The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"A committee can make a decision that is dumber than any of its members."....  ...David Coblitz.

Commentary of the Day - June 15, 2006: Diary of a Strung-out Search Committee Member.  Guest commentary by Marilyn D. Davis.

Last spring, I submitted my name to be considered for a position on a college search committee.  To my great delight, I was chosen.  When I found out this was not a support group for people who misplace things in their offices, it was too late to bail.  What follows is my authentic account of the key happenings leading up to the interviews for our next college dean.

Day 1: First search committee meeting - chips.
Nine of us sat around the conference room table - some strategically closer to the potato chips than others - and introduced ourselves.  One member volunteered to be the scribe.  She went to the "white board" and wrote a list of committee members' suggestions for important qualities in a crop of candidates-to-be.  For a time we got stuck on deciding which candidate's vehicle was most compatible with the college's mission.  The discussion derailed when a committee member pointed out that some candidates might actually use public transportation.  Then we wrangled over whether our carefully crafted recruitment ad should be placed in The National Enquirer.  We pulled out the latest issue, sobbed over the lack of recent Elvis sightings in our area, and decided to stick to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Chicago Tribune, and, for an additional flavor of candidate diversity, The Onion.  The last 45 minutes were spent setting our next meeting date.

Day 2: Second meeting - peanuts.
This time we had peanuts instead of potato chips.  (Committee members with food allergies were relegated to the far end of the table, near the bowl of Styrofoam peanuts.)  We continued hashing out what we wanted and didn't want in a future dean.  A sense of humor?  Yes.  A sense of irony?  Not quite as important.  A sense of smell?  Perhaps, but our Human Resources training had indicated that we could not legally ask interview questions like, "Do you smell?"  One member suggested discretely placing a few small rotting potatoes beneath the candidates' chair.  Another member said that wasn't in keeping with the welcoming spirit of the college "family."  A third argued that such potatoes were a part of any normal family, so why not?  The group decided to scratch "sense of smell" from the list of desired qualities and we broke for dinner.  Half an hour later, we reconvened at The Great Steak & Potato Company.

Day 3: First foray into the drawers containing the candidates' application files.
I went down to Human Resources, determined to tackle the lion's share of applicant files within a day or two.  One of the office staff taught me the proper lifting techniques for removing files from the drawer.  Use of the back brace was recommended but not required.  I spent 25 minutes reviewing a 9-page cover letter attached to a 12-page resume.  Although the applicant's work history dated back to her first job as the neighborhood skateboard repair girl, her overall credentials and recent professional experience impressed me.  The 17 glowing letters of recommendation clinched it.  I wanted to invite her for an interview, and, more importantly, ask what she knew about fixing my son's Razor scooter.  By the end of an hour in the office, I had reviewed six files and found three solid interview prospects.  I left feeling relieved and optimistic: this was going to be easier than I thought!

Day 4: More and more drawers.
I went to H.R. and grabbed the Elemeno (i.e., L-M-N-O) files.  My hope was to find a chunk of applicants to quickly L-M-N-8.  After spending at least 10 minutes of quality time with each file, I felt like I was the candidates' new best friend.  Much like Mary Poppins, the dean wanna-bees described themselves as practically perfect in every way; how could I not grant them the benefit of an interview?  But I should be more discriminating, I told myself. I went back through the documents with a sense of hopeful skepticism.  Is it a bad sign if an otherwise excellent candidate gives only the names of deceased neighbors as current references?  Or if it appears that he changes jobs more often than underwear?  Eleven down . . . 41 to go.

Days 5, 6, 7 and 8:
How deep are these drawers, anyway?  I spent the better part of a week camped out in the Human Resources office - reading, making notes, being impressed, occasionally being unimpressed, and wondering why so many recovering lawyers wanted to become a college dean.  My A-list was steadily growing.  I ran into our committee scribe, who greeted me with, "Yikes, I can't find any good ones.  You?"  I don't know what shade of red my face turned, but if pauses could get pregnant, mine surely did.

Day 9: Decisions, with common sense and good aim.
Our committee met to compare notes and decide whom to invite for interviews.  We argued into the wee hours of the afternoon and still had only agreed on three people.  All of us wanted a larger pool of interviewees, so our scribe drew an elaborate grid on the white board and labeled the squares.  We wrote each remaining candidate's name on a slip of paper, attached a small wad of chewing gum, and took turns tossing the papers at the board. One of my favorite candidates wound up on our second string of possibles after landing in the square titled, "Submitted an outstanding undergrad transcript with white-out suspiciously covering both the name of the student and the issuing university." It could have been worse: he was just one-half inch from "Admits to owning more than a dozen 'For Dummies' books."  The lucky winners landed in either, "Knows what part of 'No' students don't understand," or, "Has reputed mob connections."

The author reports that the candidate who was eventually hired as the dean did, in fact, make it onto the final list of interviewees before the search committee resorted to alternative decision-making methodologies.  So you can rest easy tonight, Brad - we wanted you from the get-go.

© 2006 Marilyn D. Davis..
Marilyn D. Davis works in community college administration and lives near Chicago.  She is also a freelance writer and collector of fossil crinoids.

The IP comments:  Service on a search committee is a thankless task.  The IP has served on a few dean search committees here at Krispy Kreme University and knows how daunting a task it can be to read through scores of applications.  The occasional dinner with the candidate does not come close to compensating committee members for the effort expended.  Ms. Davis seems to have taken it all in stride, and has come out the experience with her sense of humor still intact.

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