Workshop Focuses on Making U.Va. a ‘Dream Factory’ for Faculty

Workshop Focuses on Making U.Va. a ‘Dream Factory’ for Faculty

Gertrude Fraser, vice provost for faculty recruitment and retention, shares the results of a survey on faculty search committees.
November 14, 2012

It’s a possibility to work on, since U.Va. stands in a “transformational moment,” President Teresa A. Sullivan on Monday told an audience of faculty members who are chairing search committees.

The event, “Reimagining Academe: Faculty Hiring for the 21st Century,” sponsored by University Human Resources and the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, brought together about 50 people at U.Va.’s OpenGrounds studio for a half-day workshop.

A cast of U.Va. leaders each gave short talks, followed by small-group brainstorming discussions. Susan Carkeek, vice president and chief human resources officer; Patrick D. Hogan, executive vice president and chief operating officer; and Sullivan made introductory remarks, stressing that the University’s future success depends on the quality of its faculty.

Gertrude Fraser, vice provost for faculty recruitment and retention, gave a cultural analysis of surveys with U.Va. faculty search committee members; Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education, outlined his school’s recent innovative practices in faculty hiring; Darden School of Business professor Erika James discussed perspectives on diversity recruitment; and Thomas C. Skalak, vice president for research, focused on improving cross-disciplinary recruitment.

Facilitator Charles “Chic” Thompson, a fellow at the Darden School’s Batten Institute and founding fellow at OpenGrounds, also led the participants in engaging exercises, spiced with anecdotes and surprises, to stimulate thinking differently about the activities involved in faculty hiring – a hallmark of faculty self-governance in academic institutions.

Passionate curiosity, even in a process such as faculty searches, can be a stimulating ingredient, he said. Thinking about how a familiar task can be done differently can lead to novel answers. Ask the opposite questions: not just “Why?” but “Why not?” Think of what you could start doing and also what you could stop doing, he said.

When Albert Einstein, Thompson said, was asked why he was giving the same test to his students in a subsequent year, he replied, “The answers are different this year.”

Likewise, search committee members can look for other answers rather than assuming there is only one right way to conduct a search and evaluate candidates.

James offered an example: When she led a search committee to hire a new senior associate dean of Darden’s Executive Education program, the committee came up empty-handed after a nearly yearlong search. The final two candidates were scheduled for on-Grounds visits in June, and both ended up turning down the job.

What was the second right answer? The committee proposed hiring internally and the idea was approved. Someone nominated James, and she was eventually hired for the director position.

That situation also illustrates “leveraging difference,” James said, describing her colleague Martin Davidson’s ideas for expanding the ways to recognize diversity within an organization.

James, who is black as well as female, recommended that search committee members try to put themselves in the shoes of candidates who are from underrepresented groups. These candidates can feel even more than the usual pressure in the search process; they think they shouldn’t fail under any circumstances  and must be a strong representative of their identified minority, she said. The committee members also should acknowledge their potential biases and find ways to go beyond them.

When searches go well, Fraser said, faculty on search committees identify several factors: an appropriate level of scrutiny, good dialogue and emotional satisfaction. Faculty described feeling excited about finding a good person for the job, having the chance to build a program, expressing their academic values and learning from the process – what she called “embedded learning.”

Searches are least rewarding when the search fails because U.Va. couldn’t compete for the top candidate or couldn’t find a person to hire, Fraser said. In addition, the “busy work” on details can be mind-numbing and overwhelming.

One of the most difficult aspects of faculty hiring is dealing with dual-career couples, who often are not identified until late in the process due to the federal mandate against delving into the details of an applicant’s personal life.

The solution isn’t always easy, Fraser pointed out. Which department should budget for another salary? In some cases, U.Va. has been able to combine funding from the provost’s office with the candidate’s hiring unit, she said.

Faculty weighed in with their small-group observations and ideas. Some suggested developing a website that has a list of job openings across Grounds that’s easier to navigate than the present Human Resources Web pages; adding information about job possibilities in the area, since the traveling spouse might not be a professor, plus information about other common questions related to community life, and providing this information to candidates early in the process.

Carkeek noted that her office has a staff member devoted to helping non-academic spouses in dual-career situations..

Pianta said leveraging communication technology and pushing more information online about the Curry School have been important to recent innovative hires, he said.

“Hiring has to be a creative act,” he said, adding that search committee members should expect to feel and use the creative tension that comes up in the process.

He offered another rule Curry search committees follow: no replacement hires. The common practice of looking for someone to replace a person who taught certain courses and researched a specific area leads to unnecessary limitations, he said. If committees expand their thinking, the search process can yield a larger pipeline of applicants and build excitement in rethinking the curriculum and scholarship, Pianta said.

Faculty members tend to feel territorial about an open position – that it’s their responsibility to fill that niche. But each search process belongs to the institution as a whole, Pianta said, and if search committees take that into consideration, it opens up new ways of looking at applicants.

In the 21st century, applicants will increasingly be cross-disciplinary, Skalak said. To make the most of time in the search process and to reveal candidates’ attributes that lend themselves to teamwork, he suggested questioning them about what made them choose their disciplines or research area. Is the candidate passionate or willing to take risks? Is their expertise deep or broad?

If a candidate asks, “What do I need to do to get tenure?,” it’s a sign he or she doesn’t know what they want to do, he said.

Skalak also encouraged search committee members to think of ways to attract “cluster hiring” – a coordinated set of hires that would cross departmental and school boundaries, and then review what defines whether the cluster hiring was successful. The ideal would be “a virtuous circle,” he said, with some faculty focusing on theory and some on practical applications, interacting, connecting with each other and passing that on to students.

Executive Vice President and Provost John Simon is asking all 11 schools about their hiring plans in order to develop more coordination, said Skalak, who suggested that information could be shared.

Of course, hiring is only the first stage of building a relationship. The faculty participants cited early and continuous mentoring, clear information about the financial package and an identified continuum of possibilities for retention as factors that would help new faculty trust in the institution.

Although salary plays a part in why some faculty leave, sometimes it’s because they haven’t found the connectivity to realize their dream, or they’ve hit barriers that seem insurmountable, Pianta said. Building strong relationships and providing support and resources combat that possibly negative situation, he noted.

“A dream is something people want to extend,” he said.

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Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications