Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dean Frank Wu on Faculty Hiring: "What I Don't Do"

This post is by Dean Frank H. Wu, who is Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law.

I write to share a policy I have adopted that has proven effective. I do not weigh in on faculty hiring. That means publicly or privately.

To be precise, I avoid discussing individual candidates in any manner that would show my preference as to whether we extend an offer or not. I am entitled to vote; I would do so only to break a tie. But I also do not stroll the halls. I do not answer if questioned about an applicant.

I care very much, and I will say so forcefully, about many aspects of faculty hiring. I want us to be strategic, meaning looking to our needs and our identity; I am not enthusiastic bringing on a sixth constitutional law expert. I insist on appropriate consideration of diversity. I urge realism in the pursuit of lateral candidates. I request that we solicit student input.

On one occasion, I made a general observation about competition within the marketplace and the futility of searching for the perfect professor. On another occasion, I pointed out a great potential recruit who is from San Francisco. That's the extent of my involvement on the merits.

So I believe I have fulfilled my commitment to staying out of the substantive conversation on the merits of any particular candidate. I am neither a proponent nor an opponent of anyone who has come through. I measure my success by the criticism from the faculty: some have appealed to me to break from my self-imposed rule, but none has faulted me for having done so. 

My rationales are principled and practical. 

My primary justification is confidence in the process. Smart people are suspicious of anyone who proclaims trust in process. Our profession consists in no small part of showing advocates how to prevail through process. So an administrator who praises shared governance looks like a charlatan trying to game the system. Yet it functions if we allow it.

I might not have the same faith at another institution. I find myself surrounded by colleagues who are demonstrably collegial. 

Some of our culture might be the result of our peculiar history. For two generations, either all or the bulk of the faculty were members of the "65 Club" who had come to UC Hastings after being forced into retirement elsewhere. The dean who came up with that idea served almost a quarter century and was much more powerful than would be true of his successors. Professors then either left behind their squabbles on their former campus or had mellowed out of faculty politics.

If idealism were not sufficient to persuade me, I also consider the consequences. Faculty hiring is reputed to be the most divisive group project we undertake. I have been witness to so many negative costs of active decanal intervention in faculty hiring, against relatively modest positive benefits, abstention commends itself. Thus even were I not to trust the collective conclusion of those around me, I would hesitate to campaign for my predilections.

The greatest challenge to implementing my philosophy, as is true of most ambitions, has been myself. I often am tempted to comment on candidates. Without fail, when I restrain myself, somebody else soon enough voices what I would have -- and I am not only assured but also able to have an indulgent moment of self-congratulation.

Thus I am prompted to wonder whether I add value by speaking a statement beyond the intrinsic value of it being said. That would be the case only if I were invoking my authority. Even aware of how context matters, I am less and less self-important over time. Better that my utterances be reserved, and I have the confidence to remain silent. 

Besides, there are more effective means of projecting one's will than announcing it. Our Provost & Academic Dean is not bound by my rule. She is, and is perceived as, independent of me in these matters.

The other problem is the negative response from faculty who regard me as obstinate. There is a certain perversity, I suppose, to keeping one's own counsel. I suspect some professors also interpret my conduct as an indication of indifference to the scholarly pursuits that are their passion or confirmation of my lack of ability to engage in meaningful intellectual activity. 

I do not disclose that I look forward to the AALS recruitment conference as a rare opportunity to receive tutorials on multiple subjects I otherwise would never consider. I have many thoughts about what I hear at the "meat market." I have concluded my attendance is worthwhile, to speak to the interviewees and assess what is within my domain.

To be honest, I have noticed that I generally am interested in more candidates than the committee. That does not mean I lack standards. Everyone whom I size up as problematic has been deemed as such by my peers. A few on whom I would take a risk, the consensus would not. 

I believe it likely my more open attitude is related to my office, but I am not sure about cause and effect. It may be that persons who are less inclined toward judgment are suited to management, or it may be that leading a diverse community induces such a sensibility. 

To the extent I form opinions, I realize they are skewed by my perspective. I mull over a set of factors others in the room might not value highly: will this person suppose herself more deserving than others, can she be counted on for her share of institutional service, and what is the likelihood of loyalty to the school, etc. I am circumspect about these concerns as well, because others eventually will note them.

All of the foregoing also applies to other decisions. The greatest, meaning most significant as well as best, change in my understanding of my work as I mature in the responsibilities has been developing an acceptance of outcomes I would not have advocated for if I had another role. I do not aspire to authoritarianism. 

I have a vision for legal education and my institution. But the community must accept it and realize it. I have enough to do that likely will be contentious. Hiring faculty need not be on that list.

Outside academe, people who are in charge marvel at the democratic nature of faculties. I embrace it. We are the better for our deliberations.

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