Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Big Thirsty on Search Committee Fairness.

Call me Newbie Nora, a t-t faculty member doing my first search committee service at a large state uni in the Midwest.

I started the process all excited, and even sort of (oddly) enjoyed the EEOC / HR videos I had to watch in preparation.

And of course as soon as the actual process got started, our committee spent nearly all of our time opining on things that I thought we weren't allowed to consider.

One Skype interviewee was deemed "too unhealthy" to take a risk on. (All we knew for sure is that she was overweight.)

An early candidate was dismissed because our search chair said, "Jesus, this guy was teaching before I was in middle school! He's only got a few good years left." The table erupted in laughter.

Another candidate was singled out this way: "I bet he has all of Cher's CDs in his car."

Q: Is this "normal" in job searches? I liked one of the candidates above quite a bit who got bounced for obviously non-academic reasons. I'm new here; I like the school. Should I stick my neck out and say something? To whom?


  1. I think age is an appropriate consideration if you are expecting the person to establish a research group in your department. Same goes for candidates who you think might jump ship at the next slightly better offer.

    Judging based on health, size or anything else unrelated to the position is inappropriate.

    1. Oh boy. Here come the ageism accusations.

    2. It's actually illegal to refuse to hire someone based on their age. It's a federally protected class.

    3. If we're talking about the US, it's only illegal if you refuse to hire something _because_ of their age, and only if they're over 40 (by the way, it is absolutely legal to refuse to hire someone for being too young).

      However, if you refuse to hire someone because of something related to their old age but required by the job, it is legal. For example, you can refuse to hire a 60-year-old with arthritis because the arthritis would prevent them from doing their job. But you can't do so "because he's 60." Ben's argument is a little iffy though - I'm not sure how EEOC would see that perspective (let alone the courts).

  2. Unfortunately, that seems to be the norm for interviews nowadays, regardless of whether it's in academe or industry.

    When I had a brand-new B. Sc. back in the late 1970s, many employers were more concerned about one's ability to do a certain job and the ability to get along with one's colleagues was given. Now, the emphasis is on "fit", whatever that's supposed to be. I gather it means that being able to do the work is already assumed, so now the concern is whether one's potential colleagues like a certain candidate, someone who can belong to the clique.

    Think of the interview as being similar to how children select who gets to play with them in the sandbox.

    Unfortunately, in your situation, there's not much you can do. The best thing, since you're new, is to play dumb. Don't make trouble for yourself.

    1. It's worth emphasizing what you said - we make these subjective and possibly unfair judgements after we have narrowed down the list to the top 5%. When they are all good on paper, then how do you decide? Getting along with everybody and sparing me from another hiring committee in two years is a definite plus for any applicant.

  3. Replies
    1. We also just got through saying that being married to someone on faculty was a totally legitimate criterion for deciding who gets hired.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. It's true in hiring that you're deciding on a person who is essentially going to be your next-door neighbor for the next thirty years, so you should hire someone you are likely to get along with. There's a gray zone about certain things. But it's clear your colleagues have stepped way over it into being dicks.

    AdjunctSlave: Yeah, unsurprising that the lucky winners would claim it was a meritocracy. "I worked hard and I won, therefore it must have been fair."

  5. Assume you say something to a higher up, like the Dean, who may turn around and possibly say something to the tenured faculty members on the committee. Guess what? I'm guessing that person they didn't like, for whatever reason, will still not get hired and you'll be in the doghouse as well. If you're not tenured yet, I'd take a diplomatic approach: try to hammer on the positive attributes of the people you like:

    "I bet he has all of Cher's CDs in his car."

    "Well, I couldn't comment on that. But, just look at his CV. He has a huge amount of pubs / teaching experience / service things! I think this is really impressive and Dr. X could really bring some great stuff to our department!"

    You might still get outvoted, but you can at least have a clear conscience about things.

  6. I'm surprised (to put it mildly) that "a large state uni in the Midwest" doesn't require a hiring compliance officer on hiring committees. Excluding a candidate because of his/her physical appearance or age is illegal. Period.

    It's clear that watching EEOC/HR videos didn't get the job done; that's why out here in California the actual physical presenceof a hiring compliance officer at every single committee meeting is the usual practice. Y'all are setting yourselves up for a nasty lawsuit.

    Back in the day before this was required at my school, the lack of any guidelines resulted in some really difficult ethical decisions. Here's a not-so-hypothetical example:

    Imagine you're on a search committee. One candidate, female, an adjunct teacher from a long ways away, has to take time off from her adjunct work and spend quite a bit of money to get to a first-level interview. The interview goes really well: She is apparently a good teacher and would be an excellent candidate to send to the college president and VPAA. That would require another expensive trip for another interview.

    The candidate is overweight. Really overweight. You know--and it's an absolute certainty--that the VP and prez would never, ever hire her.

    Do you ignore what you know and send her forward because she's a good candidate? It's easy enough to play Pontius P., wash your hands, and say to yourself, "Those guys are pigs, but it's their decision and their karma, not mine."

    On the other hand, she'll have to pay for another expensive trip, do all the mental prepping for another interview (including getting her hopes up) while there is zero chance of getting the job.

    What do you do?

    That's why hiring compliance officers are necessary.

    1. Done lots of searches, never actually met a compliance officer. Seen emails, and heard rumors, and I know there's paperwork for them, but we've been left on our own every time.

      That said, I've only very rarely heard anything that sounded like a violation, though I've had suspiscions about how some people compiled their rankings.

      Can't say for sure how I'd respond if I heard stuff that blatant, but there's no way I wouldn't follow up with Dept. chair or EEO office. People being that careless can force a search to be cancelled, which is bad enough, and can get a school sued which is very, very bad for everyone.

  7. At Large Urban Community College, we have a compliance officer. Her job is to come in, show us the video, give us a lecture, and then leave the search up to us. She doesn't actually sit in on all the committees. Interestingly, the HR materials all seem tailored to staff positions. I wish we had someone there who actually understood what faculty do and why we might need some procedures to be slightly different. But the one thing that was absolutely, positively drilled into our heads was never to write anything down that could be used in a lawsuit. We had to turn in our notes from the interviews, our ranking sheets with justifications, and copies of all emails exchanged among committee members. This of course meant that it was open season for verbal exchanges of any kind since those could be easily challenged or "forgotten."

    On the last search committee I sat on, we had a candidate who has applied several times to our department. On paper he looks great, and he gave a decent interview. But he is fat, as in "squarely in the middle of the morbidly obese BMI chart" fat. I'm fat too, and we have many people in our department who range from "could stand to lose 20 pounds" to "barely can fit into clothes at Lane Bryant." But when it came time to do our evaluations of the candidates selected for first interview, the whole "unhealthy" issue popped up as a code word as well. Ironically, the person who started it is someone with a chronic health issue that may very well kill him in the next five years.

    I feel bad for this guy because I think he would be a good colleague. He has credentials from a top school and has been out doing the adjunct game and private school teaching for several years. And at this particular interview, he was one of only two candidates who actually prepared the teaching demo in the way the committee requested. I tried to stand up for him based on his education and interview, but the others weren't going for it. Fat is fat, I guess.

  8. Christ, maybe my phd program wasn't completely nuts in encouraging we all spend as much time at the gym as we do studying and pushing forward the skeletonliest (I swear it's a word) folks possible as those having the best advantage on the market.

    1. Wow, no, this shit never comes up. "He has all of Cher's CDs" is code for gay, obvs. So we have discrimination on the basis of age, physical ability, and sexual preference. Where I work, any number of people would look sweetly at the one who said any of these things, and say, "Honey, that's actionable."

      In addition to compliance officers with whom search chairsm meet, we have staff notetakers at the meetings so everything is a matter of record. That goes a long way toward keeping things clean. It's at meals and "informal" gatherings that damage can be done, and it's the search chair's job to remind everyone about liability and ethics.

    2. I was on a search committee to fill my last position when I took the one I have now. Some weird stuff came up, but it was all from the candidates themselves, not from us, thank goodness. But it doesn't surprise me that in some schools these things are talked about. After all, I was told by one prof at the school I came from that I probably would have gotten a position there if I looked like I worked as hard as the girl who got it. *sigh* (Given the number of hours we spent on campus, publications, and conference presentations, there was no doubt in my mind she didn't mean academically.)

      (For the record: on the committee I was on, one candidate in that search had no idea how to answer the "where do you see yourself in five years" question, another handed us copies of outdated articles when asked about teaching philosophy as if we wouldn't be aware of popular publications from years and years ago, and a third was just a bad fit. As a bad fit for that job myself, as much as I liked her, I knew she'd be miserable and so did everybody else on the committee.)

  9. @Nora: Your department Chair is a reckless jagoff. He is not doing his job. It is against the law to discriminate based on age, physical ability, or sexual orientation in the way he is doing it. Your departmental colleagues are also jagoffs, for not just tolerating it, but encouraging it. They are setting themselves up for a lawsuit, or worse.

    What can you do about it? I'm sorry to have to tell you, but probably not much, now. You're too low on the totem pole. If they are this unfair when hiring, their tenure decisions may not be much better. Once you get tenure, you may blow the whistle without fear of losing your job. Even then, getting promotions or funding from these people may not be possible. Almost no one wants to be Chair, though, so when the time comes, you may be able to take over and reform their policies. I wish I had something better to tell you.

    @AdjunctSlave: The point I was trying to make in that thread was that it is supposed to be a meritocracy, but it doesn't work very well. It certainly doesn't work well now, in the hypercompetitive, contracting job market. It probably never has worked well: academia used to be infamous for being an "old boy" network, and one can't claim that it still isn't.

  10. Wow, really, who in this day and age cares if someone is gay or straight; black, white, or polka-dotted? I just want someone who will get their f'ing work done and not dump it in my lap!

    I am sorry you are having to deal with that garbage!


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