Thursday, February 23, 2006


In Which I Resort to Semaphore, Trumpets, Flashing Arrows, and a Spotlight

Danigirl occasionally posts what she calls ten-pages-in book reviews, in which she gives her impressions of a book she just started. It’s a cool idea, though I haven’t felt strongly enough early enough about a book to imitate it, until now.

I just started the 2006 edition of The Search Committee Handbook: A Guide to Recruiting Administrators, by Theodore Marchese and Jane Fiori Lawrence (Stylus Pub.). (Yes, I’m a nerd.) It’s a foundation supported guidebook for colleges and universities to give their search committees when recruiting deans and vp’s. On page ix of the introduction, Marchese and Lawrence observe:

The most significant – and least understood – change [in administrative searches since the first edition of the book came out in 1987] is the recent sharp decline in the size of applicant pools for administrative posts. In 1987, search committees placed ads and watched confidently as 100 to 200 applications arrived in the mail. Today, the same ad might bring 20 to 40 applications…The reasons for this sharp drop in the size of pools are many, albeit speculative. The tragic events of September 11, 2001, may have played a role in convincing more professionals to adopt a ‘stay put’ mentality toward their homes and careers. The cumulative effects of poor treatment in prior searches deter candidates from entering subsequent searches. The phenomena of dual careers, promotion from within, housing market distortions, restrictive pension rules, and geographic preference also keep candidates from moving. Too, able young faculty and staff look at the work demands that come with an administrative position, and at the revolving doors through which middle and senior managers come and go, and decide to pass on the ‘opportunity.’


If the kids weren’t in bed, I would have thrown the book at a lamp.

They start with an observation that I’ve seen echoed elsewhere, that the pool of candidates for administrative positions is shallower than it has been in a long time, and the trend is accelerating. Okay, interesting. And the reasons they offer?

September 11: Uh, no. That might explain a sharp drop that particular year, but the trend started well before 2001, and is still accelerating.

Poor treatment in prior searches: Presumably, this isn’t markedly worse than in the past. It’s real, but it can’t explain change.

Dual careers: Damn those women, getting jobs! Except they had jobs in the 80’s and 90’s, too. Not the culprit. Besides, some of those jobs were as administrators!

Promotion from within: Not new.

Housing market distortions: Okay, there’s something to this, but it would only explain regional drops, not national ones. Fewer Ohioans apply to schools in New York City? Could be housing. But if housing were the critical variable, we’d expect to see more New Yorkers apply in Ohio. Not the case.

Restrictive pension rules: Pensions are more portable now than they were then.

Geographic preference: Yeah, nobody had geographic preferences in the 80’s.

Revolving doors: Not new.

This stuff makes me nuts.

What’s the missing variable?


Hint: The median age of full-time faculty at my college is 59.

Hint: key on that phrase, “able young faculty....”

Hint: the job market for new Ph.D.’s looking for tenure track jobs has stunk for 30 years.


Let’s see, the pipeline starts with the faculty. Able young faculty, once they’ve shown their mettle after some time as full-timers, are the farm team for new managers. We haven’t hired able young faculty in meaningful numbers since the Nixon administration.


Could it be that glaringly obvious and huge labor market distortions have something to do with it? Could it be that most faculty, by their 60’s, have pretty clearly made up their minds about going into administration, and have either done it by then or have no intention of it? Could it be that a foundation-funded study missed something so breathtakingly basic that a blogger could find it on the first frickin’ page?

Nah. Must be the wives. First they got the vote, now this…

"the recent sharp decline in the size of applicant pools for administrative posts. In 1987, search committees placed ads and watched confidently as 100 to 200 applications arrived in the mail. Today, the same ad might bring 20 to 40 applications"

Ok, maybe I'm missing something here, but I'm not squaring that statement with yours:

"most faculty, by their 60’s, have pretty clearly made up their minds about going into administration"

It seems to me that what you answered isn't the same question as asked. I don't have the full context of the entire page of course, but the question appears to be, "Why aren't there as many applicants as there used to be?" and you gave the answer to "Why aren't there as many administrative jobs open as there were in the past?"

What am I missing here?
There are as many administrative jobs as before; there aren't as many faculty jobs as before. Since faculty positions are the main pipeline for administrative positions, the failure to hire faculty has led to a decline in the number of applicants for administrative positions.
Ah, that makes sense now. Why aren't there as many faculty jobs as before?
There are, but they are being filled by adjuncts. And those adjuncts are in dead ends since they're not going to be the pool for administrative jobs.

right, dean dad?
Yup. You nailed it, Timna.
Adjunct....I didn't realize a new vocabulary was required to enlighten me on that one?
There's another variable at work here too, namely what young faculty members like myself observe when they see administrators work. I can't say with certainty that my experiences are normative, but I've only seen two things: (1) good administrators who have their heads on straight about academics who catch hell from everybody ranging from parents to students to faculty to trustees every time they try to make a decision, and therefore burn out fast; and (2) administrators who have given up trying to make a difference in the academic culture of their campuses and now simply go along to get along.

I've been interested in maybe going into administration one of these days -- I've enjoyed the committee work and so forth that I do and I feel fairly idealistic about doing something in and for higher ed. But being a college administrator is looking increasingly like being a public high school teacher -- a thankless job with tons of stress, lots of responsibility, and virtually no authority. Compared to that, staying in my quiet niche as a professor seems pretty nice.
Adjuncts are faculty who are hired on a part-time, piecework basis, paid by the course. They are hired one semester at a time, for minimal pay. They currently teach about half the courses in higher education.

Robert -- excellent description of deaning! I'd add only that those who 'go along to get along' usually flame out, too.
I agree. Robert's description of deaning is on the money, at least in my experience. As Dean Dad chronicles frequently in his blog, deans can't pretend they don't see certain problems that faculty are often conditioned to ignore. Yet we often have very few tools at our disposal to address these problems. And when we do, complaints usually outnumber thanks. It comes with the territory, but it does get tiring.

I think that the decrease in applicants is likely mostly due to the job market distortion described above. I suspect that deaning has always been somewhat thankless, difficult, and prone to burnout. However, I do wonder if college administration is more difficult now than, say, 25 years ago. I'm only in my 4th year in administration and 8th as a faculty member, so I don't have any long-term perspective. But it does seem that higher education is a much more litigious place than it was several years ago. And also there may be a greater emphasis on different sorts of student services, e.g., counseling, support for learning disabilities, and the like. This, along with the increased move toward "accountability" in education at all levels, might add up to a significantly different climate for academic administration than there was a few decades ago. Again, though, I'd think that the lack of new tenure-track faculty is the dominant factor here.
That seems to be the norm in almost anything. The soul of the young idealist is killed by the system and the only ones left are those that like the steady paycheck with as few ripples in the pond as possible.

Ok, adjunct: n. part time help.

Now that the problem has been properly identified, what's the solution here?

Restructure the organization to allow a better follow through of adjuncts becoming full professors with a career path that leads through administration?

What about a cyclical turnover rate that demands a tenured professor do a "tour" in administration with an option to a career in higher level positions or a return to teaching?

Structure it like military ranks so that in order to stay in you must move up the chain of command taking on more supervisory and then administrative levels without the possibility of ever staying static?
How about increasing the pool of potential administrators by not restricting administrative searches to just tenured faculty? What about recruiting people to be administrators? Maybe starting a program specifically designed to retrain adjuncts for administrative positions?

Just wild ideas
For some positions, that could work. The danger is that the upper-level positions involve supervising full-time faculty, who simply won't take seriously anyone who hasn't been full-time faculty. (Presumably, that may change, but for now, it's a pretty entrenched attitude.) So the positions that could go to current adjuncts would be dead-end.
Full-time faculty are drawn into deaning, however, because real change affecting students for the long-term usually happens at this level or above.

But mid-level administrators, like chairs and university-wide committee members, flame out because we're serving two masters. I try my darndest to respond to the needs of my faculty, but I can also have my head handed to me if I put the faculty's needs above the university's.
So, we're still discussing an institution wide reform. What would the ideal end state look like?
Make sure I get a courtesy copy of your first book, and I guarantee you a favourable review!!
I had a meeting with our new VP yesterday.. the poor person is worn out, they started in July / August. They answer e-mails late at night etc... and have to be involved in way too much.

My pretty amazing dean (maybe even better than "Dean Dad") is also pretty exhausted and run-down. At our CC she has to do most of the work normally done by department chairs -- but for several large departments.

At my old CC, the dean who hired me told me "don't leave the classroom, you'd hate administration" --

On top of all this, the pay isn't that much more than faculty level, for significantly higher stress. Who needs it?

The sad thing is that I'm probably exactly the young faculty they'd like in administration... and it doesn't sound good to me.
DaniGirl -- right back at ya!

The 'cyclical' approach to administration -- make everybody take a turn -- certainly makes selection easier, but it pretty much guarantees a high level of incompetence. Even among folks who are temperamentally suited to this kind of work (a distinct minority), there's a learning curve. Forcing faculty who don't have the temperament and don't want to do it would be inviting disaster.

Anonymous (who sounds like he has a very similar background to mine -- shoot me an email, okay?) makes an excellent point about litigiousness. Just this week the VP and I spent hours trying to find a way through a legal thicket to do what obviously needs to be done, only to (eventually, and with great resignation) throw in the towel. The legal issues were so complicated that we had to choose to look the other way when confronted with behavior that, in any rational system, would result in summary termination. So the miscreant will continue to flaunt basic ethics, his colleagues will think less of us for letting him, and we have to sleep at night knowing what's happening on our watch. "Demoralizing" doesn't begin to capture it. And this week wasn't unique.

"Inside the Philosophy Factory" is right about the pay. Until you hit the Presidential level, the pay bump is much smaller than you'd expect. On a per-hour basis, it's negative.

I keep doing it out of a combination of idealism and arrogance. I think colleges can be better than they already are, and I think I have something to contribute to that. The arrogance is that I think many administrators, well, suck, and if I don't do it, they will. And I'll be damned if I report to a moron again. Talk about demoralizing...

Alas. At least I don't have to teach composition anymore.
w/r/t cycling through people: All I have is my experience in my own department, where the Chair position is 2 years long, and I've been through the tenure (so far) of three chairs (one got promoted).

It worked pretty well, honestly. Once the expectation is established that most faculty are going to have to be a Chair at some point, then making sure that everyone gets some management training becomes a routine event. This helps smooth other problems out by blurring the faculty/admin dichotomy even further.

It's probably harder for smaller Departments, but for ours, 2-year terms for Department Chairs are really good.

That's what I was thinking, short terms at the low and mid levels of administration. This is like being a citizen politician. You do your duty and then go back to your old job. It would definately give a everyone a unique perspective(huh? is that even possible?).

Anyway, let's reverse engineer this. Assume that the administration is perfect. What does that look like?
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