A longtime reader recently asked an excellent, interesting, and perplexing question:
Why do some faculty searches fail?
A failed search is one in which candidates were interviewed but no one was hired.
Given the large pool of highly qualified applicants for every faculty position, you'd think that searches would never fail. It should always be possible to hire someone good; and not only that, but someone who wants and needs the job. Yet searches do fail, and, although certainly less common than successful searches, failed searches are not so rare.
Economic issues may be involved, but these are typically resolved at an earlier phase of a search. For example, an anticipated search might be canceled after the application stage but before the interview stage, owing to budgetary issues. In some cases, however, a search might be canceled after the interviews. In my academic youth, this happened to me with one position for which I interviewed. After the interview, I got a call saying that the position was "on hold" owing to budgetary issues.
So, economics can play a role, perhaps even more so today, but I'd be surprised if most failed searches are owing to lean budgets. I would expect economic concerns to squelch a search before candidates are brought to campus to interview. Every failed search with which I have been directly involved as a faculty member has failed owing to non-economic reasons.
What are some of these reasons? Here are a few, and I hope readers will add to this list from their own experiences:
1 - All the candidates looked great on paper, but in person, they were all jerks and/or lacking in creativity, communication skills, and/or ideas for future research. Being a jerk has not traditionally disqualified some faculty from being hired, but encountering a series of unpleasant and uninspiring interviewees definitely decreases a department's enthusiasm for hiring any one of them, especially if they all turn out to have no ideas beyond their awesome doctoral research (e.g., interviewees who say: "I plan to keep on getting more data just like these and see what falls out.").
It's unusual for every candidate interviewed to be deemed unacceptable to hire, but it happens.
As I've described in the FSP blog, I have been surprised over the years by the degree to which some interviewees are willing to be rude, patronizing, and disingenuous to faculty, students, and staff. One minor example from the FSP archives: A candidate for a faculty position, during a meeting between the candidate and the faculty (and only faculty), singled me out to wish me luck with finishing my thesis. That's nice, but, as a tenured professor, I didn't appreciate his kind wishes. This incident was one of several ways in which this candidate demonstrated that he was "out of touch" and unlikely to be a dynamic or desirable colleague. Also, his interview talks were boring.
That search failed, but only temporarily. The search was redone the following year, with great success. This is typical of many failed searches -- the position is filled during a do-over search process.
2 - The top choices accepted other offers, and none of the remaining candidates were deemed hireable. This situation arises if:
(a) The top candidate or candidates have what they consider a better offer or offers, owing to considerations of salary, start-up, geographic preferences etc.; or
(b) The timing of offers is uncoordinated, such that the top candidates have to make decisions about other offers before the university in question is able to put together an offer.
I've also heard of candidates turning down offers because they knew they weren't the #1 choice. I personally think that is a mistake, as there is commonly no real difference among the top candidates, and the ranking of #1 vs. #2 or #4 may come down to details about research specialty. If you take the job, being #2 or #4 in the search doesn't mean your colleagues will forever think of you as second- or fourth-rate, especially since they probably never thought that about you to begin with (although there are exceptions).
Most of the failed searches with which I have been involved had elements of explanations #1 and/or #2, but there are other possibilities:
3 - The department was impressed with all or most of the interviewees, but the Dean would only allow offers to be made (successively) to the top n candidates, with n < number of interviewees the department considered hireable. This happens, although I suspect it is more rare than the other explanations (correct me if I am wrong). Most academics -- including Deans -- know that every single interviewee might be an excellent hire, and, as noted above, ranking them is only done because it has to be done. The one who ended up ranked 4th or 7th or whatever might be a great hire, so why not keep making offers until one is accepted? If the search is terminated after the first or second offer is turned down, it's possible that there are reasons not known to the faculty, but it could mean that an administrator is being short-sighted and focusing only on the ranking (i.e., giving the ranking more significance than it warrants).
A failed search is a tragic thing for all concerned, and represents a lot of time and money. If a department is lucky, it gets to re-do a failed search, perhaps with success the next time because the applicant pool is different, the search is taken in a new direction, or a different search committee is formed to make initial decisions about interviewees.
Some universities have the luxury of being in continuous search mode, rather than conducting episodic searches when a position is open and the powers-that-be permit the search. A few times, I have been invited to give a talk at another university, only to realize during my visit that the department was in crypto-recruiting mode and had brought me in to ask me if I'd consider moving from my current university. In that mode, searches never really "fail", they just keep going until the department finds a good match. That works for some searches, but of course it limits the searches to people who are already known to the faculty, and may not give the searching department a very broad view of the possibilities. I think an open search is better for getting a large and diverse applicant pool, even if this type of search could ultimately fail.
So, faculty readers, have you been involved in a failed search? Why did the search fail? Was it re-done at a later date? With your responses, perhaps we can compile A Semi-Comprehensive Guide to Failed Searches.