Equitizing Merit and Fit: Establishing a Baseline Understanding

MiraCosta College

The October 2019 Rostrum contained two articles that called colleges to action on equitizing the hiring process. The article “Convergence of Diversity and Equity: Guiding Framework for the Hiring Process” outlines the equity-minded competencies of institutional agents necessary to meet the goals of faculty diversification. The second article, “Measuring the Second Minimum Qualification: Considerations for Exceeding Mere Compliance,” re-establishes and emphasizes the statutory and regulatory requirements of responsiveness to students’ diversity against which colleges need to evaluate applicants. This article attempts to provide guidance on how to begin equitizing the hiring process.

Typically, the program review process is where discipline faculty initially conceptualize a need to hire a new faculty member. The next step is for discipline faculty to make a case for their proposed hire through a faculty hiring prioritization process. Local academic senates should ensure that equity-focused measures, questions, and rubrics are used as part of the prioritization process to make clear and explicit linkages between data, disciplinary need, and institutional values, mission, and goals. Once a new hire is approved, a job description must be published. Whether the job description is created prior to the prioritization process or afterward, this document informs all other aspects of the hiring process, especially the evaluation criteria.

The ultimate question for any search process is who will be hired. The answer depends on who is being sought, and the job description is the one and only source for that answer. In the recently published ASCCC paper A Re-examination of Faculty Hiring Processes and Procedures, one of the first things a committee is encouraged to do is to determine hiring objectives. Ideally, all the stakeholders—including the discipline faculty who completed program review and established a need to hire a new faculty member, the appropriate first-line administrator, and any other additional search committee members—would come together to discuss the hiring objectives and create the job description. Typically, the determination of hiring objectives and creation of the job announcement is done by a limited few people, such as a department chair and first-line administrator. Often, search committee members are not provided the opportunity to give input (Lara, 2019). This discussion should be rich and include diverse perspectives to inform the development of essential representative duties and of desirable and preferable qualifications linked to the actual need. In many cases, job descriptions from previous hires in the same discipline are copied verbatim for the new hire. While this practice may save time, it is not in alignment with an equity framework.

In an equity framework, the most important aspect of developing the job description is the actual dialogue and agency among the members of the search committee. Through this process of discussion and reflection, members of the search committee begin to formalize their notions of merit and fit and map them onto the job description. In the case where the majority of committee members have not been consulted in the development of the job description, the search committee’s first task should be to discuss notions of merit and fit in relation to the job description. These discussions will help to normalize the expectations among committee members, including establishing evaluation criteria, interview questions, writing prompts, and teaching demonstrations. Traditionally, merit refers to the characteristics that an individual will possess in order to be the most qualified candidate for the position. Often a preference exists for certain characteristics like the prestige of the candidate’s education such as Stanford vs. University of Phoenix, higher degrees such as Ph.D. vs. M.A., connections at the college that make a candidate a known entity vs. unknown, and experience such as prior teaching work at a community college. Such preferences contribute to limiting hiring pools and normalizing bias in deliberation processes (Center for Urban Education 2017).

Traditionally, fit describes the committee members’ expectations of the ideal candidate’s ability to conform to their existing perspectives or discipline community. Often, unchecked bias will lead committees to select candidates that reflect the existing interests and backgrounds of the committee members. This situation is particularly problematic if the search committee is homogenous with mostly white members (Lara, 2019). Also, under these circumstances committee members are judging whether the candidate will fit into the culture of the department or institution and not cause problems within the already established cultural norms.

The traditional concepts of both merit and fit actively work against the goal of faculty diversification. Instead, updating notions of merit and fit through an equity framework can allow search committees to expand their pools and enrich the search process. An equitized discussion of merit and fit connects the equity-minded competencies with the skills and abilities listed in the job announcement. For instance, conversations about whether a doctorate is necessary or not turn into discussions about the knowledge, skills, and abilities listed in the job description as they may link to experience teaching diverse student populations, expertise in culturally relevant pedagogy, and furthering the campus’ equity efforts.

In an equity framework, the focus is more about what the candidate can do for the student rather than what the candidate is contributing to the department. As equity-minded competencies are applied, a discussion about merit and fit becomes a discussion about how to assess the candidate’s cultural competency, engagement in self-reflection, focus on self-responsibility, use of position and knowledge to support student success, and beliefs about student capacity and knowledge (Center for Urban Education 2017). Within the context of each position, each search committee will need to determine the exact evaluation criteria for each of these matters.

Search committees establish interview questions, writing prompts, tests, teaching demonstrations, and other methods to measure candidates against the evaluation criteria. The conversation regarding merit and fit also benefits the creation of these other items. For instance, when developing interview questions that are linked to the job description, a best practice is to discuss the expected answers and determine what is exceptional, satisfactory, and poor for each question. While not all answers can be anticipated and the committee should keep an open mind, this practice allows for explicit acknowledgement and connection between the questions and the job announcement. Additionally, committee members are able to check their biases and consciously reframe the conversation through an equity framework up front. Finally, when all candidates have been interviewed and deliberations begin, the ensuing conversations will be enriched because of the foundational work in establishing an understanding of merit and fit within that search process.

Undoubtedly, conversations will be frustrating at first, because a more equity-based process takes time. The first commitment a search committee needs to make is to establish meeting times. Multiple meetings should be built into the schedule up front to engage in these important conversations. The key to making change is to be persistent and patient. Faculty leaders need to be clear that these conversations require time and adapting processes in this manner will fundamentally change the way things are done. Time is often the greatest challenge, but establishing a more equitized hiring process that will better serve both colleges and students is worth it.


Center for Urban Education. (2017). Equity in Faculty Hiring Institute: Faculty Hiring Toolkit. USC Rossier School of Education. Lara, L. J. (2019). Faculty of color unmask color-blind ideology in the community college faculty search process. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 43(10-11), 702-717. https://doi.org/10.1080/10668926.2019.1600608.