In recent weeks, the Cocoon and new APA blog have published posts by search committee members from different types of institutions on what they look for in job-candidates. The Cocoon published a post by a search committee member at a Midsized Liberal Arts College (MLAC). More recently, the APA blog published a post by Allen Wood, who has served on search committees at high-ranking research institutions, as well as a post by Robert Muhlnickel about what search committees look for at community colleges. These series' of posts are beginning to provide, I think, a much clearer picture of just how different the hiring priorities can be at different types of institutions. However, I would like to draw into clearer focus something that in my experience (talking to fellow job-candidates, surveying various blogs, etc.) appears to be underappreciated: the subtle role that institutional motivators plausibly play in influencing who is interviewed, and especially, who is ultimately hired. Allow me to explain.
One important phenomenon that happens all too often in life is that "what people say, and what they do" can be quite at odds with one another. For example, in the dating world it is not uncommon for someone to say they are "attracted" to a certain type of person ("I like kind, funny people"), but then actually date a very different type of person who is not at all in line with their own ideals (viz. "Okay, but why do you always date jerks?"). Similarly, consider a case from philosophy. As I mentioned the other day, a recent Leiter poll indicated that professional philosophers who voted in the poll think that "Hyper-specialization and/or increasing irrelevance of philosophy to public/culture at large" is the 3rd most important important issue in the profession. In response to this finding, one of my facebook friends asked the following rhetorical question, "Why, then, do people keep publishing hyperspecialized stuff that seems to play into philosophy's irrelevance to the world at large?" My answer was that the answer is probably this: that whatever people may value themselves ("I don't like hyperspecialized work"), there are structural motivators in place that incentivize hyperspecialized work: people want to publish in "top journals" to advance their careers, and "top journals" tend to publish hyperspecialized work -- thus, whatever people might say they value, they have incentives to keep churning out hyperspecialized work!
Here is why I think this is important when it comes to the academic job-market: whatever people might say they look for in candidates to interview ("I look for the best researcher", "I look for the best teacher", etc.), search committees are committees. And, as we all know, committees often don't just (or even primarily) represent the preferences of the the individuals on them: they are political animals -- that is, groups of human beings that may, for political reasons, say or advance values at the group level that they might not even prefer as an individual (all on their lonesome). How might this occur? Well, let us reflect on the kinds of institutional motivators that search committees plausibly find themselves facing at different kinds of universities.