US ‘cluster hiring’ failing to meet promise, says study

Survey of 200 hires finds them often stuck in usual disciplinary confines rather than working across boundaries as intended

January 6, 2020
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Shared interests but study finds most cluster hires result in disappointing results

University leaders often pitch cluster hiring as a way to quickly gain strength in a research area requiring collaborative expertise. More often than not, according to a new study, the effort may be ending in disappointment.

The analysis by sociologists at the University of California, Riverside, covering almost 200 cluster hires across 20 research universities, found that most of the scientists end up trapped in the very disciplinary barriers the posts were intended to transcend.

Cluster hiring programmes, as currently implemented, might not be “the most effective means for ensuring the level of interdisciplinary collaboration that can lead to important breakthroughs”, write Quinn Bloom, Michaela Curran and Steve Brint in the Journal of Higher Education.

The cluster hiring concept, which has gained popularity over the past couple of decades, means hiring a number of scholars across one or more departments of a university based on shared interests in a research topic to which they can contribute.

The general understanding is that when done well, cluster hiring can help a university improve in key areas such as faculty diversity, community engagement and overall institutional excellence.

Its advocates include Philip Hanlon, the president of Dartmouth College, which has for some roles shifted from recruiting staff based on their field-specific expertise to their ability to contribute to a bigger goal.

The results, Professor Hanlon said in a Times Higher Education interview in October, include improving Dartmouth’s ability to attract and retain top talent, and increasing student enthusiasm for interdisciplinary majors.

But the Riverside analysis found that for most institutions that have tried cluster hiring, the ideal of multiple researchers sharing complementary talents on interdisciplinary projects “has been rarely met in practice”.

Instead, the analysis found, the researchers tend to align with “the loose lines of affiliation and collaboration” that already exists in academic departments.

Only 7 per cent of the 200 hires said that they meet at least weekly, and a quarter said that they did not meet at all with their other cluster group members, the Riverside team found. The majority of the hires said that their groups had no agreed upon research agenda, lacked intellectual or organisational leaders, and did not have members adept at translating across disciplinary languages.

“Given the large amounts of money allocated for cluster hire programmes and the fanfare associated with their rollouts,” the Riverside team says, “it is surprising, at first reckoning, how little organisational structure has been put in place at most institutions to facilitate collaborations between cluster-hired faculty.”

The Riverside team described one exception, not named in its report. With that institution’s permission, Professor Brint, professor of sociology and public policy at Riverside, identified it as Penn State University.

There, the Riverside team writes, the university’s “thoughtful approach to cluster hiring” includes having the hires co-funded by research institutes and departments, and governed by written agreements on shared time commitments.

The Penn State method also includes wide consultations in advance to identify worthwhile research areas, seed grant money for projects within the cluster, and goals focused on boosting competitiveness for federal research dollars.

“Such planning,” write Professor Brint and his colleagues, “is far removed from most of what we observe in our survey responses, and in our interviews with administrators and cluster leads.”

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