Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Holding and Folding

It’s that time of the year! The Holidays? No. Exams? No. Skiing? No –definitely no.

It is “offer” time.

If your Appointments Committee is like mine, it has invested countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars searching for new faculty.
The appointments process is like a train and the destination is to making an offer that is accepted. The problem is that sometimes there is better destination -- one more in keeping with MoneyLaw: Do not make an offer.

There are two things at work here. First, let’s face it, an offer, even to an entry level candidate, is an offer of life time employment. I do not know the numbers but, at my school, tenure denials are very, very rare. Yes, some people move on for one reason or another but, for the most part, the decision to make an offer is more like a marriage proposal than like . . . well, actually, most actual marriage proposals.

The second factor is the sunk cost problem. What’s done is done and making a decision on what has past makes little sense. Yet, as we know from our own lives and experimental economics, people continue to make decisions based on past expenditures. You know how it works: “I don’t want to go to the game but I already paid for tickets.” There are also tragic outcomes like those related to foreign policy decisions in Viet Nam and Iraq.

Appointments Committees, in particular, seem afflicted by the sunk cost problem. Having made the investment, leaving the market without a hire is viewed as a failure. No one wants to “fail” and powerful rationalizing processes kick in. Unless a campus visit is a disaster, the Committee becomes vested. Marginal job talks are downplayed. Candidates who do not quite fit in terms of curricular needs are recast as potential teachers in areas where there are needs. Only one destination is acceptable and that is the one that allows Committee members to point to the people hired. Little credit is given for mistakes avoided. Committees become agents for the candidates and not for stakeholders.

It is hard to walk away from the table having invested so much but often the best decision is to do nothing. There will be another committee and a massive new crop of candidates next year.


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