Q & A: Dean's List

Writer: 
October 1, 2006
McLendon: master recruiter
McLendon: master recruiter. Les Todd

McLendon: master recruiter. Les Todd

This fall, forty-three new people join a Duke arts-and-sciences faculty increasingly geared toward promoting the university's focus on interdisciplinary scholarship and learning.

On the verge of the new academic year, George L. McLendon, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences and professor of chemistry, took some time to discuss what goes into building and maintaining Duke's faculty.

How are prospective faculty members chosen?

Recruitment at Duke is largely departmentally based. Departments identify the scholars in their field who can create the best learning opportunities for students and advance knowledge in their [own] fields of interest. Sometimes that's going to be a very young person, straight out of graduate school or in the first few years of her career. Sometimes it will be a very senior scholar. That depends on the area, on the individual, and on how the department's already staffed.

How much of the recruiting is targeted to a specific person, and how much are you simply casting a wide net to see who's available?

Increasingly, it's both. Most senior scholars are approached as targets, not unlike if you were looking to hire a CEO of a major corporation. You're unlikely to put an ad in The New York Times—you know, "Help wanted: CEO of Ford Motor Company." You have an idea of who you're looking for in those cases.

At the more junior levels, you'd like to cast your net as broadly as possible. A significant percentage of our searches are done so-called "rank open," which means you're authorized to look at anyone at any range of their career to find who the best fit is. In terms of the budget, we tend to overestimate, because, if we end up with money left over, that's a lot better than the converse.

What do you think about the "star" system of hiring, looking for a big name that will attract others?

I think our best departments tend to have a mix. Star professors and developing professors, people on their way to becoming stars. One thing that's very important in any faculty is to ensure that a significant fraction of your homegrown faculty become stars. And a significant fraction of ours do. The problem is not recruiting them but retaining them at that point.

What do you do to retain someone who is being heavily recruited by other universities?

Basically, it's cheaper to keep somebody than to replace them with somebody of equivalent quality. So the first thing we try to do is make them feel sufficiently loved and rewarded so that they have no desire to look outside to start with. [Still,] many people are approached without placing themselves in the market situation.

Generally speaking, we don't lose people because of simple considerations like salary. It's more common that either this is a better place for them because they have better colleagues or students or better facilities, or the competitor institution has better facilities or better students. When we're losing faculty members, we tend to lose them to places like—well, this year we lost one to Stanford, one to Penn. But in that vein, we got one from Stanford, and we got three from Penn.

Are there any common selling points that you use in discussions with faculty recruits?

With junior-level faculty, we have a very good track record of choosing people who ultimately do receive tenure, much better than Harvard's, for example, where assistant professors historically were treated as disposable. So, given the choice of Duke or similar institutions, many people will choose Duke, thinking it's a place where they can move up.

At the senior level, there tends to be a great deal of self-selection. People who are attracted to the sort of cutting-edge, multidisciplinary work that the Duke faculty does know that they're likely to be intellectually pretty happy here.

How does Duke's interdisciplinary nature benefit faculty members?

It only brings them benefits if that's the way they like to work. Tim Lenoir is the ultimate interdisciplinary faculty member. He's the Kimberly J. Jenkins Chair of new technologies and society, but he doesn't even have a single specific department. He cuts across about five different departments. David Rohde, who came here from Michigan, is a very senior political scientist, drawn here, I think, because he had a set of colleagues with whom he could collaborate on studies of Congress.

For a certain kind of scholar, it's a great place to be working. It's very open, very few boundaries between units and disciplines. Commonly, we're interested in someone who can advance an intellectual agenda that doesn't benefit only himself, but benefits a broader range of colleagues and students. And so it's not uncommon that this kind of scholar will come in and help establish a multi-investigator center. And so we can usually offer him something that he doesn't have [at the same level] at his home institution.

We've had very good luck recruiting people jointly into the School of Medicine and Arts & Sciences. For instance, Warren Warren, from Princeton, in chemistry. Harvard's had a terrible time trying to do that. And at Duke it works very well.

In terms of recruiting battles, how long has Duke stood on even ground with, say, Yale or Penn or Stanford?

That first sense that Duke could do that for itself probably happened with Stanley Fish coming in and building the English department in the mid-'80s. But there has still been some self-censorship [in terms of identifying prospective faculty members] for two reasons. First, not every department felt that they could do something like that. And, second, not every department felt that they wanted to. Some of those people were pretty high maintenance, and didn't necessarily lead to the greatest sense of collegiality.

I think what's newer within the last few years is that there's definitely less self-censorship and more people who believe that, for a certain kind of scholar, Duke is not one of the best places to be. It is the best place to be. And so we have no qualms going to people at Yale or Princeton or Stanford and saying, "Wouldn't you be happier here?" And often they say yes.

Economics has had several recent recruits. Which other departments is Duke looking to build in the near future?

In the near future we're not actually terribly focused on building departments. We're focused on building intellectual areas. As an example, visual studies and new media is a relatively new area. Specialists in that—and that's the sort of thing Tim Lenoir does—are hard to come by. But we hear from our students that these are areas that they're extraordinarily interested in and would like to be able to make an impact in themselves. And so it makes sense for us to find the very best practitioners and the very best interpreters. We're trying to recruit at least three people in that area next year.

That doesn't imply that we won't continue to invest in departments. It just means that when we're looking for added value at the margins, it's more likely to occur in one of those cross-cutting themes.

What has been the biggest challenge for you since coming to Duke, in terms of recruiting?

The most pleasant surprise is that it hasn't been all that challenging; the substantial majority of the people that we wanted to come to Duke have chosen to join us. However, that's not without financial challenges, because when you're recruiting chaired professors away from Yale or Princeton or Stanford, it's not cheap.

But, being one of the top universities in the world, we don't expect it to be cheap. And it's a matter of great good fortune that a number of Duke alumni agree. For example, we have an increasingly wide range of endowed chairs. That's in a place where, for purely historical reasons—meaning our history is just a third that of many of our peer institutions—we don't have as many of these endowed chairs as comparable institutions.

How do you balance the budget with departmental needs?

There was a concerted effort some years ago simply to grow the size of the faculty to ensure that you had the right student-faculty ratio to give students the kind of individual attention that you'd expect at a top university. I don't think that at our current state we need to grow the number of faculty as drastically as we need to continue to develop the distinction of the faculty. But you can't do both things simultaneously; that's unaffordable.

We're trying to bring in a limited number, let's say ten a year, of the most senior scholars, to replace people who are leaving. It's not cost-neutral, because you may be replacing a retiring person with someone more expensive. But, hopefully, you're getting someone who will have more impact on their students as well.