Friday, November 26, 2010

Whither the Search Committees?

So one of the less exciting aspects of being in the professorate is serving on committees. I would venture a guess that most faculty have an internal ranking system of committees that they would prefer to serve on. Committees that address curricular issues or faculty personnel matters are likely more desirable than serving on the budget committee. However, committee work is critical to the life of a high functioning university. The meetings may be tedious, the charges ambiguous, the resources needed unavailable and faculty owe the institution they serve the depth and breadth of their intellectual capacity to address the non-classroom or non-research issues facing the institution. It is part of our evaluation process. The service we provide to our departments, colleges, university and community is important. It isn’t glamorous and clearly not anything faculty should be saved from. Yet, I am mystified by the recent death of search committees since the installation of the new regime. Several new administrators have been hired in an interim capacity only to seemingly be made permanent after six months or so. It was my understanding that searches are to be conducted for positions of dean and above.
At the University of Illinois at Chicago, for example, the Office of Access & Equity oversees both academic and non-academic personnel matters. The office has published online a Search Manual to aid in the process of recruiting, interviewing and recommending highly qualified applicants. UIC, as a Research 1 institution, is subject to federal guidelines on the use of search committees. Of course there are situations that do not warrant the formation and use of such committees and those circumstances are explicated in the Search Manual. For academic positions of Dean and above, search committees are required and for administrative positions, Director and above, search committees are required. A search of the CSU website yielded ten results on the term “search committee” with seven of those results being related to the most recent presidential search process.
The examination of that process begs the question of “where have the search committees gone?” If there were no expectation or necessity of a search why appoint someone as the Interim in the first place? I sought an answer to this question by submitting a Freedom of Information Act request. I was curious if faculty had been appointed to search committees so I requested, “Letters of presidential appointment of those search committees constituted between July 1, 2009 and November 15, 2010.”
Interestingly I was denied by the university the information related to the appointment of search committees. This was a very curious and troubling development for an administration that does not seem to have gained any traction in the past year in addressing fundamental issues. The near riot during the financial aid disbursement, the imposition of a Senior Thesis without evidence of its need or efficacy or consultation with the faculty, the “right sizing” initiative, the departure of a nationally renowned scholar under questionable circumstances, micro-management in the selection of academic department chairs without regard to faculty wishes, lower enrollment and no demonstrated commitment to fund raising all indicate an administration struggling to understand how doctoral degree granting institutions function and differ greatly from junior colleges. Abandoning a vital quality control process like a search committee is another indicator of an administration determined to rule by fiat in the guise of populism with no interest in principle or practice of shared governance. Denying faculty an opportunity to serve on search committees is tantamount to declaring the university to be a fiefdom to be ruled at the pleasure of the president. What is this regime afraid of in ending the search committee process? It should understand that flawed processes lead to flawed outcomes? It is clearly flawed not involving the university in university business. I understand the reluctance to include faculty. Faculty may ask hard questions, challenge applicants, demand high standards, overlook personal acquaintance as a hiring criteria. No administrator I know would want to be second guessed this way by faculty in a hiring process. But as the UIC Search Manual states:
A search committee, though not always necessary, will in most cases strengthen the pursuit of high-quality and diverse appointees. Good search committees will seek out and attract first-rate applicants. For positions of campus-wide significance, a properly balanced search committee can ensure that various constituencies are represented in
Developing search strategies
Participating in recruitment activities
Screening candidates
Search committees are always advisory, since ultimate responsibility for hiring rests with the key administrator. Crucial to the success of any search is a serious commitment to the time and effort required on the part of the search committee members, its chair, and the unit served. Also an important goal of the search committee is to make good faith efforts to identify appropriate women and minority as well as majority candidates, not to be satisfied merely with "what comes in over the transom." The end of such an approach, however, is almost always worth the efforts.”
Since the regime has apparently done away with search committees, ostensibly because of their anachronistic nature, might the university consider doing away with the archaic process of deans having hiring authority in academic departments or of the president selecting department chairs. Let the faculty members of the departments decide who they want to work with and spend substantial parts of their careers with. In the spirit of cost saving or time saving or building a better mobile mouse trap let’s end these arcane decision making processes across the board.

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