Personnel | Feature
The Hassles of Hiring
- By Dian Schaffhauser
Faculty hiring season for the 2013-2014 academic year has begun. Starting this week, for example, the Modern Language Association (MLA) will open up its database of new job listings for next year's openings, wherein colleges and universities around the country will be posting their teaching positions in the areas of English and foreign languages. Among them, Vermont's Middlebury College is inviting applications for faculty positions in its Writing Program, its Department of Russian, and its Department of Spanish and Portuguese, among other academic areas. Within a matter of a few weeks, a multitude of candidates will be vying for each of several tenure track jobs at Middlebury. And then the real chaos of winnowing through the flood of academic dossiers begins.
Hiring a new faculty member isn't an easy job, says Middlebury's Provost Alison Byerly (who has begun a year-long sabbatical to work on special projects at her own college as well as MIT). First, there's managing all of the applications -- in some cases between 200 and 250 -- that might come in for a particular position. Each one of those will have multiple components: a cover letter, a curriculum vitae, typically at least three letters of recommendation, possibly a research statement or teaching statement, and perhaps part of a dissertation or other published materials.
Second, there's finding the time for the members of a given search committee to review the applications. In the past, that has often meant going into the department's office after hours and on the weekends to read through a physical copy of the paperwork from each applicant and take notes about what stood out about each applicant.
Third, there's the process of winnowing down the initial pool to a smaller group of 12 to 15 candidates who deserve an interview, frequently done during a national convention for that particular academic field. Middlebury's administration requests that its departments develop a list of at least six dossiers from those interviews in order to configure a shortlist of three candidates to be invited onto campus for in-person interviews.
On the part of the applicant, the burden is extensive too. Somebody looking for a tenure track job might apply to 50 positions all over the country, and every one of the schools will follow a different method for how to apply. Some institutions will ask for paper documents; others want the materials sent in by email; some will request the candidate to set up a user account on a campus system and upload documents there; some use a combination of methods.
Then there's the challenge of compiling those recommendation letters. The candidate has to hit up faculty members and other influential individuals, most of whom probably have multiple requests for recommendations. Frequently, the hiring school will ask the candidate to waive his or her right to review the letter of recommendation; so the letter writer needs some means of submitting the recommendation to multiple institutions while keeping the letter confidential from the applicant.
Throughout the entire faculty hiring process, there's a philosophy at Middlebury of trying to look for a more diverse pool of candidates. "Often one way to achieve that is to broaden the pool and try to gather a larger number of dossiers," Byerly explains.
But department chairs were concerned about the burden that expansion would place on their staffs. Like most other campuses, for budgetary reasons the college had gone through a reduction in the number of department coordinators, which meant, she noted, "We have fewer staff than we did a few years ago."
So the college sought a more efficient way to handle the faculty hiring process, thereby reducing the amount of paperwork department assistants had to manage, while at the same time making improvements on the breadth of candidates it considered for tenure track positions.
Working by Committee
Thirteen years ago, Steve Goldenberg had earned a degree in entrepreneurship from Georgetown University. During his time there he had developed a business plan for a class that addressed a gap he saw during a stint as a student worker in the university's career center. He thought students needed a better way to promote their academic and professional achievements. In 1999 two days after graduating Goldenberg opened up Interfolio, a company that would provide a central application service for academic jobs.
Users pay a nominal $19 annual fee to maintain their academic materials in the company's repository. To apply for a specific faculty position, they pay an additional small fee, and the company sorts out how the institution doing the hiring wants to have its materials delivered and handles that delivery.
Likewise, it acts as a trusted third-party to which faculty can submit their letters of recommendation; Interfolio will make those letters available as part of the dossier submitted to a school for a given candidate without the candidate ever having seen them.
"We take a huge amount of stress and anxiety and frustration off [candidates'] plates and off the plates of the writers of their recommendations and centralize and smooth out this complex and complicated process," says Goldenberg.
After more than a decade of serving the "consumer" side of the equation -- the people seeking faculty positions -- Goldenberg identified an opportunity to serve the "enterprise" side -- the institutions doing the hiring.
"We looked at how the search committee process worked. They make their decisions as a committee as a group. They review all of these documents and come together and talk about who they like and why they like them," says Goldenberg. "It's time-intensive to faculty who have other responsibility -- teaching and research and other leadership roles on campus. We looked at the way that most search committees were doing that work, and we found that we could dramatically improve the efficiency and ease of doing the work."
The result was By Committee, a Web-based application configured to work with the unique hiring practices of the individual institutions. Pricing is based on the size of faculty: under 300, between 300 and 700, and over 700. ByCommittee automates the search process by streamlining the workflow around application materials as committee members look for and evaluate candidates.
MLA Adds ByCommittee to Faculty Hiring Process
Recently, the Modern Language Association added the use of Interfolio's ByCommittee as a feature in its job ads for faculty. Now when an institution places a hiring ad on the organization's website, the search committee for that specific position will automatically be able to use a ByCommittee account to manage applicant dossiers. Likewise, candidates will receive an Interfolio Dossier account that will allow them to maintain their credentials and applicant materials in the company's repository, which means the annual user fee of $19 "goes away," says CEO Steve Goldenberg. "The MLA sees this as way to revolutionize the way that departments do their evaluation workflow of applicants and really thinks it can be a benefit to their academic hiring practices."
An Alternative to Paper-based Processes
Middlebury had been seeking an alternative to its manual and paper-intensive hiring process, when then-Dean of Faculty Development James Ralph came across Interfolio. Ralph held meetings with department chairs and departmental coordinators -- those assistants who had to do the paperwork -- to inform them about ByCommittee. It was that latter group, especially, that expressed enthusiasm about changing how applicant dossiers were managed. "They asked very specific and difficult questions upfront about how it would work," recalls Byerly. "It was helpful to us, because we wouldn't have known all the details to pursue. Once they were on board, I think they were actually critical in helping persuade the department chairs about the idea of using it."
For example, the confidentiality of letters of recommendation was important. Likewise, the printability of documents was vital. "They didn't want it to turn into a process where we were simply printing all the stuff here that people were mailing on paper," she says. "It did involve making sure that people understood that the goal was to reduce the overall amount of paper, which doesn't mean that there aren't things that get printed, but a whole lot less gets printed."
Casting a Wider Net without More Work
ByCommittee was installed during the summer of 2011 in time for the college to use for its fall 2012 hiring process. Training of users exposed features of the application workflow that Middlebury needed to tweak; but overall, says Byerly, "People accommodated themselves to it pretty well. There weren't many problems that arose." The college had to be clear with users that the materials they were handling were still confidential "and couldn't be forwarded or printed and handed around."
Now content arrives from applicants as digital documents -- using the PDF format. Search committee members can access dossiers online from wherever they happen to be working and add reviews and comments to each. Then they can come together as a group to review the various comments and rating, discuss candidates, collaborate on the winnowing process, and sort out whom they want to interview, bring to campus, and ultimately hire.
The use of ByCommittee at Middlebury has helped relieve the burden of faculty hiring, says Byerly. "I see the primary benefit to be one of efficiency, but efficiencies that also promise larger goals, such as our interest in encouraging search committees to look as broadly as possible at a wide range of candidates. I think committees will feel more encouraged at the idea of casting a wide net when they know that doing so will not place an undue burden on their colleagues or on their staff."