Anyone who’s sat on a faculty hiring committee knows how exhausting it can be. You read through 100 – if not hundreds – of applications, and nowadays each applicant portfolio amounts to a short book. You sit through numerous hours of meetings: pre-shortlisting, longlisting, shortlisting. You participate in four or five days worth of interviews. And you go to dinner with every short-listed candidate. By the final dinner, it’s easy to find yourself stumbling home, worn out, slightly befuddled, before slumping into bed. Then, to top it off, you have one more meeting where you have to decide who to recommend, and those meetings can go on for hours depending on how much of a fight you want to get into with your colleagues. And that’s only if things go smoothly.
Recently, I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of the time faculty members spend on each hiring committee. I assumed that each hiring committee consists of five to eight faculty members; usually three to five voting members and two to three ex officio members (e.g. chair, AAE representative, Dean’s representative). For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to assume six members here. Then, I assumed that each job attracts around 100 applicants – and I realize that many jobs attract many more applicants – and that it takes 10 minutes on average to read through each applicant’s file; this is probably an underestimation, but it takes into account the fact that there are always a number of files we know aren’t suitable straight away. That means each committee member is spending 1,000 minutes, or 16 to17 hours, simply reading applicant files.
I assumed that each hiring committee meets twice before interviews for around three hours each time, adding another six hours for each person, and that they interview four people for a full day each, adding another 32 hours for each person. A final decision-making meeting adds yet another three hours. All told, each faculty member on a hiring committee spends close to 60 hours doing their job. Multiply that by six members and each hiring committee takes 360 hours of faculty time, whether it is successful or not, and I’d estimate that a quarter end up as failed hires. That’s nine full working weeks in total, if we assume that each faculty works a 40-hour week. It’s a lot of time.
Now, here’s the kicker. A university like York, where I work, needs over 100 hiring committees each year with its current hiring priorities. All told then, total faculty time spent on hiring each year at somewhere like York takes up at least 900 full working weeks of faculty time, or 17 years. Yes, that’s 17 years of faculty time per year that is not spent on research or teaching. My calculations are conservative estimates too, so it’s very likely that the total time spent on hiring committees each year is higher than this.
What’s the solution? I’ve got two suggestions.
First, let senior management do it; let them use their time to free up our faculty to do more research and teaching. I know this is anathema to many faculty in Canada, but it’s how faculty hiring is done in many other countries, like the U.K. and Australia. Don’t reject it out of hand, would be my suggestion. It would move a huge time burden off faculty plates and have a few other benefits too. It would remove the chance of major falling-outs between academic colleagues in hiring units, an all-too-common occurrence during the hiring process. And it would promote more diversity by removing the whole question of the “fit” of applicants with the hiring unit.
Second, and this might be more palatable to Canadian faculty, universities could pay for external faculty to evaluate the applicants. This is common practice in Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden where they recruit external “assessment” committees to do this work. The final decision still rests with the hiring unit. An interesting aspect of this process is the added transparency of the process: applicants receive their assessment reports and, sometimes, even the assessment reports of all the applicants. Using my own salary – which is lower than the York faculty average – and another back-of-the-envelope calculation, each hiring committee costs something like $18,000 in faculty time. So, instead of spending this by using our own faculty, it’d probably be cheaper to recruit external faculty to an assessment committee and to do the interviews.
Each of these two options need not entail no faculty input. It would make sense for each hiring unit’s faculty to determine, collectively, what specialism or sub-field they want an applicant to work in, before handing over the task of doing the rest to someone else. Then, once those others have made their assessments and come to a final choice, the decision would come back to the unit for a final vote.
Kean Birch is an associate professor at York University.