Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Reader Appreciation Day

Thanks to everyone who commented and emailed on the Honors issue! I was able to catch up, in two days, to peers here who have been chewing on the issue for years. You have no idea how helpful your feedback was! I haven’t solved my dilemma, but my confusion is much more informed and sophisticated than it was before. I consider that a major victory.

Sometimes, academic blogging is damn useful. Take that, Ivan Tribble!

Through back channels, I received some very provocative comments on the ‘talent vs. experience’ piece. My brother (the brains of the family) suggested a baseball metaphor: administration is the front office, and faculty are the players. A superstar player elevates a team. A superstar administrator, well, doesn’t. At best, a good administrator won’t torpedo a team. Accordingly, the goal in hiring front office people is error avoidance, and hiring for experience is good for that. The goal in hiring players is finding stars, which means choosing the promising prospect over the established mediocrity. Hiring for talent is the best way to do that.

My critique is essentially that a good front office actually does lift a team, over time (compare Billy Beane or Theo Epstein’s track record to, say, whoever runs the Devil Rays). It just isn’t as obvious. Success, in management, is mostly vicarious. Good managing involves putting the right talent in the right positions for good things to happen. It doesn’t always work, heaven knows, but over time, good managers get better results.

He also pointed out, which I sometimes forget in my academic tunnel vision, that the ‘hiring for talent’ approach is actually the unusual one in the business world. Dilbert is all about the disconnect between talent and experience. The cliché about no experience without a job and no job without experience resonates because it captures the blind spot of hiring for experience. The way we hire full-time faculty in academia is unusual; the way we hire administrators is much closer to the business world. (And, ‘leadership crisis’ rhetoric notwithstanding, it wouldn’t be surprising to see future administrators come increasingly from the business world.)

As several commenters noted, in the hiring for talent model, longtime adjuncts are disadvantaged because they are presumed to have failed to show talent. A doctorate comes with a ‘sell-by’ date, at least in the humanities and social sciences. (Postdocs in the sciences are more complicated, and I don’t fully understand them.) Given the choice between a 20 year old minor leaguer and a 30 year old minor leaguer of identical stats, a general manager will go with the 20 year old; if a player is 30 and still hasn’t made the bigs, he won’t. The 20 year old at least has the potential.

The gender implications of this, I think, are obvious. If more women than men take critical time out for parental leave, more women will pass the ‘sell-by’ date than men. The fact that this clock largely coincides with the biological clock is a very dirty trick.

Anyway, I want to thank my readers for coming through so gloriously, and to make an offer that I hope doesn’t come off as arrogant. Since I seem to have the ‘blogging dean’ category pretty much to myself, if you have one of those ‘why do administrators do that’ questions, fire away! (My email is ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.) Depending on the question and your expressed preference (if any), I can answer either privately or as a blog entry. (Unless you specify otherwise, I’ll use pseudonyms.) It seems that managerial motives are opaque to lots of people; if I can help to demystify some of them (the ones that make sense, anyway), I’d be glad to. (Alternately, if you just want confirmation that your chair/dean/vp is colossally missing the point, that can happen, too.)

Besides, it ain’t always easy coming up with topics...

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