Saturday, September 27, 2014

Is There a Job Committee Thirsty? Marc in Michigan Fucks Up the Sacrosanct Rules in Ways Nobody at the (Old) Compound Will Ever Forgive Me For.

I'm running a job search committee for the first time with a couple of vets and a couple of newbies like myself. We're a teaching institution seeking an asst/assoc level professor to teach and do 50% administration. We're very middle of the road, but a fine place to teach. Nobody is extraordinarily ambitious, but we do a good job in the classroom.

Somehow I got asked to cull the big stack and bring about 20-30 top candidates to our first meeting next month.

And I'm stunned. The wealth of applicants is defeating my will. Lots of great people, lots of interesting cases.

I have one guy - and this is all HEAVILY anonymized - who I think looks great, but there are elements that scare me. Could you readers tell me what their impression would be of a candidate like this:

  • He's 55.
  • He's got 6 books, but only one in our particular field. He has virtually no other publications or research in journals.
  • He's had tenure twice and left after 3 and 5 years.
  • He's taught at 10 different institutions, including one of the top ten research universities in the country, hell, any country.
  • For the past 5 years he's taught part time at a community college on the other side of the country from us. There's no explanation of why he left a tenured job for that one.
  • He's taught longer than anyone else in our department.
  • He has relevant experience in administration - he was even a department chair for 5 years.
  • His letter is extraordinarily well done and he shows real knowledge of our university and our department.
Q: And he scares me. Why would anyone give up tenure? Twice? Has he been run out of town? Will my committee colleagues think I'm crazy? Have I discovered a diamond in the rough, or is it just all rough?


  1. It's probably against the rules, but ask about his family situation. There could be extenuating circumstances such as caring for an aging parent, or having a "special needs" child requiring a huge commitment of time & resources.
    OR, he could be a serial sexual harasser and been forced out due to bad behavior.

    I understand your squeamishness. Maybe there's a way for you to do some discreet background inquiries.
    -- Annie Adjunct

    1. Serial sexual harasser was my very first thought,

    2. ... but finding this out is not necessarily easy. We had a fabulous TT applicant, from a top, TOP institution, fabulous research record, glowing reviews, and at his last appointment, dinner with one of our junior (female) proffies - there was supposed to be 2 proffies, but one had to bug out - he came on to her in a rather crude way. I knew one of the rec letter writers and a year later, over a drink, asked him about it; "Oh, we thought he had learned his lesson and finally cleaned up his act." WTF!!!!! They KNEW his behavior had been a problem, and more than once! Maybe your nervousness is for a reason.

    3. I'm astonished two people thought pervert because an academic moved around. This fucking world.

    4. It's impossible to know, but the only people I know who've left tenure were folks who were banging students. Tenure or not, force can be brought to bear on a pervert like that who uses power to abuse others.

      This is a candidate to avoid. Not worth the risk. Academics seek tenure; they don't run from it. He's spent 5 years parttime at a community college after having taught at a top ten school? If it walks like a duck, harrasses like a duck, well, you know the rest.

    5. CM said: "I'm astonished two people thought pervert because an academic moved around. This fucking world. "

      Make that three people. And yes.

  2. Excuse me, kids, but asking about his family situation is illegal, even if done "discreetly." So is age discrimination. Either could open you up to a lawsuit, or worse.

    I think what's legitimately questionable about this guy is his apparently short attention span. He seems unable to stay anywhere for more than five years. Recruiting faculty is expensive, both in money and in your time: with his work history, he's likely to leave after 5 years, and you'll be right back at recruiting again. With the wealth of talent you have available, can't you find someone more likely to stay?

    1. Another way to say short attention span is lack of commitment, which is not what your students need.

    2. Personally, I think there's nothing worse for the health of a uni than a faculty of people stuck in their jobs for 20+ years.

    3. A faculty subject to constant turnover isn't much better. If for no other reason, where are students going to get letters of recommendation? And what about the long-term, more consequential projects that the continuity of tenure is supposed to enable?

      I'd agree with you if you meant faculty stuck in their jobs for 20+ years who have become inactive in research, however.

  3. Are the information legit? What do you find online about this candidate? Can you ask about the motivation in advance, eg via email? Ask any of the former employers/colleagues?

  4. Marc writes: "We do not have the option of speaking to the candidates outside of an actual interview."

  5. Long-time lurker, first-time commenter. So glad you're back!

    A few years ago, I was on a search committee for a fixed-term position (1-year renewable). We had a *very* similar candidate rise to the top of our list -- older, good publication and service record, several teaching appointments across a range of schools (one of 'em very upper-tier), and at the time of appointment, having been tenured at hir present school for 10+ years.

    Everyone on the committee thought this candidate looked fantastic. Everyone on the committee also wanted to ask the candidate: "WTF?!?" Since that's not completely legal, we decided we really had to give the candidate a shot.

    During hir phone interview, after knocking our questions out of the park, this candidate volunteered, of hir own volition, hir reasons for applying. Those reasons were totally sane -- zhe was burned out at hir current gig; zhe had family (including grandchildren) in our area; and, since zhe was planning to retire in a few years anyway, zhe figured zhe'd give hir remaining energy to a place closer to where zhe'd like to live out hir final years.

    We ultimately went with someone else (who's been doing great), but I feel good that the committee took (I think, anyway) the right moral road on this one… seems like there are few remaining opportunities to do so as it is.

    Obviously, every situation is different -- but if this guy otherwise seems like the great match you're describing, I'd vote for taking the chance, and let him have the opportunity to give you an explanation for the less-than-ideal aspects of his prior career.

    - Pappy Yokum, Ph.D.

  6. I was thinking along the same lines as others above: not so much that you should ask about his family situation (though I believe asking *him* why he's moved around so much is legit, and might elicit voluntary revelation of relevant personal information), as that this job history might look considerably less surprising/suspicious if the candidate were female. You might well assume that her choices were made to accommodate a spouse (and/or children, and/or elderly parents). The same could be true for this candidate, or he could get bored easily (not good for you, as Frod points out, though it's probably going to get harder for him to move as he gets older. Still,you don't want someone riding out his boredom -- or doing the minimum for you while concentrating on writing another book -- until retirement), or he could be prone to shady but perhaps not quite provable/prosecutable behavior of some sort, or he could be a high-functioning addict, or usually cope well with a chronic mental illness, but have periodic relapses. It could even be that he switches between periods focused on teaching and service/administration and periods focused on writing (he's got a lot of books), and has somehow been able to swing that financially (another explanation for the behavior pattern you've described might be that he doesn't have to work to support himself, but chooses to -- which could be either a very good thing or a very bad thing for his employer).

    Do you have the option of checking references (i.e. actually speaking with referees) before inviting people for an interview? And do you have the option of asking references for additional references? While google can be somewhat useful in a situation like this, it seems to me that, if you're seriously thinking about hiring this guy, this situation calls more for the old-fashioned approach of working your network to try to find acquaintances, or acquaintances of acquaintances, who have actually worked with him. HR may frown on such practices these days, but they do have their place.

    P.S. I'm kinda rooting for him. I sure hope that 55-year-olds are still employable, since I could easily find myself on the job market at 55 (voluntarily, semi-voluntarily, or involuntarily). Unfortunately, I wouldn't have nearly the experience, or the publications, he does.

  7. Why is it assumed that if a person leaves a tenured position, the institution was a worker's paradise? I've worked for enough employers to know that nothing is ever permanent. Managers come and go, not everyone is going to be your friend, and what seems like the perfect place could easily turn into hell on earth.

    It may well be that the applicant received tenure when certain administrators were in office but, for reasons such as promotion or retirement, they were replaced. It could be that the successor(s) decided they didn't like him and used their position and corresponding authority to push him out.

    Unfortunately, that is quite common in academe:

    Maybe the applicant hung on until it was convenient for him to leave and do so on his own accord. If that's ever brought up in an interview, and he gives that as answer, that should be good enough. If the interviewers want more information, they're going to have to find it elsewhere.

    By the way, saying *anything* negative about a former employer, even if it's the truth, could be the kiss of death in an interview.

  8. It's an interesting question. I've served a lot of time on job committees and been on the other side of the table almost as often as the poor bastard in the story.

    One thing I'd add, maybe as an alternative theory that he must be a sexual predator, is that he's a trailing spouse. That's my situation. My wife has always made 2-5 times more than me, so when her career pulled us places, we often went. I've walked away from perfectly good gigs and have had to live with the consequences of how that looks in an academic career.

    But it turns my stomach to think that someone may have ascribed my moves to the suggested theories above.

  9. The candidate ahould provide an explanation on his own, either in the cover letter ("You wonder why I left a tenured possition at XYZ"...) or in the phone interview. If he does not then it looks more suspicious.

    1. One rule of thumb for interviews is: "He who excuses himself accuses himself." In other words, don't volunteer any unnecessary information which might arouse suspicions. If the interviewers think something's important, make *them* ask. If not, say nothing.

      If an employer decides to turn down an applicant because that person said nothing about a particular detail (and nobody else asked anything about it, either), that outfit was merely looking for excuses not to hire him or her. Any outfit that would be so petty probably wouldn't be worth working for.

      Unless one is being interviewed for a position for which security clearance is required (and being vetted for that is a separate process), one is not required to give an explanation without being asked.

  10. I just left a tenured position because of mobbing. Tenure only provides so much protection against that.

    1. That was largely my situation as well, though most of the effort came from the department head and the ADH, each for reasons of their own.

      I left at a time which was convenient for me as I achieved a certain financial objective. After that, I wondered why I was still there, particularly since I knew that the harassment would have continued.

      For much of the time, anybody who joined our department just happened to be a buddy of the ADH, so it came as no surprise to me that my successor, who started soon after I left, was one as well. Coincidence?

    2. By the way, the last dean did nothing to stop it and our staff association was useless in the matter.

  11. Any reason not to interview him and ask him those questions directly? That would certainly yield more actionable information than speculation, which thus far has branded him a sexual predator, loving spouse, drug addict, dutiful son, unstable quitter, mentally ill, and so forth. If you can bring in only a certain number of candidates to interview and you have filled that quota with equally or more qualified candidates without mysterious pasts, then pass on this one and don't regret it for a moment. If he's at the top of the heap despite these unanswered questions, then bring him in and get those questions answered. Pappy's comment makes a strong case for taking the fair approach to answering the questions by letting him speak for himself.