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Policy & Practice

The precarious practice of cluster hiring

Clusters are often described as prioritizing interdisciplinary collaboration, but that comes with its own unique set of challenges.

BY CRESO SÁ | OCT 21 2019

“The most important decisions we make are about faculty hiring” – you are likely to hear that from academic administrators if you spend time discussing their jobs, as I have countless times. They mean that recruiting tenured and tenure-stream faculty members is highly consequential, as the usual expectation is that they are welcoming a new colleague who will stay on campus for the long haul, with all their strengths and weaknesses.

Faculty hiring involves tensions and accommodations between departmental interests and institutional priorities. Put simply, departments care about their standing within their disciplines and their ability to support their degree programs. Senior administrators, whether in large faculties with multiple departments or in the central administration, view the recruitment of professors from a different vantage point – they have to elect priorities and allocate resources across academic units.

Over the past 30 years, several universities have used cluster hiring approaches, particularly in the US. The basic idea is: establish a number of interdisciplinary areas for recruitment across academic units through some consultative process, rather than assign faculty lines to departments. Then, recruitment proceeds through multidisciplinary committees that select candidates whose research fits both a cluster and an academic department, where the new faculty member’s tenure is based.

Although there is variation across institutions, clusters usually remain largely informal and in faculty-led affinity groupings. The usual objectives of these cluster hiring initiatives are to foster multidisciplinary collaboration across academic units and steer research and scholarship towards salient problems. Overtime, cluster hiring has also come to be seen as a way to increase faculty diversity, whether by directly targeting the recruitment of minority scholars or by choosing research fields where minorities are more represented. Recently, some Canadian universities have invoked cluster hiring when recruiting indigenous faculty members (here, here, and here).

While the size and format of cluster hiring initiatives vary significantly, their justification tends to be rather consistent. Proponents argue that academic departments operate as silos, oriented towards narrow disciplinary interests. In this view, the normal tendency in departments is to self-replicate, replacing departing professors with new recruits with similar profiles. This in turn is thought to spur an ossification of expertise around established fields and approaches, inhibiting the recruitment of researchers in emerging and interdisciplinary areas.

Cluster hiring is thus framed as a corrective to these tendencies. Clusters are described as prioritizing innovative research fields and involving interdisciplinary collaboration; they are often associated to the narrative of funding agencies of addressing “grand challenges” as well. There is an appeal to the scale and relevance of the problems of interest in clusters – they transcend disciplinary boundaries and the narrow interests of individual academic units.

At close inspection, however, the narratives associated with the selection of clusters, revolving around elusive qualities such as “cutting-edge” and “important problems” are much less objective and straightforward as they purport to be. Ample research recognizes that making decisions in interdisciplinary panels is riddled with difficulties, ranging from communication barriers across disciplines to disparate assumptions about quality criteria. Processes to select clusters involving multiple academic units can carry their own biases towards certain fields, types of research problems, and methodologies.

These issues aside, cluster hiring involves a renegotiation of power relationships and decision-making over faculty recruitment, whereby the central administration and cross-departmental committees play major roles. Cluster hiring initiatives have been criticized for lack of transparency and for overvaluing fields of interest to external sponsors. The strong reaction a few years ago from the faculty at the University of California-Riverside illustrates the cleavage that such recruitment schemes can create if perceived as a top-down imposition that substitutes for rather than complement disciplinary recruitment.

Certainly, inward-looking academic departments can fall into a trap of intellectual complacency and parochialism, which can affect their recruitment decisions. Hiring committees may settle for mediocrity that feels familiar, seeking to preserve the past rather than build the future. But they do not hold a monopoly on this kind of organizational pathology. Administrative teams and campus committees can as easily fall into a trap of mindless emulation of peer institutions while proclaiming to identify strategic priorities. They may reflexively respond to short-term signals of funding agencies and donors to make long-term decisions about academic staffing.

Hence, arguments from either disciplinary experts in academic departments or senior administrators about recruitment priorities that rely on a kind of moral high ground are quite suspect. The challenge for universities is to strike two kinds of balances when it comes to faculty hiring. The first is between respecting departmental autonomy while maintaining real safeguards against dysfunctional cultures that undermine academic standards. The second is between inducing change and innovation while supporting continuity where it is needed. Cluster hiring may be a useful tool towards inducing change, but the tired rhetoric that paints departments as ‘silos’, disciplines as narrow, and implementers as disinterested innovators is simplistic and unhelpful.

ABOUT CRESO SÁ
Creso Sá
Creso Sá is director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education (CIHE) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto, as well as editor of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.
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  1. Caroline Langill, VPAP / October 25, 2019 at 04:44

    OCAD University undertook a cluster hiring process in 2018 with much success. Five faculty were hired across the Faculties of Art, Design and Liberal Arts and Sciences and the School of Interdisciplinary Studies to increase our complement of Indigenous faculty. Happy to comment further or provide information if anyone is interested.