Shrink from headhunters

Outsiders can never grasp the eccentricities of academe, says Sally Feldman

April 3, 2008

Be warned. There's a new predator scaling the ivory towers. You may have even fallen victim already, warmed by a syrup of blandishments poured through a faintly aristocratic lisp as she lures you into her honeyed trap. I'm referring of course to the headhunter - always female, always softly spoken in a faux-seductive Cheltenham Ladies' College way, always called Fenella or Posy or Poppy or Justine. And as reported in these pages ("Alarm at lack of players in v-c hiring", 30 November 2007), more and more universities are coming to rely on her precarious skills when recruiting for senior jobs.

Don't, whatever you do, be coaxed into conversation, however flattered you might feel that she's been "strongly recommended" to speak to you, that you are quite clearly the top candidate for the plum job she's seeking to fill. She bears false gifts and empty promises, unable to give anything away because she doesn't actually know anything. Ask what salary is being offered. She won't know. How many staff in the department? Er? Not a clue. Breathily, she'll reveal that this newly carved senior role comes at a pivotal time for a university that prides itself on its applied research. Doesn't that just mean it didn't enter the research assessment exercise? After a puzzled pause, Amelia/Tamsin/Tiggy/Camilla will reply that this particular institution concentrates on working with industry. Which industries? Umm ... she won't know. She just wants your name on the list.

Headhunters need to show what a wide field they've trawled and how impressive are their contacts. Often, they'll be involved in the interview process itself. They'll give you tests to see if you'd rather build a bridge or conduct a symphony. They'll observe you in conversation with rival candidates, ticking boxes if you use magic phrases such as "bottom line", "centralised support services" or "synergetic efficiencies". What they don't betray is any familiarity with the real business of higher education.

No wonder those of us within universities responsible for recruiting staff are beginning to resent the new consultants. Equally steeped in fair selection and in rustling up person specifications and competencies, we're doing the same job but with greater inside knowledge. No headhunter, not even those equipped with a cursory bullet point or two about the vagaries of university employment, could possibly be as astute as we are at interpreting the myriad eccentric application styles favoured by academics.

Some scholarly superstars will look stumped when you ask them why they want the job. They'll tell you it's because your college is nearer to home or because the pay's a bit better than their last place. Others lie blatantly about how they devised all the modules in their department, brought in multimillion-pound grants and are about to publish a bestseller, even when it turns out that their PhD, for which they've been registered for 17 years, is not yet completed and that there are mysterious lapses in their CV. Once, when we discovered that an experimental installation artist had invented his solo exhibitions in Prague, Dubai and Cape Town, he explained that his application was a constructed truth devised to negotiate the interface between real and illusionary biography.

Similarly, the more eager candidates will confide how they like to engage their students in a state of positive uncertainty, exploring the absence of presence and making an intervention in the problematics of subjective resonances through the building of non-homogeneous platforms.

To sort out meaning from gibberish, we'll invite people to demonstrate their teaching styles. One applicant for a job in journalism gave the interview team a test in news values. We all failed. A fashion lecturer showed how to teach the cutting of a shirt in ten minutes. Sadly, the textile she'd brought in caused the chair of the panel such a severe allergic reaction he had to be given life support in the animation lab.

A useful ploy is to quiz people about how they'd deal with tricky situations such as students complaining about a tutor's habitual misogyny or parents ringing up to demand a refund because their child didn't get a first. There's never a right answer to these hypotheticals, but there's a definite wrong answer: "I'd refer it to the dean."

Just to be sure that I'm hiring people who will do the dirty work for me, I'm thinking of confronting them with the real thing - the kind of dilemma that's now routine in today's establishments of higher learning. Face to face with student miscreants, candidates could be required to display a flair for precise questioning. "Where exactly did you get the LSD before you saw the red mist before your eyes and trashed your bedroom?" Or maybe for the Socratic approach. "So what did you think might happen when you placed that open invitation to the gig on Facebook advertising free cans of laughing gas?" They might demonstrate their conciliation skills by breaking up a fight in the learning resources centre where clumps of hair are being pulled out. Or possibly, as so often happens, they might have to turn detective and figure out who put those downloads from Fetishvinyl.com in the data projector the day the Quality Assurance Agency came to visit.

We could film the lot and pitch it to Channel 4 as a new reality format called Learning Outcome in which the audience votes out the weakest links. At least that would dispense once and for all with the services of Secretia, Jonquil, Bonky and Pip.

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