By Steven M. Cahn
Searching for a new colleague is rarely a smooth process. Indeed, it can intensify departmental friction or create it where none existed.
Once a department is informed that it can make an appointment, the announcement of the position needs to be developed. The question then arises as to which subfields, if any, will be given prominence in the search.
Ideally, the decision should reflect a fair assessment of the department’s needs. Too often, however, that criterion is ignored.
Imagine for the sake of simplicity a music department that has four members teaching the history of Western music. Let us designate them as A, B, C, and D. A teaches Renaissance music; B specializes in the Baroque age, particularly J. S. Bach; C focuses on the classical period, especially Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and D teaches music of the 20th and 21st centuries. What’s missing?
A neutral observer would immediately recognize a crucial gap: post-Beethoven music of the romantic period, including such leading figures as Brahms and Wagner.
A candidate specializing in the romantic era, however, may not be the department’s first priority. Consider how the discussion might proceed.
A: I’m supposed to cover Renaissance music, but I focus on the early period. We need someone for the late.
B. My work is centered on Bach, but there’s so much more in the Baroque. Let’s add someone who can handle it. Nineteenth-century is important, but I haven’t heard much call from students for Tchaikovsky.
C. Recently I’ve been concentrating on Beethoven. How about someone who can delve into Haydn and Mozart? We can also use someone who could teach the year-long survey in the history of music.
D. Contemporary music is so varied that we need another person to do it justice. I have a friend from graduate school who works in electronic music and would be a terrific colleague.
Here’s commentary to help explain the discussion:
A. The historian of the Renaissance seeks a colleague with similar interests so as to have someone at hand for discussion and assistance. Rather than saying so, however, A stresses differences between the early and later Renaissance, then argues that the department needs a specialist in both. The problem, of course, is that any subject can be divided into smaller units and the argument made that each unit needs coverage. We might term this strategy “divide and augment.”
B. The historian of Baroque music also uses the “divide and augment” strategy, followed by an appeal to lack of student interest in nineteenth-century music. But why expect students to urge that a subject they have never studied should be taught? If Baroque music wasn’t in the curriculum, would students complain?
C. The scholar of the classical period wants the opportunity to focus entirely on Beethoven, and also seeks someone to teach the history of music survey that requires extensive preparation and covers materials outside any one instructor’s interests. This professor proposes that the members of the department avoid that demanding assignment by giving it to a newcomer.
D. The contemporary music scholar uses the “divide and augment” strategy, then adds what might be labelled the “I have a friend” approach. This maneuver typically leads a professor to overrate professional pals, then become angry if colleagues do not share this inflated view. To avoid the problem, all department members should agree that in considering candidates, no one is under any obligation to be favorably disposed toward anyone else’s friend. All subsequent discussion of candidates should be untarnished by any reference to personal attachments, and anyone suggesting a friend should stay out of discussion of that candidate. Failure to do so is one of the most common reasons for unfortunate appointments.
But how to break the impasse?
One solution calls for the advertisement to include a list of specializations sought: the late Renaissance, the Baroque age, Haydn and Mozart, nineteenth-century, and electronic music. That approach will likely satisfy the four members but appear strange to potential candidates who will wonder why the department has such an unusual collection of priorities.
Here’s where an effective dean might step in and inform the department that their complex advertisement is unacceptable and that they need to sharpen their focus before proceeding.
How might the department react to the dean’s objection? A common move is to declare that the department will search for the best person, regardless of field. This step will satisfy the department and perhaps even the dean, but down the road the maneuver produces poor results.
The reason is revelatory. While specialists have some acquaintance with other subject matters, only regarding their own are they familiar with a broad spectrum of faculty members, programs, and scholarly activities. Therefore unless one candidate is clearly superior to all others (a rare situation), each professor will find “the best” to be the best in that specialist’s field and try to forge a majority in favor of that candidate. As the infighting continues, the field most likely to be neglected is the one currently unrepresented; though important, it is least known by the members, yet most in need of an appointment. In the end, however, whichever professor is politically savvy and most determined carries the day. Then if after a year or two another opening appears and again the romantic era is neglected, the department will become lopsided, perhaps for decades.
A strong dean, however, may monitor the search process, leading the department to settle on a candidate who can cover the romantic period. Furthermore, the faculty may eventually appreciate the perspective of their new colleague and realize the wisdom of offering broader coverage.
In any case, discord is likely to accompany the process. Indeed, if for nefarious reasons someone wanted to create turmoil in an amiable department, I can’t think of a more effective strategy than offering the members an opportunity to undertake a search. Even if they do not find a candidate on whom they can agree, the members should at least consider themselves fortunate if their good relations survive.
Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, Inside Academia: Professors, Politics, and Policies, to be published in 2018 by Rutgers University Press.