Monday, February 21, 2005

The Hiring Process: Or, How Did an Obvious Horse's Ass Like Ward Churchill Get Hired, Anyway?

Short answer: he probably didn't go through the real hiring process, but a pro forma search was conducted with a pre-determined conclusion. It's quite possible that the position was so narrowly conceived that Churchill was likely to be the only person eligible for it (though you never can tell. I was originally hired at Wheaton in part because I could teach medieval lit of various sorts, basic writing, fiction writing, and journalism. Try to find that particular skill-set in any one applicant).

If interested readers want to figure out how the "system" works (more likely we are now descending into academic shoptalk that will bore many readers to tears), you can scroll down and read my previous post and also read what Jim Hu has written about the tenure process.

Reading both of these posts should make it clear that, nowadays at least, the biggest hurdle and the best opportunity for both quality control and sleaze is the hiring process, so I thought I would attempt to give just a bit more detail about how it works.

Once a department decides that it needs another "line" (that is, a tenure-track position), the Provost and President have to be convinced and there has to be money there. So the department will define the position, the first time, in whatever terms are most likely to appeal to the Provost. Obviously there will be politics, etc., involved, but the constraint of asking for something one is likely to get, rather than asking for all that one wants is a factor.

Once the position has been approved by the Provost, the department drafts an add for the job list. This has to be approved by the Provost, also, but in general this is where the real manouvering and heavy politics come into play. A carefully crafted add can be used to exclude certain candidates or can be ambiguous to allow for a wide variety to be reduced later, or can just be a laundry list of wishes. It depends on the department and the particular meeting at which the add is drafted.

Then, when the job list comes out, anyone who can possibly spin their qualifications to be even marginally qualified for the add will apply. Really. I've seen candidates argue that they really are in one field when they've given one conference paper in it, while everything else in the vita is in a different field.

In our department every single file that comes in (cover letter and vita) goes into a xerox paper box in alphabetical order. There's a cover sheet for each file that has the candidate's name on top, a list of all department members down the left side, and the categories Definite No, Probably No, Probably Yes, and Yes across the top. Department members read a file and check the appropriate box next to their name, adding in a comment or two. When the file receives two "Definite No" votes it goes into the "No" file (although it can be resurrected at a later date). Two "Definite Yes" checks and the candidate gets a dossier request (dossier is letters of rec, transcript, writing sample).

Of course, because this process is run by academics, most check-marks are in the "Probably" categories. The search chair makes a determination when a file is leaning one way or another and either requests a dossier or does nothing (i.e., Probably No filed don't go in the No box). This process leaves us with 40 dossiers, which are then whittled down in a long and tedious meeting to 10 MLA interviews. (I discussed this in more detail in the previous post).

Clearly there are hardly any real checks at the on-paper stage, and this is in my opinion the worst part of the system. Someone could, for instance, go through and "No" any candidate for any reason and make only the most cursory explanation (or even have a tendentious, dishonest explanation). If the other readers aren't reading closely, it's likely that they might just go along with the "No" for the purpose of quickly reducing the giant stack of files to read. Theoretically two members of the department could conspire to eliminate just about anyone (though there are some members of the department who search the "No" pile to bring back candidates, so this is 100% possible), though I've never seen that happen (and if the same two people kept writing "No," it might raise some red flags for the search chair).

As I said, I've never seen malfeasance like that, but I do think the system invites superficial rejection. When you're faced with 150 cover letters, all written in tiny font with stretched margins, its very easy to look for any excuse to stop reading. It's also easy to find an excuse that would let someone engage in just about any kind of discrimination he or she wanted to engage in, either personally (i.e., I don't want that guy) or systematically (i.e., no Ivy Ph.D., no military historians, no non-marxists, etc.).

So, assuming they did a search for Ward Churchill, how did such a loser get hired? Well, the add could have been crafted just for him, or some individuals could have sabotaged all of the most competitive candidates by finding fault with some small aspect of their applications. It's also theoretically possible for small groups to hold the entire search hostage (particularly in small departments), continuously raising objections to all other qualified candidates until they get the one person they want. So while I think John Bruce may be right that there was adminstrative pressure to hire him, but it's also quite possible that everything could have been coming from inside the department. He was around campus, a known quantity, and an affirmative action data point. That, sadly, was probably enough.

P.S.: Clueless me, I just learned that Churchill had been invited to speak here at Wheaton and that his invitation was rescinded. That's going to be a discussion of it at AAUP. Too bad I won't be able to go to that meeting.

5 comments:

Tim Peoples said...

I have a question about these MLA interviews. Do English departments do these for every position that's open, or just the new tenure-track ones? Just a curiousity.

Michael said...

It's my understanding that you have to do MLA (or CCCC -- for writing and rhetoric folks) interviews for a tenure track position. I think this is an AAUP guideline, but almost all schools follow it. Some people interview at MLA for non-tenure track positions, but usually those can be filled with local interviews (at least here in the Boston metro area, and in Chicago where I was in grad school).

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