Wednesday, August 24, 2005

 

Ask the Administrator, vol. 1

A few entries ago, I offered to provide an administrative perspective on questions that faculty or grad students might have, especially about mysterious administrator behavior. Academic Coach came up with a good one: what is it that derails candidates whose tenure bids were supported by their department, but overturned at higher levels? What can candidates do to prevent it?

Gotta admit, that one will differ radically from one institution to another. My experience as a manager has been at a proprietary technical college and a public community college; I haven’t worked at an institution with a research focus. That blind spot admitted, I’ll say that several factors leap to mind:

- Too much sameness. Asexual reproduction isn’t unique to academia, but it thrives here. (Strangely, the other kind doesn’t.) If a given department has a strong leaning in a particular direction, it will often believe itself to be a brave outpost in the wilderness, and will adopt a strong us/them mentality towards its own discipline. When that happens, it will tend to hire and promote mini-me’s. A dean, vp, or even president will sometimes have to veto a decision simply to break the monopoly of a particular group. This will seem grossly unfair and high-handed to both the candidate and the department, even though it frequently is the right decision for the college as a whole. The candidate will believe, correctly, that s/he is a victim of politics. The department will believe, incorrectly, that it is the sole guardian of academic virtue, and that bottom-line managers who understand nothing of their discipline have sold them out.

- Misplaced courtesy. I’ve been through two promotion cycles at my current college, and I haven’t yet seen a candidate who wasn’t “most highly recommended” by his department on the official form. These forms are usually accompanied by more candid oral recommendations. That way, if the candidate is turned down, the chair can say somewhat truthfully “but I recommended you! The department supported you!” Well, yes and no. There’s support, and then there’s support. I’d rather have the departments be more candid with the candidates upfront, but some chairs simply lack the stomach for it.

- Enrollments/Budgeting. In this budgetary climate, some chairs have figured out that if they turn someone down, they’ll lose the position altogether. Therefore, they will try to pass along someone who, in flusher times, they’d flush. If the choice is between Professor SoSo and a hypothetical new hotshot, the chair might roll the dice on the hotshot; if the choice is between Professor SoSo and losing the line, SoSo gets recommended for tenure. The administration has to be the voice of cold reality here.

- Truly nefarious reasons. These can include everything from the classic race or sex discrimination, to personality conflicts, to power struggles between higher-ups, to homophobia, to a simple but glaring inability to recognize talent. (This list could be much longer, but writing it makes me sad.) All I’ll say about these, other than that getting the hell out of there may be a blessing in disguise, is that candidates should use these as residual explanations; that is, only use them when more rational explanations fail. I’ve seen far too many instances of people jumping to one of these, incorrectly, and creating far more angst for everyone concerned.

What can candidates do? Other than the usual, I’d recommend not relying on a single information source. Even a well-meaning mentor, chair, or dean only has a particular angle on the big picture (and yes, I include myself in that). I know it involves swimming against the tide of a profession that tends to isolate (and that attracts more than its share of introverts), but it’s worth building rapport across the institution – professors in other departments, secretaries (unbelievably valuable sources of info, when treated right), professional and support staff. Learn names, and spend a few minutes listening. Over time, you pick stuff up. You may discern the writing on the wall early enough to leave under your own power. Or, you may find that the mentor you’ve trusted is widely considered a marginal figure. You may find that, without knowing it, your reputation bears little relationship to what you consider the actual you. (That happened to me at my previous school, twice.) If you find out in time to take corrective measures, you can save some nasty consequences.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Comments:
On the too much sameness issue: I guess I can see this, but it's not really fair to the faculty member. Why were they hired to begin with? The administration has a say in the hiring process too, so why wasn't the candidate rejected at that stage? (Or are these people who changed their focus and became more like their departments?)
 
Good question. Sometimes the candidate changes to become more like the department, but the more common answer (as far as I can tell) is change in administration. Since administrative posts don't carry tenure, they turn over much faster than faculty posts. A previous dean/vp may not have noticed or cared about excessive sameness; the new one might. I'm not saying it's fair to the candidate, but to block a judgment call like that is, effectively, to award tenure at the moment of hire. The strategy I'd suggest to the candidate is to pay attention when administrative turnover happens -- what does the new dean value? What does s/he perceive? The time to correct misperceptions is before they solidify.
 
RKC Johnson talks about 'sameness' in history departments, you are on the same page
http://hnn.us/blogs/comments/14493.html#comment
On ianqui's comment - brutally, the administration ought not care about fairness to the faculty member, in this context, if it conflicts with giving the students a broader selection of perspectives/ research areas.
 
Holy crap, dean dad. As if I didn't have enough to worry about. Publishing, good teaching evals, service, grants. Now I have to follow how the administration feels about me, too. What if it turns over the year before I go up for tenure? Too freaking late for Ianqui.

(Fortunately, my research program isn't really like anyone else's in my dept, so I should be OK. Besides, I brought in a load of money last year, so assuming I make good on it, that should help me out.)
 
I wonder about the turn-over issue, too, ianqui.

thanks, dean dad, for taking questions! I don't have any right now, but I appreciate that you're doing this.
 
These are great answers -- many that I'd never considered. I do so appreciate you responding to my question.

Another possibility that I've heard of is that the Administration has concerns and asks a few big whigs in the area about their impressions, and a lukewarm response kills the tenure bid.

You point out how random and unfair the process can be -- I think that it's always hard to accept that there is so much luck involved in getting hired, getting tenure, etc.,.
We thought that if we were just smart enough and worked hard enough....

ianqui: Don't get too scared. Every administrator I ever met loved people who brought in money. Your impression too Dean Dad?
 
The point about misplaced courtesy is sad, but true. We had a candidate who had a mixed vote (55%) and threw herself a party, thinking that was it. The only reason for any positive votes was the lose-the-line calculus described under "Enrollments/budgets."
Also, I think that at some ivy leagues schools there is a quota, spoken or unspoken, so it's quite common for candidates who really have the support of the department to get turned down as well.
 
As someone who is nearing the tenure process, this was an interesting read. Had to chuckle about the sameness point. My current school is too small for that but I've seen it elsewhere. And I completely agree with you about misplaces courtesy. It would be such a relief (and ultimately helpful) if chairs/senior colleagues/etc. could be honest with their critiques (and then people may have a better idea of where they really stand).

Good info.
 
Oh great title - confessions of a community college dean. . . I wish I had put more 'creative' thought into my head/title plus user name. . . never have any good luck though . . .
 
Coach is probably right that Ianqui needn't worry. Anybody who can generate money (esp. in disciplines that don't usually do that) has a leg up.

The 'administrative turnover' point is probably more true at a smaller school than a larger one; at a larger one, the very anonymity of the place would make personal issues less important. At a small school, though, they can matter. I had a vp who told me that he had no intention of tenuring Prof GoodEgg, since he never saw her. I gently passed that along to her, and she made damn sure to show up at a few carefully-chosen events. It shouldn't have mattered, but it did.
 
I'm not sure where this comment fits, but it always helps to alert your dept. chairs to upcoming battles, since they usually have to weigh in with the first recommendation. I tried doing that, but on one occasion a Chair resisted my suggestion that she talk to a candidate about waiting a year to strengthen her credentials. The candidate was eventually tenured and promoted over her strong recommendation against same, leaving the Chair with egg on her face.
 
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?