What would a better hiring system look like?
John Bruce of In the Shadow of Mt. Hollywood asks in the comments to this post what a better hiring system might look like in the humanities.
John, don't you realize that I'm an English professor? We're supposed to complain and opine, not offer concrete solutions that might actually benefit actual human beings. Did you think I was an engineer or something?
Well, I'm married to an engineer and went to an engineering college for undergraduate, so maybe something rubbed off. But I should start by being honestly fatalistic and saying that I don't think the system--as unlovely as it is--is likely to change.
The problem is that each institution and department wants to have colleagues that "fit" and that the definition of "fit" changes from place to place. At Wheaton it means a dedication to teaching. At Yale a focus on research and a desire to avoid undergraduate teaching at all costs. At Berkeley it may mean a particular political background, etc. One would like colleges to be intellectually adventurous, but in this end it's a committee decision and thus likely to cater to the lowest common denominator in the committee.
The British system -- in which outside "electors" determine who will get certain professorships -- breaks through that logjam by selecting the "best" person for the job without having to live in the same department as that person. At the high levels in which this system is used, departments are filled with scholars of surpassing excellence (think the Anglo-Saxonists who have recently been at Cambridge).
Such a system has its pitfalls, of course, and it would be a giant workload issue for US colleges. But I think if there were some kind of balance -- an "outside" group of electors recommends a slate of candidates and then the department selects from that slate -- such a solution might produce better outcomes. Or you could switch things around: the department selects ten possible candidates and then the "electors" choose one or two. The "electors" would have a thorough knowledge of the sub-speciality that was being hired and could rank the candidates in various ways -- teaching experience and ability, publications, importance of dissertation, etc. Or, the electors could simply produce a brief report on each candidate.
I don't love the system I've outlined above and can already see large potential problems, but it might squeeze some of the randomness out of the process and produce potentially fairer outcomes.
Another possibility would be to have the system work something like the way the medical intership process works, but I'm not enough of an expert on that to comment intelligently (it does seem to me that the matching of candidates with medical internships is more Pareto Efficient than the way we do things in the humanities.
Anyway, those are my brief thoughts. This trying to figure out solutions instead of just pointing to problems is way harder than it looks. Thanks, engineers, for all that hard work!