Wednesday, August 31, 2005

 

Ask the Administrator: Adjuncting Around and Flight Risk

A correspondent who, by his own description, has been “adjuncting around” a lot sent a wonderful question. With a few identifying characteristics removed, he wrote:

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
What I'm wondering is how a prospective employer would view that experience when
hiring for a full-time position. Does that experience count for something
positive, or does it mark me as a loser (as some participants in a Chronicle
of Higher Education discussion forum suggested earlier this summer)? Does it
matter to a prospective employer that I have been geographically limited in my
searches by my wife's job (i.e. my wife has the perfect job here in our town, but
there's not much here for me -- all of my adjunct
positions are at least an hour's drive away, and I've not applied to full-time
positions that aren't within semi-reasonable driving distance)? Does it matter
to a prospective employer that way back when I had a tenure-track teaching
position at a four-year school, but didn't get tenure because I lacked the PhD?
Does it matter to a prospective employer that I'm getting kind of old to be
doing this adjunct stuff full-time, or does it demonstrate how much I love
teaching and working with students?

Perhaps the bottom-line questions are
these: is there such a thing as too much adjunct experience? Are there any
circumstances which those making hiring decisions would ever deem reasonable
for a large accumulation of adjunct experience?
___________________________________________________________________________________

Great questions, and probably of more general interest than most of us would care to admit.

It depends on the academic profile of the institution, its geographic location, and its needs at any given time.

In my experience at suburban, teaching-focused institutions, there isn’t really such a thing as too much teaching experience. In some ways, having experience at a variety of different institutions is actually preferable to only having it at one; it shows adaptability, and reduces the risk of culture shock.

At research institutions, my contacts tell me, the opposite is true. Doctorates have ‘sell-by’ dates, and if you haven’t achieved stardom by a certain time, it’s assumed that you won’t. The tricky middle is where it’s hard to say – the midtier schools that are really teaching institutions but harbor delusions of research grandeur. That’s where things can get arbitrary, depending on the composition of the committee, the self-awareness of the administration, etc. Too often, they try to split the difference, rather than actually making the hard choice.

(I should also mention that a nearby cc that shall remain nameless has a policy of never hiring anybody with more than five years’ experience, as a way to keep salary costs down. I consider that unethical in the extreme, but they do it.)

Having been denied tenure is a red flag, though not necessarily a fatal one. In the cc world, ABD status is generally accepted; if you can convince a committee that ABD status is the only reason you were denied tenure (as opposed to poor teaching, or blowing off department meetings, or some kind of misconduct), it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. It hasn’t been here.

The geographical issue is real, but I think its impact hits before you send out applications. Obviously, you won’t be considered where you don’t apply. That said, if you have a fairly solid history of teaching, a few gaps shouldn’t matter.

What ‘Bitch, Ph.D.’ calls the ‘brains on sticks’ model of academia presumes that we are all wandering nomads, free to take us wherever the career winds blow, when, in fact, we have lives. When I was job-hunting, I ruled out significant numbers of jobs simply on the grounds that I didn’t want to move my family there. That’s okay, as long as you’re willing to risk the search taking longer. (Even now, there are a few spots in America that beckon to me, and that I’d be happy to move to if the offer were right.)

Age sometimes matters, even though it shouldn’t. Don’t overestimate it, though. I’ve seen multiple situations in which ‘youth’ was prized in the abstract, but among the actual candidates, the older ones were just stronger. (It can work the other way, too, esp. in rural areas. An unattached young person might look like a ‘flight risk’ – we’d hire him, and he’d leave within a year or two, but a married older person would look likelier to stay. When I was hired at my current job, the vp who hired me was very excited to hear about my son, and my wife’s family’s roots in the area. In retrospect, that probably cancelled out the ‘flight risk’ factor.)

Rather than judging ‘employers’ or ‘search committees’ as if they were all the same, I’d advise giving some thought to where your particular mix of talent, experience, and qualifications would be the best fit. In other words, think like an employer. If you’ve been ‘adjuncting around’ for some time, don’t bother with the R1’s; they aren’t interested, and you’d be wasting your time. Community colleges in hot urban areas (New York, say, or San Francisco) can use location to reduce flight risk, so they might tend to favor younger, less experienced types to keep their costs down. Community colleges in exurbia, or less popular areas, might look much more kindly on an experienced, established sort, who would put down roots – flight risk is a much greater issue there. You can (truthfully ) use your freeway-flier experience to explain your interest in putting down roots – having done the free agent thing, you’re ready to commit.

I know this will rub some folks the wrong way, since the myth of ‘meritocracy’ is powerful in academe. But if a single theme has run through (the non-family side of) my blog, it’s that academic jobs are jobs, just like any other jobs. The myths are nice, but jobs are jobs. Don’t think of yourself as a failure if you haven’t found a niche; it’s not about you. It’s not about you. It’s not about you. (Repeat as necessary.) It’s about what the employer needs at a given moment. Knowing this can help you adjust your strategy. Think like an employer, and aim for the employers to whom you’d be most attractive.

Good luck!

Do you have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

 

Dad

Today is my Dad's last day at work. He has worked at the same college for 35 years, and is leaving with the respect and affection of his peers and his students.

Tip 'o the cap, Dad.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

 

Mr. Badger

Mr. Badger died on Monday. Thanks to everyone who contributed to his cancer fund -- at least he was able to live out his last days at home, in less pain.

Academic Coach is collecting condolence cards for Badger.

 

Walking, Deaning, and Wile E. Coyote

The Girl is at the Wile E. Coyote stage of walking. She can stand up on her own, as long as she doesn’t look down. The moment she looks down, she plops on her backside (unlike Wile E., she laughs hysterically).

As a kid, I always loved Roadrunner cartoons. Something about Wile E. Coyote appealed to me. The distance between the inflated self-image (“I am Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius”) and the pathetic belly flops always got me laughing, yet he was, for a predator, sympathetic. There was something touching about his unfailing, if misplaced, belief in his own abilities.

There’s something very Wile E. Coyote about deaning. We chase the uncatchable, publicly project confidence as we go running off a cliff, and always dust ourselves off and try again after getting accordioned under a big rock. The trick is never to look down.

The Girl and I are on the same wavelength. I only wish my learning curve was as short as hers.

Monday, August 29, 2005

 

So That Explains My Aneurysm!

This was a rough weekend. We did an out-of-town trip, which is always taxing, and The Boy decided that this would be a good time to enter the ‘why’ phase. (‘It’s time for dinner.’ “Why?’ ‘Turn off the tv.’ ‘Why?’ While I’d like to think that I’m open to epistemological skepticism, sometimes I just need him to turn off the (#&@Y)% tv.)

In a futile bid to relax, I decided to sit down with a copy of Harper’s. (Okay, okay, I’m showing my pinko commie northeastern brie-eating chardonnay-drinking granola hippie unitarian peacenik side. Deal with it.) This month’s issue includes a roundtable addressing one of the most important topics facing higher ed today: ideological diversity on the faculty!

I can already feel the forehead veins pounding, but foolishly, I plow ahead anyway.

They’ve assembled four panelists, not a single one of whom is currently active in academic administration, to debate the need for affirmative action for Republicans on college faculties. To make the discussion concrete, they propose a series of scenarios, and ask the panelists how they would respond to each.

The first scenario: a government department with 30 professors has only 4 who voted for Bush, and only two Straussians. The students are up in arms, demanding more Straussians, but the department instead hired someone whose work is in European integration. What to do?

I physically threw the magazine across the room.
Let’s parse that sucker.

First of all, how many colleges or universities in America have 30 faculty in the poli sci department? My college has one. Uno. Hard to achieve diversity, with a faculty of one. That nobody on the panel even caught this tells you what you need to know about where they came from. Most colleges and universities in America (and Canada, too, I’d guess) would have a poli sci or government faculty ranging from zero to five or six. To find a department bigger than a dozen, you’d have to hit the ranks of the elite research universities, and even there it will be hit and miss. So we’re already talking about a very, very small sample.

Second, how many undergraduates have the vaguest idea what a Straussian is? (The term denotes followers of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, an influential scholar of Plato at the University of Chicago in the mid 20th century. His work is notoriously opaque (and unmistakably homoerotic), but tends towards a radical distrust of democracy.)

Third, since when does a style of interpretation dictate a particular political position? I’ve known left Straussians, conservative Nietzscheans, and feminist Republicans. To conflate ‘Straussian’ and ‘Republican’ would be like conflating ‘Catholic’ with ‘Democrat.’ It doesn’t make sense.

Fourth, there’s a difference between a style of reading (which is what Straussianism is) and an area of study (which is what European integration is). For some reason, otherwise-intelligent people forget this. A lefty can study a conservative movement, and a conservative can study the left. More to the point, either can study ‘Europe,’ or ‘war,’ or ‘Congress.’ To infer someone’s political position from her chosen object of study is just sloppy thinking. (That’s where I take exception to the social/feminist history vs. military/political history debate making the rounds in the history blogosphere. Both sides understand the objects of study as proxies for political positions – broadly, social history is taken as a sign of leftism, with political history as a sign of conservatism. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Either side can be done either way, and probably should be.)

All this, and I’m not even a page into the article.

Speaking from the hiring side (to the extent that I ‘ve had the chance to hire, which has been less than I’d like), I can say with confidence that I have absolutely no idea who my hires vote for, if anybody. It doesn’t come up. There is no reason it would, and no reason it should.

But my real gripe is that Harper’s (and the media who bother to cover higher ed) gets such tunnel vision. The elite 100 or so universities are actually a minuscule portion of the overall picture, and the liberal arts departments are a small (and declining) portion of those. Most colleges and universities in America don’t come anywhere near having 30 poli sci professors, nor would the students be attuned enough to raise a stink if too few of them were oddball Platonists. (In a way, I’d happily take that world – a world in which every college is a hotbed of high-theoretical debate, with large, well-funded faculties with enough release time to delve deeply into the eternal mysteries. Oh, happy land!) Most colleges are struggling to cover the core curriculum, to keep what staff size they have now, to graduate their students, and to keep costs down. Delegating the voter-registration police is just otherworldly.

I’m not naive enough to believe that anybody actually thinks that the problem with higher ed in America is too many Democrats. It’s a fundraising bugaboo for the Right, and an excuse to cut funding for ‘butter’ to pay for ‘guns.’ Call it what it is. I just get annoyed when the real issues are utterly ignored, and this absurdity gets eight-page spreads.

My Excedrin stash is calling...

Friday, August 26, 2005

 

Late In-Person Registration, or, Let the Whining Begin...

We’re in the dreaded, feared, hated-with-the-white-hot-passion-of-a-thousand-suns late in-person registration period again.

Ugh.

As the dean, I’m the go-to person for students trying to get into closed sections. In other words, I am the target of whining.

“But you have to let me into that class! I’ll lose my financial aid!”

“I need that class to graduate, and my job conflicts with every other section.”

“Can you add a section? It would really help.”

“I just want something easy. Are there any, you know, bullshit classes?”

"It's not fair that I got kicked out, just because I didn't pay my bill."

“What doesn’t require any math?”

“An online class? Do I need a computer for that?”

And on, and on. The worst is the kid who shows up with his girlfriend five minutes before we shut down, wanting some impossibly baroque schedule with multiple prerequisite waivers and nothing too early in the morning, and he wants it RIGHT NOW. For whatever reason, that kid is always the most assertive of the day.

Given my druthers, I’d assign the most senior, most haughty faculty to late registration duty. Let them confront the reality of how students make the choices they make. We can have whatever high-minded discussions about academic integrity we like; the kids will make decisions based on convenience, perceived ease, and what their friends are taking.

Honestly, it isn’t as bad as it used to be. Online registration has made it easier, as the students have become (generally) more self-sufficient. (Hooray!) I hope to see us move even more strongly in that direction in the future, and we probably will. Still, for the next several days, it’s time to put on my thickest skin. Bleah.

(Judging by this post, whining is contagious. Sorry bout that.)

Thursday, August 25, 2005

 

Balance

Yesterday, in a nutshell:

- Four-hour meeting with vp and other deans, concluded only when hunger trumped the agenda.
- Shuttle diplomacy to resolve a sudden, emergency personnel matter before classes start.
- Laughing myself stupid along with The Wife, The Boy, and The Girl, telling each other the lamest knock-knock jokes in human history at dinner.

Balance. It’s all about balance.

Anybody know any good knock-knock jokes? The Boy loves them, and I ran out.

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.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

 

Baselines, Dues, and One-Way Deals

Several of my department chairs had moments of panic this month when they were told to remove the vacated ‘lines’ from their budgets.

In plain English: every full-time faculty member has a ‘line’ in the budget for salary. When a professor retires and isn’t replaced, we refer to ‘losing the line.’ When a new position is authorized, a department ‘gains a line.’ (That’s exceedingly rare these days.)

In practice, for several years now, departments have lost lines, but have kept markers of those lines in their budgets (sort of like the phantom limbs that amputees report having). So a department might have 10 faculty listed, with two lines marked ‘vacant.’ The idea is to hold out hope for eventual replacement.

This summer, the Board decided that it was time to face reality, so it requested that all vacant lines be wiped from the budget. No more chits; what you have now is the new baseline. All future staffing decisions are to be based on the needs of the college at that time, rather than on historical overhang.

Baselines aren’t that complicated, conceptually, but they’re terribly hard to communicate. I’ve found that people explain or justify the workings of the college to themselves with a variety of ‘deals’ they make in their heads. Shifting a baseline strikes them as immoral, since it violates the terms of the (unspoken, unilateral) deal as they understand it. (The dead giveaway is the phrase “but I paid my dues!” There are no dues. Duties, yes. Dues, no.) When asked to explain their unease, they usually fall back on the hoary clichés of the evils of a bottom-line mentality, or on dire invocations of the academic sky falling. I’m unimpressed; I can’t be accountable for deals that never really existed.

That’s not to deny that some of the decisions that arise from shifting baselines can be objectionable, or even offensive.* It’s just that they aren’t all that hard to understand.

For what is supposed to be a liberal bunch, I’ve found many college faculty to be closet Burkeans (or at least Oakeshottians). They don’t like change. They really don’t like change in the basic routines. If a Psych department had 12 faculty 10 years ago, then by God, it should always and forever have at least 12 faculty. Anything less is a crime against academic excellence, committed by bonehead administrators bent on feathering their own nests, etc. Never mind that enrollments are down, or that state funding is down, or that health insurance is running us into the ground. The Way It Once Was is The Way It Should Always Be.

(Exception: if things got easier. Then, backsliding is the cardinal sin. I gave up evening office hours 10 years ago – how dare you suggest I pick them up again? I’ve paid my dues!)

I think the issue, really, is that faculty often see the output of administrative decisions, but not the inputs. They see the shrinkage of a department, or an unpleasant new policy on office hours or copier use, but they don’t see the budget numbers that lead to those decisions. (In my experience, when they do see the numbers, they simply don’t believe them.)** A division of labor that is supposed to free up faculty to concentrate on their core responsibilities has left them so estranged from the nuts and bolts of the institution that they simply forget that the nuts and bolts exist, and need tending.

I don’t like losing lines any more than anybody else does, but I actually agreed with the Board decision. The lines were actually lost some time ago – what this decision does is clear away the false hopes, the better to deal with the reality of the situation. The baseline moved anyway; now, at least we can see it.

* At my old school, faculty sabbaticals were introduced shortly before an accreditation visit. The week after the visiting team left, they were eliminated. There’s baseline shifting, and then there’s the old shell game. The worst use of baseline shifting, though, is Colorado’s TABOR (taxpayers’ bill of rights). As I understand it, it requires that growth in college spending be limited to inflation plus population growth, except when tax revenues shrink. Then, the baseline moves down, and it stays down as tax revenues grow again. Therefore, the baseline moves down with each recession. This is class warfare of the highest order, filtered through a disingenuous populism. My problem with TABOR isn’t that it uses baselines – all intelligent budgeting does – but that its baseline moves in thoughtless and destructive ways.

** The exception to this one is the newest cohort – say, hired in the last 5-10 years. They braved a truly brutal market, so they know that we aren’t just making it up. The folks who were hired in the Golden Age still seem to think that we’ve got scads of cash hidden in bags in our offices, and that a good enough (dramatic) performance can convince a tightwad dean to dip into the bags. VERY annoying.

Monday, August 22, 2005

 

It's Coming! (Theme from Jaws in the Background)

Faculty and students aren’t the only ones to dread the start of the Fall semester.

The first few weeks of a new semester are always hard. We have the professional development days, in-person registration (which gets progressively harder with each day, as more sections of popular classes close and students get more desperate), new students wandering the hallways aimlessly, a panoply of meetings, longer hours, and a general sense of frantic chaos. When the dust settles, it’s time to start the battery of class observations.

The faculty always come back energized, for good and bad. For some reason, they always seem to forget that the rest of us work through the summer – if I hear one more tanned, tenured prof ask me how my summer went, things will get ugly. I won’t miss the summer weather – humid heat just isn’t my thing – and it will be good to have full days again, but the return of office politics is hard to relish.

What makes this Fall especially poignant is that The Boy will officially start public preschool. Our district has a half-day, five-day-a-week program for four-year-olds, and it meets in one of the regular schools. (It’s a bonus of living in a diverse town. Our town has enough low-income kids in it that the state requires it to run a preschool program. If we lived in a tonier burb, daycare would be entirely on us. For once, my ‘social democrat’ side doesn’t conflict with my ‘smart shopper’ side.) It’s a good thing, really; he needs the stimulation and the opportunity to play with other kids, and The Wife desperately needs a respite from his energy during the day. It’s just hard to let go. It’s a milestone of growing away from us, which I know is good, but it’s still a little sad. He’s our little guy.

This Fall, it’s coming from all sides. At least the weather should be nice...

Friday, August 19, 2005

 

Prayer, as Rendered by The Boy

Overheard a few nights ago:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Howard be my name...

I had to stifle a chuckle.

And no, The Boy's name is not Howard.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

 

Help Badger

Badger is the nom de web of an ABD grad student whose husband is fighting late-stage liver cancer. She and her son are wilting under the costs of treatment that her 'insurance' won't cover. Academic Coach has set up a fund to help them with their medical bills and various expenses -- please check it out here.

Badger's story is here.

I've made no secret of my attitude towards our health care system, but this is truly horrifying. If you can, please help.

 

Family Outing

Last night The Wife, The Boy, The Girl and I loaded the stroller into the trunk and drove downtown for a candlelight peace vigil, in support of those who have lost family in Iraq.

There’s something remarkably cleansing about a peace vigil, especially when the whole family participates. We got there early (it was on a huge lawn), so The Boy got to play leapfrog and run around a tree while the activists gathered.

It was the usual assortment, so I was glad we were there. It’s important to me that the kids see that the world includes men with long hair and women with short; teenagers with too-black hair, too-white skin, and too many piercings; and Mom and Dad. And that we’re all on the same side.

I want them to understand, as they grow up, that they have a right to have a say in the world. And to appreciate that family values are the values your family holds; if that means an outlook more blue than red, then so be it. And if some people think that a family like that doesn’t exist, or isn’t really a family, or doesn’t really have values, then those people are just wrong.

Justice is a value.

In fact, blue values have a long history in my family. My great-grandmother spread the word about birth control (such as it was) at the turn of the 20th century in her rural Midwestern town. My grandfather was in a union for his entire working life, and he voted loyally Democratic to the end. My grandmother got a job outside the house in the 1950's, with grandpa’s (initially lukewarm) support. My mother broke with family expectations by going to college – unheard of, at the time, for a girl. (Her winning argument: I want to marry a doctor – where else am I going to meet one? In the Midwest in the early 1960's, that was pretty clever. She still cackles over that one.)

We don’t beat people over the head, or pick fights with extended family at Thanksgiving, or hold personal grudges over politics. We base our sense of justice on a belief, backed up in the courtesies of daily life, that there but for the grace of God go I. To call that amoral is a slander.

To Iraq, but for the grace of God, goes The Boy. So we went to the vigil.

The Boy asked, as we started to pack for the trip, why we were going. I tried to explain that some people are fighting, and getting hurt, and we want them to stop. When we got home, he asked if the fighting had stopped yet.

Parenting isn’t for sissies.

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...

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

 

Talent or Experience?

I have an observation that needs a theory: in faculty searches, we look for talent. In administrative searches, we look for experience. I’m not sure why it’s that way, and not some other combination.

Most administrative job postings require an enormous amount of experience, often at the level at which they are hiring. By restricting the pool to people who have already done the same job elsewhere, colleges are able to deflect discrimination lawsuits, fear of the unknown and/or untested, and blame if something goes wrong. As JK Galbraith noted fifty years ago, if you follow the conventional wisdom and it goes awry, it’s read as a fluke; if you take a chance and it goes awry, it’s held against you. Best to simply hire the tried-and-true.

(This isn’t just a cynical reduction. We actually use scorecards to winnow down the pile of c.v.’s, and points are awarded based on years of experience in given positions. Someone without enough points doesn’t get invited for an interview.)

The flaws in this system are many. First, and most obviously, ‘time served’ doesn’t tell you how well the person did the job. Someone could have been a placeholder for several years, accomplishing little more than not getting fired, but that would ‘count’ in a way that talents demonstrated at a lower rank on the food chain wouldn’t. The word ‘retread’ tells the story.

Second, the fetishistic focus on experience ironically prevents diversity, by simply recycling the same candidates over and over again. What is intended to prevent bias – by focusing on something objectively quantifiable – actually reinforces it. Once you’re in the club, you’re in the club; never mind how you got there, or what you did once you were in it.

(This accounts, I think, for the brain-warping contention that community colleges are facing an imminent leadership crisis. Excuse me? That’s true only if the only possible leaders are those who have already led. Mortality kicks in, eventually. The easy way around this, obviously, is to read the field of candidates more creatively.)

Although I’ll admit it’s harder upfront, I suspect that colleges would be better served by setting relatively low minimum thresholds for experience, and instead focusing on talent.

That’s hard to do, obviously, since it involves thinking through the positions thoroughly enough to come to a consensus on the talents that a given position actually requires. (It’s easier just to count time served.) It also involves identifying those talents, which takes more insight than simply adding up past positions. And I wouldn’t abandon experience as an indicator -- certainly, I wouldn’t want to appoint an academic v.p. directly from the faculty – but I suspect that it takes less than is generally acknowledged. Still, someone with a few years as a department chair and a track record of success makes a far more appealing dean candidate, in my book, than a chair-for-life who thinks it’s his turn.

I assume this position will call forth the usual accusations of subjectivity. Well, yes, but I prefer the term ‘judgment.’ Refusing to use judgment, instead relying on experience, is, in fact, to rely on someone else’s judgment from a long time ago. Better to take a fresh look.

The contrast with faculty searches is striking. Since most faculty searches occur at the junior level, they explicitly look for ‘talent’ (as opposed to experience). The optimal candidate for a junior level faculty position is a fresh new Ph.D. with a book contract. Someone with a five-year-old Ph.D., even with a published book, is less appealing. Once you’ve had your degree for a few years, the thinking goes, you’ve shown what you can do; either you’ve broken through to stardom, or you haven’t. (If you’re still applying to junior jobs, that’s a pretty good indicator that you haven’t.) If you’re brand new, the potential is still there. You’d rather hire someone with a higher ceiling, even if that higher ceiling is largely speculative.

Some have suggested that the overwhelming preference for junior candidates in faculty searches is a way to save money, since entry-level professors work cheaper than their senior colleagues. If this were the only reason, you’d expect to see the same thing at the administrative level, but that (generally) doesn’t happen. Generally, at the administative level, the assumption seems to be the more senior, the better.

(This is how headhunters survive. For administrative searches, they compile rolodexes of candidates with high-level experience. That wouldn’t work if talent, rather than experience, were the main criterion.)

Is it the assumption that grad school provides training to be faculty, but that administrative mettle is proved only in battle? (If so, this has potentially serious implications for the M.B.A. industry!) Is it that (perish the thought!) administrative appointments have higher stakes? Is it that administrative appointments usually have shorter tenures (and therefore, presumably, lower stakes)?

I’m still working on this one. Any thoughts?

Monday, August 15, 2005

 

Honors, Plums, and Unintended Consequences

Timna raised a disturbing point in the comments following my cry for help on Honors programs. If an honors program at a cc is structured in a ‘modular’ way – that is, the honors component can be added to any given course, if the student does approved extra work and achieves a given grade – are we essentially asking the faculty to take on more unpaid work? (Timna raised the point in the context of adjuncts, where the issue is particularly acute, but I could imagine some full-time faculty making the same point.)

As it is now, the program at my cc relies on specific sections with smaller sizes, so the faculty see honors classes as plums – better students, less grading. If a kid going for honors simply meant still more papers to plow through, would the faculty be more hesitant? (Would the plum become a prune?) Note to the folks at schools with programs set up this way – does faculty buy-in become a problem?

(The alternative is even worse. Imagine if we paid a stipend for each honors student, to compensate for the extra work. The grade inflation would set records!)

On a related note, how much extra work does it take to earn an honors designation? If there’s tremendous variation from section to section, the integrity of the designation could come into question. How is this handled across multiple sections of the same class?

Inquiring deans want to know...

Sunday, August 14, 2005

 

The Girl Speaks!

“Dada”

Said smiling, looking right at me, as she climbed onto my lap.

Perfect.

Friday, August 12, 2005

 

Honors

This is a cry for help.

My college is taking a fresh look at its Honors program. This is trickier than you might think.

Community colleges are, by definition, open admissions. We take all comers (or pretty close – there’s a very, very basic level of English proficiency we require, and you need a high school diploma or G.E.D., but that’s it). Our mission involves serving the entire community. Selectivity is not what we’re about.

This means that even selling the concept of ‘Honors’ as a program or course of study (rather than simply as a recognition of a high GPA) can take some doing.

Happily for me, that battle was fought some time ago. We have an Honors program, but it’s neither fish nor fowl and it isn’t thriving, so we’re trying to revamp it.

It definitely has its virtues. The class sizes are capped much lower (they average around 12), all courses are taught by full-time faculty (to allow for sustained mentoring), and the academic content of the courses is richer. But enrollments are lagging, and the Chinese-menu course list isn’t terribly coherent.

I’ve looked at the Honors programs in the nearby four-year schools to which our students most frequently transfer. Each one is wildly different from the others: some have a mandatory residential component, some require service learning, some are almost entirely interdisciplinary, and some don’t even take hold until the junior year.

This means that looking at the nearby four-year schools doesn’t help much. It’s hard to build a transfer program when the various points of transfer are so idiosyncratic. (The default method of building a transfer program is to look at the four-year programs and copy their first half. That doesn’t work when each one is different.)

I like the concept of Honors at the community college level. Although it sometimes gets attacked as elitist, I think the attack is misplaced – to me, elitism would be to confine Honors courses to kids whose parents can afford four-year schools. Nothing is too good for the proletariat, as an old professor of mine used to say. So I don’t want to just junk the concept. But it’s devilishly hard to implement.

Is calculus an honors class? Calculus II?

Should an Honors program allow concentration of Honors courses in a given major or cluster of majors, or should an Honors student have to do the heavy lifting across the entire curriculum? (In other words, should an Honors history major have to take Honors chemistry?)

What to do in a major like Nursing or Engineering, where almost every available credit hour is spoken for?

What to do when a given major already has low enrollments, and slicing the sections even thinner would doom them to oblivion? (Political read: what to do when some departments will, by necessity, be frozen out of the program?)

And, worst of all...(drum roll, please)...

How to convince the type-A personality student to risk a lower GPA by taking Honors courses? As a college, we’ve taken the position that weighting the grades is out of the question (a position with which I agree).

Any help would be appreciated. This is a tough nut.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

 

Best Compliment Ever

The Wife’s parents (I’ll call them Howard and Marion, after the Cunninghams) are local and retired, so they see The Boy and The Girl quite a bit. (They’re the unbelievably valuable first line of defense on the babysitting front, among other things. It’s hard to convey to non-parents just how huge that is.)

The Wife’s brother (I’ll call him Biff) is also relatively local, and he and his wife (let’s say, Buffy) have two daughters (Tadpole and The Moppet).* Tadpole and The Moppet are older than The Boy and The Girl, although The Moppet is only a year older than The Boy (and quite a bit shorter).

Tadpole and The Moppet were relatively cool towards Howard when they were little. The Wife and I suspect that it may have been because Buffy was extremely attentive, and Biff was relatively distant. (That dynamic has changed over the years, but it was true early on.) The Boy and The Girl, by contrast, have been happily affectionate towards Howard and Marion from the beginning (from the gecko, as Russian Violets’ students would say).**

Yesterday, in talking with The Wife to plan an outing to a train museum (for which The Boy has already chosen his outfit, with his striped conductor’s hat matching his striped shorts), Marion commented that Howard was really looking forward to it, since The Boy and The Girl are always so happy to see him. Marion added that she thinks they respond to Howard because I’m so involved with them, so they don’t automatically see adult men as scary and distant figures.

This may be the best compliment I’ve ever received.

I won’t deny for a minute that there’s a double standard here – dads get complimented for doing a meaningful fraction of what moms are simply expected to do – but it’s also true that putting in the time and effort takes, well, effort. And it’s hard to get too caught up in academic politics when one of my first tasks upon getting home every day is to wipe somebody’s ass.

Thanks, Marion. I know I’ll hear all about the trains tonight.


*Tadpole and The Moppets would be a great name for a band.

**How does one indicate the possessive of a pseudonym that ends in ‘s’? Russian Violet’s students? That breaks her name up. Russian Violets’ students implies that there are many Russian Violets out there, which doesn’t seem right. The students of Russian Violets? That implies that she is the object of study, which is kind of creepy. Verily, a grammatical pickle.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

 

What Not To Do

Having gone through this far too many times already, I've discovered a law of administration (Dean Dad's Law? Hmm...). If you want to sabotage a project from above, with the best of intentions, appoint co-directors.

Never, never, never appoint co-directors, co-chairs, or co-anything.

It has taken me years to learn this, from above, within, and below.

The temptation to appoint co-directors is obvious: it looks like representativeness, suggests the possibility of wider buy-in, and prevents the identification of a given project as part of one person’s turf.

And that’s exactly why it fails.

I’ve suffered through this many times, and even inflicted it once (on direct orders from above, but still…).* What happens, consistently, is that one of the co- people takes effective ownership, with the other retaining haphazard veto power but contributing little.**

A far more effective approach, when something like representativeness is needed, is for the single chair or director to assemble an ad hoc advisory board to meet just once or twice. That’s the place for broad input, and that can be as broad as time and taste allow. Then the single director can get down to business.

Without a sense of ownership, the incentive to make the extra effort is reduced. Without a place for the buck to stop, there will be a series of crossed wires, mixed signals, and dropped details.

Since the economics of higher ed prevent paying people anything approaching what it would take to elicit the extra effort needed for anything important to work, we have to rely on other things, like pride. Pride goes with ownership (and fear of identification with a public failure). Without anyone in particular being identified as the go-to person for a project, nobody will be the martyr, and the project just won’t work.

Someday, I hope to be able to actually implement this system. Until then, I suffer in silence (other than the blog). If not for blogging, I’d go wacky. Thanks, everyone

* For reasons having to do with local culture, I’m invariably paired with a female co-chair. I don’t think the dynamic would be any different with a male co-chair, but it’s revealing that that never happens. Representativeness rears its head.

** In the interest of honesty, I’ll admit that, at various times, I’ve been on either side of this.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

 

The Best Dissertation Advice I Ever Received

I’ve been corresponding with some folks who are struggling with their dissertations. Dissertations are hard to explain to the uninitiated. They’re a funny combination of a magnum opus, a maiden voyage, and a big honkin’ paper.

About nine years ago, I was at my wits’ end with my dissertation. I had drafts of each chapter, and a sort-of conclusion, but it just didn’t seem to gel. I had proofed it to death, but had simply hit the wall conceptually. I knew it needed something, and I knew it didn’t quite work, but I just didn’t have anything. My funding was running out, I was deathly sick of my topic, and the whole starving-grad-student thing was more than slightly old.

One evening, as I was angst-ing about it*, my then-roommate gave me the best dissertation advice, ever. The conversation:

Roommate: How many chapters do you have?
DD: Five.
RM: How many do you need, overall?
DD: Well, five, but...
RM: Turn it in. Make them tell you what’s wrong with it.

Eureka! I did, and my advisor’s response upon reading it was “when do you want to defend?” The rest is history.

Looking at it now, it’s still not very satisfying. It’s still sorta half-baked, with a particularly weak conclusion and a few cringe-inducing moments, but it has something it didn’t have then. It has signatures.

Now that I’m on the hiring side, I can say with even greater confidence that there are exactly two kinds of dissertations in the world.

The two kinds of dissertations in the world:

1. Done, Defended, Degree in Hand

2. Other

As an administrator, this is even clearer. My college (and many others) has been burned enough times with new professors swearing on everything good that the dissertation is _this close_ to finished, that it will be done any minute now, etc., only to drag on for years. From a hiring perspective (at least at this level), you either have the degree or you don’t. And if you do, we don’t care so much if it was a close call. In fact, we’ll probably never know.

Don’t try to make it perfect. It won’t be, and it doesn’t have to be. Get it done, and move on.

*From the verb, 'to angst.' I angst, you angst, we angst. Commonly used in graduate school.

Monday, August 08, 2005

 

Office Space

A rural correspondent, himself a department chair, wrote to complain about faculty who retire, but refuse to move out of their offices. It's creating a real problem for the new faculty who are trying to move in.

That hasn’t been much of a problem here, since retirements have been few and replacements fewer, but I’ve seen it elsewhere. (At my previous school, as the tech boom approached its peak and the school’s rate of growth went from heady to insane, office space shortages very nearly sparked a unionization drive among the faculty. Since then, massive layoffs have, at least, solved the space shortage quite effectively. For the few employees who remain, there may not be job security, but there’s elbow room a-plenty.) Once faculty set up base camp, they won’t be dislodged by anything less than natural disaster (or layoffs).

I don’t know of any other profession in which this would even be tolerated. Can you imagine trying to pull that kind of territorial crap at a bank? A hospital? A marketing agency? Puh-leeze.

The psychology behind it is the interesting part. If a professor has thrown in the towel, why won’t he leave the ring? What’s left to do?

I can understand the desire to have a refuge from the house, but I don’t know why that should be at the college’s expense. Use Starbucks, like the rest of us. And most retired faculty that I know of retain college library privileges.

Granted, faculty offices often accumulate tremendous amounts of paper (occupational hazard), and I agree that the ‘get-out-in-twenty-minutes’ corporate approach would be excessive. But it seems to me that there’s no office so ridiculous that, with a little help, it couldn’t be cleared out in a week or two.

On a space-crunched campus, this can be a real issue. New faculty want to move in with enough lead time to do their jobs, and rightly so. From an institutional perspective, this makes sense; office space is provided specifically and solely to help faculty who work there do the job of the institution. That’s not to say that people won’t do other things, too, but those other things are ancillary. The point is to further the mission of the institution. A retired professor jealously guarding his former office (shrine? crypt? memorial?) does nothing to further the mission of the institution.

I say, pay a few strong-backed grad students 20 bucks an hour and move the stuff out. And deduct the grad students’ pay from the retiree’s check.

Failing that, charge rent.

Fair is fair.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

 

Theology, with The Boy

Actual conversation, a few nights ago. Keep in mind, The Boy is four.

TB: Dad, do you come back to the same house?
DD: What?
TB: When you die, does God put you back in the same house?
DD: No, you stay with God in heaven.
TB:(Sudden tears) But I’ll miss my toys! (Bawling)
DD:(Oh, crap.)
DD: There are lots of toys in heaven. God and the angels want you to be happy.
TB:(Still bawling) But I’ll miss my house!
DD: You can still see your house from heaven. And heaven is a pretty great place to be. Everybody’s happy, and you’re surrounded by people who love you.
TB: Will [The Girl] be there?
DD: Well, someday. Eventually, we all will.
TB: When?
DD: Not for a long time. First you have to grow up, and have kids, and get old. And your kids will be our grandkids, and you’ll be a Daddy like me, and I’ll be a Grandpa.
TB:(Laughs) That’s silly. You’re a Daddy.
DD: Well, yes. But someday maybe I’ll be a Grandpa.
TB: Is heaven in space?
DD: No, it’s higher than that. We can’t see it from here.
TB: Does it have a floor? Why don’t you fall?
DD: I don’t know. I guess it has a floor.
(Pause)
TB: You don’t know what you’re talking about.
(Pause)
TB: I don’t know what you’re talking about, either. (Laughs)

Friday, August 05, 2005

 

Mom and Dad Doing the End-Zone Dance

Last night The Wife took The Girl for her one-year checkup, which included two shots. (I stayed home with The Boy, trying to prevent him from careening into walls during his maniacal laps around the house.)

As The Boy has grown, my parenting goals have become more modest. He’s so attuned to his own personal drummer, and so ridiculously energetic and bright, that I’ve gone from ‘maybe I can help mold his character’ to ‘maybe if I hide everything sharp, he’ll make it to seven.’ He listens when he chooses to, pushes boundaries all day every day, and follows his own internal logic (if that’s the right word) on just about everything. It’s not malicious; he just knows what he wants (or doesn’t want) to do at any given moment, and he’s not shy about saying so.

The Girl was a trouper. She cried when the shots went in, of course, but she let it go fairly quickly.

The shock came when The Wife and The Girl got home.

The Boy asked if she got shots. I said yes. He asked TW if TG had her stuffed bear (she did). Then he walked over to TG, saying “oh, sweetheart, it will be okay,” and gently stroked her hair. For the next 15 minutes or so, as the bedtime rituals commenced, he was attentive to her, sweet, affectionate, and reassuring. They both went to bed without incident, and slept through the night like little angels.

If you don’t have kids, it might be hard to appreciate the magnitude of this. The Girl slept though the night after getting two shots. The Boy showed intelligent, thoughtful, genuine concern for his sister, and wasn’t even angling for anything.

Score!

Sometimes, they surprise you...

Thursday, August 04, 2005

 

Opening Acts

The Wife and I recently caught a concert by a band that was big in the 1980’s, mostly for its visual appeal to its female fans. (The crowd could be described as soccer moms, with some hapless husbands dragged along.) The band did what it does, but the opening act was memorable.

Nobody there had ever heard of it. It was a five-piece, with a female singer and an all-guy band. The singer looked to be in her mid 30’s, and she tried to affect a world-weary, success-is-so-shallow vibe that just doesn’t work when you’re unknown. She was attractive enough, but so very annoying that the appeal didn’t work. Their sound, such as it was, could be described as the stuff that Laura Branigan left off her records for not being good enough. Flat keyboards, banal lyrics, embarrassing attempts to rock out, and unconvincing glam.

It was compelling, in the same way that a train wreck is compelling. It was like watching a distaff Spinal Tap, in real time. There was the sense of an elaborate prank, maybe a poorly conceived reality show. I was embarrassed for them. The only applause they received, other than some very, very late courtesy clapping that started several seconds after each song ended, was when the singer announced “this will be our last song.”

I’m glad I saw them, because a band that awful helps you appreciate good bands more.

As a matter of principle, I try to be kind to opening acts. An opening act is pretty much in a no-win situation, by definition. Nobody came to see them. They’re sort of the first-base-coach of music; nobody really knows why they’re there, nobody sets out to be one, but they’re just part of the overall package. And there have been some good opening acts over the years; just last year, we saw R.E.M. open for Springsteen at a Vote for Change show. That didn’t suck. Back in the ‘90’s, I saw Bettie Serveert open for Juliana Hatfield, and came away thinking the order was backwards.

But hoo-boy, did this one suck. The sheer gravitational force of its suckitude threatened to rend the fabric of space-time. The more discreet members of the audience simply looked away.

Why would a known band hook up with such a lousy opener? Is it to benefit by the contrast? Do they work especially cheap? Does somebody have a sick sense of humor? Did somebody lose a bet?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

 

Academic Salaries and House Prices

At my current school, we’ve had multiple searches recently go South when finalists withdrew their applications. If it happens once, you shrug it off, because it could be anything. When it happens over and over again, you start to wonder.

I honestly don’t think it’s the college. As community colleges go, this is a damn good one – generally well-run, beautiful campus, pretty area, etc. While the culture can be a bit staid, it’s really a great place to work, and most of the people are both sane and friendly. (Exceptions exist, obviously, but we try not to put them on the search committees.)

The culprit, I think, is the runup in house prices. Prices here have doubled or more in the last five years, while salaries have crept up 3-4% annually. The house-buying-power of a salary here has plummeted precipitously. With the annual increase in houses running at 15% or so, it doesn’t take long for academics to be priced out of the market.

Yesterday I ran into someone at lunch who works in one of the campus offices. She has one of those 35-40k office jobs that form the backbone of the economy. She and her husband, who has a similar job elsewhere, still live with her parents, because they can’t afford a place of their own within a reasonable commute. They’re college grads with full-time jobs and without children, and they live with her parents. They can’t even save, really, since the runup in prices is faster than their savings accumulates. They’re starting to look at jobs in flyover country, just so they can live like adults. She doesn't want to leave the area, since she has so much family here, but she doesn't really see a choice.

I’ve noticed that many of the more recent hires here (myself included) live out of county, tolerating longer-than-normal commutes, because we can’t afford to live closer. We're economic expats. The surrounding counties are also quite pricey and climbing fast, though, so if you didn’t buy at least three years ago, you’re SOL.

By our local affordable housing guidelines, a new tenure-track instructor with relatively little experience would be eligible for subsidized housing. Stay in school, kids!

What’s frustrating about it, besides the obvious, is that the longtime faculty here talk about the runup in house prices as an unalloyed Good Thing. They bought back in the 1970’s, so their mortgages are paid at this point, and the runup represents pure, painless gain for them. They haven’t connected the dots: higher house prices means fewer community college students. Our demographic is moving farther and farther away. And we’re having trouble hiring people, even in this employer’s market, because what we pay just doesn’t match what it costs now to live here.

I don’t have a clue how to solve this one. It would be lovely if our salaries kept pace with the housing market, but 15% annual raises are about as likely in this political climate as pigs growing wings.

Weirdly, this hasn’t affected our ability to attract adjuncts. As near as I can tell, this is because adjuncts are either married to wealthy people (we have an astonishing number of those), or willing to live like church mice. Some bought back in the 1970’s or 1980’s, so they’re pretty much immune.

Presidents sometimes get housing allowances, but I don’t see that happening for faculty, staff, or administration lower than President. The cost would be prohibitive, and the precedent would prove toxic over time. We’re not about to build faculty housing – we don’t even have student dorms – so I really don’t know what to do about this.

Any ideas out there?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

 

From Faculty to Administration, Part 3: The Downside

Okay, if the pay and opportunities are better in administration, what’s the downside?

Plenty.

Start with the obvious: time in the classroom is supplanted by time in meetings. You have to be in the office, dressed for office work, five days (or more) per week, twelve months per year. You will be subject to public scrutiny. Your utterances will be parsed, both fairly and unfairly, and will be taken as evidence for any number of conspiracy theories. You will be accused of all manner of personal perfidy, of selling out academic integrity, of running the college like a business, of ignoring the time-honored traditions of (whatever), and of being ignorant of the inner workings of many of the disciplines in your area. You will see the seamier sides of the lives of people you respect. You will be forced to keep one hand tied behind your back while being publicly attacked by people who have tenure but lack knowledge of the case at hand. (You’ll know why they’re wrong, but the relevant facts will be confidential.) In some cases, depending on your circumstances and your institution, you may not have tenure, but you’ll have to manage people who do.

You’ll be accused of favoritism for applying the FMLA. (That actually happened at my previous school, when I arranged a maternity leave for a pregnant professor.) You’ll be accused of holding a grudge against long-standing department chairs, faculty, or anyone who wanted your job. You’ll have to maintain a calm demeanor in the face of a tenured, credential professional having a personal meltdown in your office. You’ll have to maintain a calm demeanor in the face of extreme prima donna behavior by people who can’t be fired. You will be called many names, both to your face and behind your back.

This ain’t for sissies.

We deal with it in different ways. The successful women managers I know deal with it in one of two ways: either extreme graciousness (thereby disarming opposition) or extreme directness. (The most successful one manages to do both. I’m not sure how she does it, but I take notes on method whenever she speaks.) The successful male managers deal with it by compartmentalizing. Unsuccessful managers of either gender screw up by basing business decisions on personal considerations, based on either personal like/dislike or making the prima donna go away. The ‘personal like/dislike’ category fails because it simply ratchets up the expectations of the favored (so the eventual, inevitable ‘no’ comes as betrayal), and it feeds the resentment of the disfavored. Appeasing prima donnas simply encourages them, and encourages others to adopt prima donna behavior.

Some faculty will consider you a sellout. Others will consider you failed faculty.

If you’re willing to let this stuff roll off your back, the administrative track can carry some very real intrinsic rewards.

For one, you can tinker with the structure of rewards at your college, to try to bring them into alignment with the college’s goals. (Tenure represents a natural limit to this, as does the omnipresent funding shortfall, but there’s usually at least some room to move.) You can, depending on who preceded you, sometimes right some past wrongs. You can bring new perspectives to settled procedures, like a new lamp in an old room. In the best of cases, you can provide the background conditions for professors and students to do their best work.

If you have a vision of what your college could be, and a firm set of values, and a lot of patience, and stamina, and thick skin, and willingness to accept vicarious gratification, and the ability to be nice to people who aren’t nice to you, and a sense of the big picture, and a sense of irony, and an internal emotional gyroscope, and the ability to see three steps ahead, and a high tolerance for verbal abuse…

and that’s why the jobs are easier to find.

(Sorry if this seems whiny. Just wanted to give the other side of the story.)

Monday, August 01, 2005

 

From Faculty to Administration, Part 2

In a previous entry, I mentioned the difference in cognitive style I noticed in moving from faculty to administration. (The short version: faculty prize nuance and complexity, leading to further questions, where administrators prize simplification and decisiveness, leading to action. Neither is better than the other; each is a reasonable reflection of an institutional role. Relatively few people, in my experience, are good at both.)

Here, I’ll do a commercial for crossing over to the dark side, and explore some of the ways to do it. (Maybe I should call myself Dean Darth? Hmm...)

If you’re a struggling grad student, adjunct, or young professor, the likeliest opportunities to become available will carry titles like ‘coordinator,’ ‘director,’ or ‘assistant/associate...’ Typically, ‘coordinators’ are full-time faculty who get release time and/or a stipend to oversee a subset of a curriculum or a department. (Example: if the prelaw program is housed in the poli sci department, one of the poli sci faculty would carry the title of prelaw coordinator.) Depending on the magnitude of the task, the budget and culture of the college, and the desperation of the institution’s need, the compensation for coordinators ranges from symbolic to minor.

The appeal of this role, I think, is threefold: the task itself can be appealing, it can break the monotony of teaching the same courses over and over again, and it can provide a taste of administrative work. If you’re getting tired of teaching, say, four sections of freshman comp every semester from now to eternity, the chance to coordinate the poetry journal should not be taken lightly.

Historically, as I understand it (and I haven’t seen any studies on this), faculty fought over these positions. This is no longer the case, due mostly to the adjuncting-out of the full-time ranks when someone retires. From what I’ve seen, most faculty who want to try administration do so before, say, fifty, so if a department is very top-heavy in age, it will probably have very few volunteers for these positions. With relatively few young’uns around, the pipeline is thin.

For the few young’uns who get in, this is actually good news. Options will become available.

(In some cases, some colleges have gone so far as to appoint adjuncts as coordinators. While that’s considerably riskier than I would want to be, since adjuncts are likelier to leave at any given moment, an adjunct who does this kind of task well makes a VERY attractive candidate for a full-time position in a department that needs people with administrative skills.)

‘Director’ and ‘Assistant/Associate...’ positions tend to be full-time in their own right. They are usually twelve-month positions with five day workweeks; their hours more closely resemble the typical office job than the typical faculty member. Sometimes they require or carry faculty rank, but they frequently don’t. (I’ve heard of universities that will hire Assistant Deans from wherever, but require faculty rank to move to Associate Dean or Dean. If you apply for an Assistant Dean position somewhere, be sure to ask about this. You may be bumping the ceiling sooner than you think.)
While tenured faculty like to dump on people in these roles, there is something to be said for them. They usually offer greater inter-institutional mobility than faculty roles do (other than the superstars). They offer a greater degree of intellectual freedom, ironically enough, and they often leave (most of) your evenings free. They are frequently more family-friendly than the tenure track, on which you can work any 80 hours a week you want. They also offer a chance to prove yourself administratively.

The usual route to a full academic deanship is through chairing a department. Here, too, the pipeline is becoming conspicuously thin at many colleges, as sustained failure to replace retirees has led to a real shortage of young full-timers (and an even greater shortage of young full-timers who are willing to consider a task that would slow their research agenda).

Department chairs carry faculty rank, and receive more release time and/or larger stipends than coordinators. They (usually) do the scutwork of the department, like taking care of book orders or making sure the phone bills get paid, and they often take the lead in recruitment (which, in practice, usually means interviewing and selecting adjuncts). In many colleges, they assign teaching schedules. They do the evaluations of department secretaries, and serve as ambassadors or interpreters between faculty and The Administration.

As a Dean, I’m amazed at how few full-time faculty would even consider being a chair. It’s a difficult job to do well, certainly, but good chairs are highly valued, and form the pool from which deans are drawn. They make a tremendous difference on the ground – a chair who selects adjuncts well and builds trust with them makes the college stronger. A bad chair can make everybody’s life miserable.

I’m annoyed at how many pieces in the Chronicle (and the blogosphere) assume that the options available to young Ph.D.’s boil down to tenure track faculty, visiting faculty, adjunct faculty, or leaving academia. It’s just not true. And once you’re full-time somewhere, the opportunities for adding arrows to your quiver are typically there for the asking. (And if they aren’t yet, they will be soon.)

That was actually how I started. I was full-time faculty, teaching the same courses over and over again and feeling myself getting into a rut. I went to my Dean and asked him for some administrative assignments, for variety’s sake. He looked at me like I had horns (apparently, nobody had ever asked for that before). I assured him that I was serious. He started tossing tasks my way within a few weeks, and I was on my way.

As a dean now, I can recognize just how out of the ordinary that was. One of my ongoing struggles is finding people to help with the various tasks that keep emerging. For someone from the faculty ranks to just volunteer, especially if that someone was capable and mostly sane, would be very, very welcome.

Simply put, the administrative job market is much friendlier than the faculty job market (outside of the really hot fields, like nursing). This will become increasingly true with retirements, since the usual pipeline for new administrators has been neglected for a generation. While you may have to put up with some attitude from the tenured ranks, you’ll also have the chance to make sure that some important decisions are made in rational, ethical ways. Put differently, if you don’t move into management, someone else will, and their decisions will affect you. The pointy-haired manager in Dilbert may be exaggerated, but he’s recognizable; if you’re saner than that, better you than him.

Next entry: the dangers.

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