Teaching demo to take center stage in hiring decisions

Like any business, the University of Puget Sound faces the problem of employee turnover. The unique nature of some higher education jobs, however, means that the consequences of hiring decisions are long-lasting. Hiring a new professor means making at least a multi-year commitment, and perhaps some years down the line, addressing the potential near-untouchable status of tenure.

At Puget Sound, the process for hiring new professors is arduous and long, with a careful eye towards the consequences of a poor choice: lowered teaching quality for students and a step back in the reputation of the university.

Academic Vice President Kristine Bartanen, who is in charge of the hiring process, said,  “We generally interview three finalists for tenure-line faculty searches, those being the searches from which the person hired will be eligible to earn tenure at Puget Sound. To give you a sense of the work involved in the searches, candidate pools this year have included an average of 104 candidates.”

The number of candidates considered hints at an economic reality: the world of higher education is currently a buyer’s market. Candidates must be highly qualified, which means having a Ph.D. or being extremely close to completing one. As with any other organization, strong recommendations and a demonstrated interest in the specific job environment are key.

Bartanen also mentioned some additional considerations for selecting candidates, saying “We are also strongly committed to increasing the diversity of the faculty and have put stronger practices in place to bring faculty members from historically underrepresented populations into our candidate pools and finalist interviews. Non-academic experience may be more or less relevant depending upon the field; candidates for positions in the School of Business and Leadership, for example, often have some experience working in business.”

Once the university has selected three finalists, these candidates come to campus for an interview. Candidates visiting the University face a well-structured and hectic day. They are shuttled from coffee dates to interviews to lectures to luncheons to receptions, and can relax only after going out to dinner. By the time candidates finish, they will have met with President Thomas, Dean Bartanen and the full faculty of their prospective departments. For candidates, it’s a chance to get to know the university and get a feel for the environment where they would be working. Faculty are able to obtain a sense of what each potential colleague might be like to collaborate with and observe their interactions with students and other members of the campus community.

Not surprisingly, different departments have different priorities when taking on new faculty. Well-established programs might look for candidates to fill a role that is already well-established or offer a peripheral expansion to the scope of the department. Newly-minted departments look for faculty who are interested in shaping the direction of the curriculum. Professor Rachel DeMotts, discussing the hiring process for a conservation biology position within the environmental policy minor, said, “We do talk about collaboration, about how interested someone is in being a collaborative colleague.”

Many are asked to teach a class, an extremely valuable part of the evaluation process. Professor Mark Harpring of the Hispanic Studies Department explained, “if they can’t teach, then they won’t get good [evaluations], and if they don’t get good evals, they won’t reach tenure.”

Harpring went on to emphasize the true one-shot nature of the class session, saying “the number one thing is that you have to knock our socks off in the teaching demo.”

This approach helps ensure that students ultimately have a say in the quality of their teachers, and don’t end up with professors who look good on paper but cannot pass on their knowledge. Students get additional input into the hiring process by giving feedback on candidate’s lectures, talking to candidates over lunch, and meeting them at receptions.

Harpring also mentioned the value of being able to watch this process unfold, saying, “Ultimately, I watch how they interact with students.”

Ideally, the university will take on high-quality staff in the many departments that are hiring this year: History, Latin American Studies, Environmental Policy and Decision Making, and English.

Bartanen concluded, “Puget Sound has a strong faculty of teacher-scholars and we want to maintain that strength through good hires. That’s why we spend so much careful attention to the search processes.”