Friday, June 15, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Going for Deanships

A new correspondent writes:

My question has to do with a dear friend of mine, an assistant professor of music
at a small, four-year liberal arts college in the Northeast. Dear
Friend has two years' experience as a full-time faculty member and is
still ABD. He spent about five years as an adjunct (mostly at four-
year schools), and he was very active in student leadership in
graduate school. What he lacks (other than a semester or two of
adjunct work) is two-year college experience. He has it in his head
that because he's practically a PhD and spent a few months as an
acting adjunct faculty coordinator for the music department of one of
the schools where he was adjuncting, he's administrative material.
He wants to start applying for community college deanships. I've
told him that I doubt his application will be taken seriously, but he
thinks I'm full of crap. What do you think?

Sign me,

Anything can happen at any given place. That said, though, he'd have to catch lightning in a bottle for this to work.

The typical path to an academic deanship (as opposed to one in student affairs, say) is through serving first as a department chair or something similar to it. That's not an iron law, but it's a pretty common requirement. For the most part, you need to get tenure before becoming a chair. (Again, not an iron law, but exceptions are rare.) The idea, other than just gatekeeping, is to make sure that the folks in responsible roles have some idea what it is that they're managing. A department that may seem perfectly congenial and sane when you're a professor in it may reveal itself to be completely nuts when you suddenly have to manage it.

A college that appoints deans who have never managed faculty before is taking a real risk. The theory behind requiring chair service first is to make sure than someone stepping into a deanship will already have been disabused of the romantic myths of academic life, and won't be dumbstruck the first time a tenured professor cites academic freedom as justification for skipping class, or runs over her laptop with her car. You need a certain calm in the face of complete insanity, and experience can help with that, even for those with the natural temperament for it. (Some people never develop the temperament for it, and are nightmares to work with or for. Sadly, academic brilliance and managerial temperament are carried on different genes.) I'm one of the stabler people I know, and I still get thrown off my game from time to time when some moonbat with an agenda and way too much time on his hands gets new signals from the mothership.

I could imagine a very small college looking past inexperience, if its bench is severely depleted and senior. I could also imagine an imperious VP looking past inexperience, if he thinks it equates to malleability. The former may or may not be appealing; the latter certainly shouldn't be.

Over the past few years, a few studies have connected the dots and found that the relative dearth of full-time faculty hiring at lower-echelon colleges over the last few decades has depleted the pipeline for future chairs and deans. I'm not sure that colleges in this group have yet adjusted their hiring expectations accordingly; they're still able to blame weak applicant pools on idiosyncratic factors. But as the current crop of deans and administrators retires, the failure to develop a farm team will become hard to ignore.

My advice for your friend, if his role at his current college is fairly secure, is to volunteer for 'coordinator' positions or other ad hoc administrative assignments. Get a little experience, show some interest, and establish himself as a likely future chair. If the pipeline of younger hires with both taste and aptitude for administration is as thin there as it is nationally, eventually, he'll be in good shape. Just not yet.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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