I promised myself long ago that, posttenure, I would share my challenging experiences going on campus visits for job interviews and some of the other problems with the faculty hiring process. I made about a dozen campus visits after my graduation from Florida State University in 2012. While some were professional and pleasant, others were rather odd, if not highly unprofessional and borderline scary.
For instance, I once was asked to stay overnight in an old mansion and given a room with no key and nothing to lock the door from the inside. I moved in the middle of the night to a hotel room. I did not get this job, as I was clearly bad at following orders. But any woman—or any person with a brain—would have left.
Another time, a member of the search committee accompanied me to my hotel room, saying that he needed to use the bathroom. In an attempt to ensure that I did not assume he had amorous motives, he said, “I am gay, don’t worry.” I was more worried that he did not wash his hands, and I was stuck with him for dinner. I refused to share a pizza because I knew where his hands had been.
As an Arab American and Middle Easterner who is critical of conservative patriarchal values and of oppressive religious practices in the Middle East, including the forced veiling of girls and women, I was also subjected to criticism by Arab American and Middle Eastern colleagues from the campuses I was visiting. It ranged from, “Do not air our dirty laundry in front of white people” to “How dare you?” I’ve heard it all.
All of this is to say that campus visits—along with other aspects of the hiring process—can be biased, taxing, expensive and time-consuming. Other professions do not have this lengthy interviewing process, and if the pandemic has done anything right, it is perhaps encouraging institutions to shorten this ridiculous practice. For the most part, however, the campus visit at many institutions remains problematic on many levels.
First, campus visits can be unfair to parents with young children. Once I went on a visit when my son was 3 months old and I was still nursing. Like many junior faculty members, I was told by experienced colleagues—mostly senior women of color—to keep in my purse a travel-size deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste. I was also told to remove my wedding ring and not discuss my family status. Since I could not speak of my infant, I was not given a break to pump, and I remember realizing with horror during my talk that stains were forming on my blouse. I had to cross my arms and squeeze my chest painfully hard to stop the leak. Women are told to show a professional face at work. Discussing infants and nursing are certainly not topics that would impress a search committee, especially in male-dominated fields.
What’s more, I could not have gone on campus visits without my family’s support. I had to leave my infant with someone, and fortunately, I have an amazing partner. However, this speaks to my own privilege. What about single parents? What about job seekers who cannot afford to pay for childcare?
The process can be costly, too. My first job interview was in Seattle, at a hiring conference, when I was a poor graduate student in Tallahassee, Fla. I had to pay for a plane ticket, conference fees, a hotel room, taxis and meals for three days. With the rising cost of education and the massive amount of student loans, one wonders if such required visits are still even valuable for job seekers, especially since a recent study by K. Hunter Wapman, Sam Zhang, Aaron Clauset and Daniel B. Larremore found that colleges and universities tend to hire for tenure-track positions from the same few prestigious universities. According to the authors, that practice creates a “social closure” that prevents the hiring of candidates from most other institutions. In other words, you might spend a lot of money attending these interviews for nothing.
Campus visits can also be exhausting to faculty members who struggle with mental illness or a disability. One of my dear friends and colleagues has multiple sclerosis, and a lengthy campus visit can be physically quite taxing for her. She has settled for a mediocre academic job to avoid the difficulties of the flying component of the interviewing process. Another colleague lives with anxiety. After being sexually assaulted in a hotel room as a child, she is uncomfortable sleeping in an unfamiliar place for two or three nights. Campus visits and hotel rooms are simply too triggering for her.
My two friends have never publicly shared their stories simply because they could not explain their limitations when it comes to campus visits. There is a strong stigma against physical disability and mental illness that comes with the unfair assumption of unprofessionalism or incompetence, especially for women. My two colleagues’ different abilities have no bearing on their academic performance. They are just limited by the hiring process itself, which assumes all kind of privileges.
A Cruel Process
In other ways beyond the campus visit, the application process for an academic position can be too demanding for not much in return. I have seen job announcements for adjunct positions that pay less than $3,000 per course yet require a ridiculous number of documents: a cover letter, curriculum vitae, students’ evaluations, three letters of recommendation, syllabi, a writing sample, a diversity statement, a teaching philosophy and on and on. The common joke among faculty members is that the search committee will surely ask next for a blood test and a urine sample.
The applicant must mail most of those documents at their own expense, and the cost is not cheap. On top of all that, search committees often ask for letters of recommendation, and that can be problematic for contingent faculty, as most adjuncts don’t have strong relationships with their full-time colleagues. It is a catch-22: adjuncts are not supposed to attend department and faculty meetings nor provide service (although many do), since they are only paid to teach their courses. But that also means that full-time faculty and adjuncts frequently do not meet often. Still, adjuncts are asked for letters of recommendation from full-time faculty, and that usually means peers and superiors who barely know them. Moreover, most adjuncts have secondary jobs, which makes it hard for them to leave for two or three days for a campus visit.
Finally, the hiring process can be cruel. How many times have I heard colleagues refuse to give an adjunct candidate a chance because they do not have many publications? We all understand the motto “publish or perish,” but the reality is that two-thirds of faculty members are in contingent employment, and how can you have the time to write and publish—for free—when you are actually trying to make ends meet, pay bills and stay above the poverty line?
While we faculty members are big on criticizing senior administrators for their leadership style and high salaries, we ourselves can excel at self-inflicted wounds. We must take a hard look at the hiring process and change it, considering various factors like gender, race, economic class and ability. We must ask ourselves directly: Are campus visits the best way for us to hire faculty?
Whether the answer is yes or no, we need to rethink the entire process to make it fairer and more equitable for everyone. We might want to consider, for example, conducting more video interviews rather than demanding lengthy campus visits, covering the cost of mailing services or going entirely digital when it comes to the required documents, offering speaking fees for candidates in contingent employment, and routinely asking candidates whether family member with special needs have accompanied them on the campus visit.
Without doubt, we need to create a more inclusive hiring process. The pandemic has already taught us that we can be imaginative and come up with new ways of doing age-old things. We should continue to rethink higher education’s more outdated and harmful traditions.