Opportunity cost

Even in accelerated hiring program, U. emphasizes caution over speed

By
Monday, April 25, 2005

The University’s Target of Opportunity hiring program allows departments speed and flexibility in securing stellar candidates by bypassing the slower and more cumbersome standard hiring process, but accelerated hiring programs have received some criticism at Brown and around the country.

Complaints about the University’s targeted hiring process concern its ability to fulfill its basic purpose – to swiftly respond to the availability of outstanding scholars and bring them to Brown.

Evelyn Hu-DeHart, professor of history and director of Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, said she was initially excited about the program – until University officials took a year to act on her request for a Target of Opportunity solicitation. The request was eventually rejected.

“Of course we were disappointed, but the disappointment itself is not the only issue,” Hu-DeHart said. “I think the length of time it took the provost to make a decision became a problem for us, because we kept having to tell the person whose name we put forth that we were still waiting,” she said.

“I think it has put a damper and discouraged my colleagues from putting forth additional candidates,” she said.

But University officials say the delay is simply a reflection of the importance of making the right decision.

“It is difficult when you find that things take time. It can be frustrating, but people are aware of the importance of getting the right person,” said Dean of the Faculty Rajiv Vohra P’07. “The important thing is not to give into the temptation to quickly fill a position,” he said. “It is far more important to be sure you get the right person.”

Target of Opportunity accelerates the hiring process, Vohra said, by allowing departments to solicit a specific scholar instead of requesting a new position and then searching for candidates who fit the description. With approval from the dean of the faculty, provost and president, the candidate goes through the standard evaluation process.

Hiring for new positions under the normal plan takes about two years – the first for approval of the search and the second for the search itself. In many cases, Vohra said, the process takes longer.

Under the normal hiring process, the Academic Priorities Committee usually takes a year to recommend the creation of a new professorship. The dean of the faculty, provost and president must then approve the position and search.

After the position and search have been approved, the search and evaluation process takes at least an academic year, said Brenda Allen, associate provost and director of institutional diversity. The process includes the creation of a hiring plan, advertisement, on-campus interviews, committee evaluation and the final offer of employment, she said.

Target of Opportunity typically shortens the hiring process by a year or more by bypassing the approval of the professorship and the general search, Vohra said.

Other complaints suggest that departments are unwilling to take advantage of Target of Opportu-nity. Hu-DeHart said departments have a “disincentive” to use the program because they are forced to give up future hiring opportunities.

Vohra said he has not seen this as a problem.

Target of Opportunity is not intended to permanently increase the size of a department’s faculty, Vohra said. The program instead allows departments with all current positions filled to hire outstanding available candidates without having to wait for retirements or approvals of new positions, he said.

In exchange for the flexibility, departments are asked to give up a future position, he added. Agreements between departments and the administration vary on a case-by-case basis, he said, but typically, a department agrees not to replace its next retiring professor or not to create new positions for a certain period of time.

“The value added to the department should be such that the department is willing to put up something,” Vohra said, adding that administrators would be suspicious of a department’s claim that a candidate is outstanding if it would not be willing to sacrifice a future position to bring in the targeted scholar immediately.

Additionally, Vohra said, the agreements allow the pool of available Target of Opportunity positions to be replenished. President Ruth Simmons’ Plan for Academic Enrichment, which created the Target of Opportunity program, allocated 25 of the plan’s 100 new faculty positions as targeted hires. When a department gives up a future hire, that position returns to the Target of Opportunity pool, allowing other departments to take advantage of the program without a resulting net increase to the size of the faculty beyond the originally plan-ned 25.

Twelve of the 37 professors hired in the last three years under the faculty expansion initiative were Targets of Opportunity, Vohra wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

Much of the national attention regarding accelerated hiring programs has surrounded Ward Churchill, a tenured professor in the ethnic studies department of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his controversial actions, Churchill wrote an essay in which he called the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks “little Eichmanns,” a reference to Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann.

Boulder’s Daily Camera reported Feb. 19 that documents released by CU suggested that Churchill was offered tenure in 1991 under a program designed to increase faculty diversity. Churchill did not have the typically required Ph.D. and was not on a tenure track, the paper reported.

Though Churchill says he is of Native American origin, some Native American leaders have challenged his claim, according to the Daily Camera.

A March 24 CU report on the controversies surrounding Churchill said the university’s diversity practices rely on self-identification, but the report did not elaborate on his hiring and tenure.

CU Regent Pat Hayes told the Rocky Mountain News March 14 that the university would examine how Churchill received tenure.

Before coming to Brown, Hu-DeHart was head of CU’s ethnic studies department at the time Churchill received tenure in the department. She told The Herald that Churchill was “her hire” at CU. She said he went through the standard hiring process, and no special considerations were made on the basis of diversity, but she declined to comment further.

University administrators say Target of Opportunity does not pose a threat to faculty quality at Brown because it only accelerates the decision to consider a particular candidate for a hire not previously planned. The evaluation process itself is the same, they say.

“There is nothing more important we do than hiring faculty. The multi-layered process that we have is extremely important for ensuring the quality of the faculty,” said Provost Robert Zimmer. “Everybody understands that having every case go through the process is absolutely essential.”

“The shortcut is in the time for deciding whether or not we are ready now to fill a position that was previously not on our list,” Vohra said.

“We still pay very close attention to the qualifications of the candidate,” Vohra said. “It is fast-tracked only in the decision to consider the candidacy of an individual, not to try to rush the process of making a judgment on the qualifications of the person.”

According to Zimmer, “All the steps (of the regular hiring path and the Target of Opportunity program) are basically the same, except for the very first step – that instead of there being a general search, there is a general agreement on our part that there is enough of a plausibility that the department can make the case that the candidate is truly outstanding.”

Allen said, “Universities are unwilling to compromise standards of excellence and quality, whether in the name of diversity or anything else. I know of no place where compromise occurs.”

Target of Opportunity does not focus solely on diversity. Not all professors hired under the program are women or minorities.

“At the same time as diversifying the faculty is a high priority, it is only one of our priorities,” Zimmer said. “When we look at targets of opportunity, what we are looking at is people who can provide us with an opportunity because of who they are to add to what we want and need in our faculty,” he added.

“While diversifying the faculty is one possible direction, not everyone appointed by Target of Opportunity has to be on the basis of diversity. It’s one of the issues, but not the only issue,” Zimmer said.