Hiring a colleague for the coming decades is the most important thing we do. We want to get it right. We want someone who knows how to get research on great ideas done in the foggy jungle of daily tasks that seem to be a full time job themselves. We want someone who understands that the nature of the job is not to forge ahead like a lone sailor, but to coordinate a team so others thrive. We want a friendly colleague who teaches efficiently and well, who pitches in when necessary, but who never loses track that it is what we do in our own groups, pushing the envelope on big ideas, is what will most count towards tenure. We want someone like the principal of Longfellow Elementary back when my kids went there in Houston. He hired well, ran a great school, but wasn’t afraid to pick up the broom and sweep if that was what was needed.
Hiring well should never be the job for one person, for together we see things that alone we miss. In the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at Rice University, we had a search leader, and maybe even a committee (I don’t remember), but when it came time to pick whom to interview or whom to hire, the whole department worked together. We were a small group, never more than ten, and we never had more than about 150 applications, if memory serves. We were not always in complete agreement, but we were generally satisfied with the process. If it was an ecology search, the ecologist’s opinions carried more weight, and vice versa. We had not reached the point where those lines blurred sufficiently.
In the Biology Department at Wash U, things work differently. There needs to be a committee because we have such breadth. The committee I am currently heading has four people close to the field and two people outside in various ways. These people represent the needs of the specific area and the broader needs of the department and the university.
I submitted a search plan based on previous plans. I was concerned that it have a step where everyone in the department can look at the long short list and at the remaining applicants in case someone not on the committee wants to contribute. It is unlikely, but feels more fair to me to make it a possibility.
We will be narrowing down the pool in four steps, but that is a topic for another entry.