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New Faculty Orientation

August 21, 2009

Universities spend a lot of money recruiting new faculty.  Nevertheless, the process of selecting new faculty is, in reality, much like looking for  a mate on eHarmony or followed by speed dating.    The faculty, department chair, and dean will review information supplied on line by the candidates in order to select the most promising ones and will then have a short meeting with them to assess their “fit” for the job.  Like beauty, fit is largely in the eye of the beholder.  Like most suitors, the university is looking to hook up with (hook?) the most attractive new faculty.   When an applicant  has agreed to take the job, the university is initially convinced that the new faculty member is perfect in every way.

New faculty orientations have become an elaborate ritual, somewhat akin to wedding receptions except that there is no dancing or booze.  There is a meal, speeches by honored guests, and lots of advice given by established faculty to the new members of the university family.  I went for a short time to our new faculty orientation to talk briefly about the faculty senate and its role in the university.  While there, I listened to our president tell the new faculty that a surefire why to be successful is by setting detailed goals and by regularly checking to see how much progress had been made in achieving them.   (For him and for his audience, success at a minimum meant getting tenure.)  New faculty were repeatedly assured that the administration and fellow faculty members would be there to support and to help new faculty reach their goals.

As an aside, when I was hired, new faculty orientation consisted of a brief meeting with the head of the department to find out what courses I would be teaching next week.   He then wished me good luck and showed me out of his office.    He clearly had better things to do than talk to me.  There was no advice about how to succeed at the university by setting goals or by any other means.   Consequently, I never had any goals beyond holding on to my job.  This may explain why I never got to be a university president.   On the other hand, our president also admitted that he never achieved all his goals because he was sidetracked into administration.  For more on my lack of goals and how this has affected my life, see my blog on  Commencement Speeches.

As at every wedding reception, the speeches at the new faculty orientation accentuated the positive and ignored the negative.    For example, the ever growing budget crises that the university is facing and its implications for new faculty careers was barely mentioned.   What was also not made plain was that the honeymoon for new faculty would be relatively short.  While they were being recruited and for awhile after they had arrived, department chairs, deans and the provost would do all in their power to make them happy.  After a year or two, however, the tables would turn and administrators at all levels would become increasingly interested in what new faculty were doing to improve the university’s bottom line through teaching (read tuition) and grantsmanship (read indirect cost recovery).   What the new faculty were not told is that the university is a business.   In the past, it was publish or perish.  Today, it is bring in lots of cash or perish.

The new faculty member may or may not remain enchanted or even compatible with their university suitor.  Some will be tempted by more prestigious suitors and will leave.  Some will become disenchanted and will seek other suitors.    The university will discover that some new faculty are not really what they were looking for and will, in effect, divorce them.  Hopefully, many of our new faculty will find that the university is a good fit for them or is at least an acceptable fit.    My hope is that the university will be able to provide those new faculty that do stay the personal and financial support needed to enable them to have productive and satisfying professional careers.   My guess is, however, that this is less likely to be the case today then when I was a new faculty member more than 30 years ago.   I just hope that I am wrong.

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