In Academia as in Government, Personnel Is Policy

By Anthony Esolen

News is that Providence College, where I taught for 27 years, will be getting a new president in 2020. He won’t have troubles with money or buildings. For re-establishing the Catholic faith as the school’s foundation, and aim, and reason for existence, he will face, outside of the theology department, a nearly universal hostility from a faculty that has grown radically secular. This transformation occurred not, as with most Catholic colleges, in the 1970s and 1980s, but only in the last ten years, and most drastically in the last five.
All of which prompts two questions, relevant for all those who do not wish an originally Catholic school to be a vanilla version of the secular moonscape elsewhere, sprinkled with the occasional crucifix. How do you keep the collapse from happening? How do you climb out of the hole, once it has happened?

I will concentrate on two related measures that have to do with hiring—that is, with making sure that you do hire good people, and that you do not hire bad people.

For about ten years—roughly 1996-2005, if my memory serves—the college labored under a hiring policy that was onerous and expensive, and that hardly anybody among the faculty liked. There was only one good thing to say about it. It worked.


What if…

Suppose your department wanted another professor, and suppose the administration granted you the go-ahead to search. The advertisement for my department, English, had to include a notice that the school was Catholic, and that the professor had to be capable of, and willing to, teach in the college’s signature program, in the Development of Western Civilization. At that time the program covered four semesters, five hours a week, required of all freshmen and sophomores.

Immediately the filter begins to work. People who would break out into anaphylactic shock at the prospect of breathing the same air with faithful Catholics would not bother to apply. People whose kidneys would shut down if they ingested any of the poison of Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, the Scriptures, Virgil, Ovid, Marcus Aurelius, and Augustine—to take a typical sample from the first semester—would also not bother to apply. These were very often the same people.

But we would still have to narrow the candidates down from 100-200 to 10-12, for personal interviews. Here, a second filter began to work. We knew that every candidate who wanted to come to campus had to write a response to the college’s mission statement first. If that was going to prove an exercise in pointlessness, the interviewers would be discouraged from extending the invitation to begin with. These responses were read by the president, the executive vice president, or sometimes the provost, and if they did not measure up, the candidates would sometimes be given a chance to write them over again. Some of those would drop out, right there.

Then came the campus interviews. And here was a third filter, the beauty of which was that it worked from the very beginning. I will take my experience in the English department as an example. We might bring five people to campus; rather a lot, for one job. Of those five, three had to prove to be acceptable by the department. That was never a sure thing. Often a candidate would flame out. Plenty of people are good on paper but are poor in the classroom. Plenty of people seem to have credentials, but when you listen to their scholarly presentations, you see that they don’t know the subject, or don’t think very well. We’d never want to settle for such. So if we could not come up with three who were acceptable, the search would be declared a failure.

Why three? The president wanted the choice. When departments send … Read more>>

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