Sunday, March 4, 2007

Faculty recruitment

As I write, several universities and aspiring faculty candidates are in the midst of an elaborate dance known as faculty recruitment.

Let us consider one specimen: a graduate student, about to finish his Ph.D.; high on ambition, energy and hope, but low on experience and bank-balance. His notion of sartorial excellence is a pair of shorts that aren't torn and a T-shirt that has been washed in the recent past. He applies to various departments, and finally gets an interview call. So, at great expense, he makes himself the proud owner of a nice new suit, a matching tie, shirt, shoes and socks, that for a change, go with the rest of his outfit. This is, perhaps, the best dressed the poor sap is going to be during his academic career.

Our protagonist is received, with a lot of warmth, at the airport by someone from the department that has invited him from the interview. From that point on, the beauty pageant-cum-mating ritual begins in all its earnestness. The protoganist expresses genuine interest in the department. Due to his inexperience, which is more than made up by his energy level, he lists fifty different things that he would like to do as a faculty member. The equivalent of this in the insect and avian worlds is aggressively flapping ones colorful wings to draw the attention of a potential mate.

The department that has invited our protagonist may have X members on the faculty and X+delta factions (every self-respecting department should have a few faculty members who are always/occasionally at war with their other personalities). Yet, it will present a unified front ... one big, happy family ... where our protagonist will have every opportunity to flourish.

During the interview our candidate will ask someone, say the department chair, how many papers he needs to publish and how many research dollars he needs to bring to get tenure. That person, with great (avuncular) charm, will reassure our protagonist that he needn't worry ... that the department looks at the overall performance ... excellence in teaching, research, and service ... it is the quality of the work, not the number of papers that matter ... when making tenure decisions. Barring a few enlightened departments (their number is on the decline), this answer ranks right up there with the following words uttered in beauty pageants: "I will strive to remove world hunger and poverty."

Someone please tell our protagonist: "Dude, your future colleagues are too lazy to actually read your papers. Do you think they have the time to determine whether your work is good, or if your papers deserve to be shipped to Kimberly-Clark to be lovingly rolled into soft, two-ply sheets to be sold in packs of 24 at Costco? While they may not be able to read, they still have the ability to count papers and money."

Once in a while the real character of the department and university does shine through the veil. Let me recall a few of my own experiences. I was interviewing with a very well respected department and was looking forward to joining them, if made an offer. During my colloquium there were half-a-dozen people in a rather large room ... the department chair was in the first row, an assistant professor in the second row, and four more people in the very last row. This department was really trying to show how much it wanted me. Later, I was supposed to meet their Ph.D. students for half-an-hour in a conference room. I sat their, admiring the sound-proofing tiles on the ceiling, and nobody showed up. Now, I was sure they wanted me. A week later they did make me a very generous offer ... but I decided I belonged somewhere else.

A few weeks earlier I had visited U.T. Dallas which I eventually joined. I was supposed to meet the Dean of the School of Engineering for half-an-hour. Minutes before I showed up for the meeting a Regent of the University of Texas system had walked into the Dean's office. So, the meeting was off. My host did some quick thinking and arranged a meeting with somebody else. Later, when I walked into the lecture room for my colloquium I saw a big man, dressed in a suit that was far nicer than mine (of course there were only two people in the room wearing suits!), walking towards me. I immediately realized that he was one of those academic types who had crossed over to the dark side of the force: university administration. He extended his big hand towards me in a handshake. My cold, sweaty palm just disappeared in his. I still remember his words, "Young man, my name is Bill Osborne and I am the Dean of the School of Engineering. I am sorry I could not meet you earlier. I don't know how to make up for it. So, let me try my best. I will attend your colloquium." He sat through the colloquium, paying attention to what I had to say and the discussion that followed. Here was a Dean that led by example ... I was smitten. In the years that followed, there was no doubt in my mind that this action of his was genuine, and not part of the elaborate dance.

I wish the number of such Deans multiplies.

P.S. Today is Holi, the great Indian spring festival. So, pour some colored water on yourself, apply some gulaal to your face, banish past animosities, and saw Holi hai! I won't advice you to go eat bhang ... in this land of milk and honey it will land you in jail.


Atul Negi said...

Hello Ravi
I really enjoyed the parallel between the Faculty recruitment and beauty paegent thing. I landed here after browsing Mukesh Singhal's pages and your UTD page.

About my self: I am an academic with varied interests and a modest publication profile.
Hope to keep in touch.

Atul Negi

Stone Cold 3:16 said...

Nicely Written.. :)