Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Faculty Search Committee II

Last month’s post on Unconscious Bias focused on the formation and initial job of the faculty search committee. Once the applications are in, however, the committee’s job continues. What typically happens next? (1) search committee picks the ‘best’ candidates; (2) applications sit in a file drawer in chair’s office; (3) faculty are invited to browse through the files; (4) ‘best’ candidates are then invited to campus. This is the easiest, least painful way to go through this process. Efforts may be made to avoid conscious bias and prejudice, but opportunities abound for unconscious bias to dominate the selection.

The University of Michigan ADVANCE program has come up with a “Candidate Evaluation Tool,” which is available on their web site. Some of the components are pictured above. Their advice is to focus on multiple specific criteria during the evaluation process. This includes decreasing the ambiguity of the criteria for the job. Specify in as much detail as possible how the committee will evaluate scholarly productivity, research funding, teaching ability, fit with the department’s priorities, etc. before any applications are examined. When discussing candidates, the committee should weigh judgments that reflect examination of all materials. The committee must also weigh evidence consistently and avoid global judgments (see Bauer & Baltes 2002).

The committee must also be aware that the letters of recommendation will suffer from unconscious bias. Trix & Psenka (2003) examined letters of recommendation for successful medical school faculty applicants. They found that the letters for men were longer and contained more references to the CV, publications, patients, and colleagues. The letters for women were shorter and contained more references to personal life. There were also more “doubt raisers” (hedges, faint praise, and irrelevancies). Some examples:
“It’s amazing how much she’s accomplished.”
It appears her health is stable.”
She is close to my wife.”

How should the committee evaluate candidates? (1) Set criteria before looking at applications; (2) evaluate all applications based on the same criteria; (3) all candidates that meet the criteria become part of the “long short list;” (4) all long short list candidates get phone interviews.

Overcoming unconscious bias in the job search takes work and dedication, but the results are well worth the effort. Every department wants the most talented, accomplished, and successful faculty possible. We do not want to erect barriers that discourage or eliminate gifted and capable candidates. After all, excellence has no gender or race or sexual orientation


Bauer & Baltes (2002) Sex Roles 9/10, 465.
Trix & Psenka (2003) Discourse & Society, 14(2): 191-220.

For information on this and other topics, please see CSWA's advice page