Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Three Years

In a classic case of burying the lede, an IHE story headlining four-percent raises for college administrators (I wish...) mentioned halfway through, in passing, that the median time in office for Vice Presidents of Academic Affairs is three years. That's less than half as long as the median time in office for Presidents.

If you don't know academic org charts, at the typical smaller college, the VPAA is the Chief Academic Officer. In the absence of a Provost, she reports directly to the President of the college. In most cases, the VPAA is the second-in-command, much like a Provost would be at a larger school. (At some small schools, a “dean of academic affairs” serves a similar function.) At my college, department chairs report to deans, and deans report to the VPAA. Given how much of a President's time is spent on external issues – dealing with other colleges, industry, government, donors, etc. -- the VPAA is often, for all intents and purposes, the key figure for day-to-day internal operations. (This can vary depending on the balance of power between the VPAA and the VP for Business and Finance, but it's a pretty good rule of thumb.)

It's an inexact analogy, but the British government offers a useful comparison. Think of the President as the monarch, and the VPAA as the Prime Minister. The monarch is the most visible figure, but for most purposes, largely ceremonial. The Prime Minister actually gets stuff done, or doesn't. Prime Ministers generally don't last as long as monarchs. (The key difference is that the President picks the VPAA, but the monarch doesn't pick the Prime Minister.)

Three years is an astonishingly short time for the median VPAA, given the median time by the typical tenured professor. If the VPAA comes from outside the campus (as opposed to a dean moving up the ranks), it takes a good six months to a year just to learn the lay of the land. Even moving up the ranks wouldn't shave much off that, since the scope of jurisdiction at the VP level is so much wider; even an experienced dean would have to learn quite a bit, and quickly. (This happened at my college, where we had a twenty-year-veteran dean step in as interim VPAA for several months a few years ago while we searched for a new one. She commented that she had no idea how much she didn't know about the college until she did that.)

Frustratingly, the article doesn't go into the reasons for such high turnover in such a key office. Off the top of my head, I can imagine a few possibilities:

Even granting some weight to each of those, and imagining that there are plenty more, three years is still a pretty striking figure. Given that each VPAA will have her own priorities, management style, strengths and weaknesses, and personal baggage, colleges must spend an inordinate amount of time in adjustment mode. And after sticking around through the life cycles of several VP's, I could imagine senior tenured faculty almost involuntarily adopting a “this too shall pass” attitude whenever a new one steps in. That kind of cynical detachment, or stationary inertia, is terribly destructive to the atmosphere of a campus, no matter how indulgent it might feel at a given moment.

Worse, rapid turnover of VP's makes it harder to find good ones. Would you uproot your family to take a job with such a high risk of ending quickly? I've heard complaints about the thinning of the candidate pool, most of which I wrote off to a combination of the kind of golden age nostalgia to which academics are particularly prone, and the lack of faculty hiring over the last twenty years (which leads to a lack of successors in the pipeline). Now I need to add 'volatility' to my list of explanations. Of course, to attract smart people to high-risk positions requires higher rewards. The executive salary picture is starting to clarify.

A modest proposal for colleges and universities doing VPAA searches: offer renewable multi-year contracts. Hire carefully, but give the new hires the modicum of security to take the risks they need to take. Otherwise, the alternative is to continue unproductive churn at the top, and unproductive cynicism in the tenured ranks.

DD I enjoy your blog but your desire for a higher salary struck a bad chord with me. When we hired a new Dean last summer the starting salary was bumped up $20k. The new person (with MA) now makes over 2x my starting salary and I have a Ph.D. Also the Deans health plan is more comprehensive and cheaper; they get in-district travel expenses; they get an annual annuity in the low 4-figures; and their retirement and pension is calculated at a higher rate. Our president is one of the highest paid for his level in the state. One of the VPs here voted himself a 10% raise last year. Administrators are paid just fine, thank you very much.
WRT contracts for administrative personnel, I really like the idea of rolling contracts, say 3-4 year term, extended by a year each year. If someone REALLY messes up you fire them and pay the years remaining.
cc prof -- when it comes to salaries, let's just say mileage varies. At my college, the faculty got a 4% raise, and administrators got 0 to 3 percent. Faculty get more vacation, more sick days, and often higher salaries. (If I were transferred to the English department, my salary would be 18th in the department.)

I'm not arguing that your school is right in what it did; I'm just saying that blanket generalizations like "admin salaries are bloated" fly in the face of much of reality.
Three years as an average doesn't seem that outrageous to me.

But then, the supposedly most important job in the land is a four year, renewable one time contract, right?

You often argue that faculty should be treated like business executives, held accountable, fired as soon as they aren't as productive for the pay as someone younger would be for lesser pay. Why shouldn't upper administrators, whose work if far more comparible to business models, be treated like executives.
Maybe the administration got 0% raise because their salaries already were too high.
At my school, we tend to give a larger percentage raise to the lowest paid workers....10% of 20K is more important to that individual's way of life. Besides, it really helps morale!
ccprof - if you want that fat salary, apply for the job. You may find that at only 2X your starting salary the hassles involved are not worth it.
Bardiac -- I'm being consistent. I've consistently argued for renewable multi-year contracts for faculty, which is the same model I'm arguing for for administrators. I don't think either should have a special deal, and I'm not nearly as mercenary as your synopsis suggests.
I am curious what the resistance is to paying a higher wage to administrators.

It would seem to me that what we generally have is the invisible hand of the market at work here. It is not un-noticed at many institutions that their is a definite strata in salaries (at least at the R1 schools with which I am most familiar) with the arts and letters near the bottom, then engineering, then business faculty. If they University is blessed with a law or medical school, then we find that those faculty tend to top the list.

There is no great "mystery" here, despite a Dean's comment to me to the contrary. While he felt that the B-school salaries were "counter-intuitive" it isn't, when you consider that there are forces competing for the same PhD'd folks that B Schools are trying to attract to their faculties. The same is true for lawyers, and doctors.

So--once again, in support of Dean Dad... if you wish to have quality, committed administrators, pay them a wage that will compete not just with the salaries for administrators at other schools, but with the other competing forces for their labor hours and skill sets.
DD said it perfectly when he stated that high risks equals high rewards. On top of the fact that a candidate for such a position must be skilled in management and leadership(a skill very much desired in the corp world), their short tenure is a major risk to them professionally and personally. It's a risk that tenured faculty do not deal with. Thus they are not paid for it.
Ivory -- I was asst. Dean for 2 years. The money was great but I despised the work. I gave it up in August. Since then I've been busier than ever, but I still have tenure and the rewards from teaching and service are nice.
cc prof

Since you've sat in the administrator's chair and found it to be uncomfortable, I find your attitude about their pay perplexing. I would expect you to make the argument the other way - starting salaries should go up since administrators are the only ones making something that resembles a good wage. I've never met anyone in education that I considered overpaid.
Ivory, I don't understand your comment. From my own personal experience, administrators are overpaid. Yes it was a lot of work but does that justify the higher salaries that I have encountered? I do not believe so.
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