Improving faculty recruitment searches
Diversity consultant advises on enhancing process in hiring and promotione
Photos by Dan Addison
|Gertrude Fraser (above left), vice provost for faculty advancement; Karin Wittenborg (center), University Librarian; and Karen Van Lengen, dean of the School of Architecture, chat after a workshop for University leaders on diversity in faculty hiring. JoAnn Moody (below), has helped colleges and universities around the country develop successful ways to improve diversity efforts.
By Anne Bromley
What if a search or a promotion committee member says he’s not sure about the applicant’s scholarly work and wants to ask for additional recommendation letters? What if a committee member says a certain university has the top program in their field, so a particular job candidate from that school must be the best? What if you’re the head of the committee and realize that members are talking about a female applicant’s personality as compared to a male applicant’s achievements?
When these kinds of questions come up in search or promotion committees, an array of “cognitive errors,” of which the members are unaware, may influence the decision-making process, putting some people at a disadvantage and giving unfair advantage to others, said diversity expert JoAnn Moody at a series of workshops she gave at U.Va. on April 4 and 5.
Everyone has subconscious processes at work, such as applying different standards to people from different groups, falling back on stereotypes or feeling as if they must stick with an initial decision or opinion even if they recognize they’ve made a mistake. Studies show that professors are no exception, Moody said.
“The mental processes we use to gather and sort information and make decisions are often based on ‘cognitive errors.’ They crop up perennially in search committees,” and in promotion and tenure discussions, said Moody, the author of a new monograph, “Rising Above Cognitive Errors: Guidelines for Search, Tenure Review and Other Evaluation Committees.” Identifying these errors in the thought process can help committees stay on task and evaluate others fairly.
Some negative stereotypes of people in a certain group may be easily recognized, but positive stereotypes also are used and can skew the consideration of candidates, Moody said. For instance, white men are more often given the benefit of the doubt if some evidence about their research or teaching is ambiguous. Even if they are the minority in an academic area, such as nursing, they bring with them the positive stereotype that they are more competent, she said.
Moody uses examples from other countries to illustrate her points, as well. When the Swedish Research Council studied whether peer reviewers were judging women and men fairly, it found that because women were assumed to be less competent, women had to have published three more papers than men in the most prestigious journals, such as Science or Nature, and 20 more papers published in the next level of journals with “excellent” reputations, Moody said.
People who assert that the selection process should be gender-blind and color-blind are engaging in “wishful thinking,” as Moody defines it. They are not taking into account evidence from history and current studies about how women and minorities often are treated differently. In a similar vein, “insisting that America and its colleges and universities are a meritocracy where whom you know and what status and privileges you start with are immaterial to success” is a form of wishful thinking not based on reality.
Another mistake search and advancement committees can make is assuming that numerical ranking is objective, but actually it’s a shortcut to critically evaluating a candidate based on the evidence of their performance. “Rushing to rank easily leads to rushing to judgment,” Moody writes in her monograph. It causes other problems, too. It may close a person’s mind to considering more evidence. It may make it seem like the department has failed if the No. 3 applicant gets hired, when the person actually is well qualified.
Committees on many campuses often are overwhelmed and not given enough time to establish a good process. When people are rushed, they are less likely to employ thoughtful, critical thinking skills; thus, the situation increases the possibility of cognitive errors affecting the search.
At U.Va., Moody started each workshop with a written scenario of two professors on a promtion committee, plus the chairperson. She asked participants to discuss what looked like cognitive errors and good practices and how committee chairpersons could improve or help the process.
Organized by Gertrude Fraser, vice provost for faculty advancement, Moody’s visit comprised five workshops involving academic and administrative faculty, including those who have been on search committees, some members of the ad hoc faculty committee on diversity, heads of the Faculty Senate and General Faculty Council, plus the provost, deans and vice presidents. She also met informally with students.
Faculty know their academic disciplines, Fraser added, but different skills are needed for working on recruitment and advancement. Discussing practices and pitfalls with Moody was one way of providing faculty and administrators with practical guidelines to improve the process.
In today’s climate, faculty may be uncertain about what is legally allowed in interviews. The University’s office of Equal Opportunity Programs can inform committees if there are questions about what’s legal, Fraser said. Active recruitment to diversify the pool is good practice and legally appropropriate, she said.
Along with giving committee members ample time to conduct a thorough search or review, setting up ground rules and clarifying key issues, faculty members should be given coaching or training, especially the heads of such committees. Moody also recommends having a nonvoting person on the committee, say, from another department. This person can help to remind members about cognitive errors and basing their input on evidence rather than opinion or shortcuts.
As is the case with many aspects of U.Va.’s decentralized organization, the processes for recruiting and advancing faculty vary from school to school and from department to department.
Bringing in a diversity consultant was partly a response to one of the recommendations from the Commission on Diversity and Equity, which calls for the University to update continuously its efforts to achieve success in these areas. Fraser’s office also is developing a Web-based tutorial for search committees, to be available in the fall.