Admin 101: How to Actively Recruit Faculty Members

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

By David D. Perlmutter

Not that long ago, you would be greeted with suspicion for mentioning the word “recruiting” in a campus conversation about faculty hiring. Academic culture dictated two ways to gather a pool of candidates for a tenure-track position. The first was passive: The department would take out an ad, field applications, cull for the most impressive, interview for “fit,” and extend an offer to “the one.” The second was “buddy seeking”: Invite and woo only your friends (or their advisees) to apply.

A lot of false assumptions were built into that system:

  • The ideal future colleague is pining away for us, simply hoping that we will have an opening.
  • Ours is such a wonderful program, with such a fantastic reputation and in such an aspirational location, that everybody would love to work with us.
  • Our circle of friends and acquaintances is quite enough to draw from to get a great pool for the position.
  • The miserable or arduous parts of the hiring process for candidates are norms in faculty hiring — and even positive winnowing devices — so we shouldn’t worry that they may drive away strong applicants.
  • The final stages of the hiring process, especially the campus visit, should be a grilling in which candidates prove they are sufficiently worthy to join us.

In recent years, I and others on these pages (“8 Practical, Sustainable Steps to a Diverse Faculty”) have argued that traditional search practices are inadequate to the modern age and are one of the culprits behind the lack of racial and ethnic diversity on the American faculty.

In a wider sense, waiting for applicants to come to your department — because “that’s how we’ve done it from time immemorial” — means you risk neglecting many potentially fantastic colleagues. They didn’t apply or accept an offer, but might have, had you made any effort to recruit them. The lowest-hanging fruit is not necessarily the most nutritious or best tasting.

In the Admin 101 series on higher-education leadership, I’ve been focusing recent columns on the how-tos of faculty hiring — first on writing a position description and then on requesting a faculty line. This month, I turn to how to entice a potential hire to your academic team.

Build relationships for future hires. Like any other profession, academe has its peculiarities. One of them is that it’s much harder to switch jobs if you are a faculty member than it is for someone in, say, car sales or accounting. If I heard from an amazing scholar/educator at another university who was unhappy and looking to relocate, I couldn’t just make a job appear and hire that person on the spot. A long, complicated process would ensue. And even if I were able to find the money and secure faculty support, I would still have to open the search to other applicants so they could all be judged fairly — a process that could take a year to complete.

That’s why it’s important to think about hiring in the long term. Meeting a job candidate for the first time at an initial interview puts you both at a disadvantage — it’s like a blind date. On the other hand, if you have gotten to know each other over time, you can make more informed choices.

You should be in permanent recruiting mode, always keeping an eye out for potential hires. For example, when you chat with faculty members at conferences, see whether they could serve as outside members of doctoral committees. You can build connections with academics in myriad ways before actually offering employment. Building relationships with people of color and other underrepresented groups is especially crucial. Think of it as mutual networking — for both hirers and applicants.

To take just one practice for example, in the days when we had face-to-face conferences — which I hope will resume this year or next — I would look in the program for the names of graduate students or professors I’d never met who were presenting on topics connected to any of the main tracks of research and education in our college. I would invite them for coffee, or just to talk about their work. I would also stroll by the poster sessions to chat with emerging scholars on their research, and collect names and faces.

Imagine the benefit if all of your program’s faculty members invested just a little time in such pre-emptive acquaintance-making. Too many of us network for ourselves — looking for peer scholars in our area of study — and not for the future of our program.

The nature of the first-contact meeting doesn’t have to be heavy-handed. An engineering chair at a research university once told me how, at a national conference, his department had sponsored a lunch for doctoral students outside of its program. He and other department members provided general information about job markets and future careers. As part of the discussion, they mentioned (in a low-key way, without boasting) the values and mission of their department. The food was tasty, the conversation uplifting, and the names remembered. Over the next five years, that initial contact led many of the participants to apply to the department for faculty openings. The good feeling and the good deed brought future good relations.

Make real recruiting calls and pitches, not cursory ones. Some faculty members may bristle when you emphasize the importance of their approaching relative strangers to sell the value of joining your program. Professors envision cold-calling from some boiler room, trying to hawk time-shares to the elderly. To the contrary, “real recruiting” is an activity already familiar to academics: It means having an engaged intellectual discussion about someone’s career hopes and dreams. We have such conversations with people we know — our graduate students and departmental colleagues — all the time.

But, yes, you have to cold-call. In my own college, the process is pretty straightforward. If we have a position in mind, we look at our peer institutions regionally, and at certain institutions nationally, and scroll through web pages until we find doctoral students or junior faculty members (usually on their campus web pages) who match some of the professional qualities we’re looking for. Then someone on the search committee picks up the phone — not just to have a brief “Hey, you might be interested in our opening” chat, but to delve deeply into the scholar’s work, the position, the value of our program, and the joys of our location.

Here is the key difference between casual calls and real recruiting: In the latter, when you hear a potential candidate say, “Sorry, I’m not on the job market,” that does not end the conversation. The suitable follow-up is: “Perhaps not, but please keep this opportunity in mind, for yourself in the future or for someone you might recommend.” We have found that people often want to keep talking, and — in enough cases to make the effort worthwhile — some convert to being a candidate. Even when they don’t, we have established our interest in them for searches to come.

One of the moral and ethical strengths of academe is that we allow people who might not be as successful in the rough-and-tumble corporate world to thrive. A shy introvert can eventually rise to be a National Academy plant biologist. A further benefit of active recruiting is that you demonstrate your interest in diverse types of people early in their careers. Your department might be the one they decide to make their home — next fall or a decade from now.

Make sure the application process is smooth, friendly, and professional. Faculty searches are volunteer efforts and so suffer from the positives and negatives of any informal enterprise. Sometimes you luck out with a responsive, responsible chair leading a likewise efficient committee. But you also get chairs too busy or indifferent to devote the time and effort that a search deserves.

In past eras, administrators tended not to intervene and simply let departments roll the dice in each search. We can no longer afford to do that because the stakes of searches have risen so much in recent years. Leaders — especially department chairs — must find ways to assert basic standards of quality control in faculty hiring, without crossing the line into interference that threatens shared governance. What does that mean in practice?

  • First, we need activist search committees. No long slack periods without meetings and updates, when nobody is being contacted and nothing is being followed up. Action must be taken and deadlines met.
  • Second, the hiring process must treat candidates professionally and humanely. You are trying to entice a future partner whose career will be enhanced by association with your program, and who will, in turn, benefit your institution. This is no time to be arrogant about what you have to offer candidates.

I have been a candidate in smoothly run searches in which I was treated with kindness. Even if I didn’t get the job, I came away respecting the institution and appreciating the decency of the people involved. As a candidate in other searches, however, I’ve been treated like a medieval peasant begging for food at an indifferent lord’s castle. And I am not alone in that. On social-media sites related to the faculty job market, whether Reddit, wikis, or blogs, you will find plenty of horror stories.

Are such bad experiences the norm in academe? They certainly happen often enough to make an impression. In this social-media-savvy era, your program’s reputation will suffer if you fail to treat all applicants with respect and dignity, not just the one you hire.

For chairs and deans, the buck stops at your desk. Monitor search deadlines: Are you getting back to applicants in a timely manner? Are you being helpful in not asking for too much material too soon in the search — like requesting letters of reference at an early review stage? Is the tone and content of your communications with candidates friendly, informative, pertinent? Basically, apply the golden rule when leading a search: Treat people the way you would want to be treated.

For a long time in higher education, true recruiting was done for only a select few positions: presidents, athletics coaches, award-winning scientists. We need equal-opportunity recruiting to become part of the planning process for all our hiring, especially for faculty members. As the administrator, you are responsible for creating a seamless recruiting plan and confirming that it’s executed competently and in a civilized fashion. Those are big challenges in the distracting and divisive times we live in, but they are absolutely necessary. Every hire maps out the future of your program and deserves the maximum value and attention you can give.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the Admin 101 column for The Chronicle. His book on promotion and tenure was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.

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