Why hiring academics should not be left to other academics

Decisions based on gossip and favouritism make the scholarly job market unmeritocratic

May 23, 2013

Source: Elly Walton

Hiring decisions should be taken out of academic hands and given to managers who are able to apply genuine market principles when these are called for

Like virtually all academics, I used to have a phobia of managerial interference in what are traditionally considered academic matters. But my recent experience with the academic pseudo-job-market has convinced me that when it comes to recruitment, we should hand decision-making over to business-minded managers.

I have spent the past academic year applying for lecturer and reader positions in UK philosophy departments. Six years ago, when I applied for seven jobs worldwide, I quickly landed one at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Since then, the length of my CV has roughly tripled and now features 15 articles - most of them in high-ranking journals in the field - and two forthcoming books with prestigious academic publishers.

I also received an honourable mention in 2012 for one of my articles in the American Philosophical Association’s article prize competition for early career academics. To my knowledge, I am the first non-US-based philosopher to have received this accolade.

Almost all my research has been produced in the eight years following my PhD: an output well above the average for someone applying for philosophy lectureships, and comparable to that of readers or professors with 15 years of experience.

I would not normally parade these facts so immodestly, but it is important for understanding why my recent experience with the job market is so disturbing.

With this CV, I have applied for 16 jobs at top 20 UK universities. I have not been shortlisted for a single interview. Colleagues tell me that the job market is “very tight this year”, but this should have worked to my advantage by ruling out less competitive candidates. Yet many such candidates have been hired.

One of my applications was for one of three research fellowships intended for people who “have potential to contribute to the research output of the university” - code for being ripe for submission to the research excellence framework - and present a “credible research proposal on topics that have potential societal impact and are, preferably, related to the university’s priority areas”.

The combined CVs of the three people hired for those fellowships might just have measured up to mine, while two of them are pursuing research that has little to do with societal concerns (being very much at the dryer end of the philosophical spectrum). By contrast, my research proposal was an ambitious interdisciplinary study on sensory experience improvement in old age, as well as more general problems related to discrimination against elderly people, with potential policy recommendations as conclusions.

A few universities made it explicit that they wanted to hire people who could contribute four items to the REF, preferably of 3* and 4* quality. I did mention my two books, and two 2012 articles published in top journals. Yet invariably they hired people who can barely offer a couple of articles, let alone a book.

Nor was the problem that my research area simply did not fit what the departments were looking for. I confined my applications to positions in my research area and to “open area” searches. The latter would normally mean the department hiring the best applicant measured on their research and teaching experience. Regarding this, I have roughly three times more experience than the candidates who were hired, but, again, I was not even interviewed.

My grave suspicion is that this type of seemingly arbitrary behaviour by hiring committees is not infrequent. Academics tend to have a great confidence in their own ability to identify the best candidates. They certainly know a lot about their field, but I think this becomes more of a liability since they also tend to have “pets” - students and research topics - that colour their judgement.

Academics also tend to rely on hunches and gossip about who’s hot and who’s not. Hence they end up making decisions that, to an outsider, seem totally counterintuitive and self-defeating, and that breach any principle of meritocracy or fair competition. This, to me, is irresponsible and will ultimately destroy the credibility of the academy.

So I can’t avoid the conclusion that hiring decisions should be taken out of academic hands and given to managers who are able ruthlessly to apply genuine market principles when these are called for.

For starters, administrators could ask academics for a list of performance and productivity indicators, such as their most prestigious publications and prizes, and require the academics on the hiring committee to apply this information uniformly for shortlisting. If we academics are unable to manage our business responsibly then we must accept that we should be supervised by non-academics who can.

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Reader's comments (4)

I wonder whether the fact that some of the hiring committees mentioned by István are looking for 3 or 4 stars is precisely a symptom of administrators having taken over decision-making from academics? I applied for my own job, which incidentally had been declared redundant, but was readvertised now twice. I asked for feedback and was told: "Areas where Dr Missirlis application did not demonstrate a fit with the essential criteria for the role with regard to evidence of an appropriate publication record for either a Lecturer or Senior Lecturer position in the research area. His research outputs were not considered to have effectively demonstrated this at the required level in terms of papers or grants nor did his application demonstrate at the required level on-going research activity at a high level." Now, the trouble is that because this was my former department I know all 6 short-listed candidates and none of them held major grants (I have been funded by 3 independent research councils) and none of them had more papers or contributions than I did. One explanation is of course that when hiring a new Lecturer it is common to look for experienced post-docs (this is where I was in 2007); but given the specific feedback I received - a blunt misrepresentation - I, like the author of this article, wonder how appointing decisions can be more transparent. My reaction would be in the opposite direction to my colleague: any decision from a "hiring committee" should be subject to approval from the academic committee. Hence, a few academic colleagues should be in charge to present their views; but the whole department should be responsible for chosing its future colleagues.
I think the writer is drawing precisely the wrong conclusion from their experiences. Too many decisions in universities today are made by senior administrators and managers, not academics. What academics consider to be a 'good Lecturer' is not necessarily what university managers consider to be a 'good Lecturer', because they are using different criteria. I applied for an academic job last year, for which (in terms of expertise, publications and teaching experience) I was ideally suited, and at a lower grade than my current post, but wasn't even shortlisted. When I asked why, I was told it was because I didn't have a proven track record of 'large grant capture', and didn't have extensive links with external stakeholders - even though my teaching and publications were outstanding. It is managerial dominance which is so often the problem in universities, not academics having too much say. This is part of the wider problem of 'managerialism' in the public sector, though; the de-skilling and deprofessionalisation of experienced and enthusiastic front-line, and their subordination to bureaucratic criteria, micro-management and red-tape. Academics are increasingly being treated as mere automatons, obediently doing what senior administrators and university managers tell them to do, and having less and less say in appointments, teaching or research.
Not sure what type of universities the author has applied to. But I would not consider 15 journal articles in eight years particularly impressive. Books are not counted highly in RAE and it would be similar in REF. He might have more publications than the other three research fellows combined but one has to look at the rate of progress and trajectory. If the three are just starting, then they would not need four papers to be REFable. It is always difficult for academic appointment as it is always difficult to compare different individuals with very different CVs. It is difficult to compare track record and it is even more difficult to compare potential. Some rely on research output, some rely on the supervisor or the research group the candidate worked with, some rely on the interview but all these methods have a certain degree of subjectiveness in it. Also there is the issue of how the candidate fits the department. It is not a flawless process to rely on the academics to make appointment decision but, in my opinion, it would be even worse if it is done by people outside the subject field and even worse if it is done by non-academic as they would rely on metrics. No doubt there is something to gain from outside input but I do not think that the appointment decision should be turned over to them completely.
It is true that a lot of different considerations go into a hiring process besides the number of articles published. Such considerations include your potential fit in the department, will your research focus enhance the status of the department, and even where you went to school (as this tends to influence what scholarly networks you may have access to). And yes, even what other people say about you, i.e., your reputation, is a strong consideration. After 8 years in the field, some may think that your reputation is probably well-established. Is your academic contribution at this point in your career really significant to the overall field? An academic evaluator of your output would potentially understand these nuances. An administrative evaluator would only consider volume of the output without regard to quality since an administrator has no basis upon which to judge quality. Having spent a long time in the corporate world myself, I can say that business is full of administrative thinking. Administrative thinking is very mechanical and sees qualifications as boxes to check off on a list. If a candidate passes all the checks, the candidate is hired, which is why the corporate world is full of some of the most amazingly incompetent people imaginable. Corporate candidates slip into management positions all the time based upon "degrees" purchased at degree mills because they were able to pass the HR check boxes and talk the jargon. Also, administrators tend to rely upon a "points" system for determining credentials, which in fields that demand practical skills tends to favor those who have certifications over those who have actual work experience putting those skills into practice. If anything, I think the reaction to this article shows us the need to retain strong academic control over educational hiring and less control by administrators.

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