A Broken Process: Secrecy, Confusion and Bias in Hiring Administrators

(This is an article from the WLUFA Advocate November 2014 3.2.)

By Matt Thomas, eResources Librarian

From my recent search committee experience as well as speaking with my colleagues, it’s clear that our institution, like many others, has some systematic problems when hiring for administrative positions. Since Deans, VPs and similar positions play such an important role in the success of our institution and everyone in it, we should ensure that we’re doing our best when selecting people to fill those roles and, to that end, here are three key areas in which our search processes need improvement. Of course, I am not commenting on any of the individuals already hired through these processes or even the members of search committees. This work is difficult and will never be perfect, but it’s important to identify the problems inherent in our process if we ever mean to do something about them.

We’re overly secretive: There should, of course, be some level of confidentiality in all hirings. Both candidates and committee members need to feel safe to share and participate fully in the process. But there’s a difference be-tween confidentiality and secrecy. Between the non-disclosure agreement wording Laurier currently uses and a lack of agreement about what should be confidential, we can be so scared to “break the rules” that we avoid discussing the search process altogether, stifling discussion within the committee, as well as preventing any kind of assessment of our practices. I’ve been told that Laurier’s non-disclosure agreement may currently be in the process of re-view, which is good news. But even it were perfected, we would still need to work on making it clear what should and should not be open for discussion, and when.

We don’t discuss what we want or how we’re going to get it: A common problem in many teams is insufficient planning, goal-setting or strategy consideration, and too often our administrative search committees are no exception. Since positions and priorities change with time and committee membership changes and brings in members who may never have participated in such a process before, some discussion of who we’re looking for and how we’re going to find and identify them needs to happen regularly. A clear set-up at the beginning is crucial, not only because hiring academic administrators can be tricky business, but also because we face so many barriers to smooth decision making: job ads that are often vague and political, recruitment companies that may have no experience hiring for specific positions, large group dynamics (search committees for senior administrative officers range from 12 to 18 members), and sometimes unavoidable small candidate pools. These are not unique to Laurier but are certainly issues we need to consider.

Our selection procedures are vulnerable to bias: It shocks and saddens me to see search processes that leave the door wide open to biased decision making. Almost everyone on these search committees are academics or have been academics, so we should all know of the potential for bias plus methods to minimize it, but I see little proof that this issue is considered. I don’t see any effort to make the gender or ethnic background of candidates a little less obvious, at least at the early stages of the process. I know it’s not always possible, especially in cases where many candidates are well known by committee members, but some attempt should be made to block some of the unconscious assumptions about candidates that are not relevant to selection criteria and that may cloud our assessments.

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