow down productivity. Which is not necessarily the end of the world, but it explains one reason why people at top jobs are often able to continue their ascent in the job hierarchy (not that this is an end-all-be-all. Not everyone’s dream is work at Princeton).

    “Potential” ha! I’ve seen people clean up in the job markets and fellowship competitions and first book prizes only to seemingly never do anything again (one hit wonders of the academic world).


  9. We’re doing some hiring at present working with a consultant (mandated from above as this is part of a parcel of ten hires with one related criteria). I’m seriously wondering how the whole process will be affected with a consultant in play. We will have a meeting with the consultant on Friday so I should know soon but does anyone have some experience?


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