Cluster Hires and Meaningful Buys

After several years of tough state budgets, the University is hiring faculty again. If you come to our Hall of Fame on February 26th, you will learn why I think this is such a big deal. But this post focuses on how we are making those hires and how faculty wanting my support for a cluster hire proposal can strengthen their case.

What is a cluster hire you ask? Well at one level, universities like UCF have always hired with respect to clusters. We call these clusters departments: They are organized around a field of study that has developed a distinct way of looking at the world (e.g., economics, psychology, sociology) or a particular process or set of activities (e.g., chemistry, criminal justice, finance, or marketing). But clusters in university-speak have come to mean organizing around a particular problem (e.g., cancer, clean water, cyber security, poverty) or opportunity (nano-technology, entrepreneurship) rather than as traditional departments do. Topics like poverty or entrepreneurship, so the argument goes, don’t always fit into neat departmental boundaries and that progress is best served by bringing together multi-disciplinary teams to work on them.

Universities don’t administrate their way to research greatness, so a cluster approach best starts with proposals from faculty looking to do something great. They are, after all, the ones who do the research. The problem is most faculty are not accustom to doing research as part of a large multi-disciplinary team. Professors are fiercely independent people accustom to working alone or with a like-minded colleague or two. Ask them what they need to extend their research, they typically ask for more money first and a buddy who thinks just like them second. If they are told new colleagues should be part of a cluster, they round up some acquaintances in other departments and propose clusters with a vengeance that ask for funds to hire more people who think like them. In these proposals each participating department gets a new buddy.

In the sweepstakes for new resources, nobody likes to be left behind. Suffice it to say that I am buried in clusters. I am only a cog in this process. The big decisions will be made at higher levels and they have their own guidelines for proposals. But, I can’t support all of the ones I am seeing, so I’ve developed three questions to ask colleagues soliciting my support:

1. What are the expected short to midterm outcomes that I can expect from this effort? Is it increased research funding of an expected amount? Improvements in publication rankings in an important area? The development of a novel graduate program? The solving of a specific problem in five years? In short, what tangible outcomes should I expect?

2. What will these new hires allow us to do that we cannot achieve with the resources we already have in place? I have seen proposals that identify as many as twenty people on campus with an interest in a particular cluster. My first reaction to that proposal was: Wow, why can’t we get this done with the resources we have? What’s missing from this group? Seems unlikely that it is more of the same people that we already have. So tell me exactly how these new people are going to contribute to the effort. If all they do is contribute to disciplinary strength, I don’t need a cluster hire. If they are radical departures from the people we have, how do they fit in to both the cluster and their proposed home.

3. How is this a meaningful buy? This is an issue of the magnitude of the ask relative to the size of the task. For example, if you asked me for $1 million in hires across departments in an effort to raise our MBA program into the top 50 among US schools, I would reject your request. That in my mind is a five to ten million dollar challenge. One million wouldn’t put much of a dent in that goal. It wouldn’t meaningfully help in the fight to cure all cancers either. I would be better putting that one million elsewhere. So, give me some hard reasons why we can get this done.

Hope this framework helps. I wish you all happy and productive clustering.

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