A New Way to Hire Great Faculty

The University of Austin means to revitalize liberal education.

We learned about the complexities and mysteries of artificial intelligence, the uses of innovative statistical analyses that could improve policing, and the Confucian roots of Xi’s totalitarianism. We discussed the early modern origins of ideological movements, Milton’s translation of Homeric epic into a Christian drama of rebellion and salvation, and Moby Dick’s critical analysis of corporatism. We explored the religious roots of modern politics and the influence of Hebraic constitutionalism on the Founding Fathers. We reflected on Shakespeare’s dialectical examination of politics in his Roman dramas.

This was no academic conference. It was a job interview.

When you are an upstart university building a faculty from scratch, you have the privilege to get creative.Faculty searches often take months to fill even one position. They are specialized and sequestered by department. But when you are an upstart university tasked with building a faculty from scratch in a matter of months, you have the privilege to get creative.

The University of Austin (UATX) had two dozen employees when the state of Texas authorized us to operate as a university in November 2023. By the time our inaugural class of 100 students matriculates in September we will have effectively doubled in size. The lessons we learned along the way will benefit any institution of higher learning.

We had five months to fill roughly 18 positions across the humanities and the hard and social sciences. By the end of January, we’d reviewed more than 900 applications and settled on 36 finalists. Universities typically bring leading candidates to campus one at a time, but individually hosting three dozen of them was logistically impossible, not to mention very expensive. What to do?

Many useful inventions are born of necessity and fathered by good luck. We decided to bring six candidates to campus at a time for two days, selecting each cohort so that they would not be competing for the same faculty positions. In structuring the interviews, we considered our need for literate scientists and numerate poets—faculty who employ multiple languages of understanding in the hope of becoming capable, as John Henry Newman writes, of forming “an instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us.”

We reflected on the qualities we require of our professors: outstanding teaching, ample pedagogical and mentoring energy, minds that delight in learning, and mission fit.

The solution revealed itself in two hours of conversation between the deans. We would ask candidates to explain their research or creative agendas in ways intelligible to educated amateurs, illustrate the advantages of their methods with reference to a concrete example, and state their scholarly plans for the next five years. We’d start with an early breakfast, followed by discussion with the university’s president, provost, chief of staff, head of admissions, and deans. Then three different candidates—A, B, and C—would make brief presentations, while candidates D, E, and F would ask the first questions of each speaker. In the afternoon, the groups would switch roles.

UATX’s hiring process reinforced our dedication to the pursuit of truth and the essential mission of higher education.Job interviews are nerve-racking enough, particularly in the toad-eat-dog world of academia. We created a process familiar to any academic, but one that reminds them of their earliest and most earnest days in academia—a time when idealistic intellectualism, rather than practical careerism, was their only concern.

The process reinforced our dedication to the pursuit of truth and the essential mission of higher education—to preserve, extend, and transmit knowledge. It allowed candidates to display their capabilities as teachers and students and gave them a sense of the sort of people they would be working with to build our curriculum and shape the habits and traditions of our intellectual community. It allowed us to judge their fitness as colleagues and to convey our vision and culture in action.

Best of all, the candidates loved it.

They told us that the day of presentations was an intellectual feast, a mini-conference on an array of fascinating topics. They enjoyed the opportunity to encounter diverse perspectives and approaches, to associate with people who are not all of the same mind, and to compare notes with others about their impressions of the university. They left feeling excited about the opportunity of joining our team.

No less important, the process allowed us to envision the faculty as a whole and to think about how we might combine the individual strengths of our professors into a robust academic community.

Our strategy proved to be enormously successful: We hired 100 percent of the candidates to whom we extended offers. We are especially pleased to have recruited public intellectuals—faculty who are able and willing to make their knowledge accessible to educated amateurs.

UATX students will learn the craft of writing with an award-winning novelist. They will read classic works of political philosophy with one of the hosts of The New Thinkery, a highly successful weekly podcast. They will explore the origins of modernity with the managing editor of the Genealogies of Modernity Project, which hosts a journal as well as a podcast. They will study with the former chief economist for the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, a scholar who has appeared on programs such as Fox News, BBC World News, and National Public Radio. And they will be introduced to techniques of quantitative reasoning by a scientist who has analyzed genomic changes in astronauts from the SpaceX Inspiration4 mission, and who is currently working on data analysis and sample collection for the Axiom-2 and Polaris Dawn missions.

Why is it that veterans of some of academia’s most prestigious institutions found UATX’s approach so novel?Academic departments at existing universities could easily adopt our efficient and cost-effective methods by coordinating their searches so that multiple finalists across disciplines could be interviewed at the same time. “Cluster hires” have recently been used to advance DEI priorities, and there is much talk today of “breaking down academic silos.” Why not apply these ideas to the revitalization of liberal education—a task that is urgently needed today and for which there is strong demand among the many families and students who value learning more than just earning a credential?

There is a reason why professors feel most alive at academic conferences where ideas thrive for their own sake. The best of them did not pursue their vocation to play faculty-lounge games but to pursue truth. That may strike the reader as obvious, but that only raises the urgent question: Why is it that candidates, veterans of some of academia’s most prestigious institutions, found the University of Austin’s approach so novel?

We are convinced the future of higher education rests on recapturing the idealism of our faculty’s earliest days in academia—and hopeful that we will soon have competition. Meanwhile, our students will experience the joys of intellectual community, studying “the best that has been thought and said” in discussion- and writing-intensive seminars led by outstanding teachers. Unburdened by the demands of political conformity, they will be free to learn—to make mistakes and be graciously and gently corrected, not judged and condemned. Nourished by the life-giving past and guided by the best knowledge of the present, they will come to face the future with vitality and confidence.

Jacob Howland is provost and dean of the Intellectual Foundations program at the University of Austin.