Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ethics Question

I've been waiting on this until the question is well past, so here goes.

Imagine you're on a search committee, and someone not on the committee wants to talk to you about one of the applicants. What do you do? Do you avoid discussing the search? Listen and keep it to yourself? Listen and share with the other members of the committee? (and why?)

Does it matter if the person who wants to talk to you is a member of the department, and so will have a chance to give feedback during campus visits?


Edited to add: I guess I thought it was an ethical question for a couple reasons.

First, there's the implication that the search committee should give one applicant special consideration. But if an applicant doesn't stand out through his/her letter (etc.), why? And if an applicant is that bad, isn't it likely that they'll do poorly at some stage so we'll know it?

Second, in my experience, this is pretty much always a good old boy network working on behalf of a junior good old boy. And those folks have plenty of advantage already.

And third, around here, it tends to happen because an applicant is from the area; we've had a tendency to hire folks from this area in excess, because, gosh, they're from here! Given our demographics, that means it works against people of color, people from different countries, people from different regions. And that works to the disadvantage of our students. They need to interact with people of color, and not just read Sula. Again, if the applicant's materials stand out, the committee will spot it.

On the other hand, if one of my friends had applied for a job one year, I would have wanted to ask the committee to take an extra good look at her materials.


  1. Wow, over here I think it's normal for search committees to discuss the search with the rest of the department - they even have sessions after the job talk with other faculty and grad students to elicit their input. So if the person in question is a member of the dept, their opinions would come out anyway.

    Maybe I'm misinterpreting and you mean the person who wants to talk to you wants to talk ONLY to you and tell you something they wouldn't tell the rest of the search committee. That's a bit trickier.

    I think you'd have to make it clear that you would feel a responsibility to share any actual new information (assuming it's not unsubstantiated gossip) with the rest of the committee.

    If it were someone from OUTSIDE the dept I'd say you'd still want to hear what they have to say and pass it on to the committee. Obviously you wouldn't be able to share any info in return, so you'd just have to listen to what they said and make uninterpretable noises in response :)

  2. Perhaps I should clarify: this is when applications are first in and the committee is making decisions about whom to interview.

    Department memebers get lots of opportunity to give feedback after the campus visit(s), as does anyone else with an interest (deans, people in related areas who come to the job talk or do other interview stuff).

  3. Hmmmm...I think it's all right to say something vague, like, "I went to graduate school with candidate X; she's a great colleague and doing interesting work. Just my two cents!" I would actually only see that as a positive nudge when you know the person. When candidates who have applied for our jobs have been old grad school friends or something, sometimes, the cmte. has asked me, "Hey, did you know X when you were at University? They've applied for this position." And then I felt free to say, "Yes, I remember him, we didn't work together, but he seemed like a great guy, etc."

    However, I would always only think that a positive personal connection could be broached by a non-committee member at that stage. And certainly not to the point of strong-arming or shoving the candidate down anyone's throat. If the person had something negative to say, then they should bring that up in an official hiring meeting and not before.

    I have a colleague whose wife was an outside member of the search cmte. I was on. He would look through all the apps and get her to push the ones who graduated from his alma mater (big ivy, rhymes with Shmintzton). Like that was the only - or even the first - thing we would be looking at! Jerk. We ignored both of them.

  4. Hee hee hee--rhymes with Schminzton.

    I do public ethics, but for me, this kind of thing depends on the information being shared. It doesn't really seem like your problem really concerns the sharing of information, listening to it, or whatevs there--it seems like you are bothered by the insider baseball going on around you. It also doesn't sound like much of a quandary to me: the tone in your email suggests you think this candidate is gaining undeserved consideration because of his connections. This IS a thorny problem in academic searches where everything runs on reputation and the recommendations of your committee.

    FWIW, I would probably go with the flow until it comes time to pick candidates. Then if this person's file kept coming to the top of the pile, I would gently suggest that the cv and package does not seem to stand out. I don't know whether you have tenure or not, but if you do not, this can be dangerous territory for you because people really do act the way medieval woman describes.

  5. the tone in your POST. I haven't had any coffee yet.

  6. Bardiac,

    I am not in the academic world (at the moment). I come from 25 years in technology in the business world (with a Bachelor's degree in English / Secondary Education and a Master's in computing).

    In the business world, most positions are filled through word of mouth. Academia has tried to get away from this "good old boys/girls network" and have gone to hiring committees in the hopes of getting the best candidate.

    I am trying to figure out what the "ethical problem" is. I suspect it is the thought that an ego can't handle being influenced by another person. This seems to be a common issue with academics, engineers, and doctors. Basically with really smart people who are very knowledgable about their vocation and are generally left to themselves to guide their own work.

    Of course, the other side of that coin is a committee that takes so many other inputs that it fails to be a search committee, but a rubber stamp for the good old boys/girls network.

    Surely there must be a way of finding the best candidate without resorting to the Laurence Perrine scale or being one of the old pastey guys. There must be some way to take in opinion and thought from others, synthesize it, allow it to influence one's own thoughts, beliefs, and judgements, but then to make a decision that is one's own. I guess the best reference here would be the President of the United States.

  7. He Who Blogs,

    So, business, that shining light of all things that work so well and wonderfully as a model for academics.

    Good thing business folks haven't made any bad decisions, eh? No crap investing? No crap car design/sales?

    Maybe if they'd thought about hiring the best person for jobs, rather than the one with the best connections, we'd not be in our current economic crisis?

    Heck, the only thing business impresses me about lately is their incredible ability to get money out of the government. Imagine if the university system could get a 34 BILLION dollar bailout from the feds?

    And if the best reference is the current president, a guy who barely made it through Yale as a legacy? Yeah, we need to cut that crap FAST!

  8. He Who Blogs--

    Are you kidding? The suggestion that Bardiac's ego is resisting influence is uncalled for, along with your assumption that you know what goes on in academia. You have a master's degree; so do a lot of people. Until you work at several universities, your view on what academia does and what it doesn't do is uninformed.

    Hiring staff at universities is like hiring staff almost anywhere else I have worked. There are applications, there is word of mouth, etc. No big deal.Staff can be hired and fired, though it should be easier than it is to let staff go.

    Faculty searches are an entirely different process because with a faculty search, we are looking for colleagues that we hope will work out over the very long term. The human capital requirements of faculty are very different from most jobs. For some places, you are are not just looking for first rate researchers or teachers--you are looking for institution builders--and that's hard to see, or you are looking for somebody with a rare expertise.

    Thus with searches, the fairness question has a lot of different facets to it. It is not in the rest of the faculty's interest, necessarily, to hire Joe Blow's Buddy's student if that student is not the best we can get. Though people believe that academic life is cake, it is not. And we don't want to hire anybody who is going to struggle to get tenure: we want the one who is going to get external funding, who is going to build up a reputation for himself/herself, and who is going to do a good enough job teaching that the rest of us don't have to hear about his/her performance.

    Furthermore, too much of this insider baseball can make a department homogeneous in terms of ideas. So I worked on a faculty with a whole bunch of GA Tech PhDs. Bright enough people. But they all thought the same way because they were all associated with the same advisor and program. We became a mini-GA Tech; we did things the same way, we produced the same type of research, etc. And it did us no good because GA Tech had already cornered the market on being GA Tech.

    I can't imagine too much word of mouth is great for businesses either, for the same reasons.

    All of that said, word-of-mouth is a way of gathering information about people, and it hard to know when that information ceases simply to be part of the process, which as I said earlier, is all about reputation, and when it becomes old boys making sure their otherwise average students get a leg up in the process.

  9. Interesting responses...

    I was not saying that either business nor academia is the best model.

    Of course businesses makes mistakes. Academia does as well. I've heard of instances (in both) where people try to hire based on criteria other than being the best fit, however I have not personally observed it. The hiring I have seen has been about trying to find the best person for the position.

    As to where business gets funds, I'm not sure where you are going with it. Most academic money comes from state or federal sources. So, I guess I can imagine the university system getting untold billions from the feds.

    As to the president, I didn't mention the current president. I referred to the office of the president. I was also referring to the cabinet that the president puts together and other people that the president uses to guide decisions.

    Again, I am trying to understand where the ethical issue is.

    I was referring to a category of people, not specifically to Bardiac. However, as Bardiac and you are both part of that category, I can see how you have personalized it.

    Your point about me knowing about academia, you are absolutely correct. I specifically gave some experience/education so that the readers would have a better understanding of my background.

    When you contrasted staff hiring to factulty hiring, would it be correct to interpret what you are saying that the intetion of hiring staff is short term and faculty is long term?


    I'm sorry if my response offended you. That certainly wasn't my intention.

  10. You know, I think it's fine for someone to say to you "I hear from my colleague at Fancy U that his student X has applied for the job. I've seen X at some conference, and s/he seems pretty impressive.

    The impact of that might be to send you back to X's application, thinking perhaps you had missed something. And maybe you'd see it and maybe not.

    It doesn't seem to me that this presents an ethical problem. I've always found that in the group below the top 2 or 3 there are probably 6 or 8 people we rank differently, and when a colleague says "I ranked candidate A #4 because..." I go back and look at A again.

    I think these things often take care of themselves. When I was denied tenure, the Pres. of the SLAC had a preferred candidate for my job. So, to the dismay of the dept., said candidate was interviewed at the convention. Said candidate's application bit the dust when ze said "I really want to come to SLAC because I love Susan's work and want to be her colleague." Awkward cough while someone tells person that actually, this is Susan's job...