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I recently interviewed for a TT position and had a mostly positive campus experience. At the end of my interview, when it was my turn to pose questions to the hiring committee, I asked what they enjoyed most about being part of this department / faculty / university. One began to list positive traits and then said “unlike university of X where I used to work” and began to speak negatively of said university - a second panel member then also began to make snide comments about this institution that they had also previously worked at. I found this highly unprofessional and it gave me a negative impression of them. Am I overthinking this? Is this normal behaviour?

I am due to receive feedback soon on my interview (unsuccessful) and I feel deep down that I should bring this up if asked to provide feedback myself. I also don’t want to burn any bridges. Really frustrating.

*Edited for further context: I already had an offer for another role when interviewing for this role.

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    What if they are simply honest? Oct 6, 2023 at 4:03

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You might ask yourself what you would do about this situation if you had gotten an offer. If the answer would be different from mentioning your concern to the department, then you're probably not motivated to do it because you want to help the department.

You had a days long interview process, and a few minutes of it were less than ideal. I recommend just moving past it, as saying something might seem sour-grapish.

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    Thanks for your comment! It actually really put me off working there (alongside one or two other red flags throughout the day). Declining an offer was on the cards. Oct 8, 2023 at 7:21
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Sometimes you only recognize how good a place is if you compare it with your experience at your previous place. One of the things I really enjoy about my current department is how we're one big family, everyone goes to lunch together, and we get along. That wasn't the case at my previous institution, and I only recognize how good I have it because I've been elsewhere.

When asked what I like about my current department, I think it is legitimate to make the point that this is exceptional by pointing out the comparison.

(It is worth saying: I'm incredibly grateful for the 11 years I've spent at my previous institution. I had some fantastic colleagues there, from whom I learned much about being a professor. But the place also had its problems -- just as my current place does, they're just different ones.)

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    You can do all of this without naming the specific institution X where this happened, which indeed has a taste of unprofessionalism to it. Oct 7, 2023 at 8:28
  • @lighthousekeeper Yes, that's entire true. Fair point. Oct 8, 2023 at 0:04
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Yes, that is unprofessional. However, people make mistakes, including unprofessional mistakes, and this does not seem like an unusual or remarkable one to me.

I should bring this up if asked to provide feedback myself.

I would be surprised if you got a genuine request for feedback. If you do, I suggest only giving positive feedback. In cultures that I am familiar with, constructive feedback, in either direction, simply is not part of the hiring process.

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The short answer: I would withhold my judgement. Let me explain.

Imagine that you are walking across the campus and casually meet somebody from your department whom you barely know. You greet them "How are you?" but instead of the expected "How are you?" or "Great!" you hear something along the lines of "You know, today was the worst day of my life." Do you think they are unprofessional or, for some reason, they simply gave you an honest answer because your question "had struck a nerve"?

Now, to your experience during the job interview: Maybe, just maybe, you should consider the possibility that two of the hiring committee members happen to be people who speak their mind. Maybe instead of the expected platitudes, you got an honest answer (because, again, your question had struck a nerve). Chances are not high, but having such people at the department actually can be quite valuable (but it can be also detrimental!). Given lack of information, if I were in your place, I would not bring up the issue. If the department happens to have some honest people on the hiring committee, this is not something to criticize. If the department happens to have some committee members who do not know how to talk to job candidates, this is not your job to fix their problem (your focus is to get hired somewhere).

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Some academics may be bright minds but not socially aware. Maybe the person wanted to convince you how nice the place is by comparing it with another. If so, they failed, but it may have just have been a clumsy recruiting tactics.

I must confess, in our modern streamlined, professional academic environment, I sometimes miss the quirky, unpredictable, slightly chaotic and unregulated of past academic times.

In isolation, I would consider this just a quirk, it might become a red flag once more strange occurrences accumulate.

That being said, I do not think this panel member's comment is a particularly diplomatic thing to say, but it would not on its own exclude the place as a place to go. As others have said, it may also be the welcome sound of honesty.

As for feedback: you are not the colleague, friend or a family member of that panel member. They are far more appropriate to correct that panel member in a quiet moment, away from other people, certainly not officially and publicly. Should you feedback on this comment, you would effectively respond to the panel member's faux pas with a faux pas of your own. Not a move to be recommended.

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  • I would not judge someone's social skills based on limited data. Oct 7, 2023 at 1:28
  • @AnonymousPhysicist I don't. It's just a possible scenario. Note that I also take into account the possibility of honesty. Of course, maybe the person is just a nasty person speaking ill of whatever their latest place was, but before I make such a loaded assumption, there definitively needs to be more evidence. OP seems to already have strong opinions, I basically wanted to put things in a less charged context for them to make a more measured call. Oct 7, 2023 at 1:32
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Yeah you're overthinking. It's unprofessional and they're also insecure, for some reason. Move on.

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Yes, that's quite unprofessional to slander other institutions in a formal interview. On the other hand, I don't see this as an ethical problem. Academics are free to express professional opinions against other institutions, even in awkward situations. I believe the problem is not "unprofessionalism" per se, but the fact they do not even respect candidates to preserve some serious face.

In conclusion, it's a personal call: if you want to risk your name and connections, and air out your frustration at their lack of respect to you that's a decision you should make.

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    It's only slander if it is not true. Oct 7, 2023 at 1:26
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    @AnonymousPhysicist There is a gray area. It might be a kind of opinion. Here, it would make a great difference if it is, say, the US vs. the UK. Oct 7, 2023 at 19:50
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Professionalism in academia is an interesting thing. You will find plenty of people who will argue that "professionalism" as usually expected in other fields is harmful to academia, and that in academia people bring their whole selves to the job (if they think of it as a job, rather than a community/family etc), rather than hiding oneself behind a mask of socially constructed acceptable "professional behavior".

You will find other you passionately diagree with this. They argue that there are certain standards of conduct that everyone must adhere to, and that this helps to make the workplace predictable, fair, functioning place. That at work we seperate ourselves into a work-self and present a professional face to the world. Everyone adhering to pre-agreed codes of behavoir protects the less powerful, and makes everything function as a well oiled machine, and presents a good face to the world.

You'll find that departments tend to err more on one or other of these sides - the bunch of scruffily excitable amateurs working together towards some ill defined, but shared goal, vs the well-oiled, efficient, well-managed, professional machine.

It may be that you've found a department that doesn't fit with your preffered idea of how things are best done.

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