Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle
In academic administration, there are genres of writing that will never receive official awards but should. I know deans who deserve a Pulitzer Prize for “Best Memo to the Provost Justifying New Hires,” and department chairs worthy of the “Field Medal for Scheduling Fall Classes to Accommodate Every Faculty Preference.” Let’s also create a “Nobel Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Budget Spreadsheets.”
Among the most crucial types of writing you must get right to be effective in administration is the “hiring profile” for a job opening, also known as the “position description.” It’s what forms the basis of the actual job ads you read in publications like The Chronicle.
In the Admin 101 series on academic leadership, I’m focusing a set of columns on the art of hiring — most recently, on the best ways to request a new faculty line in an era of budget cuts. Once you have permission (and money) to hire, you have to draft a position description that will attract the sort of faculty candidates you need. How to do that is this month’s topic.
Start with a template. If you are a new administrator, many of the documents that you must prepare may seem daunting to write. Luckily, much of what we do starts with a familiar template that you probably already have access to or will quickly grow familiar with. After more than a dozen years as an academic administrator, I can write a budget memo without thinking too much about format, style, or tone. The actual data may take weeks to generate, but the template is standardized.
Likewise, the hiring profile for a job opening varies a lot in information but little in format. Perhaps you have worked on hiring profiles in the past by serving on a search committee. You will have some plug-and-play language at your disposal — in your office files, from an administrative assistant, or via a human-resources staff member — so you aren’t really creating everything from scratch.
Think of it as analogous to developing a syllabus. Much of what goes into the syllabus is original content having to do with your particular course. But as anybody who’s been teaching for a while knows, institutions have added more and more compulsory language for every syllabus, such as the obligatory sections on plagiarism, on absences, and, nowadays, on wearing masks and socially distant seating.
The same is true of position descriptions: Some of the language is universal for all hiring on the campus (such as a paragraph describing the institution, its basic metrics, and its mission), and some of it is local (such as details about the hiring department).
So there’s no need to create more work for yourself. Find the relevant template, and use it as Step No. 1 to create your hiring profile.
Consult the relevant constituencies. Depending on the type of position to be filled, you as an administrator may have a great deal of control over the content of the hiring profile or you may share that control with faculty members.
For example, when it comes to hiring a contingent faculty member to teach a single course, a department chair may be completely in charge of the process. On the other hand, for a full-time, tenure-track job, you as chair are only one of the folks who will weigh in on what to include in the position description. So, too, will the search-committee members, or even the entire departmental faculty. Most likely, you then will have to submit the penultimate draft for approval to the dean’s office, human resources, and/or the diversity office. Upper-level administrators at your institution may also need to sign off on it.
The actual flow of drafting and approval will vary, depending on many factors — not just bureaucratic and financial but also personal, cultural, and political.
A chair of a humanities department at a small liberal-arts university once described how, for many years, the process of writing a hiring profile was not controversial and department-centric. But then a new dean took office and, in an era of shrinking budgets, started taking a much more active role in not only approving hiring lines but also setting job qualifications. Simultaneously, the university expanded the reach of its diversity office, which began providing departments with very specific language for position descriptions and more oversight of hiring. The process is now longer and more complicated, and involves far more players than it did a decade ago.
So even if a hire is technically something that you’re “in charge of,” the reality of academe today is that there may be quite a number of cooks in the kitchen with you. You have to respect all of them, and find a way to reconcile their overlapping authority with your own.
Differentiate between “require” and “prefer.” One of the long-term trends in hiring profiles is for greater formality and specificity. Typically that results in position descriptions with both a list of “required” qualifications and a set of “preferred” ones. (I wrote about the subtleties and politics of required versus preferred qualifications in a 2015 essay.) The former are taken as absolute, especially when you have to justify your hiring language to HR and other administrative offices. Even small mistakes in phrasing can affect whether you succeed in hiring someone.
So, for example, say you were writing a position description for a new assistant professor in health communication, and you wanted to require candidates to have a doctorate. But do you want the doctorate to be “already completed at the time of interviews” — so that there would be no worry of some last-minute mishap leaving one of your top candidates ABD? Or are you and the relevant constituents fine with “completed doctorate by August 21” — the start date of the position? Or is an even looser guideline acceptable, as in “must be on the path to completion of Ph.D. this calendar year”?
You will have to abide by however you write that requirement. It’s unlikely that you will be able to work around a problem, should one arise, because flexibility in hiring is becoming increasingly rare.
As an administrator, you can take the lead on which qualifications fall into the required-versus-preferred boxes, even if you must delegate or share the final decision. Behind every well-written, on-point hiring profile is typically a good administrator (or search-committee chair) who insists on clarity and focus. That leader is the one who gently prods the other players to answer some basic questions:
- What qualities are essential to the success of the position?
- What other qualities would be beneficial, but not sine qua non, in the hire?
- Are we being realistic in expecting to find all of those qualities in one person?
- Have we made the language tight and clear, with no ambiguities or contradictions?
A sloppy, confusing, delusional job profile helps no one. In fact, it can lead to a failed search. Take charge, and make the position profile better.
Write to entice, not just to cull. I love to read job ads purely to understand the genre, whether the ad is for a presidency or an assistant professorship. One striking component: Most job ads are weighted heavily toward what the candidates can do for the institution, with little or nothing about what the college can do for the selected hire — in short, a one-way relationship. Everything in the job description is about compliance: which requirements the candidate must meet. The benefits that the institution could bring to the candidate either go unmentioned or are limited to a few brief lines.
Image: Gracie Lawson-Borders, a dean at Howard University, and I made this point in a recent essay, “8 Practical, Sustainable Steps to a Diverse Faculty.” One of the greatest cultural challenges to effective recruiting today — especially when we say we wish to attract diverse and excellent candidates — is that, until very recently, faculty hiring was stuck in a mentality of “if we advertise it, they will come.”
And yes, if you have a tenure-track opening in “American History, pre-1945” at a research university based in Santa Barbara or Boulder, you’re definitely going to get a lot of applicants. But that doesn’t mean you should treat the interaction as unidirectional, basically telling candidates in the hiring profile, “We don’t care about your needs and hopes; here’s what we expect you to do for us.”
Modern faculty hiring should be based on the premise that both parties feel excited about the outcome.
What that means, practically, is that you must avoid writing a hiring profile (and job ad) that reads like a stern list of demands. Instead, try to think about the document from the point of view of a terrific applicant you are trying to entice:
- What is special about your program that will appeal to candidates? What are its major achievements?
- What is positive about your location?
- What kinds of strong support do you offer faculty members in this field?
For help on this front, talk with the experts — the faculty members who are fairly new to your campus and program. They will have ideas on which institutional strengths are worth mentioning in the position description, and on how to word them. What about your institution and program motivated them to apply and accept an offer (aside from the obvious: they wanted a job)?
Throughout your administrative career, you’re going to get to write many different types of documents that will affect your budget, your program’s future, and your colleagues’ and students’ lives. Yes, everything is complicated today in higher-education administration, and has political and personal elements. But at least hiring profiles have many straightforward features that are easy to master if you take the time and care to pay attention to them.