Image:Kevin Van Aelst For The Chronicle
Gaining approval to hire a faculty member — whether the position is a new line or a vacant one — is among the most important things you will do as a department chair or dean.
It’s also one of the thorniest, with plenty of logistical details to manage and minefields to avoid (political, cultural, and personal). I’ll be exploring faculty hiring in the next few essays of the Admin 101 series on higher-education leadership. In March I offered general advice on the best ways for administrators to “make a big ask.” Here I am focusing more narrowly on how to secure approval to hire a faculty member in a new or existing position. Even getting the money to refill a position is no small feat in these grim budget days.
So what should you do if you are in charge of proposing a faculty hire?
Make sure you understand each phase of the process. A recurrent theme across my next few columns on faculty hiring will be the need to plan ahead of every step. Years ago, faculty hiring was pretty simple. In the late 1960s, when my father was hired as an assistant professor, he hadn’t even applied for the job. He told me he got a phone call from a colleague who said something to the effect of, “Good news, Howard, I just talked to our dean, and he likes that paper you wrote. Can you start August 21?”
Everything is much more complicated now — as evidenced by the many steps an administrator must complete before a tenure-track faculty member can actually start work. For example, at the college where I am dean, our recruiting process comprises a whopping 101 actions — with information to be obtained, processes to be completed, approvals to be finalized. Skip or forget just one step and the hire could stall or fall through.
Sequential as these steps may be, they also may overlap. If, say, you are hiring in a STEM field at a research university, you will at some point have to obtain a considerable amount of money — perhaps millions of dollars — for the start-up costs of a high-powered researcher who will be expected to bring in substantial external funding. Actually allocating start-up funds might be Step No. 48, but your initial pitch will have to include commitments or assurances from multiple parties at the departmental, college, and university levels to help finance those costs.
From start to finish of every hire, you will have to track and verify an array of intricate details. It helps to know what is expected of you ahead of each step. Don’t just run down a checklist without understanding the entire process.
Make sure everyone understands the total costs of the hire. Nobody likes a budget surprise. (Unless it’s an unexpected windfall, and how often does that happen?) Part of your job in making the case for the position is to paint an accurate picture of the total costs. It’s not just a matter of the hire’s first year of salary and benefits. Your proposal has to project the initial expenses of the hire, the long-term costs, and the hidden ones:
- Let’s start with the most obvious: salary. You have to identify a particular starting salary or salary range based on some combination of: (a) the going rate for the discipline and rank at your type of institution, and (b) what you can afford or expect to be allocated.
- Fringe benefits (health insurance, retirement contributions) are the equivalent of about 20 to 30 percent of the hire’s salary and have to be part of your proposal. Who pays for the fringe is a point often negotiated between a department and a college or the university itself.
- What are the start-up costs after you offer someone the job? The easiest to anticipate — and the most expensive — are the costs for constructing a lab and hiring postdocs for a new faculty member in the sciences. But every new assistant professor will need a computer, a phone, other technology, office supplies, and furniture.
- Perhaps your new hire has negotiated a course buyout for the first year, in which case you need someone else to teach that class.
- Moving expenses are another likely cost and can vary widely, depending on where in the nation or world your new hire is moving from and other factors. A senior professor with a family usually has acquired considerably more possessions than a new Ph.D. who is still single and only has to bring clothing and a few pieces of Ikea furniture.
- The costs of the search itself — for example, in advertising and announcements in key publications and other media venues. Covid-19 has moved most interviews online, but if candidates are brought to campus, the department will have to pay travel, restaurant, and lodging expenses.
A new hire may happen to incur yet more costs that arise only in negotiating stages when the candidate of choice is selected. Spousal accommodation is the most prominent item in the category of hidden costs that must go onto your checklist. You want to hire a new assistant professor of anthropology whose spouse happens to be a biochemist. Some entity — perhaps your department, or the university out of a targeted fund — will have to subsidize the spousal hire for a short time, if not the duration.
Gauge the politics of the hire. Once you have planned out the logistics of the hire, and the budget for it, you need to consider the politics of requesting and obtaining the various levels of approval. Plenty of folks will have a stake in this hire but won’t all agree on the department’s most urgent needs.
The chair of a department of languages at a small liberal-arts college told me about a “civil war” that ensued after a professor retired. Different factions arose in the department, variously pushing for a tenure-track research hire in their language specialty, chronological era, research-method focus, or ideological bent. After months of bickering and give and take, they arrived at a compromise: The department would hire a multi-language, multi-method scholar who, the chair feared, “probably didn’t exist.” Then the dean stepped in, insisting that the hire be a nonresearch instructor to teach introductory classes in the most popular language. Things got so bad that no hire was made at all, and the department lost the line vacated by the retiring professor.
The lesson? Don’t ignore the internal factional realities of the hire any more than the logistics. Useful tactics include lobbying, horse-trading, and pleading for the common good. In a culture of trust and goodwill, the process may be smooth; in a culture of suspicion and acrimony, it may not.
In either case, your charge remains to uphold the most pressing needs of the department in terms of research, teaching, and service. What kind of hire will best serve those needs? The hope is that you have helped build a political and cultural atmosphere in which a voting majority will support the greater good and not merely a narrow interest.
Be prepared to make the case in different ways to different groups. Most faculty hires (except, for example, part-time instructors) require several crucial approvals — starting with the department and then up the administrative ranks. Before going to anyone else with your pitch, identify what arguments and evidence you are likely to need before they can buy in. Professors might want to know things like how this new hire will provide teaching relief or attract more students to the major, while the dean might want to make sure the new hire can cover multiple needs and bring in external funding (in the case of research-heavy positions).
There are two approaches you can take to convincing the various players:
- Assemble a separate proposal for each constituency, focusing on aspects of concern and interest about the hire, specific to that group.
- Draft a single proposal that comprehensively deals with the key issues and possible outcomes for each constituency.
Regardless of which approach you choose, your proposal(s) should leave no big questions unanswered, nor fail to vet potential objections. If you are relatively new to your position, find some old hands on the campus who can offer a constructive critique.
Hiring a future colleague is perhaps one of the most sacred and time-honored duties of academic administrators and faculty members alike. As teachers and researchers, we actually can change students’ lives for the better. A great hire has the potential to benefit the department, the institution, and the students for decades to come. So whether you are a department head, a search-committee chair, or a dean, take the time to sweat the details and paint the big picture of the kind of faculty member you need, and why.