Thursday, November 09, 2006


Ask the Administrator: Preferring Idiots

A director of a career services office writes:

We have an opening for a career counselor position. I've talked to a number of people and forwarded with a recommendation a person who has more experience than me in career counseling. He's trained career counselors; he's written books about it; he's got a PhD. The dean doesn't want him. The dean complained that my candidates for career counseling positions have experience career counseling. . . . I kid you not. He wants me to look for other candidates.

Do you suppose that he'd hire a physicist for the economics department? Or how about an architect for accounting? Does this make any sense to you?

Yes and no. It could make sense in the presence of other variables, none of which help you.

A few possibilities leap to mind. First, the dean might already have someone in mind for the position, but knowing that his 'pet' candidate isn't all that strong, he has to tank the upfront search to make his choice plausible.

Second, the dean might not want to fund the position at all, but rather than being upfront about it, might find it politically easier to just nitpick each candidate until you just give up. If this is the case, then I'd nominate your dean for 'moron' status. There are much better ways to do business.

Third, this position might have been unofficially designated somewhere as an affirmative action hire, so you'll have to keep going until you find someone who allows them to check off the desired box. If this is the case, there's not much to be done about it, though I would expect the dean to give some sort of hint about which box is desired.

Fourth, the dean might fear 'flight risk' from a strong candidate. If there have been multiple recent departures, he might be spooked about people leaving, so he'd avoid anybody that anybody else would want (that is, anybody who's conspicuously qualified). On the upside, you could expect loyalty from the new hire. On the downside, the new hire will probably suck, at least at first.

Fifth, and probably the likeliest, the dean might want to be able to lowball on salary, and assumes (probably correctly) that anybody well-qualified wouldn't accept a low salary. Somebody who's just grateful for an incredible break, on the other hand, might be willing to accept a lowball offer.

Finally, your dean might just be a blithering idiot. I prefer to treat this as a 'residual' explanation; that is, don't resort to it until all else has failed. It tends to short-circuit understanding, since there's really no understanding a blithering idiot. That's not to say it's never true, just that you shouldn't go to it too quickly.

One of my continuing frustrations in administration is that I keep seeing very intelligent, savvy, hardworking people making boneheaded decisions. (I've worked under enough different regimes at this point to have some comparative perspective on this.) Often, a boneheaded decision reflects some underlying variable to which you don't have access. Sometimes it reflects personal connections and/or weaknesses (family ties, personal loyalties, blind spots generally). And yes, sometimes it's just a brain cramp. Usually, though, if a smart person gets called on a brain cramp, s/he'll admit it.

I've heard worse. A friend of mine at a department in the midwest reported that one faculty search almost wound up hiring the candidate everybody acknowledged as weaker, just to screw over the faction within the department that the candidate would join. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, but it was close, and it took a fight.

I'm suspicious of any manager who always has to be the smartest one in the room. As a manager, if you don't have the self-confidence to hire people smarter than you, you're in the wrong job.

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

One other alternative... the person who is the head of career counseling may not have that much experience and the dean wants to protect them in some way....

This is akin to situtions I've seen in which having a PhD can work against a candidate in hiring decisions... because the chair is an MA and/or most of the members of the department don't have PhDs.
Which raises another possibility: that the person who has been 'tapped' to succeed to the headship is weaker than the PhD candidate, and this is a way of preventing competition ahead of time.
Yet another possibility: the dean feels threatened by someone with all of those qualifications and all of that experience.
Unfortunately I think this sort of situation isn't that uncommon, but I suspect it is more common in K-12 than it is at the CC/JC level, and more common at the CC/JC level than it is at Big U.

I worked in a K-12 district for a time. From on the outside of the district office looking in, it appeared to me that the number one priority for most of the administration was never to hire anyone who might threaten their position, i.e., anyone smarter/better qualified/more competent than themselves. The administration seemed to be packed with living examples of the Peter Principle.

There may have been some "friend-of-a-friend"-type hiring going on that I mistook for Peter-Principle action, or maybe there just weren't intelligent, competent people out there who wanted to work in the administration of that district, but after working around some of these administrators for a number of years, I found myself thinking-- uncharitably, I know-- "Wow, sh*t really does float sometimes."

I no longer work at that K-12 district, but I'm starting to notice that some of the recent administration hires at my current employer seem to have a few common traits: they are mostly from the same minority group, they do things that don't quite inspire confidence-- one administrator sends every one of her emails in ALL CAPS and likes to use emoticons and colored text in them; after hiring another administrator, they kept the far more experienced interim administrator that had preceded him around as a "consultant" for a year or so, etc.-- and I find myself wondering if I'm watching the same kind of administration taking root as the one I worked under previously.

Maybe my current employer has a hard time attracting good candidates, and I'm just an armchair critic with no real insights or understanding, but I'm starting to think that sh*t floats in higher education as well as it does in K-12.
The best marker on whether you should give a crap is to look at who your boss or bosses boss hires
Do not be surprised. Logic and common sense have no place in academia (especially on the administrative level.
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