Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Anonymous Guest-Post: One Small Step

Anonymous guest-post by a mid-career scientist at a large public university. 

As a mid-career scientist at a large public university, I find myself increasingly frustrated with policies and procedures with which I disagree but feel powerless to do anything about. However, recently, I found myself in a position to strike a (teeny, tiny) blow for change -- and I took it.

My academic department has had a very traditional approach to hiring in my 17 years here. We hire in very specific sub-fields, the argument being that we need to reach 'critical mass' in each research group. (I should add I'm in a physics department of about 25, with a few astronomers, of which I am one). The hiring committee is thus invariably chaired by someone in the sub-field in which we are hiring, with two or three others on the committee who are preferably in the same subfield or hopefully a related one. The committee looks over applicant files and presents a ranked list to the department, which rubber-stamps it.  We have had no formal evaluation criteria, but the most important factor is the candidate's research record. Almost nothing else matters. As far as I can tell, the chair's opinion is therefore the one that matters to the committee, and to the department, as the chair is thought to be most knowledgeable about the research area. This means that essentially one person (the committee chair) is choosing the candidate -- again, as far as I can tell.

If one looks at any of the recent research on how to increase faculty excellence and diversity in academia (for example, see http://www.aas.org/cswa/jan12.html), this is described as the worst possible way to hire. I know this, but have had no say in the process in the past.  Because I was the last astronomer hired (17 years ago), I have never been on a hiring committee. Until now. We have a job opening for a physicist in a specific subfield. Because the university wants at least one minority on hiring committees, and since the other female faculty member in our department (who generally has filled that role on other hiring committees because she works in physics rather than astronomy) was unable to be on the committee, I was appointed.

In the past few weeks, as the job ad went out, I have been wondering how to spark a change in our usual deparmental hiring practices. I have the advantage of knowing that our Dean's office has become aware of best practices and is slowly trying to implement them across the College: we have an NSF ADVANCE grant to improve the recruitment and retention of women faculty in STEM. So I feel that I have administrative back-up if necessary, which is comforting.

This week, we were notified that the applicant files were ready. The chair of the hiring committee, Dr. X, sent an email to the committee saying that the applicants' files were in the main office and we should read them, then meet to form our short list. I took a deep breath, and sent a reply saying that I was uncomfortable with this process, and that we should meet BEFORE looking over the files to come up with evaluation criteria that we would all use. Then all files that meet the criteria are put on a 'long short list' -- these people get a short phone interview, from which we then compile a final short list. I stated I would not participate unless we followed this procedure. I attached a copy of the UMich candidate evaluation form (that I have sent to the department in previous years but to no avail), with the note that this was what the Dean's office is suggesting that departments use (which is true).

This felt like a very brave move to me. I was sure Dr. X wouldn't understand why I wanted to do this, and would think I was creating extra work and slowing down the process (moving too slowly has cost us positions in the past). I did figure they couldn't throw me off the committee because I was the only minority though! ;) I fully expected some kind of confrontation (Dr. X can be impatient...) and push-back.

Instead, Dr. X replied to the committee that I had a good point and we should meet as soon as possible to set criteria before looking at the files! My jaw dropped. And I was immensely heartened. Maybe change IS possible! Maybe things CAN get better! Maybe I CAN make a difference!

In some ways this seems like a small thing -- one hiring committee for one position in one department -- but it feels like a turning point. It's been one for me, anyway.

I feel empowered.


photon said...

Well done! Huzzah for making it easy for other people to do things in a way that helps everyone in the long run.

Ed Bertschinger said...

Bravo, and thank you for inspiring others who may be emboldened to try the same.

John Johnson said...

This is a very encouraging story! Nice job standing by your values and taking this stand. We'd all do well to follow your example.

Anonymous said...

Yay! You inspire me!

Anonymous said...

Thank you! Making a move like this takes a lot of guts. You have my sincere appreciation.

Anonymous said...

Great. Very Inspiring.