Why don’t we see any headhunters in higher ed?

Steve Fuller posted the below the other day, and it put to words a problem I’ve been thinking about for quite some time (being on the job market myself the last two years).



For the record, I agree with Steve (as I do in most instances) a hundred percent about recommendation letters being a waste of time and energy. I can’t believe they’re still used. Thankfully, I’m seeing a dip over the last two years from position searches requiring them on the front end. Hallelujah.

But the search process (at the university level) itself is a unique animal. Let’s recap quickly. The landscape of the job market is a tangled mess: it’s a draining, Sisyphean task to comb through one or two or three hundred applications and pick ten to interview on the phone, and I don’t think it’s a controversial position to say that many, many qualified, good-fit candidates get lost in the shuffle. And it’s a problem compounded by two pretty obvious realities–the aforementioned volume of applicants, and, equally important, the fact that different types of institutions (both structurally and culturally) are looking for different types of candidates. Ivy-league schools want hyper-productive researchers who can also teach and bring in grant money. SLACs want regionally-aware faculty with strong teaching records who understand that sixty percent of their student body are first-generation students, or ethnic minorities, or come from within (and stay within after) a hundred miles of the campus. Community Colleges want candidates who have experience managing sixty-student sections and online surveys and can engage them in meaningful ways, twice each fall, spring, and summer. These needs obviously overlap in many instances.

Yet without a doubt each of the institutions above has some significantly different items on the checklist. The problem is that grad students never get to take a class called HIST 565: What Different Types of Schools Want From You As A Faculty Member. This is, of course, further complicated by the fact that schools themselves sometimes (often?) don’t know or are unwilling to admit that what makes a successful, collegial hire for them as a STEM-focused campus of twenty-seven hundred in a town of ten thousand in rural Georgia doesn’t look the same as a successful hire as UC-Santa Barbara or Valencia Community College. This is bad for both new hires and schools, evidenced (in part) by the fact that so many of the former move on to another school after two or three or four years, forcing another exhausting search.

But I’m not convinced departmental hiring committees can fix this problem without both big money investments from administration and attitudinal changes at the department level, neither of which are likely. Maybe the real question we should be asking is: should they?

There’s a case to be made, I think, that such entities are not, in fact, what we need to find the best candidate to fit for the job–if that is our collective goal. After all, most only do it once every five or ten years. And academics are notoriously terrible at honest self-evaluation–a fact that is, again, not entirely their fault–which means undertaking a search requires identifying, ranking, and assessing skills in a potential colleague is not something they are really built to do.

So, to the point of this post: What about hiring a consulting firm to do the job? As far as I know, job placement works well for other teachers. Why doesn’t it exist for post-secondary institutions? Feel free to correct me here, but I certainly don’t know of any that exist. Seems like a win-win-win. Hypothetical Placement Firm is staffed by individuals with an intimate understanding of what academic disciplines look like from the inside; there is certainly no shortage of them running around. It establishes a network of contacts at the departmental level, so it can have short (and ongoing) conversations about needs, past experience, and successes and failures. It sends someone to major conferences who meets with ABDs and recent grads for thirty minutes to talk CVs, research, teaching experience, and get a sense of interpersonal skills. It builds and retains a portfolio of applications. University of X, Department of Y pays a small yearly fee to Hypothetical Placement Firm and then, when it wants to run a search, it pays a lump sum to get a group of candidates from the firm which spends literally all of its time gauging not only what departments like them needs, but what the market looks like in a given year. The service is free to prospective hires, as is (almost astonishingly) both equitable and economical.

This headhunter model seems like it would work infinitely better to me. Departments spend a little money and save a bunch of humanpower. Faculty don’t have to waste dozens or hundreds of hours–collectively tens of thousands of dollars–that they could put towards, you know, research, curriculum development, fighting the reactionary agendas of legislators and judges, etc. Candidates get more detailed examination of their application portfolios–more than a hundred and twenty seconds in any case. And the most toxic, terrible part of becoming an academic–the job market–gets a little better.

Because here’s the thing that you learn very quickly serving on a search committee–though many candidates look the same on paper, in person they quickly distinguish themselves from one another. This is why job candidates spend roughly four hundred hours being evaluated at a campus visit. Small-group conversation, research presentation, teaching presentation, one-on-one interviews; grad student meetings, faculty meetings, administration meetings. Because when you get right down to it, selecting for the strength of a CV (mostly) and then a cover letter (some smaller remainder) nets you a group that might be academically accomplished but is mostly comprised of inarticulate weirdos, arrogant pricks, misogynists, or slabs of wet cardboard. This is why so many times the person who gets selected as the department’s top choice has so much bargaining power–because the committee has no acceptable backup, as members have vetoed for one reason or another everyone else’s candidacy. The kicker is that the vast majority of the time you can weed out the chaff with a fifteen minute conversation, so long as the interviewer has a plan. Tell me I’m wrong.

In a perfect world Steve is right. But (being familiar with his writing on topics like this) I think he’s being disingenuous about the larger picture in service to his position on university governance and Humboldtian reform. The reality is that the hiring process is mess and the third-party solution offers a viable, and most importantly better, alternative. Persuading faculty of this, however, is different task.