Out in Minnesota, Melissa expresses some high-level confusion over the preference for people with a small-college background:

In the past few months, I have been involved in several conversations where someone mentioned that a particular faculty member or administrator was or was not an alum of a small liberal arts college (SLAC) in a manner that seemed to suggest their status as a former student of a SLAC (or not) clearly explained why the individual took the particular action or made the particular decision being discussed. (Generally the tone of the discussions has been that “good” decisions/actions are attributed to someone having attended a SLAC and “bad” decisions/actions are attributed to someone not having attended a SLAC.) I’ve heard this type of conversation before, and every time I hear it, it bothers me. Institutions are enriched by the diversity of experiences that faculty and staff bring, and the experience of having been a student at a liberal arts college does not by default make an individual a more valuable or wiser member of the community.

I had a couple of conversations about small-college hiring at DAMOP a few weeks ago, and the same thing came up there, so I’ll repeat my answer. I will say, though, that I haven’t noticed this coming up in contexts other than hiring a new faculty member, whether at the assistant professor level or into a senior position, so that’s the context I have in mind for my answer.

The main reason why I tend to give an advantage to job candidates with small-college experience is a question of attitude. Somebody who has been at a small college, even as a student, is less likely to view a small college job as “settling” than somebody whose whole career has been spent at top-tier research universities.

There is a persistent attitude in at least the science corner of academia that anything less than a top-level job is unworthy. The mental standard of these people is that if you can’t get a job at a major research university– preferably one of the top private schools, but flagship state universities are acceptable– that must be because you “can’t cut it” at the top level.

For people who think that way, a job at a school with “State” in the name is a bad sign, and a job at a small college is practically teaching high school. That kind of attitude is absolute poison. You don’t want somebody at your college who thinks the whole institutional category is beneath them.

A small-college background is a good and quick filter for removing those candidates from the hiring pool, especially at the intro level. It’s not the only filter, by any means– the primary criteria are the CV (does the candidate’s teaching experience go beyond the obligatory first-year-of-grad-school TA’ing of intro labs?) and the teaching and research statements (does their research plan reflect a realistic knowledge of small-college constraints? does their teaching statement express believable enthusiasm for the subject?)– but someone with a small-college background has an easier time convincing me that they want to be here than somebody who attended two Ivy League schools and did a post-doc at a third.

For more senior hires, there are additional filters for the CV and statements, because they have more on-the-job experience. But the basic goal is the same– to sort out people who really want to be at a small college from those who really want to be at a research university but are settling for a small college for job market reasons. And again, a small college background helps with that– someone who has worked at or even attended a small college is more likely to have a clear idea of what it is that we do, and see it as valuable in its own right than somebody who has only ever been at research institutions.

Once people are hired, the background doesn’t make a huge amount of difference– the student and faculty experiences are sufficiently different that educational background doesn’t have much day-to-day effect– though for somebody hired into a senior position, there is almost certainly some of what Melissa describes regarding their initial decisions (I should note that while we’ve had a complete turnover of the administrative positions since I’ve been here, all of the replacements have been internal hires, so I haven’t seen this directly). A new Dean or Chair who makes an unpopular decision will likely start people complaining that this is because they “don’t understand” the local culture. This is true even for hires from comparable institutions, but would be a lot worse with somebody changing institutional categories.

So that’s why people with a small-college background have an advantage when I’m reviewing job applications. It doesn’t carry overt hat much after they’re hired, but it definitely makes a difference at the job-candidate level, for reasons that I think are good and valid.

Comments

  1. #1 Alex
    June 29, 2011

    Fair point about not wanting somebody who is settling, but let me ask another question: What if the applicant has an excellent written package indicating a strong interest in undergraduate teaching (backed by documented teaching experience) and a research plan that is feasible in a small college, but the rumor mill indicates that this person also applied at research universities? Would you fear that your school is something that the applicant would “settle” for, and therefore not extend him/her an offer?

    My take is that a smart, versatile person should feel free to apply for multiple types of jobs and see how things shake out before making a decision with potentially life-long consequences. So I wouldn’t hold it against the applicant. However, I get the impression that some people would, and not just at liberal arts colleges, but also undergraduate-oriented state schools like mine.

    In fact, just yesterday, a colleague and I were having a lunch conversation on the topic of “What area we’d like to hire in some day” and I opined that I’d like to get a theorist who does very deep and abstract things (as opposed to my more concrete and applied work in theory) and is also a good teacher. My colleague shot back with “Oh, but if they’re too good at research they’ll leave!” I think that mindset, that if you hire a really good person they’ll leave, is 100% the wrong way to hire.

  2. #2 Grant Goodyear
    June 29, 2011

    So that’s why people with a small-college background have an advantage when I’m reviewing job applications.

    I understand the rationale. I would expect that such an advantage, although small, would almost always ensure that your favored candidate would come from a SLAC background, given the enormous number of otherwise qualified candidates who apply for each position. Have you found that to be the case, or is it still the fact that even with hundreds of applicants per position, there’s still one candidate who is significantly more impressive than the others, in which case that sort of small advantage wouldn’t be a determining factor?

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    June 29, 2011

    Fair point about not wanting somebody who is settling, but let me ask another question: What if the applicant has an excellent written package indicating a strong interest in undergraduate teaching (backed by documented teaching experience) and a research plan that is feasible in a small college, but the rumor mill indicates that this person also applied at research universities? Would you fear that your school is something that the applicant would “settle” for, and therefore not extend him/her an offer?

    I don’t pay that much attention to rumor mills, so it likely wouldn’t come up. As long as they have good statements and reasonable plans, though, I wouldn’t hold it against them.

    My colleague shot back with “Oh, but if they’re too good at research they’ll leave!” I think that mindset, that if you hire a really good person they’ll leave, is 100% the wrong way to hire.

    Absolutely. I’m always a little baffled by that kind of self-defeating mindset. If this is such a bad job, why are you still here?

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    June 29, 2011

    I would expect that such an advantage, although small, would almost always ensure that your favored candidate would come from a SLAC background, given the enormous number of otherwise qualified candidates who apply for each position. Have you found that to be the case, or is it still the fact that even with hundreds of applicants per position, there’s still one candidate who is significantly more impressive than the others, in which case that sort of small advantage wouldn’t be a determining factor?

    I’ve done my best to block most of our recent searches from my memory, so I don’t recall the exact backgrounds of our shortlist candidates the last time we did a search. I don’t think they’ve been dominated by people with small college backgrounds, though.

    Which, if you think about it, makes sense, since small colleges are, by definition, small. There are many more candidates from larger universities in the pool for the simple reason that there are many more graduates from larger universities.

    I should also note that a small college background gives a candidate a boost only at the on-paper stage of things. It might make the difference between making the short list or not, but in the end, the primary determining factor in who gets an offer is always the campus visit. The most important thing, in the end, is how they come off in person.

  5. #5 Ian
    July 14, 2011

    Absolutely. I’m always a little baffled by that kind of self-defeating mindset. If this is such a bad job, why are you still here?

    Say someone is clearly good at or has a history of pursuing one aspect of their career. You see this, and it appeals to you, like “hey, it’d be nice to have someone around who is good at research,” even though that will not be the central focus of their job…then yeah, they’re going to leave.

    If instead you will give them the opportunities to pursue their interests, even if they’d have greater opportunities elsewhere, then maybe they won’t…a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush, and a smaller organization potentially offering more freedom and having fewer toes on which to step.

    A self-defeating attitude might just reflect realism about how an employee is going to be employed within the organization. Yeah, the corkscrew and the fish scaler might look cool on that swiss army knife, but if all you ever really intend to use is the knife, tweezers, and scissors, you should disregard any extra toys when selecting one.

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