Friday, September 19, 2014

Some Thoughts on Hiring Committees

We are less than a month away from the AALS Faculty Recruitment Conference (a/k/a the “meat market” or the “FRC”). Reading the comments at PrawfsBlawg from the nervous candidates brings me back to my time on the meat market in 2010.

In this post, I hope to encourage hiring committees to engage in some perspective taking and improve the typical law school hiring process for candidates.

Instead of focusing on schools that I felt needed improvement in their hiring processes, I want to highlight one hiring committee that I think got it exactly right. The hiring committee was from The University of Oklahoma College of Law, made up of Emily Hammond (now at George Washington), Katheleen Guzman, and Joseph Thai.

Four years later, I remember their names vividly. I only made it to the FRC interview level with Oklahoma, and never got a call-back with the school, which makes their conduct that much more admirable. Oklahoma’s hiring committee excelled in three areas that I think all hiring committees should focus on and that I discuss more fully after the break: communication, transparency, and humanity.

Communication. Hiring committees should attempt to communicate with every applicant.

Oklahoma’s hiring committee did a nice job communicating with me and with a number of other candidates I talked to in 2010. (Richmond is another school that I have heard receive a lot of praise). Perhaps communication with every applicant is a bit too much to expect, especially if a school has hundreds of direct applicants. While I think a school could pretty easily send a form rejection to each applicant they choose not to interview, I find it somewhat understandable (though not ideal) that hiring committees do not respond to every direct applicant. More difficult to understand are the hiring committees that never follow-up, at all, with many of their FRC interviewees. Even if a hiring committee interviews 60 people at the FRC, which I imagine to be the high end of a school’s interviewing load, 60 is not an overwhelming number of people to communicate with, especially when divided among the hiring committee members. After a few weeks the candidates understand that they probably did not get a call-back, but the candidates can’t help thinking that there is a chance. Most candidates who did not make the cut would likely appreciate a rejection e-mail or letter.      

I don’t know what percentage of hiring committees go completely silent with many of their interviewees after the FRC, but in my case, I am still waiting on rejections, four years later, from about 50% of the schools that interviewed me at the FRC. I have talked to enough people (much more qualified than I), who also experienced complete silence from certain schools post-FRC, to feel comfortable saying that silence from hiring committees is relatively common.  

Transparency. Ideally, hiring committees would be transparent with their professor candidates, both about where the candidate stands in the hiring process and the specific date of next contact.

Oklahoma’s hiring committee was refreshingly transparent with me. They told me, relatively soon after the FRC, that I did not make the first call-back cut, but that they wanted to stay in touch, in case they didn’t get an acceptance from their top choice(s). They were kind in their approach, but they were clear. Regarding Oklahoma, I was clearly on what some call the “B-team” (or maybe the “C,” “D,” or “F” team). Oklahoma told me that they would get in touch with me on a certain date to check back in, and they actually e-mailed me on that exact date. They said that they had extended an offer to another candidate but were not sure if the candidate would accept. They asked me if I would be willing to fly in for a job talk if they did not get an acceptance. I said yes. They told me that the deadline was a certain date and that they would contact me on or before that date to let me know. They contacted me a few days before that date to let me know that their candidate had accepted their offer. The above might seem unremarkable to outsiders, but this level of transparency is quite rare in the law professor hiring process. 

If I was so impressed by Oklahoma’s transparency, and still remember it favorably today, why don’t more schools follow suit? Perhaps, schools worry that their second or third or fourth choice candidate will be offended if they are told they aren’t the first choice. Personally, I doubt most candidates would be offended. First, most candidates know how insanely competitive it is to land a professor position, so they are happy just to be in the running at all. Second, if candidates don’t hear from the hiring committee soon after the meat market, candidates are going to assume that they are on the “B-team” or worse anyway. Third, if hired, candidates generally hear a fair bit about their hiring process in the halls from colleagues who become good friends on the faculty.

Transparency on the date of next contact is admittedly a bit more difficult for hiring committees. I know that universities don’t always run efficiently or predictably, and I think most candidates know that as well. Hiring committees may legitimately not know when they will be able to share new information with the candidate. The best solution here, I think, is transparency on the lack of certainty and a definite date on which the hiring committee will update the candidate, even if there is no new information on that date. The thoughtful hiring committees will respond before the given date or early in the morning of the given date so that the candidate isn’t nervously checking phone and e-mail all day. 

Humanity. Despite the “meat market” name, hiring committees should try to insert some humanity into the hiring process. Many candidates, like me, left lucrative jobs for low-paying VAP positions (84% of the sucessful candidates recorded by PrawfsBlawg had some sort of fellowship last year) with no guarantee of future employment. The future of their careers hang on the interview process. Many candidates are dealing with family issues. I was about 4 weeks away from proposing to my now-wife (and about 2 weeks away from asking my now-in-laws for their blessing). Today, it is a bit funny to remember how I stumbled over my now-father-in-law’s question about how I was going to provide for his daughter when I had not yet secured a job for the following year, but it was anything but funny at the time. 

Inserting some humanity into the process does take some time on the part of the hiring committee, but it doesn’t take much time to set your hiring committee apart in a good way. After I failed to get a call-back with Oklahoma, each member of Oklahoma’s hiring committee asked questions about my job search, offered me advice for my other interviews, and provided a few leads. They communicated with me via e-mail and on the phone. I now know that they must have been extremely busy, but they found time and made a lasting impact on me.

In short, I think hiring committees should commit themselves to communication, transparency, and humanity in the professor hiring process, especially in this economic environment. Yes, doing so will take a bit more time, but it is the right thing to do, and who knows, maybe someday one of your candidates will become a professor and write a blog post about you.

Haskell Murray, Jobs, Law School | Permalink


Great post. I second the praise on Richmond, which I remember vividly. I also vividly remember people who did not treat me well but they shall remain nameless, mainly because I have seen some of them at conferences and they have gone out of their way to apologize about their colleagues' behavior.

Posted by: Marcia Narine | Sep 19, 2014 7:35:14 AM

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