Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Unintended Perils of Research Excellence

Here in the UK, the pressure is building as we head towards the next Research Excellence Framework assessment of universities (the results determine the levels of one major stream of state funding for the next 5-6 years). So when my department recently got permission to hire a new Hamsterology lecturer their research profile was the main selection criterion used.

We teach lots of aspects of Hamsterology, and are proud of the success of our Accredited Hamster Fur Weaving Minor option, which is covered by two academics. This post is to fill one of those two positions on the retirement of the current Weaver. In order to keep our accreditation from the Society of Hamster Fur Weavers, students on the accredited programme have to take a minimum number of hours of practical hamster handling and hamster fur harvesting. The guy who's staying is a superb Hamster Fur Weaver, but he's deathly allergic to living hamsters.

So we agreed to only set ONE teaching requirement for this post - the person appointed had to be able to work with living hamsters, supervise the care of our Demonstration Hamster Farm and teach students how to handle hamsters. We even went through a long process with the Human Resources department to get special permission to make a 'discriminatory hire' by excluding candidates with hamster allergies. The departmental people on the interview panel were briefed about this until they were bored stiff. Yes, they promised, we will ask directly the questions we have had approved by HR about hamster allergies and the ability to handle living hamsters.

And after the usual long, stressful process, we made an offer to a candidate who seemed perfect, they accepted, and all is sweetness and light and relief.

Even though he isn't starting until the Autumn, he visited our city along with his family this week, and decided to come in and deliver all his signed paperwork to HR in person. He is now bound to us and us to him. He popped in for a chat with the other Hamster Fur Weaving lecturer about how they wanted to divide up the required courses next year... which is when we learnt that he wouldn't be teaching Hamster Handling due to his allergies. Yes, apparently the panel were SO IMPRESSED with his research that they never actually got around to asking the Key Question, and now he's signed up there's nothing we can do.

It is funny. We have to laugh. Because otherwise there would be hysterics, break-downs and Unforgivable Things Said in public rather than in the bar.

He is less allergic than the other person, so if we can buy him a very expensive set of protective clothing and a qualified technician to do the caring and actual handing, he can teach the classes. Or, of course, we could send another colleague on multiple courses to get accredited to handle the furry critters. IF we had any discretionary MONEY left in the Department's budget after the hiring process, which of course we don't.

No, the Dean is No Help, because we have a great researcher, right? What more could we want?


  1. I have found that having a good research track record can make Administrators blind to quite a few faults...

  2. I'd like to say "Only in Academia!" except I know that isn't true.

  3. Naturally the members of the panel have volunteered to fill the gap by teaching Hamster Handling themselves? You know - as a way to make up for their error?

  4. Wait, did he apply for a job in hamster care while knowing he was allergic to hamsters?

  5. After yesterday, may I suggest #clusterfuck? ;)

  6. Angleman for Angleland, we can break him of this allergy through the glory of forced labor.

    Please contact us at:

    KGB Veteran's Association and Blues Band
    4232 Lubyanka ploschad'
    Moscow, Russian Federation

  7. Wasn't there a member of your department on the hiring committee? Seriously? That seems a very strange way to run a search.

  8. The job ad asked for someone to teach the courses needed for accreditation, but did not SPECIFY the actual ones where you touch live hamsters. The person appointed appears to have plenty of skills with fur once it's detached from the hamster, therefore can teach all the post-critter classes. He's a decent hire, on paper at least. Just... can't do the one thing that we really needed.

    There were four members of my department on the hiring committee. You'd think at least ONE of them would have known better. But apparently they were all swayed by the Shiny! Research! Potential!

    It would be so great to have one of them have to take over cleaning out the cages and showing students how not to get bitten, but it won't happen... they're all SENIOR, donchaknow

  9. A situation like this reminds me of the saying, "It hurts to much to laugh and I'm too old to cry."

  10. Wow: do you have a budget for research assistants?

  11. No budget :-(

    Yeah, BB, s a sort of hysterical fixed grimace somewhere between laughing and screaming was pretty noticeable around the department today...


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