Cluster hiring may work—when done right

Experts urge faculty buy-in, consultation

Cluster hiring aims to increase diversity, research dollars, and prestige at many universities, but rolling it out requires faculty buy-in and careful planning, Beth McMurtrie reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education

The practice of hiring for interdisciplinary projects has gained traction in the last decade, with Indiana University, University of Illinois, University of Central Florida, and University of Wisconsin all creating such programs.

The collaborative efforts may result in major developments in global issues, but it also adds "layers of red tape and confusion" to the hiring process and may alienate faculty members, McMurtrie writes. The success of these programs is also hard to measure, according to experts. 

Administrators who have tried cluster hiring recommend starting slowly, working from the bottom up, and building on established departmental and interdisciplinary work.

In 2014, the University of California, Riverside (UC-Riverside) anno

unced its plans to begin cluster hiring. Faculty initially bought in, but now say the vague selection process and a lack of guidelines have many questioning the change.

A faculty senate survey conducted at UC-Riverside in December revealed a full 69% of respondents said they do not believe cluster hiring is an appropriate replacement for departmental hiring. Additionally, almost 40% said the two months given to create a cluster-hiring proposal wasn't enough, and nearly 75% said the evaluation process of and guidelines for proposals were unclear.

In light of the survey, UC-Riverside Chancellor Kim Wilcox put the transition on hold. While 139 positions have been approved for this and next year, no more cluster spots will be added until the process is reviewed. 

The faculty senate also issued recommended changes such as more faculty consultation, transparent selection and review processes for cluster hires, a "more measured launch" of initiatives, and additional support for cluster hires.

Vice Chancellor and Provost Paul D'Anieri says he disagrees that the hiring process needs additional transparency and that the process advanced quickly because "we have a pretty urgent need to move forward."

Advice from other administrators

When looking into cluster hiring, schools must understand that the programs will continue to change, says Robert Mark Issac, Florida State University's (FSU) economics department chair.

"The idea that you are going to hire a certain set of people that will create wonderful stability and niceness is upside down," he says. "The more successful the cluster, the more it's necessary to have a long-term strategy for people coming and going."

Strategies for cluster faculty hires

At FSU, the clusters have even helped attract faculty members who aren't officially involved. "It did really make FSU stand out," Issac says.

And clusters work best when starting with strong departments, so don't neglect those, says Jerry Jacobs, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor (McMurtrie, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/13). 

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