The Sham National Search

We’re in the process of hiring a new faculty member right now and everyone in the department (and everyone in the administration) knows that it’s basically a sham search. There is an inside candidate, and the job ad was written specifically for them. But of course we have the other finalists coming to campus, and everyone in the department is expected to do all the things you would expect — go to the job talks, the teaching demos, and the dinner meetings.

It seems like such a waste of everyone’s time, and I feel bad for the candidates who think they actually have a shot at this job. Is all this really necessary?

What you are describing is a scenario that is unfortunately common enough — and probably the nightmare of every candidate who is on the market now and in the campus-visit stage. I completely empathize with feeling bad for the duped candidates, and resentful at being forced to go through the charade of evaluating future colleagues who don’t stand a chance of actually becoming future colleagues.

In answering your (very reasonable) question — “Is all this really necessary?” — I would suggest you try to think of it as “the least of all possible evils.”

The scenario in which your department finds itself is the product of what is considered best practice in academe — namely, that tenure-track candidates should be selected via a national search. There are some exceptions to that: For example, some departments have been under pressure to convert non-tenure-track jobs into tenure-track positions without doing a national search. The idea is to appoint contingent faculty members directly into those new tenure-track jobs (a controversial practice). Departments also avoid a national search for target-of-opportunity hires — a catch-all phrase for when they receive money for a very specific hire, such as a spousal or diversity appointment.

But generally, institutional best practices — codified in documents from the provost’s office spelling out standard operating procedures — require a national search in faculty hiring.

And that is (mostly) a good thing. If you can, try to think of the wasted search and the sad external candidates as an unfortunate byproduct of a policy that should exist rather than not. Of course it seems very reasonable to say, “We have this excellent candidate, she wants the job, the department wants her, we should not waste all these resources and give people false hope.” But in actuality, the national-search standard is crucial for combating nepotism (even though the situation in your department may seem like evidence to the contrary).

This hiring standard may be imperfect and sometimes flimsy. But it’s a reference point taken seriously by at least a certain percentage of deans and department chairs — and one that makes it difficult for hiring authorities to practice overt nepotism.

Of course, if an institution, provost, or governing board really wants someone to be hired without a national search, they can make it happen. Still, while campus and departmental politics shape faculty hiring and specific hires, egregiously overt anointments of specific cherry-picked people are not all that common in academe. If the national-search standard did not exist, just think how many faculty jobs would be casually arranged through the informal but ubiquitous old (white) boys network? At least this way, members of that network have to pick where they want to expend their political capital to game the system.

Without the national-search safeguard, I would guess half the hires (at least) would go to “inside candidates” of various stripes — and not always to reward a beloved contingent colleague with a tenure-track position. No doubt we would see plenty of “you hire my star student and we will hire yours” deals brokered by bigwigs during the post-plenary reception dinner at your field’s Big National Conference.

I do want to pause here to acknowledge that, yes, a sham search is unfair to the “sham” contenders — people for whom this campus visit may represent their only shot (and they don’t yet realize it isn’t even that) at a tenure-track job during a given hiring season. Campus visits are difficult, disruptive, and involve tremendous amounts of intellectual and emotional labor on the part of the candidates. It is extremely unfortunate when all that labor is for naught.

I know there is a brightly chirpy Pollyanna-ish sentiment that goes, “Even if you stand no chance of being hired, a campus interview is still good practice!” Perhaps that notion contains a kernel of truth, but it is mostly dismissive and minimizing. Campus visits are different from department to department in ways that aren’t always transferable. To me, the “it’ll be good practice” notion always sounds like squinting and distorting just enough to see a “win-win!” in a situation in which there is a very clear way to “lose.”

But I will say that there is one actual potential silver lining that can benefit candidates in a sham campus visit. While it’s not nearly as powerful as an offer, a campus visit can serve as an additional point of leverage if the candidate is negotiating with other potential employers, or is a finalist at a different institution. Campus visits indicate desirability, and desirability can tilt decision-making in favor of the candidate.

The final thing I want to note: Your “inside candidate” may be applying to other places as well without telling the department, and if that front-runner gets a better deal elsewhere, your sham search may become an authentic one. You have to treat candidates and approach the situation accordingly.

Karen Kelsky is founder and president of The Professor Is In , which offers advice and consulting services on the academic job search and on all aspects of the academic and postacademic career. She is a former tenured professor at two universities. Browse an archive of Kelsky’s previous advice columns here .

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