Friday, July 07, 2006


Ask the Administrator: If You Knew Then...

A new correspondent writes:

I have been approached to consider being dean of a
very small private college. Having not worked in
academia very long I wonder what would be the first
three questions you would ask your potential employer
and what things have you learned that you wish you
knew on the first day of your job. Finally, knowing
then, what you know now, would you change from
teaching to administration?

You’ve been approached? Damn. Every job I’ve landed has involved campaigning.

Since my experience has been on the academic side (as opposed to, say, dean of admissions), I’ll focus on that.

Several (more than three, I’m afraid) quick questions to start:

- Does the position carry tenure, or, at least, tenure-eligibility? If you fall out of political favor, will there be a job for you on the faculty, or will you be out on the sidewalk?

- Assuming that department chairs report to you, how long have they been in their positions? Are they elected or appointed? Fixed terms? Term limits? Chairs-for-life?

- Why is the position open?

- How long has the VP/Provost been there? The President?

- How many full-time faculty are there? How many were there, say, five years ago? Is the change noticeable?

- Is the faculty unionized?

- What is the single most contentious issue on campus?

- In ballpark terms, what are the demographics of the students? (The culture of a spoiled-rich-kid school will be different from that of a first-generation-college school, which, in turn, will be different from a we-take-our-religion-very-seriously school.)

- How long does it take a new program to get approved? (If the answer is “what’s a new program?,” run.)

- How much of your budget is discretionary? (Sometimes it’s labeled ‘contingency.’) Does your college operate on use-it-or-lose-it?

- How long until the next reaccreditation visit? What’s the biggest issue the college needs to address by then? (Hint: it’s usually ‘outcomes assessment.’ If you aren’t familiar with that, you’ll need to get familiar with it.)

- How does the college distinguish itself from its competitors?

- Does the Dean’s office have a secretary of its own? (You’d be surprised how many don’t.) This should be a deal-breaker.

- Are there any immediate plans for construction or renovation on campus? (These projects are always, without exception, money-sucking nightmares.)

I’d also ask about usual recruitment practices. Since you’re apparently being courted, I’d ask about how vacancies are usually filled. Does the college usually do advertised searches with committees, promote from within, and/or go by personal connections? You can learn quite a bit from the answer to that.

A few questions to ask yourself:

- Can you keep your cool while being falsely accused by people who have tenure, and are completely insulated from the consequences of their own statements and actions?

- Are you comfortable with being a ‘public figure,’ and all of the scrutiny (both fair and unfair) that goes along with that?

- Do you have a clear idea of what ‘success’ in your position would mean? Other than preventing flare-ups, what would be your primary job function?

- Would you be insanely jealous of the folks who get to teach for a living? (I’m prone to bouts of this.)

I would do it again, but my teaching career was at a proprietary school where the annual teaching load was 5/5/5 and faculty weren’t eligible for tenure. Administration was my escape hatch. If I had a more traditional tenured position with a courseload closer to the industry standard, I’d have to think long and hard about it.

(A word about salaries: overheated faculty fantasies to the contrary notwithstanding, the salary premium for a dean is shockingly low, considering the increased number of hours you have to be around. Presidents make a lot, and vp’s do okay, but at smaller and non-elite schools, anything below vp shouldn’t be taken for the money. The situation may be different at research universities and/or elite colleges.)

Wise readers: what questions would you add?

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

Your last one, about jealousy of those who teach full time, is a key one. I would add, if appropriate, "are you prepared to give up time for reading and writing in your discipline?" After 5 years, it's those two that have pushed me back to the classroom. I love my administrative work, and I would make the same choice again, but it's time to rediscover my inner economist.
Even if you're being recruited for the position, there will almost certainly be more than one person in the administrative hierarchy above you. So ask yourself--who's doing the recruiting? Does (will) the person to whom you report want you in the job? If not, run.
At Mediocre U., the regents require administrators to find some way to be in direct contact and communication with students beyond normal office-business. Some deans lead useful roundtables/committees that serve the campus community well; some are involved in campus-based charities; some simply count going to football games as their student contact.

I might ask what expectations there are in this regard.

BTW, all deans at Mediocre U. make six-figures. Outside of the med school, engineering college, and B-school, very few faculty earn even close.

The question that I will ask in the future is "what is the governence structure"? If you're doing any sort of AA deaning then you'll need to know whether there's a faculty senate, town meeting, union, etc...

[BTW - my response to a question based upon this killed me at my last interview.]
CCD! Great answer! All the aspects you mentioned are important.

One other- get past the ego and ask yourself "Why me?" Unfortunately, leaders are good at finding folks who are workaholic types who will take on a lot of responsibility, expanding the boundaries of a job without comensurate support and/or pay. Are you the newest (sorry) patsy for the administration to dump work and blame upon? Be careful.
Actually, DD, I'd like to hear what answers you are expecting (or hoping for) to some of your questions. OK, I figured out what answer you wanted for
"Does the Dean’s office have a secretary of its own?" But what about "Is the faculty unionized?" Do you prefer that they aren't? Why?

The union question tells you a lot about the boundaries of the possible on a given campus. If the faculty is unionized, then raises are usually contractual and across-the-board, which is worth knowing going in. Unions also tend to try to entrench work rules, making it harder to respond quickly when student demand shifts. That said, my current college has a union, and I haven't had any problems with it. In a way, ruling merit pay out of bounds from the get-go actually saves a lot of headaches, since anybody who receives a less-than-stellar merit raise automatically resents you for life. This way, it's out of my hands, so I don't spend most of my time justifying judgments of performance. It's a time-saver, at the cost of over-rewarding the weakest performers and under-rewarding the strongest.
I would also add a question (to the writer) about whether s/he is okay with the 9-5 work schedule... or 7a-9p, and some weekends? I love the administrative job I hold, but I do feel sad for the days when I could watch "Prime time in the daytime" and work on my own schedule. People expect to find you in your office as crises arise, and that is almost every day!
It might be helpful to "try out" administration before you leap in head first. I've spent the last 2 years as a baby administrator. At first, it was fun.

But after two years of the typical bickering, back-stabbing, and my own preference to avoid conflict (major weakeness for ANY adminstrator), I'm happily reverting back to a humble research prof. Over this 2-year gig, I increasingly resented the time away from my own research. At this point, no money is worth the headaches. And the decision-making power is transitory, and largely a illusion.

again, great post.
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