The Dean's Hire

September 7, 2011

Once upon a time, lo these many years ago, I was watching some career shenanigans in an Academic Department of -ology dear to my professional heart. It was a time in which the University in question was trying to improve the diversity of the professorial staff for a number of reasons. This Department was blessed by the Dean with at least two Dean’s Hires.

This refers, in my parlance, to an Assistant Professor line that the University does not count against the Departmental allocation. A Department’s ability to hire new faculty is often regulated by the University and the number of ‘slots’ afforded a Department across time is jealously negotiated. Sometimes, the Dean (or Assistant Vice Provost or whatever) will pick up some of the costs that are usually assessed to the Department as well.

Resulting in a “free” faculty member.

Yay Department of -ology! Free suckers to teach the boring Intro classes. Amirite?

Yes. Well, unless the Department has a little problem with hiring diversity for a reason. However you care to characterize it or dress it up with language about “our standards”* there might just be a leeeetle problemo with the attitude of the rest of the faculty. Or at least a voting majority. Or hell, merely a minority can be a problem if the success of new faculty hinges on the enthusiastic mentoring, assisting and collaborating coming from senior faculty. And it does, my friends, it most assuredly does.

Because if there is a leeeetle problemo, the fate of the Dean’s Hire Assistant Professor is sealed before she so much as sets foot on campus and starts designing her new laboratory.

A problem because she starts getting screwed over by the failure of the Department faculty to help her out. Oh, I’m sure they are totally unconscious of their bias. Death of a thousand cuts that in isolation look like no big deal. Except for the blatantly racist and unfair whispering and not-so-whispery** water cooler campaign.

And of course, come time for promotion decisions, well, they have standards, doncha know. It is totally irrelevant that the current person surpasses the standard met by several of the older faculty upon their tenure decision years ago. Irrelevant! The standards are what we claim they are now. Well, yes, we made an exception for OldBoyJr a few years back but….well, he was good straight white folk and trained with some other good straight white folk and dammit, we just like him. Whoops, I mean, “he shows great promise of making a sustained and significant contribution to irrelevant backwater sub-sub-sub-ology that we happen to like around these here parts“.


This was all spurred by a Tweet from @CackleofRad who wondered how to advertise positions to a diverse pool of faculty candidates. It emerged that the University was unhappy with the representative-ness of a Department. My point is pressure from above to hire someone, anyone*** can be counterproductive if there are substantial and entrenched attitudes of the faculty that brought that situation about in the first place.
**hahaha, dudes you do realize that any fool graduate student can assess your CV, right?

**in the hearing of all and sundry fool graduate students, of course

***it is true that I do favor this approach of “just get some overt recognizable diversity by any means necessary”. However it is not the stopping point to hire some less-pasty faces. And it can be really friggin hard on the new hire.


No Responses Yet to “The Dean's Hire”

  1. KateClancy Says:

    I really appreciate how you emphasize changing attitudes here as a way to do better on mentoring and retention. And I agree that is the bigger part of the battle, one administrators don’t see (or don’t care to see?) yet probably has a stronger hand in the metrics at the end of the day.


  2. CoR Says:

    Yep, these concerns are important.


  3. drugmonkey Says:

    The other way to say it is that these poor sucker Dean’s Hires that I am thinking of were not permitted to be as bad as the worst of the majority culture hires. They were certainly not stellar, going by memory. But it is clear to me that they were at least as good as some prior/subsequent StraightWhiteBonHommeChaps that tenured before and after.


  4. anon Says:

    I may be showing my privilege here, but is the advertising itself the hard part for diversity? Maybe there are some issues that I just don’t get, not having that perspective, but I would assume that female-identified individuals, ethnic and racial minorities, people with disabilities, and other people from under-represented groups all read the same publications and check the same professional society job sites as male-identified individuals, white people, etc.

    I would have thought that the hard part isn’t having an ad that they’ll read, but rather:
    -Reaching out to help overcome confidence barriers that may inhibit them from responding to the ad, especially in situations with inadequate mentoring.
    -Getting the search committees to give their applications a fair read and consider diverse candidates for interviews.
    -Getting the institutions to hire diverse individuals after interviewing them.
    -Getting the institutions to support diverse hires, as you identified in your post.


  5. chemicalbilology Says:

    Oh DM, Word–just… Word. Just a couple of bad attitudes can really affect the Dean’s Hire’s experience and the ‘behind the door’ conversations, even when everyone else is great and working to change them.


  6. DrugMonkey Says:

    No anon, I don’t think advertising is the problem in that sense. Your bullet points are good. I’d add

    -getting the top candidates to apply to your department despite the apparent diversity issues

    -getting the ones you make offers to to accept, given the obvious issues

    -getting them to accept your offer over the other ones vying for this limited pool

    -retaining them once hired


  7. KateClancy Says:

    For a recent NTT hire in our department, in addition to the usual places, we additionally advertised in subsections of our professional organization for different underrepresented groups. So at least in some disciplines there are mechanisms for this. But it doesn’t get around mentoring issues that people from underrepresented groups face.


  8. Jim Thomerson Says:

    In my university, back in the day, it was a matter that if we found a minority candidate we wanted to hire, we could get an extra position for that candidate. So it was a matter of the Department making a hire decision and then trying to get an extra position for it. When we did a search for any position we had to meet some affirmative action criteria, such as advertising in the journal of a black scientific organization (I forget the name.), and calling a minority ex faculty member, now a university president, and telling him about the position.

    We had enough female faculty members in my department that there was no incentive for us to preferentially hire a female, although we did so when she was the best qualified candidate. The university had a large and shifting number of female administrators, in positions from department chair though president.

    Mentoring of new faculty came into existance in the 1990’s, and was coupled with more careful, ongoing evaluation of progress along the tenure/promotion track.


  9. iGrrrl Says:

    I can’t find it on the Web any more, but a few years back there was an article about ‘second tier’ hires as ways to find good faculty from more diverse backgrounds. If I recall correctly, the author was an African American in academic engineering. His point was to look at candidates who may seem ‘second tier’ because they went to un-prestigious schools for their undergrad and PhD. His point, broadly speaking, was that people sometimes choose those schools entirely for financial reasons, not because they lacked ivy league potential.

    anon above and DM both make the point about supporting them once hired. One critical thing is to help them make the connections to develop a network of mentors, especially ones from outside their home department who will not have a say in the tenure vote. It’s so sad when someone is hired, and then set up to fail through inattention or the “thousand cuts” mentioned above.


  10. Eli Rabett Says:

    Well, the Dean has some responsibility for this and levers, such as telling the Chair that a considerable amount of money has been invested and there WILL BE NO lawsuits and it is expected that the Department will be fair to the new hire, and if there is any crap, not only will the position disappear, but maybe another after the next retirement and don’t come looking for matching funds for a while.


  11. Susan Says:

    A naive question, but: how do I know if a job I’m applying for is a Dean’s hire?


  12. DrugMonkey Says:

    In most cases you would only find out via the rumor mill. Generally after the fact unless you have friends in the Department.


  13. Susan Says:



  14. whimple Says:

    @Susan: When you interview, ask the Chair where the salary line for the position is coming from. Also ask what % is hard money. These should be questions the Chair is expecting to get, so straightforward answers should be at the ready. If you want to be thorough, you could ask the Dean the same questions (there should be some flavor of Dean on your interview schedule).


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    It ain’t like levels of unfair discrimination come with flashing neon signposts Susan….what’s the expectation here?


  16. drugmonkey Says:

    To add to whimple, I think questions about near-future addition hires is fair game as well. You want to know if it is a department in growth, barely replacing the departed or shrinking. This conversation may reveal Dean intervention as well…


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