What Every Search Committee Will Tell You
The guidelines—sometimes explicitly written, sometimes just a part of oral tradition—at every institution where I’ve worked have been the same: in faculty searches, committees are to review the written applications carefully and conduct telephone (or, later, video) interviews of select candidates; then they are to prepare a short list of three candidates who will be brought to campus; if, after the campus interviews, none of those candidates proves to be acceptable, then a determination will be made whether to cancel the search or to bring in a fourth and possibly a fifth candidate for a campus interview. When I visit other colleges and universities throughout the country, I find that these guidelines, while not universal, are at least exceedingly common. And nearly as common is a request that the search committee makes to its chair or dean after the applications have been screened. In fact, the request is so common that I’ve taken to calling it What Every Search Committee Will Tell You.
Here’s how it works. When the phone or video interviews are complete and all the applicants’ materials have been screened, the search committee chair will come into the dean’s or chair’s office and say, “I know we’re supposed to bring only three candidates to campus. But Candidate X lives locally [or perhaps is an internal candidate], and so it won’t cost us that much more to invite in four candidates. So, can we get permission to have four on-campus interviews?” That request is so common and seems so logical to the search committee itself that it seems fair to ask, why not comply with this proposal? After all, doesn’t it make sense to take advantage of the fact that one candidate happens to live nearby and thus you can see as many different applicants as possible? Nevertheless, as logical as that request may be, it’s always a bad idea to comply with this proposal. Here’s why.
Money is not the only cost in a search
What Every Search Committee Will Tell You is always presented as being either cost neutral or a very minor additional investment on the part of the institution. But what members of the search committee often don’t realize until the interviews are under way is that money isn’t the only resource expended in a search. A properly conducted interview also requires massive investments of time and energy. Candidates have to be escorted from one meeting to the next, entertained, fed, questioned, and evaluated.
The objection will be made that because the candidate is local or already an employee, these considerations don’t apply. There will be no drive from the airport, no need to take the person to another building that he or she already knows well, and no need to provide special meals. But conducting the search that way poses problems. The more differences we make in the schedule of a local candidate, the more atypical his or her experience becomes relative to that of the other applicants. Search committee members gain valuable insights as they walk across campus with a candidate (even if that candidate is already well known to them) or share a meal. If you don’t provide equivalent experiences for every candidate, you open the door to an accusation of unfairness no matter what the decision is. If the local candidate gets the job after a scaled-down search process, it looks to the other candidates as though the process were fixed in favor of the internal candidate. If the local candidate isn’t chosen, then he or she is likely to complain that the other candidates had more time with the search committee. Members of the search committee will ask you how other candidates can possibly find out about the internal candidate’s experience once they leave campus. The answer is that we live in a small, interconnected world and regardless of how the other candidates learn these things, inevitably they do.
In addition, properly conducted searches are exhausting. The same search committee that begs for four candidates to be interviewed will often wish that the process could be completed after meeting only one or two. Courses have to be rescheduled in order to clear the day for interviews and public presentations. Faculty members have to devote evenings to meals with the candidates or trips to the airport or the hotel. (At some schools, the members of the search committee even have to pay for their own meals when dining off campus with a candidate.) Follow-up calls will sometimes have to be made in order to gain more information after a candidate’s departure. Chairs and deans will have to block out time in their day, even if they are having only courtesy calls with each candidate. In short, gearing up for an on-campus interview drains the energy of everyone involved. If you do conduct more interviews than necessary to make the search thorough and fair, you’ll have far less energy to devote to all the other activities central to a faculty position—such as teaching your courses and conducting your research.
Each candidate should have an equal chance
The second reason why expanding the interview pool is “expensive” has to do with the cost of an extended process as it affects the search’s fairness to all candidates. In any series of interviews, the person who goes first will be at a disadvantage. Even if the interviews all take place on successive days, memories of a candidate become surprisingly hazy once the search committee and other interviewers have spoken to one or two more people. Moreover, search committees sharpen their skills over the course of an interview process. By the time they meet with the third candidate, they know what questions they really need to ask and how best to phrase each question. The committee members may unconsciously hold it against an early candidate that he or she didn’t happen to address a specific issue, even though they didn’t think of asking about it until later in the process. That situation, which is rued in all searches, can become even worse as the number of interviewees expands. So, by adding an applicant to the finalist list, you are creating a genuine disadvantage for the first candidate and end up treating that person unfairly.
Search committees should screen tightly, not loosely
Perhaps the most important reason to turn down a request to interview additional candidates is that a prolonged process alleviates the search committee’s need to screen the applicants as thoroughly as they should. Consciously or not, they’ll be tempted to offer a courtesy interview to an internal or local candidate merely because it seems to be the polite thing to do. But interviewing a candidate who is not as competitive as the others is always a mistake. It raises that candidate’s expectations, and if he or she later discovers that the committee was basically just going through the motions of an interview, the candidate may well be even more upset than if no interview were offered in the first place. In certain instances, the result may be a grievance or a lawsuit. For this reason, by forcing the committee to limit its interviews to the three best candidates, regardless of their location, those who are conducting the search will be compelled to focus their attention on the applicants who are most qualified and likely to be offered the job.
What Every Search Committee Will Tell You is often presented as though it is a creative and original idea. It isn’t. It’s a request that—OK, let’s be honest, not every search committee will make, though it often seems that way—is regarded as an effective solution even though there are compelling reasons why it’s a bad idea. If the members of the search committee still don’t believe you after you’ve made your case, show them this article. At the very least, it will be proof that their “original idea” isn’t all that original.
Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.
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