Rate My Search Committee: F-minus-minus

I just got this as a comment from reader ‘TM,’ who tells a story about a campus visit gone horribly awry that is all too familiar. They harshly and swiftly judged him for things he couldn’t possibly have known about, and decided he had a “bad attitude” for recognizing that his own watch broke. Honestly, this just infuriates me so much I don’t know what to do, other than let my commenters have at it.

The most awkward on-site interview I had involved a three day trip. On the first day I was told I was going to meet the department head and her husband (who was an academic, just not where I was applying) for dinner. Since I had not met her in person, I assumed this was part of the interview so wore a suit. They showed up in shorts. The following day, a member of the search committee suggested we take a walk around. The 15 minute walk occurred in June, during a heat wave, and again I was in a suit. During the walk my watch band broke to which I responded (no joke) “oh dear” and then brushed it off as though it was not a big deal. I did not get the job but was told (and later confirmed these incidents were the reason for these comments) that I was: a) too formal and not very easy going (apparently the initial meeting was a non-job-interview setting, even though it factored into the decision for the position), b) seemed unduly nervous (due to my sweating during the walk), and c) Had a generally bad attitude (because I said “oh dear”). That’s ok, I decided on the plane ride back I didn’t particularly care for the area and had been trying to convince myself that if I got an offer I could make do.

I know, for a fact, that I have many readers who are on search committees, and to you I say: when it’s time to invite people out to campus, BE A GODDAMNED HUMAN BEING. If your candidate does some tiny, minute thing that you don’t think is perfect, BRUSH IT THE FUCK OFF. Is he sweating in July? He’s a human being. Did he say something like “Oh dear?” IT HAPPENS.

Were any, any of these gestures indicative of this person doing a bad job as a professor? Not in the least. I have had professors who were extremely “formal” and uptight–and they were great. I have had professors who were loosey-goosey and laid-back–and they were (second Jean-Ralphio cue of the day) the woooooooooooorst, because they flaked out on everything, all the time.

I do not think it is acceptable for an adult human to wear shorts to a restaurant under any circumstances, but if a job candidate did it, as long as s/he was reasonably nice and gave a great teaching demo and an engaging job talk, it would not matter. I have talked about this before and I’ll do it again:

Why in the EVERLOVING FUCK do search committees demand absolute perfection from their candidates, not as scholars or teachers, where it matters, or as nice people, where it also matters, but in totally pedantic bullshit categories?

Why, honestly, in the double-everloving fuck are search committees so concerned with finding a new BFF? News flash: faculty of most departments in American universities either exercise benign neglect of each other, or hate each others’ guts but act somewhat cordial in public (not always, however). Many (not all!!!!) academic departments are some of the most seventh-grade-style, cliquish, juvenile, no-social-skills-having laff-fests. Many others have colleagues who deign to spend time with each other once every two months at faculty meetings.

I was at Ohio State for two years, and I did not see hair or hide of our “Eminent Scholar” once when there was not some muckymuck visiting talk. NOT. ONCE. He had an office the size of Nebraska, and to my knowledge he was either never in it, or he was in it with the door locked. There were other mid-level faculty I saw a total of three times my entire two years there. One of my absolute favorite colleagues was sequestered in a building half a mile away from the rest of us, and I didn’t realize she was probably my long-lost BFF until THE DAY BEFORE I LEFT.

Academics are not like corporate co-workers, who have no choice but to work with each other all day long, to collaborate on projects, to depend upon each other. On the rare occasions when an academic must endure the indignity of collaboration (on a committee, for example), he acts like this:

Corporate colleagues spend more time with each other than they do with their own damn families, and yet the hiring process in most entry-to-mid level professional jobs consists of one interview and maybe a callback (and sometimes the new hire is even hired on the spot!).

Nowhere but the goddamned Presidential administration and the rarified hallows of academe are the minute, nerve-induced affectations of a candidate voted over as if it were the fucking Yalta conference–but in the case of academia, all of this hubbub is for a person you will almost never see. The only, and I mean only things determining “fit” should be:

  1. Will this person get tenure? This you can figure out from their C.V. and their job talk.
  2. Will this person stay here? This you can figure out from the kinds of questions they ask while they’re visiting.
  3. Is this person relatively nice and adequately dependable? This you can figure out from the testimony of, oh I don’t know, people who have actually met her for more than twenty minutes.

Anything, and I mean anything, beyond that, is simply a search committee cleaving pathetically onto the tiny amount of power it has, and turning that power into temporary megalomania.

13 thoughts on “Rate My Search Committee: F-minus-minus

  1. I had a campus interview once for a job at a famous SLAC. It included a 30 minutes interview with the Dean. I am not exaggerating: the Dean spoke for the first 25 minutes about the Frankfurt School and Walter Benjamin (???) and with 5 minutes left, finished his monologue and asked: “Do you have any questions?” I honestly didn’t know whether he meant about the school or about Adorno & co.
    Cookie points if you guess what institution I am taking about
    And no, I didn’t get the job. My knowledge of Walter Benjamin was obviously subpar


  2. Great post, Rebecca. I’ll admit that in my campus (a smaller version of the main university, in Mexico City), faculty do see each other on a regular basis, are encouraged to work together, and so the personal fit would probably be necessary. But you’re dead on: if you’re on a search committee, treat the candidates as human beings. As someone who is on search committees on a regular basis, I do try hard to make sure that we make the candidate feel welcome, and to not feel awkward at any point. In fact, I’ll say my colleagues do too. I do see it as a two-way relationship – the candidate is interviewing my university as much as we are interviewing him/her, so it should be a win-win and like-like situation. Alignment 🙂


    • Would “oh dear” or a little sweat have been a deal-breaker for you guys, even in simpatico Mexico? I highly doubt it. Something tells me your search committee isn’t the problem. You do you!


      • EXACTLY! A little “oh dear” or sweat would NEVER be a deal-breaker.


        Again, you’re 100% dead on – treat the candidate LIKE A HUMAN. Like a professional human who may at some point sweat, or let a little “oh dear” come out 🙂


  3. I disagree with your suggestion that a search committee should be concerned about whether a candidate is likely to stay or not. I will even extend that to not being concerned about whether a candidate might accept the position if you make an offer. Sure, it is hard not to wonder…. but that criterion should remain in the things a search committee gets to wonder about but not act upon.

    The chair of a committee once told me – without my asking – that I had been turned down because the committee did not believe that I would stay there and was using the position as a “stepping stone” to other universities. I have no idea what I would have done – and that was not their job to guess what I might have been planning to do, even if we could assume that I could have conjured up a different job and been able to see into my future.

    Likewise, we all know of departments where people have left unexpectedly – sometimes for better positions (however defined), sometimes for personal reasons, sometimes for reasons unknown to any of us – sometimes they left with good wishes all around, sometimes less so… Maybe the person from a big city longs for the middle of nowhere. Maybe the person coming from the Prestigious Research University decides that a SLAC is the antidote to all of life’s ills. Maybe the person applied in the hopes of getting his/her university to offer a salary increase to not leave, and then realized that such horrible official and unofficial policies are a good reason to imagine a life elsewhere – and to make the move if offered a position.

    I am especially worried about such guessing games because they far too often are based less on scholarly guessing and more on private life guessing: “The person is single and will probably leave for someplace with more single people.” “The woman is wearing a wedding band and has not mentioned a partner but we are unlikely to find a position for this imaginary partner so she won’t stay for long.” Or, my favorite real-life one, “Her husband has a job elsewhere that he is not likely to leave and she has a small child so if she came here she would be a single mother and then she wouldn’t be able to get tenure.”

    And when they are based on scholarly guessing, the what-ifs get really absurd. “The person will likely make the Great Breakthrough in the Field in the next couple years and then will surely get an offer s/he can’t refuse and then it would be better to never have had that person here in the first place.” “Although the person talked about how great our library’s collection of XYZ is and how wonderful it would be to have such easy access to those materials, we aren’t really known for that area of research so we shouldn’t take a chance that the candidate means it and maybe even make us a good place to study XYZ.” Or, my favorite one, overheard at a conference, “He has published more than some of our senior scholars, and might resent them being on his tenure committee _in 6 years_ and would thus likely _leave the profession_ [my emphases] since the job market is so terrible and he couldn’t find a job elsewhere, and that would really be a waste of resources.”

    If the person applies, does the kind of job talk and interview that fits your department’s research and teaching needs as you have publicized them and made clear to the candidate, make the offer. If the person accepts, work at retaining your new colleague through professional support (which includes acting like a human). And unless you are going to cross-your-heart- and-hope-to-die promise that s/he will get tenure if all criteria have been fulfilled and never have to endure a single day of unprofessional behavior, and that no one will ever leave the department who might become the person’s BFF, and no administrator will dissolve your department because of budget cuts, then you don’t get to worry about whether the person is going to stay. Or, perhaps, if you are worrying, then it is probably an entirely different sort of problem – with your department.


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