David D. Perlmutter. “Why You Wait.” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 16, 2014.

Why You Wait


Our communications college recently filled a staff position. Total time, from the job coming open to the contract being signed: about one month. On the other hand, as we all know, searches for tenure-track faculty lines take a long, long time to initiate, conduct, and conclude.

Because I write about academic careers, I spend a considerable time reading the essays, rants, and tweets of academic job seekers. Their “frustrage” about the state of tenure-track job markets in most fields is matched only by their stupefaction at the search process itself. Among the premier complaints: Why does it take so long to conduct a search?

The answer varies by individual circumstance and institution. But many of the stoppages and slow-walks of the tenure-track academic search are systemic. Not every one will apply each time, for each search. But these are common phenomena. Are you a job candidate wondering why the search is proceeding at such a glacial pace? If so, at least one of these factors is partly to blame.

Approvals are uncertain. In an ideal world, every department would find out which hiring lines it had available well ahead of hiring season. In reality, all sorts of other factors intervene. Budgets take time to process, and upsets emerge. Surprise departures and retirements happen. Administrative priorities—or players—change. All of this makes knowing if and when you can hire an unpredictable and spotty enterprise for many units. One language department at a regional university, for example, was notified that it had a tenure-track line the week before its principal national convention for recruiting. Then, two months later, there was a general budget shortfall and all hiring was suspended, only to be reopened months later.

Your materials are incomplete but you may not know it. Most academic searches require a letter of application, reference letters, and maybe teaching or research samples. Attempts to streamline the process via electronic applications have mixed results. (One widely-used upload site has recently been known to mysteriously drop materials.) Formats vary: One university site, for instance, scrambled PDFs so they were unreadable. Materials coming from non-candidate sources, like references, may arrive late or never show up. Worse, the candidate may never know. One job seeker complained to me: “I found out, too late, that my reference forgot to send the letter.”

The market is saturated, and making a final decision is hard. In one humanities discipline with which I am familiar, an open tenure-track job will often draw between 600 and 700 applicants. As one chair in the discipline put it: “The top two hundred candidates are real contenders. Narrowing down is tough.” That means that committees need time, time, and yet more time to deliberate. A new faculty member who was serving on a search committee for the first time lamented: “I had no idea how hard or complicated this was.” Indeed.

There are many stakeholders in your hire. When I was department chair, on-campus candidates for tenure-track positions had to meet or present to myself, the department’s other administrators, the regular faculty, Ph.D. students, several classes of undergrads, some staff members, and an associate dean from the college. First off, this presented a logistical problem: That’s hundreds of people that we needed to coordinate with to be ready. It could take months just to find the one right day to bring someone in.

Second, this becomes a political challenge. Within most groups of that size, there are factions. Some faculty may prefer one candidate over another, or one set of qualifications over another set. Departments seeking consensus may have to meet over and over until it is achieved—if it ever is. Upper administration may be swamped or unsure about the right hire themselves. Or they may be waiting for resolution (and the bill!) in one department’s hire before making a decision on another.

Every hire is high stakes. In most departments today, if you hire the wrong person—someone who moves on early, say, or who turns out to be a poor fit—there’s no guarantee that tenure line will stay yours. There are also, especially at small liberal arts colleges, few redundant positions. If you have only one position to cover a high-profile area, the prestige of the entire department is riding on the hire. The pressure is on and so committees may deliberate … and deliberate.

All the above are reasons for why searches may take a long time. That said, they’re not excuses. Technological blips aside, the overriding metafactor for dallying is human agency. Searches are run by groups of people, often very busy people who have a hundred other things they value or prioritize. The staff hire I mentioned concluded quickly in part because only myself, a senior staff person, and one faculty member were responsible for the decision.

We could speed up academic searches if hiring was solely up to a few people. But would you be happy being on a faculty where all hiring was out of your hands? You hope everybody will try to make the system both as kind and as efficient as possible, but perfection will remain as hard to attain here as in any other human-governed endeavor.

So if it seems like a search is taking forever, you have the right to chafe. But understand that many factors beyond cruelty and incompetence may affect the delay. And a solution that removes faculty oversight would be worse than the problem.




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