Image: Silcox Scale Committee, 1938
This spring I served on my 423rd faculty search committee. OK, not really, but sometimes it seems like that many. The real number, as I conclude my 30th year in academe, is probably somewhere in the low 20’s, and I’ve chaired about half of those.
This time around, I graciously declined to chair — to the extent one can describe a snort as gracious. Of the five other people on the committee, only one had ever served on a search panel before, and only once. Even the chair, who ended up doing a marvelous job, was a first-timer. So although I wasn’t the official leader, I found the other members all looking to me for advice and wisdom. I was, quite literally, the graybeard of the group.
And yet, as often happens in such situations, I believe I was the one who learned the most. That didn’t make the job of digging through mountains of application materials, contacting busy references, and sitting through hours of interviews any less tedious, but it did make it more rewarding.
When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, there’s a real tendency to assume you’ve seen it all. But the world — yes, even the hidebound world of academe — is always waiting to offer us something new and different if we’re open to it: a new approach, a different perspective, a unique take on an old topic. Looking at the candidates and their applications through the eyes of my neophyte fellow committee members reminded me of that. Not only was our committee diverse in terms of age and experience, we were also diverse in just about every other way you can imagine, including ethnically and culturally.
Several times during the process, I thought I had a candidate pegged, only to listen to the perspective of one of my colleagues and discover that I really hadn’t given the applicant the full consideration he or she deserved. Items on a CV or in a cover letter that I considered unimportant or irrelevant caught the eye of other committee members, who were then able to argue persuasively that those factors should be considered.
My colleagues on the committee saw things I didn’t. A couple of candidates who I never would have interviewed, had I been making that decision on my own, turned out to be terrific. I’d like to think I contributed to the process as well. Mainly they helped to open my eyes but I hope I was able to reciprocate in some small way.
In any case, the experience left me thinking about the main difference between the way we go about hiring people in higher education and the way the process works in most other professions: We turn the job over to small groups of people, committees, rather than leaving it in the hands of any one person. At times, that can make the hiring process seem ponderously slow (especially to outsiders) and possibly open it up to bureaucratic complications and political infighting.
And yet, despite those drawbacks, there is tremendous wisdom in hiring via committee, as I was powerfully reminded by this search. Hiring decisions that will shape the intellectual climate and culture of the institution for decades are too important to be left to any one person. Moreover, no one person, however much institutional knowledge and experience he or she may possess, has a broad enough perspective to consider all the important variables.
That, for better or worse, requires a committee.