Wherein I play a hero
In a moment of weakness during this past school year, I agreed to serve on a campus hiring committee. Although I had served on a number of such committees before, this one was going to be different. Instead of hiring a faculty member, we were hiring an administrator, a new division manager. This time I was not part of a cozy math department majority trying to select a new colleague; the committee had a majority from the ranks of management. It would not be a faculty-driven process. Fortunately, I am naturally docile and respectful of authority, so there was no reason to expect any problems as I experienced this different style of hiring committee.
We asked each candidate eleven questions. Each committee member asked the same one or two questions of each candidate, keeping the process as uniform and as fair as possible for each interview. If you've ever been on a hiring committee, you won't be surprised that we used the standard “bookend” questions as #1 and #11: Why do you want this job? Is there anything else you'd like to tell us? Question #1 is a natural opener and question #11 gives the candidate a final chance to share additional remarks on earlier questions, fill in omissions, or simply deliver a little closing statement. (Questions #2 through #10 are reserved for the “fun” questions that might come from far out in left field.) As the candidates responded to the questions, committee members took notes. One colleague sitting next to me favored copious transcripts, using her quick writing skills to fill page after page. I and most others preferred cryptic little notations, preventing even a sharp-eyed candidate from discerning whether we were checking the “Exemplary” box or the “Execrable” box. You want to maintain a little mystery during the process.
There were few surprises. All of the candidates had already survived a close paper screening and only those with strong applications were getting interviewed by the committee. The committee would winnow the candidate crop down to a special few who would be invited back for second-round interviews with top-level administrators. (We faculty peons would be out of the loop at that point.) My school used to operate under a “stone face” hiring policy that required all committee members to conceal any reactions to the candidates' answers. In those days our college attorney was particularly paranoid and wanted to eliminate any possible vestige of even the tiniest appearance of the slightest hint of favoritism. It was deadly and you could see the life draining out of candidates as they fielded one question after another from a panel of immobile stone faces. I don't miss those days at all. We've unbent quite a lot and interviews are much friendlier and have at least the semblance of informality. In reality, they're still strongly scripted, but the script is no longer borrowed from an Easter Island travelogue.
Then it happened.
One candidate reached the end of the interview, heard a committee member say, “Is there anything else you'd like to tell us” and answered, “No. No, there isn't.” We thanked the candidate, who left the interview room, and began to get squared away for the next interview. I cleared my throat and spoke to my committee colleagues. It was math time!
“We're all filling in—or will fill in—these scoring sheets for each candidate. Most of us are assigning a point score to each response and then we'll total up the points to give the candidate a numerical score. If committee members are assigning points to #11, we have a potential equity problem.” (The administrator in charge of ensuring fairness during the interviews perked up.) “You see, question #11 is explicitly optional. Candidates don't have to answer it. Do we want to penalize a candidate who skips it? If we do, then we can just add up the points. If we don't, fairness would require that we average the points assigned to the answered questions, dividing by either 10 or 11, depending on whether #11 received a response.”
There was a long moment while people processed what I had said. Fortunately, I was not the only math person on the committee (and, indeed, one of the managers had been a fellow faculty member of mine in the math department before abandoning us for the glories and big bucks of administration). Heads began to nod (in agreement, not sleep). Soon the entire committee agreed that we should either avoiding assigning points to #11 or compute an average response score for each candidate. Skipping #11 would no longer carry a potential penalty of 9% of the points possible. Equity was restored! (Hmm. So what's been going on with previous hiring committees? Eh? That could explain some of the employees around here.)
In case you were wondering, no, my colleagues did not pick me up and carry me about the room on their shoulders. However, the candidate who skipped #11 did make it into the finals. Whether or not that candidate one day thanks me or curses me for the outcome of that interview process is known only to the future, and depends in part on my being exposed as the voice of math within the committee. Or, if you'd rather, the voice of sweet reason.
Hurray for math!