Ready. Aim. Hire!

Ready. Aim. Hire! McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 7, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 12
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Ready. Aim. Hire!

Anthony Paré is looking for five. David Lowther is trying to find 11. And they're far from alone in their quest.

Paré and Lowther are, respectively, the chairs of the Departments of Integrated Studies in Education and Electrical and Computer Engineering. What the two men are scouting around for are smart scholars suitable for hiring.

It's a preoccupation shared by just about every departmental chair and dean at McGill these days.

The University is aiming to add about 1,000 new faculty to its ranks over a 10-year period, a hiring spree necessitated, in large part, by the impending retirements of hundreds of current McGill professors.

"This is the biggest renewal of the professoriate McGill has ever seen," says Dean of Science Alan Shaver. "What we do today will determine the quality of the University in the year 2020."

Dean of Management Gerald Ross shares that assessment. "That's why it's important for each faculty to make some hard choices right now," he says.

"Academic renewal starts with the question of where do you want to build your differentiation. Can we do absolutely everything superbly? I'd say no. So we have to decide, what will differentiate a McGill graduate from someone who attended Queen's or U of T? What programs do we need? What sorts of professors do we need to make those programs work?"

In the case of his faculty, all new hires, whether their backgrounds are in marketing, management systems or accounting, will have to have expertise linked to at least one of three themes -- globalization, health management, or innovation and entrepreneurship. These themes will be the areas in which the Faculty of Management will focus its efforts from here on in.

Much of the process involved in recruiting new faculty is strictly formalized.

Help wanted ads, which have to be phrased just so, are sent out to publications, such as University Affairs and the Canadian Association of University Teachers Bulletin, that are widely read by academics across the country. Sometimes more specialized journals also carry the ads. Sometimes, if the quarry is a more senior scholar, ads might also be placed in mainstream publications or in publications produced in the U.S. or other countries.

"It's easy to spend $10,000 on ads for just one position," says Dean of Engineering John Gruzleski.

Chairs of similar departments at other universities are appraised of McGill job openings. Major academic conferences provide another method for spreading the news about vacancies.

And then the resumés start streaming in.

A search committee is assembled to pore over resumés, letters of recommendation and statements about candidates' research interests and teaching philosophies. The committee's first task is to settle on a shortlist containing three to five names.

Paré sits on each of his department's search committees. Narrowing the list down can be arduous. "We're looking for a curriculum theorist right now and we've received 34 applications. They're all very, very interesting candidates."

The search committees are, understandably, dominated by faculty from the departments that are doing the hiring. "The best people to hire a mechanical engineer are mechanical engineers," says Gruzleski.

Paré likes to have at least one committee member drawn from another part of the University, who can offer a slightly different perspective. For a committee looking for a new teaching technology expert, for instance, Paré recruited economics professor Myron Frankman.

"Myron was one of the first teachers at McGill to use technology in his teaching. He is committed to it, but he can also be quite critical about how technology is used for teaching and learning," says Paré.

Dean of Arts Carman Miller appoints a "dean's representative" on each search committee -- an experienced scholar from another department with an interest in the discipline related to the job vacancy. The dean's representative is there to offer a "big picture" perspective -- how a hiring will affect other units, for instance.

"I want to underscore that [the position available] is not departmental property, it is a resource for the whole faculty that has to be used wisely," says Miller.

New professors have to fit in with their department's existing programs. "You don't want someone who is so far out in left field, he has no one to talk to," says Shaver. On the other hand, says Lowther, "we don't want clones of the people we've already got."

Once the shortlist is assembled, a handful of candidates is invited to visit campus. "They generally get a free meal out of it," says Professor Maggie Kilgour, chair of the Department of English. "But we really make them work for that meal."

First off, candidates are interviewed by search committee members.

"On paper, it's hard to get a sense of [candidates'] personalities," says Kilgour. "It's important to hear people talk about why what they're doing is exciting to them. It's an opportunity to see whether they will be able to get other people excited about it." Kilgour likes to meet prospective candidates at conferences when she can, even before a shortlist is decided upon.

On the basis of the c.v. alone, a candidate might seem like a dark horse until you hear her speak, explains Kilgour. "Interviews can provide some real surprises." Someone who seemed just good on paper can be spellbinding in person.

Somebody might be an outstanding talent and still not get the job. If a candidate comes across as an insufferable boor, he isn't likely to get an offer no matter how smart he is.

"If we hire somebody, we're going to be in close quarters with him for a very long time," observes Paré.

Search committees tend to keep an eye out for promising female candidates, especially in disciplines where women tend to be underrepresented.

There is another issue that Paré is sensitive to as he makes hiring decisions. "It's time we reflected our society a bit better," he says, noting, "the students we train to become teachers are an increasingly multicultural group."

Once the interview is out of the way, there is still plenty to do in the two days a shortlisted candidate typically spends at McGill.

Candidates usually present a classroom-style lecture to demonstrate their teaching chops and students are encouraged to attend. "How they perform there is very important," notes Kilgour.

Miller insists on meeting shortlisted candidates himself. One of the issues he raises with each is their ability in French. It isn't a make-or-break consideration, but Miller wants it to be clear that being able to function in French is important for anyone planning on living in Montreal.

Candidates usually give a seminar about their own research to professors in the department. It's generally a tough crowd, says Shaver. "It can be extremely gruelling."

The faculty in a department are usually canvassed en masse about what they think of each candidate -- some search committees distribute forms to be filled out.

And sometimes, after all that, nobody gets hired.

"If the search committee is not impressed enough with the candidates they've uncovered, the search is closed for a year and the position is protected," says Shaver.

"Better nobody than just a warm body."

Even if the committee selects a candidate, that doesn't guarantee she'll be offered a position.

"I've refused to accept the recommendation of the committee when I felt the candidate wasn't of sufficient quality," says Miller. "In some cases we've advertised for a third year."

McGill isn't the only university looking for new faces. Not by a long shot.

For instance, Ross says business schools aren't churning out nearly enough PhDs to meet the expected demand for them in the years to come.

"If you get everyone you go after, you're probably aiming too low," says Shaver.

So what are McGill's chief attractions for new faculty? Everyone interviewed agreed on one factor -- Montreal. Safe, affordable and culturally vibrant, Montreal's charms are certainly a huge selling point.

"We treat junior faculty more humanely than some other universities do," says Kilgour. It isn't unusual for Ivy League schools south of the border "to hire six new faculty expecting to tenure only one of them. We don't hire anyone expecting that they'll fail."

"I would point to the presence of excellent professors," says Shaver. "First-rate people attract first rate-people."

"The students at McGill are very good and that's a big selling feature," says Kilgour. "Someone who really cares about the teaching experience knows that they'll get wonderful students here."

The University's reputation for excellence certainly holds appeal, says Ross, as does the fact that, unlike most Canadian universities, McGill's moniker has a certain cachet around the world. "The name McGill draws."

For some faculties, engineering and management, for instance, competitors for new talent include the industrial sector, not just other universities.

"The situation for us is better than it was a year ago," notes Lowther. "The downturn in industry has made my life a little easier."

Still, says Gruzleski, the sorts of salaries offered by the corporate sector are impossible for McGill to match.

"[New faculty] have to really want to teach in a university. They don't do it for the money, believe me."

In recent years, McGill has faced a new challenge.

"Increasingly, [candidates for positions] don't come as a single person, they come with a spouse who also has a career," says Kilgour. "With an academic spouse, we might be able to help them find a job. But if the spouse is a unilingual businessperson, it could make it impossible for them to move to Quebec."

"It wasn't much of a concern 10 years ago," says Miller. "Now it's often the deciding factor."

In some cases, say both Shaver and Gruzleski, new arrivals are Canadians who left for positions in the U.S. and decided they wanted to come back home. Shaver says working in Quebec also holds appeal for Quebecers who want to stay put and for Europeans who feel more at home here than they would in the U.S.

Miller believes there are few things that go on in a university that are truly worth fighting about. Hiring is one of them.

"If we hire the right person, we've solved a problem." And if McGill hires the wrong person? "We've created a problem."

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