The Pros and Cons of Campus Visit Dinners

(Originally published here on Inside Higher Ed.)

The campus visit is an odd portion of the academic job search process. It is arguably the key moment when the power dynamics between hiring committees and candidates begin to shift.

A typical tenure-track search might produce three candidate visits and, due to the limited number of candidates at this stage in the process, departments tend to switch their focus from critiquing candidates toward impressing them. (I don’t mean to say that the search committee isn’t still evaluating candidates — only that it has narrowed its pool of potential hires and, if candidates have multiple options, the committee’s labor could produce a failed search.) For many departments and universities, getting the “top candidate” will become a point of pride.

Thus, the visits often consist of a combination of evaluative moments (interviews, meetings, teaching demonstrations and job talks) paired with expensive dinners and real estate tours. These dinners and tours could be considered job marketing efforts, and, recently, I have become increasingly aware of debates regarding the professionalism of this type of marketing.

The Search Committee’s Perspective

By the time a campus visit is imminent, the search committee has spent a lot of time getting to know the candidate’s profile. I was on a search committee once in graduate school and again this fall, and I admit it is natural to be curious about the person on the other side of the Skype interview. Many of the people we interviewed seem like professionals who are nice people and would be a welcome addition to our workplace; in other words, they would have been good fits. We, as a committee, relished the idea of convincing those individuals that the job ad we posted is desirable, that the place we live is acceptable and that they could be happy if they agreed to come work with us.

In addition, many members of the committee genuinely enjoy one another’s company and are generally outgoing people who would like to get to know job candidates over a meal. And one of my colleagues voiced an opinion that the dinner is essential to the visit because it gives candidates the opportunity to evaluate the department: “I know when I went on my campus visit I was glad there was a dinner, because it gave me a chance to sit back and ask myself if I would want to work with the people interviewing me.” That perspective is valid, but it also doesn’t reflect everyone’s views.

HR’s Perspective

I’ve heard through anecdotal evidence that many HR departments no longer permit dinners during campus visits. (To my knowledge, there isn’t any data about evolving higher education HR policies.) It’s fairly easy to see why HR might not support the campus visit dinner — the presence of wine and the informal setting can produce hiring-practice nightmares. Even if the search committee manages to avoid all of the off-limits questions, the candidate’s “friend potential” is not a legitimate or even legal reason to hire or not hire them. Our HR department is among the growing list of those that no longer allow these kinds of dinners during the hiring process.

During our search, I was the most recent hire on our department’s search committee, and when asked if I wished there had been a dinner, I said, “No, actually. It was nice to relax in a space where I knew I wasn’t being evaluated (i.e., my hotel room) and call my partner to debrief the day.” Unlike the colleague I mentioned above, I am a bit more of an introvert, and the performance of the interview day had been exhausting. I’m not sure I would have made it through a dinner on top of the rest of the day’s packed schedule.

I have also been on the job market the last several years in a row, and I can state with absolute certainty that HR policies get violated during these dinners with alarming regularity. I have been asked my age, my partner’s profession, my political party and a number of other personal questions that have absolutely no relationship to my ability to do a job. I’ve also had people assume I wanted wine with dinner, and fortunately, I did, but I certainly paused to consider how tough that interaction would be for anyone who wasn’t interested in drinking during their job interview weekend.

The Candidate’s Perspective

If I had to guess, I’d say that a candidate’s perceived empowerment and their desire to attend a campus visit dinner are directly correlated. In other words, candidates who: a) already have a job, b) have several visits scheduled, c) are good at the social jujitsu of changing the subject if necessary or d) generally conform to mainstream presentation and values are the ones who are most likely to want a campus visit dinner. My colleague’s comment — “I know when I went on my campus visit I was glad there was a dinner, because it gave me a chance to sit back and ask myself if I would want to work with the people interviewing me” — reflects their attitude that they could turn down this job offer if so inclined. Additionally, to my knowledge, very little of my colleague’s personal information would have been off-putting to the committee; this individual is a great fit for our department and conforms to the above-mentioned mainstream presentation and values.

I, for one, however, have not always felt that way. On several of my campus visits, I was interviewing for the only job opportunity that remained for me. Going into the campus visit dinners, I was quite conscious of the fact that if I didn’t get the job, I might find myself unemployed the following semester. While this certainly isn’t the search committee’s fault (that would be the subject of a much longer essay), it is hard to attend a campus visit, not get the job and then spend all too much time wondering if you lost the position because of something you said over dinner. At least, if there were no dinner, I would have walked away with a made-up story about how, surely, it was my job talk that was lackluster and, thus, I didn’t get the job for professional — not personal — reasons.

As of late I have felt more empowered in my job-search process, and I have internalized that a social dinner has nothing to do with the actual job description. This empowerment has translated into an appreciation for campus visit dinners, where I’m able to more accurately gauge whether or not I want to change institutions. In many ways, I’ve reached a position where I need more convincing that what a potential institution has to offer is ultimately better than what I currently have. However, it’s hard to forget that a social dinner still has nothing to do with the actual job description, and I feel for other candidates who don’t have the luxury of measuring what they have against what they could have.

Conversations on Twitter

I have recently been privy to several Twitter threads on #AcademicTwitter about the merits and shortcomings of campus visit dinners. I’ve also debriefed advisers, colleagues and friends about these dinners, as I’m sure many of us who have partaken in them have. And right now, there is no consensus as to whether or not this practice should continue — or how, if preserved, it could be adjusted to best serve both the university and the candidate.

Seeing as we are in the thick of campus-visit season, I suggest that, regardless of your perspective, you re-examine it. Candidates: if you hear “This isn’t an interview” before the dinner, know that it’s a trap. You can go to dinner and have a great time, but don’t forget you’re still being interviewed. Committee members: don’t say that. Do an internal gut check and level with the fact that you are always evaluating candidates in one way or another. Consider how you’re engaging with the candidate and how even seemingly inoffensive conversation topics might inadvertently put them into in awkward position.

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