Search for New AAVSO Director Underway!

From: Kevin B. Marvel, AAVSO Director Search Committee Chair and Executive Director, American Astronomical Society

Update on Search: October 2013

AAVSO meetings always invigorate me and the recent gathering was no exception.  Listening to talks, exchanging ideas, tips and tricks and the joy of observing at coffee breaks and meals was enhanced by a great banquet with a first-ever trivia contest.  Sadly, my table didn't even come in the top three, but it was fun to try answering questions drawn from the long history of the AAVSO and its active members.

I presented a short report to the membership about the search for our new director and I wanted to make sure that all members, especially those who could not attend the meeting, are informed about where we stand and what our next steps will be.

At the close of the application period on October 1, we have in hand thirteen (13)* applications from excellent candidates.  Two women and eleven men have applied for this important position and it is the search committee's task to present a ranked short list of finalists to the Council for selection of our next director at its March 2014 meeting.

To accomplish this, the search committee will be holding a teleconference to establish a rubric of skills necessary to fulfill the job description approved by the Council and shared with the applicants in the position announcements. This process, when done properly and utilized properly in the selection process, helps reduce the impact of bias, both conscious and unconscious in the selection process; a critical concern for me personally and for our committee.

After we individually consider the applicants and rate their skills in the pre-determined areas based on their initial application, we will then have another phone conference to discuss the overall rankings and decide how to proceed. It is likely we will down-select at that time to a 'long' list of candidates (which could include all applicants, or a subset), who will then be phone interviewed.  Prior to the phone interview we will review our phone interview process and proper questioning etiquette.  After the phone interviews, we will score the applicant's performance against our skill matrix and go through a down-select process after discussion to a 'short' list of candidates.

We anticipate interviewing the 'short' list candidates at AAVSO HQ in late January or early February 2014, incorporating staff input following meetings between the candidates and the AAVSO staff.  Shortly after these interview dates, we will provide to Council  a report detailing our process and the final rank-ordered list of candidates for their consideration and recruitment efforts.

In the meantime, the Council is establishing internal procedures for the final selection process including voting considerations for ties and so-on.  I am happy they have undertaken this step and they are doing a wonderful job getting prepared for the final steps of the process.

In short, the hard phase, phase two, of the recruitment of our new Director is under way and we all look forward to doing our best on behalf of you the AAVSO members, the AAVSO itself and the broader community it serves.

Original Post: July 2013

AAVSO Director Arne Henden informed the AAVSO Council earlier this year that he intends to retire from service in early 2015.  The AAVSO has greatly benefitted from his dedicated and insightful service and all members should wish him well in his retirement, although it is still more than a year away.  Given his passion for astronomy and variable star observing in particular, we are all sure he will be interacting with us for years to come and I for one will continue using his excellent book on photometry, which I have found invaluable as a radio astronomer (my photons are a lot lower energy than the ones AAVSO observers gather).

President Motta formed a search committee in early spring with the intention of getting a search process started quickly, thus leaving plenty of time to conclude an open and inclusive search for the next AAVSO Director.  Having served as the chair of the last search committee that identified Arne from among a highly qualified pool of candidates, when Mario asked me to serve again, I happily agreed.  We learned some valuable lessons from the last search and we are applying that knowledge to this search.

So who the heck am I?  Well, first and foremost, I am passionate about astronomy in all its forms.  I love science and I love engaged scientific observation and I share this with all AAVSO members.  What we do together is fun, exciting and, most importantly, of great scientific value.  I came to admire and cherish the AAVSO during my dissertation research and my regular interaction with then Director Janet Mattei, who spoke with me last by phone just a few weeks before she passed away.  I became a member, have served on the Council and regularly support the organization in any way I can, both personally and in my role as Executive Officer of the American Astronomical Society, although my duties and responsibilities often keep me from enjoying pure observing as I used to, I stay engaged to the best extent possible.  For example, I managed to squeak in a trip to Hawaii for the Venus transit, which was just spectacular (despite the clouds moving through for the middle two hours of the transit…) and to the annular eclipse last summer in Nevada, where I watched it with two good friends on top of a 9,000 foot peak…talk about a good western horizon!

When Janet passed away, we had to undertake a fairly rapid search, as the AAVSO was not ready for a sudden leadership transition and had no succession plan in place.  Schedules were tight and the entire staff, Council and search committee had to work quickly to make progress.  This is not the case this time around, as Arne has provided plenty of warning of his retirement and Mario took early steps to get a new process initiated.

Since the committee formed, we have had two teleconferences and some interaction by email.  We have agreed upon some basic operating rules for how we will undertake the search, created a job description and duties document for the Director position with full input from the current AAVSO Council and discussed other issues related to the search.  Given the timelines developed, we placed a job ad in the AAS Job Register as soon as possible, primarily as the position is slightly off-schedule for the normal faculty hiring process.  We thought about advertising the position in the Chronicle of Higher Education and other locations, but costs were prohibitive and the pool of possible candidates likely far smaller.

Along with the publication of this article, we are also listing the job description and other information on the AAVSO website, which formally represents the start of our search process.  Applications will be accepted until the end of September.

The search committee (listed on the AAVSO search committee web page) understands the AAVSO and has more than 100 years of combined experience interacting with, participating with, governing, advising and supporting the AAVSO.  Having spoken with all of them and interacted with them over these past several months, I know we will be able to fulfill our charge, which is to provide to the Council a prioritized list of candidates from the pool of applicants, along with some discussion as to how we arrived at this prioritization.  This list will allow the Council to make their selection and attempt to hire the next Director.

I want to make it clear to all that we are looking for the best possible leader for the AAVSO regardless of educational or experiential background.  The job description is written specifically to include individuals without a Ph.D.  It is perfectly reasonable that an individual without a graduate degree can run the AAVSO.  However, it is equally true that an individual with a Ph.D., well connected to the professional community, will have a greater ability to bring the scientific value of the data gathered by the AAVSO observers forward.  This, however, is not the only or exclusive criterion the search committee will use to review the candidates. 

I liken the above situation to my initial situation applying to work at the AAS.  The position I applied for required experience in public policy.  It was abundantly clear that if someone had applied for the position (which was entitled ‘Associate Director for Public Policy and Employment Policy Programs’…talk about needing a fold-out business card…!), who had worked extensively on Capitol Hill or at one of the funding agencies or with the White House, I would not stand as good a chance as a candidate, because I didn’t have that experience.  Luckily for me, the search committee then—as we are now—was looking for the best possible person for the position from the applicant pool and took into account my other experience and abilities.  I managed to beat out some applicants who had more public policy experience in Washington, just as the right candidate for the AAVSO Director position could beat out someone with a Ph.D. in astronomy or a closely related field.

The search committee is categorically committed to an open search process without a pre-defined candidate in mind.  We have all agreed on this point and we are proceeding with the search following this philosophy.  We are seeking the best overall leader for the AAVSO as it transitions into the future.  The next five to ten years will be a particularly interesting and challenging time to lead the AAVSO, making this search notable and important.

I welcome input from members on the search and especially need your help identifying and encouraging qualified people to apply for the position.  Please note that following our guidelines, I will share all communications with all members of the Search Committee.  Also recognize that if I get large numbers of communications, I may not be able to write back to you individually, or immediately recognize that I received your input, but I will eventually, so have some patience…I have a day job too…

We will all do our best on your behalf and on behalf of the AAVSO.

*The original version of this page indicated 12 applicants,which was a typo on the part of the author.  The number of on-time applications received was 13.