Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Best Candidate Does Not Always Win

A long-time reader and frequent contributor sent us this story.  Due to the details provided and the subject matter, the contributor wishes to remain anonymous.

I am on a search committee for a new faculty member in a department aligned with my own.  We began the search full of excitement and hope, because after a long time the department is finally getting very much needed new energy.  The candidate needs to have a high level of technical skill, and also the kind of teaching experience that will prepare him or her for our very diverse environment.  Our student body is around 30% white, with the remaining 70% of various backgrounds (we have a map with pins noting the places our students are from, and it is quite impressive!).  Of course, it is not just experience with ethnic diversity that we need.  Faculty who come to my college often feel quite surprised and unsure how to handle the extreme level of diversity in college readiness.  We have a candidate who meets every expectation, and more.   Years of teaching experience with this population, several years teaching at our own institution, very strong technical credentials, community involvement, curriculum planning. His teaching demo blew us away, and he had a great idea for a new degree program within the department, one that he has the contacts and experience to get up and running in the short term.  He is amazing.  The only problem is, he is a white male.  The department in question is full of white males. Human resources and the admin team don't like this.  Not at all.

The next best candidate does happen to be a female who would qualify as diverse.  She has international experience, but none teaching in any kind of a diverse environment or in an urban environment in the U.S. She could give us no ideas for expanding the department (she understandably said that she could only know that by coming and getting a feel for the place).  Her teaching demo (we are HUGE into teaching here----it's the most important thing) was a bit scattered, and she messed up a few technical elements of her lesson.  But she was okay, and I could see she'd get better.  She's young.  I liked her, I really did. I do wonder how she'll handle the diversity, since her previous experience seems a bit....privileged.  But I liked her.   I LOVED the other guy.  We all felt the same way..

At present, it looks like a very real possibility that our first choice will not be getting the job, simply because he has the wrong kind of genitals and parents who hailed from the wrong place.

It will be a hard pill for all of us to swallow, and I also feel like it would put the successful candidate (the one the admins are trying to force us to hire) at a tremendous disadvantage because she would be coming in to face the sting of disappointment and anger that we were not permitted to choose what we felt was the best candidate.

My college does have a tremendously diverse student body, and if I were not so invested in this search, I might feel a bit differently about the way the students might need to see that diversity reflected in their professors.  As it stands, I am very sad by how unfair it all seems.

What do my AWC colleagues think about the value of diversity in a faculty?  Is it so much more important than other considerations, as was the case here? 

10 comments:

  1. I'm not allowed to have an opinion, because of my genitalia, sexual orientation and where my ancestors are from. And that's my opinion on the matter.

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    1. OK, that was a cop-out. I think that academic political realities are what they are, and also that -- for sometimes poor and sometimes excellent reasons -- non-white, non-male students may well be happier with a non-white, non-male as instructor. Affirmative action is intended to be a tie-breaker, and you don't have a tie -- but both candidates are "good enough" even though one is clearly better than the other.

      In other words, you need to choose the candidate that you, as a search committee, think is best, but if your choice is overruled, remember that it's not her fault. It's the adminflakes, and she has no control over what they did to you and your preferred candidate.

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  2. How is the final selection made? Here the committee picks its top three contenders after grading CVs and interviews and lessons with a very detailed rubric. Then just the CVs are given to an admin and the admin makes the final pick. It's usually a dean, and here, the overwhelming majority of the deans have bullshit degrees and business backgrounds. They don't know what the fuck they're looking at when they get a scientist's CV, but they can tell "John" from "Sally" and "Smith" from "Chen". They wouldn't know #1 guy was head and shoulders above #2 woman, but they would know he could pee standing up so #2 would get the job, regardless of the intention of affirmative action.

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    1. When you think about the entire process they so carefully scripted and published as part of the adjunct faculty contract booklet, so we'd all know what would happen before we could really get in the door, the final step makes it a huge waste of everyone's time. The rubric might as well be a Ouija board. But hey, it does create equality for both tenured and adjunct faculty alike: EVERYONE's time is worthless in the eyes of administration.

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  3. I think introvert nailed it. " Affirmative action is intended to be a tie-breaker, and you don't have a tie," but if you get your second-choice candidate, who definitely sounds good enough, with every sign of room/ability for improvement, bend over backwards to make things work; it's to everybody's advantage.

    And yes, having someone who "looks like them" will no doubt be helpful to some students, though it's worth noting that this may not go as far as the most idealistic proponents of diversity may think. Males from more traditional (and even more liberal) backgrounds may decide, on the basis of the faculty member's gender, that the work she does is "women's work," and beneath them (look at what's happening to the ministry, and to basic medical practice in many places), and/or more appropriate to an ethnic group toward which they feel hostility/contempt, or whatever. It's a very big world out there, and the American tendency to think of people as either "white" or "of color" is a well-past-its-sell-date leftover of our race-based system of slavery (and, later, segregation), and even those divisions weren't nearly as consistent/real as people pretended (they were fictions, fictions with very real, sometimes deadly, consequences, but fictions nonetheless). Especially since it sounds like the diversity of your student population arises in large part from recent immigration, there may well be a mismatch between affirmative action policies as written and the situation on the ground (for instance, it's interesting that they highlight this candidate's skin color and gender, but not her status as an immigrant, which may be a plus, or her class background, which may be a minus).

    Wombat's description of the process also brings up an interesting point: should we be de-gendering and de-racing c.v.s for at least part of the process? Presumably, with electronic submission, this might be increasingly possible, and, at least according to the studies I've read, it would probably favor non-white and non-male candidates (in aggregate, over the long term). Still, I can't quite imagine conducting interviews behind a curtain (or with the video on Skype turned off), and you'd still have a pretty good idea of gender (and perhaps race and/or ethnicity) from the voice. You certainly couldn't do a campus visit/teaching demo that way (and yes, many administrators would be completely lost if they didn't know whether to talk sports or go on about the community while studiously avoiding asking if the candidate actually has or intends to have children, depending on gender of said candidate).

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  4. And one final point, which you might be able to make work in your favor: it sounds like your preferred candidate may currently be a contingent faculty member at your institution (he's taught for several years at your institution), while your second-choice candidate is not. There is increasing concern about over-use and mistreatment of contingent faculty, including the strike currently taking place at UIC (covered by NPR this morning). Perhaps you could persuade your administration that hiring a well-qualified contingent faculty to a more permanent position would be a way of taking the lead in addressing this issue? I'm sure you can insert your administrators' favorite buzzwords in the right places to make this sound like a good idea to them.

    Of course, as a contingent faculty member myself, I can't help noting that people often seem much more concerned about seeing males "stuck" in contingent faculty positions than seeing females in the same position, but that's a discussion for another day. The basic principle that hiring your own contingents to more permanent positions when possible demonstrates basic decency and fairness, and leverages their prior experience with the institution in a way that benefits everyone -- they'll hit the ground running; they'll already know how to teach and so will have more energy for whatever additional service and/or research expectations the new job brings -- is sound.

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    1. Yes, hiring the person who has a track record of institutional loyalty would be a win-win, as it would leverage their experience within the current educational paradigm while setting the stage for exploring new synergies between the full-time and dynamic workforce so as to spring-board off of evolving student-centered pedagogical strategies in order to maximize attainment of competencies as reflected in learning outcomes.

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  5. Same as introvert.prof said. At our uni, affirmative action is the tie-breaker, not the criteria, for hiring. If the white dude is clearly the superior candidate, then white dude gets offered the job, even though our uni takes affirmative action very seriously, which means that it has to be clear in our search report, with an a priori scoring rubric, that white dude is ABSOLUTELY, not marginally or subjectively, the superior candidate. If push came to shove I'd use what Wombat said about the dean making the decision (which is also how it works at our uni) - we made our recommendation, now the admin gets to use their levers of power. But, don't try and make us retroactively change our report to make the white dude lower than #1 so that everyone can smile and say "we have consensus on the hire! no waves or boat rocking here, kudos! let's all have a cup of hot chocolate!"

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  6. If you believe that a truly diverse, across all possible identities, environment, and one that doesn't just look that way but where all people, no matter how underrepresented, feel confident to speak up and know that their perspectives will actually be heard, then you have to accept that that means if you're a person who has historically been privileged on whatever axis, you're going to have to get used to getting your own way somewhat less than before, whether that's about what authors are featured in the curriculum or the #1 choice for who gets hired. I think affirmative action, as one factor among many, not trumping all other qualifications, is so worth it.

    Cassandra's point about your guy possibly being adjunct is important, though. It would be hard not to praise a school for actually hiring a longtime adjunct for a decent job, for once.

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  7. Hello all! Our first choice has been a longtime adjunct here. I think that is why I am so sad. I have always been an advocate of affirmative action. Yet, as IntrovertProf put it, affirmative action is intended to be a tie breaker, and we don't have a tie.

    Kate, when you say "if you're a person who has historically been privileged on whatever axis, you're going to have to get used to getting your own way somewhat less than before, whether that's about what authors are featured in the curriculum or the #1 choice for who gets hired" you are implying that the issue here is that a bunch of white boys on a search committee are mad they are not getting their way.

    For what it is worth, the search committee was made up of men and women of various ethnic backgrounds. That's another policy here at our institution, and while it is one that has every minority faculty member hiding in back hallways when new positions are announced because they don't want to participate in ANOTHER search, I think it is a good policy. It's also the reason I was on the committee.

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