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In my opinion

Why we need to change the faculty hiring process

Here are two recommendations to make the process less onerous for faculty members.

BY KEAN BIRCH | APR 06 2021

Anyone who’s sat on a faculty hiring committee knows how exhausting it can be. You read through 100 – if not hundreds – of applications, and nowadays each applicant portfolio amounts to a short book. You sit through numerous hours of meetings: pre-shortlisting, longlisting, shortlisting. You participate in four or five days worth of interviews. And you go to dinner with every short-listed candidate. By the final dinner, it’s easy to find yourself stumbling home, worn out, slightly befuddled, before slumping into bed. Then, to top it off, you have one more meeting where you have to decide who to recommend, and those meetings can go on for hours depending on how much of a fight you want to get into with your colleagues. And that’s only if things go smoothly.

Recently, I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of the time faculty members spend on each hiring committee. I assumed that each hiring committee consists of five to eight faculty members; usually three to five voting members and two to three ex officio members (e.g. chair, AAE representative, Dean’s representative). For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to assume six members here. Then, I assumed that each job attracts around 100 applicants – and I realize that many jobs attract many more applicants – and that it takes 10 minutes on average to read through each applicant’s file; this is probably an underestimation, but it takes into account the fact that there are always a number of files we know aren’t suitable straight away. That means each committee member is spending 1,000 minutes, or 16 to17 hours, simply reading applicant files.

I assumed that each hiring committee meets twice before interviews for around three hours each time, adding another six hours for each person, and that they interview four people for a full day each, adding another 32 hours for each person. A final decision-making meeting adds yet another three hours. All told, each faculty member on a hiring committee spends close to 60 hours doing their job. Multiply that by six members and each hiring committee takes 360 hours of faculty time, whether it is successful or not, and I’d estimate that a quarter end up as failed hires. That’s nine full working weeks in total, if we assume that each faculty works a 40-hour week. It’s a lot of time.

Now, here’s the kicker. A university like York, where I work, needs over 100 hiring committees each year with its current hiring priorities. All told then, total faculty time spent on hiring each year at somewhere like York takes up at least 900 full working weeks of faculty time, or 17 years. Yes, that’s 17 years of faculty time per year that is not spent on research or teaching. My calculations are conservative estimates too, so it’s very likely that the total time spent on hiring committees each year is higher than this.

What’s the solution? I’ve got two suggestions.

First, let senior management do it; let them use their time to free up our faculty to do more research and teaching. I know this is anathema to many faculty in Canada, but it’s how faculty hiring is done in many other countries, like the U.K. and Australia. Don’t reject it out of hand, would be my suggestion. It would move a huge time burden off faculty plates and have a few other benefits too. It would remove the chance of major falling-outs between academic colleagues in hiring units, an all-too-common occurrence during the hiring process. And it would promote more diversity by removing the whole question of the “fit” of applicants with the hiring unit.

Second, and this might be more palatable to Canadian faculty, universities could pay for external faculty to evaluate the applicants. This is common practice in Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden where they recruit external “assessment” committees to do this work. The final decision still rests with the hiring unit. An interesting aspect of this process is the added transparency of the process: applicants receive their assessment reports and, sometimes, even the assessment reports of all the applicants. Using my own salary – which is lower than the York faculty average – and another back-of-the-envelope calculation, each hiring committee costs something like $18,000 in faculty time. So, instead of spending this by using our own faculty, it’d probably be cheaper to recruit external faculty to an assessment committee and to do the interviews.

Each of these two options need not entail no faculty input. It would make sense for each hiring unit’s faculty to determine, collectively, what specialism or sub-field they want an applicant to work in, before handing over the task of doing the rest to someone else. Then, once those others have made their assessments and come to a final choice, the decision would come back to the unit for a final vote.

Kean Birch is an associate professor at York University.

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  1. Stewart Rood / April 7, 2021 at 09:49

    Hiring is the most important task for a Department. If done well, the new member will be more likely to contribute, thrive and succeed. This task is too important to export and the two suggestions redistribute the work, rather than reducing it.

    We commence with two search committee members independently undertaking first filters. By excluding applicants who don’t satisfy the position requirements and/or have slight promise, the candidate pool is commonly cut by half or more. The other internal members join in to identify a long list of about 15 to 20. The other two members (external and the Dean’s representative) become more engaged, but all members are welcome to consider any applications.

    A short list of about 6 to 8 is derived and other Department members may provide input towards the initial interview list of 3 or 4. We have specified interview components, including research and teaching presentations, a search committee dinner, and the formal meeting. Since the candidates are on campus for a day or two, other Department members are invited to join a search committee member to contribute to the hosting, with meals, tours, and a meeting with students.

    With ~30 members, our Department averages one or two hires per year – this is not too onerous. It’s an interesting, generally enjoyable, and critical process.

    • Jill K. / April 7, 2021 at 20:17

      I like Stewart’s approach. It cuts down on the ‘scut’ work, and allows all committee members to participate in evaluating the top, qualified applicants. I have witnessed firsthand a committee dominated by deans to hire a prestigious research chair faculty member. I would have been on the committee but declared a conflict of interest. I did however provide a quantitative assessment (Web of Science) of each of the interviewed applicants. Two were roughly the same academic age, a third was a few years less experienced (among other things, I noted each applicant’s h and m index scores, the latter to compensate for academic age). The deans selected the one with the best oral communication ability but by far the weakest research record. The one with the strongest academic record – by far – did not make it. I know what the scoring grid considered and public speaking skill was not on the list. They refused to provide information on how they arrived at their selection. It was the most non-transparent elitist process I have witnessed in a long university career. I would not allow deans to select faculty not in their area at any university unless I wanted the institution to fail.

  2. Ann / April 7, 2021 at 11:10

    Fascinating really. A professor looking for ways to do less.
    Usually being on the hiring committee – and not the one desperately seeking the rare tenure-track position – and getting to choose your future colleague is considered a privilege. Your solutions sound very neolib.

  3. Tony / April 7, 2021 at 13:20

    The workload is not the biggest problem in my opinion. Rather it is the politics of hiring processes that are often the problem, because the faculty committee members are not entirely arm’s length from some of the candidates, but do not see or declare a conflict of interest. This likely leads to many of the possible fights mentioned. Often all sorts of rationalizations get made to hire inferior candidates people happen to know, or whose work they happen to like, which is not fair to the stronger candidates who are actually at arm’s length. Centralizing the hiring process would at least ensure all candidates are treated equally and decisions are based on the merit of their records, rather than “fit” or other unfair, subjective criteria. The only question is do we trust our administrations to have the expertise to determine who to hire? Perhaps hiring external experts in the discipline, as is done in cyclical program reviews, is one solution. It would be a trade-off, but these are interesting suggestions to ensure the best candidates rise to the top in job competitions, which is to the benefit of students and the university generally. Ironically the departments would likely benefit too, if they could get out of their own way and trust less biased people to make these very important decisions. They may discover the devil they don’t know turns out to be a valued lifelong colleague they would never want to trade.

    • Say Something / April 9, 2021 at 12:35

      I agree with Tony. Politics play a major role in faculty hiring. Because of politics, a lot of excellent candidates have been left on the job market, and never be able to find full-time faculty positions.

      Secondly, I disagree with author Kean Birch about paying for service. Service is your job as a tenured faculty. And full-time faculty have already received much higher incomes than part-time or sessional faculty. Tenured faculty are upper class in Canada . while part-time and sessionals have overwhelming teaching and services (e.g., supervise TAs and students) but only receive lowest pay cheques; even much lower than government’s minimum pay requirements if you calculate how much time part-time faculty spend for teaching and service and a course-based pay cheque.

      Current tenure system is problematic and unfair which has cultivated a lot of lazy tenured faculty who only want higher incomes but never really work after tenured. Tenure system should be removed now. Universities should only hire those who are passionate in research and teaching by terms, not forever. For example, 5- year contact which encouraging academics and benefits to students as well. . Tenure system is arbitrary and inequitable to academics. Particularly, for part-time and sessionals who are doing more jobs than tenured faculty do but receive lowest pay.

  4. Lea Katsanis / April 7, 2021 at 13:26

    I fully agree with Stewart and Ann. One of the most important roles we have as faculty members is the hiring of our future colleagues. It is essential to the building of a cohesive Department, and the best way to achieve it in my opinion is by meeting candidates personally, hearing their presentations, and seeing how they “fit” with others. It also contributes to academic knowledge, as hearing what prospective Ph.D.s are working on provides new perspectives in our own thinking.

    The hiring process is time consuming, without a doubt. But the dividends for that time investment pay off in non-monetary ways that better our lives as academics and give us a valuable voice at the institution. I would not want to hand over this responsibility and privilege to others.

  5. professor kgalil / April 7, 2021 at 13:48

    unfortunately, i find those appointment committees which are mostly white tend to pick white candidates as one senior faculty members said to me “ducks pick ducks”, the system has to be changed,by insisting on minorities to sit on these committees . as well as minorities should be given the whole list of applicants, not just the shortlist, in my experience, I found that the appointment committee usually (all white) when they pik a shortlist they tend to eliminate any minority no matter how qualified he or she is by finding anything to remove him or her ..then when the list is presented it is presented as if if these are the best candidate but actually the list usually reflects themselves (white ) again ducks pick ducks