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.