April 29, 2009

No such thing as a "failed search"

I used to hate "student evaluations" as the most ill-used expression in higher ed,* but I have a new pet peeve: "failed search," as in claims that the "second major search for a dean [of Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism] is on the verge of failure."

Piffle and lizard snot.** There is no such thing as a failed search, or at least 90% of the searches without a hire at the end are far from failures.

The phrase failed search implies that the job of a search committee is to run a process that ends in a hire, some hire, any hire, any hire at all, and no matter what the qualifications of candidates who applied, by golly, if you don't get that quarterback-of-a-dean (or chair or faculty member), you've just got to take the person who fogged the mirror the best. It's written there in policy. Or the state's regents expect it. Or it's better to make the wrong hire than to potentially lose a tenure-earning line to the provost's/dean's/Sheriff of Nottingham's greedy fingers. Or gravity will cease to function in the next academic year.

One of my colleagues is fond of quoting Lawrence Iannaccone as saying, "No hire is better than the wrong hire." I agree. The job of a search committee is to solicit and recruit applicants and then sort through them in a professional and legally appropriate manner. If there's a good fit with an applicant, and the institution comes to an agreement on salary, etc., hurray! But if the search ends without a hire, often that means that the search committee did its job properly. It's an inconclusive search, or a search that discovered something important about the field, or about the institution, that requires rethinking what's appropriate.

I have no idea what's going on with the dean's search in Berkeley, but the casual expression hides a stereotype of searches as conclusive or failed, and that just isn't so.

* As I wrote last week,

They're NOT evaluations!!!

Personnel evaluation at universities should be conducted by peers and chairs, not students, so we rule that out. And you KNOW that your students are evaluating the course in the real sense from the first day, and by the time they fill in the bubbles (or click on the bubbles online), they've already told their classmates what they think of the class.

They're ratings. Evaluation is a thoughtful reflection on what's happened or is happening, geared towards changing practice. Ratings can be part of that, but the student end-of-semester surveys are not the sum total of evaluation, and I wish people would stop using that term.

** Apologies to Bruce Coville fans. I don't think that there is a lizard species that has nasal mucous membranes.

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Posted in Higher education on April 29, 2009 11:35 PM |