The Quest for a Better Search Process

Forget the “dysfunctional family.” Few things today can be moredysfunctional than the academic search committee. These bodiescontribute, not only to mediocrity and the decline in the university,but to the exclusion and discrimination of various underrepresentedgroups of highly qualified persons — namely people of color, peoplewith disabilities, and women.

Historically, academic search committees have been, and continue tobe, used to assist in making faculty and administrative personneldecisions in the nation’s colleges and universities. But why is thishiring tool used? What does it do? How does it function? Moreover, whatis it supposed to do? Is it fair? And are there bidden reasons and/oragendas?

Survey research indicates that a considerable majority ofuniversity faculty do not believe in affirmative action or equalopportunity as designated in federal and state civil rights laws. Themodern search committee originated, in part, as higher education’scoping mechanism to avoid complying with the nation’s civil rightslaws. They are effective tools for diffusing responsibility for thereal hiring authority in an effort to exercise political control,fooling lawyers and federal officials investigating charges ofemployment discrimination, and controlling people and keeping them fromrocking the boat.

While the search committee is a prima fade hiring authority, thereal hiring authorities in colleges and universities are the departmentchairs, deans, vice presidents, and the president. The president alsocertifies all personnel decisions, and in the case of most publicinstitutions, is the person whose recommendations are then typicallysent to a board of regents or governors to be certified.

Since these real hiring authorities are not usually seen onposition announcements, they are conveniently shielded fromdiscrimination charges as well as lawsuits. The search committee,effectively serves as a smoke screen.

Since the search committee appears to be democracy in action, onewould expect that prejudices, biases, discrimination, and noncompliancewith federal civil rights laws would be done away with. Judging from mypersonal experience and that of colleagues, however, this does notappear to be the case. In too many instances, the hiring process isfraught with discrimination, favoritism, politics, and the “good oldboy” networks.

Academic search committees are often made up of a combination oftenured senior faculty and untenured junior faculty. This configurationmakes the junior faculty easy to control. These committees oftenconsider candidates who also will be easy to control.

The federal courts have told universities that they may select thebest qualified individual to fill a position. Who then is “bestqualified?” Apparently it is whoever the university says is bestqualified. This kind of insular, circular logic rarely is challenged,and as a result, the universities have correctly assessed that they areabove the law. Federal civil rights enforcement agencies have prettymuch left the universities alone for the past couple of decades, andthis appears to have contributed to the enormous arrogance within theuniversity community.

The selection process, as used by search committees, usuallyinvolves the evaluation of candidates based on advertised criteria thattend to be nothing more than political statements reflecting currentlyheld biases and prejudices. Often these criteria are ignored andsomeone is selected who does not even remotely match the announcedcriteria.

The use of these reference criteria is known as “summativeevaluation.” Statisticians continuously caution against using summativeevaluation techniques to assess human beings because people are socomplex, both in known and unknown criteria. Additionally, we really donot know which of these criteria are most important, let alone critical.

One can almost be assured that size, in terms of the number ofpersons on the selection committee, is vitally important. Generallyspeaking, the more important — and high paying — the job beingfilled, the greater the number of persons on the search committee,which diffuses responsibility even more.

And once a search committee has made its selections, the hiringauthority is not duty-bound to accept any of the offered candidates.

Today’s academic search committees operate in secret and willusually not comply with requests — even those made through the Freedomof Information Act — for details of their decisions. But they shouldbecome more willing to provide feedback to applicants. Such informationwould provide those who suspect unfairness, bias, or cronyism with anavenue through which to seek redress. It might also spare those who arerepeatedly rejected the frustration that can come from years of beingpassed over by providing valuable insights into any perceivedshortcomings.

The current academic search committee system is broken and atravesty. Even worse, it is hurtful as well as counter-productive. Ifwe are honest about its flaws, and have the will, we can fix thisbroken process.

— DR. FRED T. PONDER

Coordinator of Counselor Education Texas A&M University, Kingsville

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