Last Friday, I asked my wise, worldly readers who work at instruction-intensive colleges what the final step in the faculty interview process is.
Responses varied, but they shared a common denominator: the final interview was always one-on-one, with a high-ranking administrator (dean, vice president, or president) making the final decision.
When the final interview for a professorship hinges on a dean or above, working alone, then that dean or above is cast into one of two roles: either a rubber stamp for the committee, or a thug. Neither is great. A rubber stamp is a waste of time, and a thug undermines the work of the committee (and potentially introduces all kinds of bias).
Years ago, at a former college, I started to do the final round by a second committee: the chair of the first-round committee, the college’s diversity officer, the relevant dean, and myself. We usually interview three or four finalists. Everyone asks questions and everyone has a say in the decision-making process.
Each person has a role to play. The chair of the first-round committee knows the subject and can talk about the educational demonstrations that the candidates gave in the first round. They can also raise a red flag if a candidate presents as someone very different from who they presented in the first round. It’s rare, but it happens. Finally, the president of the first-round committee can hear the observations made by the initial committee.
The college diversity officer may focus on issues of educational equity and access. Their presence also sends the message that we take equity issues seriously enough to make awareness of them part of our normal processes, rather than treating them as add-ons or afterthoughts.
The dean of the field in which the professor would teach usually talks about the tenure process, teaching assignments, etc. As CEO, I provide some perspective on college-wide direction. I also try to guard against groupthink.
After hearing the last candidate, the group of four deliberates. I usually ask the chair of the first round to give their impressions first, followed by the diversity officer, then the dean. I go last. The idea is to get uncontaminated prints. In almost all cases, we arrive at a consensus first choice. Experience has taught me to ask for a clear second choice as well, because sometimes the best-chosen candidate turns down the offer.
No process is perfect, but I have much more confidence in the decisions made when they reflect more eyes on the matter. Having four people in the last round—three when someone can’t come—diminishes the unintended relevance of a person’s unconscious biases. Everyone notices different things. More than once I have been convinced by the committee that my first favorite was not the best choice. Its good; they saw things that I did not see. (It also goes the other way. In a memorable case many years ago, a department was so enamored with a candidate’s high-level research experience that it failed to notice the disregard open with which this candidate was discussing disability accommodations. noticed. This candidate did not get the job.)
Having a heterogeneous group also helps defuse conspiracy theories. In another memorable event many years ago, the first-round committee pick made a huge face-plant in the second round and didn’t get the offer. Having the chairman of the first-round committee there to see him prevented the surprising outcome from making the first-round committee members feel ignored or dismissed. She was able to report, in all sincerity, that the candidate bombed the second round. This prevented surprise from leading to unnecessary bitterness or feelings of betrayal.
I recommend this approach to any college looking to hire well. I’m proud of my hiring record, but part of the reason it’s good is that it’s not just mine. I had help. And adopting this process is really inexpensive. Yes, there is some staff time, but making better hires is worth it. Over time, making good choices up front, even if it takes a bit of planning, is far less taxing than dealing with the fallout of bad decisions years later.