June 25, 2005

Bloody search committees

While I'm in a mental fog after donating blood today, I'll engage in some speculation. (Proof of my post-donation daftness is the bloody bad pun in the title.) Over the past few years, some thoughtful academics have argued that universities need greater intellectual diversity. I'm not going to comment on the David Horowitz-like or Lynne Cheney-like arguments about curricula (which includes deep textual analysis of course descriptions and counting the names in standards documents: Suffice it to say that calling for curriculum quotas is a wee bit inconsistent for political conservatives who would rail against quotas based on race). Instead, let me refer to Brooklyn College historian KC Johnson (examples 1, 2, and 3), NYU historian of education Jon Zimmerman (in the end of Whose America?), and Atlanta historian Ralph Luker. Let me represent their best argument: the failure to take some adequate care about the intellectual diversity of a department or broader unit results in more shallow teaching and research and endangers the intellectual mission of higher education. One component claim is that an intellectually-monolithic unit acts as an echo chamber that impedes dialogue and intellectual challenge.

While I think such a claim deserves some serious study rather than cavalier approval (where's the anthropologist studying higher ed?), it makes some sense to ask what some legitimate, non-politicized ways of encouraging intellectual diversity might consist of. A few months ago, I noted the UIC chemistry department's having part of a faculty search proceed after blinding the name and institutional identity of candidates. I suppose the idea is to eliminate the chances that name- or institution-based biases would intrude on the decision-making process. At my institution, that's feasible in an early step of a search: deciding which candidates have met the minimum qualifications as posted in the job announcement.

Sitting on the donation couch in a donation coach a mile away from home, the following uncouth thoughts slipped from my brain:

  1. What about an external review of assistant-professor candidate pools? We have external reviews of tenure candidates, and the original hiring decision is a far more open process. Why not an occasional appointment of two or three external experts in the field to review the candidate pool in a streamlined fashion—say, picking those invited to campus interviews, adding an equal number of those close to the campus-interview list, and then a third portion of randomly-chosen candidates who passed the first sniff test? It would have to be a post-mortem process, and it couldn't replicate the discussion of a department's needs that often play into the search process. And to attract the external reviewers, provosts and deans would have to cough up the honorarium equivalent of one additional campus-interview in costs. Nonetheless, it might be an interesting, occasional comparison of a search committee's perspective with those in the field but not in the same institution.
  2. What about using the target-of-opportunity program structure to expand the type of subfields included in a department? Currently, target-of-opportunity programs focus on gender and race/ethnicity as diversity concerns. But there's a plausible argument that departments narrow their focus on specific fields and exclude some based on various predilections, including academic trends, a perception that a field is thin in candidate pools, or experiences and expectations of available lines and funding. There are a number of risks with target-of-opportunity hiring programs (including the usual perceptions associated with affirmative action programs, the risks of going around standard hiring processes, questions about outyear budget obligations for departments, and resentment among some faculty about the inevitably higher salaries paid to new faculty in such programs). Nevertheless, they are attractive opportunities to departments who are willing to seize them.

Slings and arrows welcome... (and we'll see who really reads my blog entries when I'm in the mental stratosphere from lack of iron)

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Posted in Random comments on June 25, 2005 2:56 PM |