Glencora Borradaile






         Associate Professor & College of Engineering Dean's Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Oregon State University

March 10, 2016

Faculty hiring decision processes

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 11:19 pm
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In a recent faculty meeting, we discussed the process by which we make hiring decisions.  A college-level rule seems to dictate that the faculty provide feedback on the candidates for a given position, without ranking the candidates, to the unit head.  It seems the unit head then has final decision on the order in which offers are made.  While I disagree with the latter (no one should be surprised), I agree with a decision-making process that avoids rankings.  While I understand that at some point one needs to pick one candidate to make the first offer to and that very much seems like ranking, I think it is in the interest of ensuring unbiased hiring decisions to delay the discussion of ‘first offer’ as much as possible.  At the faculty meeting I tried to offer a process for discussing hiring decisions with this in mind, but since I hadn’t prepared and didn’t ‘have the floor’, so to speak, my comments were somewhat disjointed.  I will try to describe my thoughts and motivations here as succinctly as possible.

First, I would like to propose a consensus-based decision process for determining a subset of acceptable candidates – candidates that our faculty would be okay with joining our ranks.  Note that a consensus decision isn’t necessarily your favorite decision but a decision that you are okay with moving forward with.  There are three concepts (abstaining, blocking and consent) which I will describe in the context of hiring. I think one should abstain from participating in discussion if you have not spoken with the candidate and not seen the candidate’s talk.  (Note that our faculty candidate talks are video-taped and I do not think it too high a bar to expect one to watch the talk if they were absent for the interview before participating in the discussion.)  If one blocks a candidate, one is saying that they are absolutely unacceptable to hire – this is non-consent to hiring and should be taken seriously.  In this case, I think one should have to articulate, in front of the faculty, why you are blocking and the other faculty should be allowed to discuss whether or not the block is valid.  For example: if an AI faculty blocks a PL candidate because their publication record isn’t strong enough but all the PL faculty disagree, this wouldn’t be a valid block; if the members of the graphics group think that a graphics candidate is impossible to work with because they couldn’t hold a conversation for more than 5 minutes and didn’t have any common research interests, this would (probably) be a valid block.  The third option is consent: if you aren’t abstaining and you aren’t blocking, then you should be okay with the potential hiring of this candidate (even if there is a different candidate that you prefer).

At this point, we have a list of acceptable candidates – note that the discussion focuses more on eliminating candidates for being unacceptable and that they should only be considered unacceptable for serious concerns.  My argument for doing this is to minimize bias in faculty hiring decisions.  There are many, many quantitative studies that show that people (male and female, white and black, to greater and lesser degrees) think less of job applicants from non-dominant groups than dominant groups (in terms of social, racial, gender identity).  Rather than comparing the candidates pairwise and asking “better or worse”, if we consider each candidate on their own merits and ask “acceptable?” we are less likely to see impacts of implicit (or explicit) bias in our decisions.

Second, I would encourage a discussion about the merits of each candidate in the acceptable list in terms of what they would add to our department.  In the faculty meeting I picked a colleague and said the “best” candidate may be a clone of this colleague, but wouldn’t add much to the department, since we already have one.  I would encourage people to avoid using bean-counting (papers, money, etc) and instead think about certain research talents/abilities, teaching capabilities or interests, and yes, identity characteristics.  For example, say we have two candidates; the first candidate is a black woman with 10 papers in good venues and does research that we are interested in and the second candidate is a white male with 20 papers in good venues and does research that we are interested in.  I would argue strongly that the first candidate would add more to our department; this may also counter any additional challenges that she overcame (as supported by data, studies, etc) in getting to where she is compared to her white, male counterpart.  At the end of this discussion, we haven’t ranked the candidates, but for each candidate we would have a list of what that candidate would add to our department.

At this point, it seems that our administration would want us to stop.  But since I believe in non-hierarchical organizing, I would like to imagine a world in which the faculty get to decide who gets the first offer to join them as faculty.  (I didn’t really get to this point in the faculty meeting.)

So, third, based on the discussion of what each acceptable candidate would add to the department, we could start the ‘first offer’ discussion.  I would hope that the second-phase discussion would help narrow down the candidates for ‘first offer’.  The lists of what each candidate adds may even be considered a start of a ranking, although not all additions may be considered equal (or positive).  It might be helpful to take a temperature check: for each candidate indicate yes/no/neutral as to whether you would be okay (again, expressing consent not preference) with them receiving the first offer.  For each candidate for whom there isn’t consensus in this temperature check (all yes/neutral or all neutral/no), one may delve into a deeper consensus-developing process (which I think I will keep for another post in the interest of length); this would be necessary if there is no candidate for whom everyone is yes/neutral.  However, if there is one yes/neutral candidate, then this might just be the first-offer candidate.  If there is more than one, more rounds of discussion and temperature checks might need to happen … as with most things, without trying it out, there is no saying how it would work and (in my opinion) there is little point in developing a process further without actually putting it into practice.

Much of what I have said is based on my 7 years of experience in faculty hiring discussions at OSU and thinking and reading about (and using, in community groups) decision-making processes.

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