The mysteries of academic recruitment

I have no idea on how many occasions I have set on university selection panels to fill academic or other vacancies, both in the various universities in which I have worked and in other institutions. Nor, to be honest, am I sure how often I personally got the decision right or wrong. And yet, these decisions change people’s lives and the destiny of institutions.

There are two key elements in staff recruitment. The first relates to the job specification – i.e. the particulars that are published describing the post and the attributes of the ideal candidate. The second is the selection process, including shortlisting and interviews. Both of these are critical: they contain a vision of the institution and of people who can help it to thrive, but that vision may be faulty, may be affected or undermined by bias or prejudice, and may be applied without proper expertise by those making the selection.

Mostly those taking part in faculty and staff recruitment do so with great care and with a real intention to be objective and fair. But that may not always be enough. Research in the United States has looked at some common criteria used in recruitment and assessed whether they are as helpful as people often believe; and has suggested that at least the early stages of selection (like shortlisting) might be conducted ‘blind’ – i.e. without knowledge of the candidate’s’ names, background and previous educational or institutional affiliations.

For those (like me, as I must admit) who have not tried this approach it may be worth a go. Selection for a university (or any other) job will never be a perfect process in all circumstances, but it should be as fair, transparent and objective as possible.

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7 Comments on “The mysteries of academic recruitment”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    I don’t’ think that there is anything mysterious about academic recruitment, Universities have a diversity problem (fact)—and many justifications for why things are the way they are. There’s the pipeline problem, the revolving door for women, the lack of female or BME role models, and issues of bias not to mention the traditional belief in the myth, still to be fully debunked, of meritocracy—that is, only the best and most qualified candidates are hired, independent of other factors.
    While universities often tend to focus on explicit bias—documentable instances of which are quite rare—it is easy to overlook what is happening at the level of structural underpinnings, which create conditions that all too often make the positions of certain categories of staff, even when they are hired, disproportionately difficult, stressful, demanding, and emotionally and physically unhealthy.
    As anyone involved with equality & diversity or the Athena SWAN Charter (http://www.ecu.ac.uk/equality-charters/athena-swan/)in universities knows very well only an in depth investigation of recruitment practices, starting with the wording used in job adverts and person specification (the issue of discriminatory language has been recently discussed here https://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2017/07/03/exploring-discriminatory-language/) and the implementation of a series of policies (mandatory E&D /Bias training for all members of interview panels etc) can ameliorate the situation. Such scoping and reflecting activities are very resource intensive, hence they require adequate backing from university senior management and active leadership at VP level.
    From a broader perspective it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that implementing true equality across all academic practices is going to require a real effort to bring about some fundamental alterations in the way the university as a whole functions—especially at the levels of working conditions, the structure, barriers to entry and sustainability of the academic profession, and distribution of power and responsibility within the institution, but that is not happening any time soon.

  2. Highlandgirl Says:

    The ‘blind’ process works well in the public sector – means all candidates are treated equally and the panel have a set process to follow – never failsafe of course, and there will always be hiccups, and it can reduce flexibility and personal preference , but overall it is much fairer to the candidates

  3. Vince Says:

    I think reasonably OK people can and usually do compensate against positive bias. But I think it takes a very special sort to see when the negative is colouring the view.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Vince, unlike you I don’t believe in any self-reassuring “compensation” process, but I like the idea that “it takes a special sort of people to see when the negative is coloring the view”, as you put it, I might be biased though! 🙂

      • Vince Says:

        I’m assuming good will. If we are dealing with factions then all bets are off and you’d better be a member of that grouping with the majority on the board. Otherwise you’re pretty … . (place your own apt word over the dots).

  4. cormac Says:

    What baffles me is the lack of breadth in the posts offered. I have never seen a single 3rd level position advertised in my country in the history of science, the philosophy of science, or indeed the history and philosophy of science. Such things are unimportant you see, never mind that nonsense about the enlightenment


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