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:

  • Ascension to Presidencies. VPAA's or Provosts are still the most common sources for new Presidents.

  • Burnout. As stressful as deaning is, those jobs are far worse. I have the relative luxury of being able to say “not my problem” about the non-credit side of the house, for example. VPAA's don't get to say that about much of anything.

  • Changes in Presidencies. Given the importance of the VPAA role, it's not at all unusual for a new President to want to choose her own.

  • Internal political conflicts. Given that one of the key constituencies for a VPAA is a group with tenure, and given that funding is perennially short, a VPAA worth her salt will inevitably piss off some people who have long memories and no intention of going anywhere. Over time, these add up. Like a team owner firing a coach when the players slump, a President facing a discontented faculty can always replace a VPAA.

  • Performance. Sometimes people perform themselves out of a job. This one is self-explanatory.

  • Counting error. “Interim” VPAA's are relatively common, but I'd suggest that counting them in the sample would be somewhat misleading. Of course, there's “interim” and then there's “interim.” Some “interims” truly have no designs on the job, and agree to take it on only reluctantly and as a service to the institution. Others use it as an audition period to get the job permanently. I'm not sure how to account for that. I've seen reluctant interims last for years while colleges frantically searched for somebody acceptable to all constituencies, who would actually take the job.

  • Retirement. With the founding generation of community college leaders getting towards retirement age, this is becoming a larger factor than it once was.

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.