Conducting Successful Faculty Searches

nowhiring-flickrWe are entering the season of faculty searches. It is one of the most important decisions a department and college make. There are many things to think about in the process: determining if a department will be conducting a search; the focus and expertise desired for the position; committee role and membership; planning for on-campus interviews and the final selection process.

Someone once told me, “the only failed search is when you hire the wrong person.” They are so right.  It is better not to make a hire than to settle for a choice just to fill a position. Doing due diligence throughout every step of the selection process can ensure we make a great hire.

Using high-impact practices make for a successful search.  These include pre-search conversations to make sure everyone in the department is on the same page about the specialization, qualifications and assessment. It is everyone’s responsibly, not just the search committee, to SEARCH.  This is accomplished by sharing the position description with colleagues at other universities, nominating individuals that seem suited for the job, and recruiting doctoral students and faculty at professional meetings.

Understanding high-impact practices
We have offered voluntary workshops in the past for departments conducting tenure-track and tenured faculty searches.  This year, the Academic Leadership Team (ALT) unanimously agreed that all search committees for tenure-stream faculty would be required to participate in workshops designed to share high-impact practices.

Thanks to Vice President for Global Diversity and Inclusion, Dr. Carmen Suarez, for providing the leadership and collaborating with the Provost’s Office to offer these workshops.  Some may see this as unnecessary, but none of us are beyond learning about implicit biases, strategies for building talented and diverse pools, attending thoughtfully to each part of the process, and hiring our candidate of first choice.

The intent is to provide more emphasis on attaining our Strategic Plan: Goal 4, Initiative 2, Promote Diversity Through Hiring and Retention – adopting best practices for recruitment, retention and advancement of diverse faculty, staff and administrators to better reflect the diversity of the student body. More details about these workshops are forthcoming.

Strategies for faculty searches
Beginning this year, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) is conducting cluster hiring, which involves hiring a group of faculty in different areas, but with interdisciplinary research interests.  These faculty collaborate on research and teaching, and the idea is that the whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

The College of Engineering (MCECS) is following a different approach to cluster hiring. I asked Professor James McNames, Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), to share how his department has made the move to what he calls “focus hiring”.

Last fall the ECE faculty decided to change their approach to hiring tenure-track faculty. Previously the department had not limited the search to a specific area and simply hired the best candidate we could find out of a large pool of applicants. While all of the faculty hired through this process in the last 15 years have been productive and successful in research and teaching, our research specializations have become more diverse, collaboration is difficult, and we lack the resources and facilities to pursue large funding opportunities that require teams of faculty with complementary expertise in order to be competitive.

Many universities have attempted to address some of these issues by hiring faculty into multiple departments and colleges with common interdisciplinary research topics or clusters. These “cluster hiring” initiatives often have other goals such as increasing faculty diversity, collaboration across disciplines, and community engagement.

Our department each year graduates approximately 60 students with a B.S. degree, 120 with an M.S. degree, and 3 with a Ph.D. Our M.S. program is the largest of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, as measured by the number of graduates. We have six instructional faculty and 16 tenured or tenure-track faculty. Approximately 20% of our courses are taught by adjunct instructors. Due to our large graduate enrollment, our attributed net revenue under the University’s Revenue Cost Attribution Tool is over $1.5 million. Our resources and departmental structure enables us to hire new tenure-track faculty with the primary goal of expanding our sponsored research, while still fulfilling all the needs of maintaining and improving our educational programs.

We decided as a faculty to focus our faculty hiring in a single research area. This intended to accomplish many of the benefits associated with top-ranked research universities, while leveraging some of the resources and opportunities unique to PSU’s access mission and non-traditional students. In particular we expect that the faculty hired as part of this initiative will collaborate closely with each other, pursue large funding opportunities, share research resources, and cultivate a culture that improves the quality of intellectual life of our faculty and students. Sharing of resources, funding, and students also provides some portfolio diversification that can help buffer unexpected setbacks such as the loss of a critical Ph.D. student or a temporary gap in funding.

Last fall we completed an internal exercise in which different groups of faculty proposed suggested focus areas of research. Through a vote of the faculty, with approval of the chair and dean, we chose to focus on developing new technologies for sensing and modeling of coastal hazards and habitats. This will build on a current strength in our department in underwater acoustics, led by Martin Siderius.

This fall we will begin recruiting for the first two faculty positions in this area. Because we are focused on a particular area, we will be directly recruiting strong potential candidates to apply for these positions, as well as advertising in the magazines and other venues typically used to announce new faculty positions in our discipline.  As part of our direct recruitment and advertising strategies, we are equally focused on building a diverse pool of applicants.

We believe that “focus hiring” may provide an effective alternative to the traditional approach of hiring the best applicant in a large pool, which can lead to faculty working in silos lacking the intellectual engagement that attracted many of us to academia. It is also an alternative to “cluster hiring” in which typically faculty are hired in different departments with a common theme, which may not increase research productivity and may overload new faculty who are expected to serve both the cluster and their departments.

I look forward to hearing from ECE and CLAS as to how their different search strategies went this year.  I also look forward to hearing about the searches you are conducting.  Do not hesitate to contact me if you want me to meet with candidates during their campus interview, or to make a call while they are contemplating our offer to share with them all that PSU has to offer.


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