An open slot

Three years now. That’s how long we’ve been running this damn search.

It all started four years ago when Georgia announced she was leaving. Georgia was a full professor who brought in good grant money, so her departure was a real blow to the department. Sure, she was a good colleague, too, but at this point I’m long past annoyed with her for leaving – pardon me if I sound a little instrumental.

We had a pretty good pool of adjuncts, so we didn’t temporarily replace her with a visiting appointment. Besides, her departure posed a bigger issue for our research profile than for teaching, since she had a 1-2 load. We wrote up an ad for a senior scholar and posted it in the usual places and waited for the applications to roll in. Of course, everyone had their own pet scholars in mind. They called and emailed them, encouraging them to apply.

It should have been a pretty attractive position. The department is top 25 within a flagship state university. We’re not located in a “destination,” but at least it’s a good-sized city with moderate weather. What we didn’t count on was that there was a lot of movement in the senior ranks all over that same year Georgia left. Maybe we should have noticed, but since we hadn’t been hiring, why would we have been paying attention?

The upshot was that a lot of senior folks had just moved, and hence were unavailable, and that left a lot of other schools trying to replace them. The market was tight. It’s an understatement to say we didn’t get the applications we wanted.

Clarence was the search chair that year, and it made him very depressed. “Half of these people don’t publish, a few are freshly tenured, and some are in the wrong specialty. The ad did say we were looking for someone quantitative, didn’t it? Please tell me I’m not hallucinating.

“You’re not hallucinating,” I said.

We ended up inviting two candidates to campus. Behind door number one we had a reasonably senior scholar who did interesting mixed methods research. She came from a better department than ours, but word was there was some friction there. Behind door number two was a guy with a pretty hard-core quant reputation. He was by far the biggest fish in a small pond department.

Big fish was a disaster; he talked down to the faculty and condescended to the students. We made an offer to the mixed methodologist, who, as it turned out, was just using us as leverage with her home department.

“God, that was a disaster,” Clarence said.

The second year we opened the ad up wider, to anyone tenured. Clarence was again at the helm. We got a few more applications, although still not what we were hoping for. Some gossips claimed that our department had a reputation for being unfriendly. Others blamed our location in flyover country. A few pointed out that we had a couple of tenure denials recently.

“What were we supposed to do?” Clarence said, “Jay didn’t publish a damned thing during his last two years, and Rajesh was groping the students. Besides, we’re looking for someone with tenure.”

We brought three people in. One crashed and burned at his job talk; you would have thought he was a nervous ABD, not a new associate professor. The second neither impressed nor offended anyone. The third, everyone agreed, was the winner, but she turned down our offer in favor of one in California. Before we could decide whether to go for candidate two, we heard he had accepted another position. We were out of luck.

Which brings us to this year. The dean was adamant that we had to hire somebody. It was my turn to be the search chair, and we posted the job as open-rank. The number of applications increased, but most came from fresh PhDs applying to everything. Many didn’t even begin to meet the stated criteria.

“No bloody way we need another Americanist,” I told Clarence.

“No shit,” he said.

We did ten phone interviews and whittled it down to three candidates with a fourth in reserve. The first didn’t seem to understand his own dissertation. The second’s interpersonal skills were a nightmare, and he sealed his doom by getting wretchedly drunk at dinner. The third never came to campus; she called us a week before to let us know she had accepted a position at a school we couldn’t come close to competing with. Candidate number four came in, did an acceptable job, and we made the offer.

I don’t think anyone was excited about him. Maybe it was because we were still hoping for someone senior, which is what we really needed, and this guy was brand-new and still rough around the edges. Still, we were shocked when he turned us down.

“Where is he going instead?” Clarence asked.

“You don’t even want to know,” I said.

“No, really, tell me. Is it Harvard? Is he polygamist, and did Brigham Young offer him a job with spousal hires for the whole harem? Or perhaps he can’t see himself anywhere but New York City.”

“He’s staying where he is. It’s a one-year postdoc with his advisor.”

“What the hell?”

Which pretty much summed things up. The dean is furious. He says that obviously we don’t need this tenure line, since we’ve managed for three years without it and clearly aren’t serious about filling it. There won’t be a search next year, at least not for that slot.

We’ll be doing a search anyway: our colleague Brenda was up for tenure, and she got it, but her and her husband have had a commuter marriage since she graduated. His university offered her a tenured position, and she’s out the door.

“You’re a lucky man, Clarence,” I told him.

“How’s that?”

“Word on the street is you’re being asked to head up the search committee.”

“Oh no. No way. Don’t even joke about it.”

“No joke, my friend.”

“Dammit.” For the first time since I’ve known him, he actually looked morose. “Do you think I could get out of it by quitting?”

“And leave me with it? Two words: Justifiable homicide.”


The author is tired of hearing about the surplus of PhDs vis-a-vis the disappearing number of tenure-track jobs.


About almosttruetales

The stories contained herein are entirely fictional. Any resemblances to persons living or dead are entirely coincidental. Anyway, what seems like a unique story probably plays out dozens of times in other academic departments each year. I don't know if that's consoling or depressing.
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