Recruiting Faculty

HIRING FOR EXCELLENCE

KU Faculty Recruiting

| 2015 Q4 | story by LIZ WESLANDER | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |



Recruiting faculty to the University of Kansas is a complicated dance that involves a number of steps: finding highly qualified candidates who reflect the diverse society in which we live, ensuring that those hires have the opportunity to take their work to the highest level and, last, but certainly not least, helping the hires feel connected to and valued by both the university and Lawrence community.

Hiring for Excellence

During the last five years, faculty search committees at KU have shifted their strategies for finding and hiring qualified candidates by using an approach brought to the university by outgoing provost Jeff Vitter. The approach, called Hiring for Excellence, asks faculty search committees to narrow the pool of applicants for a specific position in a slower and more deliberate fashion than they have in the past.

“The traditional way we used to do our hiring was to get those CVs [curricula vitae] and letters of reference, pick three people and then bring them to campus,” says Mary Lee Hummert, vice provost for faculty development at KU. “But sometimes, by the time you would pick up an applicant at KCI and drive them to campus, you would already know that you had probably made a mistake. By focusing in too quickly on the top two or three individuals, you can miss individuals who would be better hires.”

Under Hiring for Excellence, search committees do an initial ranking of the applicants for a position and then interview the top nine via telephone. Hummert says the phone interviews allow search committees to get a better feel for personal skills and qualities that are not easily communicated on a résumé. The phone interviews include a specific set of questions that are designed to assess things such as an applicant’s modes of interacting, his or her approach to decision-making and his or her motivation to achieve.

“Those interviews will focus on characteristics that we are looking for over and above the job qualifications,” Hummert says. “This helps us to really pick the best qualified individuals to bring to campus and hire the individuals who are most likely to be successful at KU.”

She explains that because the Hiring for Excellence approach is time-consuming, it did meet some initial resistance from faculty search committees. However, the approach encourages conversations among search committee members early on in the hiring process, which allows them to thoroughly consider the sort of person for which they are looking, which ultimately makes outcome of the search more successful. These positive outcomes have won over most people, Hummert says.

One notable positive outcome of Hiring for Excellence has been an increase in the diversity of applicants and hires at the university. Hummert says numerous studies show that when hiring, people tend to gravitate toward those who are similar to themselves in background, ethnicity and gender. Because Hiring for Excellence encourages search committees to look beyond a limited set of qualifications and to consider the background of individuals more broadly, it lends itself to more diverse outcomes.

“We find that when we look at the initial rankings of the applicants and then where people rank after the phone interviews, that this intermediate interview process has indeed made it more likely that individuals from underrepresented groups and women are brought to campus and are hired,” Hummert says.

In order to further foster diversity in faculty recruitment, Vice Provost for Diversity and Equity Nathan Thomas has partnered with the Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access to provide workshops with search committees on the subject of unconscious bias. The workshops focus on interactive exercises that help people discover personal biases they may not realize they are carrying.

“We talk about bias and what that means in relationship to the hiring process,” Thomas says. “We all come in with biases from the type of schools we attended and from the type of networks that we have, so we are providing an introduction to make people aware of their unconscious biases in a safe environment. The exercises we do make for good discussions about the hiring process, and I think that’s what you want to have.”

Fostering Innovation and Collaboration

A fair and effective hiring system is an important piece of recruitment, but so is having a campus and a community that is attractive to prospective hires and their families.

Julie Nagel, interim president of KU Innovation and Collaboration (KUIC) says creating an environment where faculty members can take their research to the next level by patenting technology—so-called “technology transfer” —is a key piece to recruiting high-quality faculty.

“A lot of faculty that we are trying to recruit, particularly in science and engineering, already play in the space of patenting their technology,” Nagel explains. “When they look at KU, they want to understand how they can continue those activities and what programs are in place to help them get their research into the marketplace.”

Driving entrepreneurship and commercialization of faculty technology is the mission of KUIC, which is a 501(c)(3) entity with a fifteen-member board chaired by the provost and executive chancellor of the University of Kansas. The KUIC has a staff of 14 that assists faculty with all aspects of technology transfer, including licensing and corporate partnerships. KUIC is housed in KU’s 30,000-square-foot Bioscience & Technology Center (BTBC), on West Campus.


Nagel says that while most universities these days have some sort of program that addresses technology transfer, KU’s commitment to outcomes, its interest in economic engagement in the region and the large amount of physical space dedicated to entrepreneurial endeavors make the university both comprehensive and competitive.

“We are thinking about how KU innovation may change the world, and we put together programs and a philosophy to drive that,” Nagel explains. “There are real things going on at KU that change people’s lives and save people’s lives. There are professors who have spent their careers working in their labs on discoveries, and they want the chance to change people’s lives with those discoveries. We give them a conduit to do that.”

While an inspiring professional atmosphere helps attract faculty, Thomas says an environment that makes people feel valued and connected on a more personal level is huge part of keeping faculty at the university.

“It’s one thing to hire faculty; it’s another thing to retain them,” Thomas says. “Retention becomes a very important ingredient in recruitment, because if we don’t do a good job retaining, then the word gets out, and people will question why they should come to KU.”

With its low cost of living, good public schools and liberal mentality, Lawrence is an easy fit for many faculty recruits and their families. However, its Midwest location and small size is a challenge for some because the community lacks the diversity of larger cities and other regions. This lack of diversity can make it difficult for faculty from underrepresented minorities to connect with the community.

“There are spaces where we are just not that diverse,” Thomas says. “There are things that Lawrence is trying to do better, but it also has some challenges as it relates to diversity and equity.”

The university has five faculty and staff councils: the Black Faculty Staff Council, the Latino Faculty Staff Council, the Asian American Faculty Staff Council, the Native Faculty Staff Council and Sexuality and Gender Diversity Consortium, all of which Thomas says help support minority faculty because they become smaller communities within the university where people can connect.

In order to develop an effective plan for fostering a more supportive working and learning environment at the university, KU recently established a Campus Climate Study Task Force that, under the leadership of the KU Office of Diversity and Equity, will conduct a comprehensive multiphase Campus Climate Study. The end product of the study will be objectives and action steps that will become part of KU’s overall strategic plan.

“What’s nice about this is that, usually, strategic plans for diversity are separate from a university’s larger strategic plan,” Thomas says. “But we plan to integrate diversity into the fabric and operations of the organization as it relates to the overall strategic plan for the university, which means that diversity becomes highly woven into the fabric of the entire university.”

In spite of the multifaceted efforts that KU employs to recruit and retain highly qualified and diverse faculty, there is just no silver bullet for infallible faculty recruitment.

“Keeping a person may not have anything to do with the university,” Thomas says. “A person may love their job, but when they’re not working, how are they doing then? Is their significant other having challenges? You have to think about it holistically. It all comes down to finding the right match.”

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