Monday, October 01, 2007
Looking the Part
There's an eyebrow-raising discussion over at New Kid's, in response to a first person piece in the Chronicle.
I didn't write the Chronicle piece, but with very few details changed, I could have.
The original piece is written by a candidate for a deanship or academic vice presidency (at least that's how I interpret her). She's 36, but she has already amassed all the relevant experience you'd expect for a serious candidate for an academic deanship. (VPAA strikes me as a stretch in her case, but that's neither here nor there.) She comments that she is frequently dismissed for what amounts to being too young.
Maybe so, maybe not. I'll admit that I've heard almost exactly the same things, and I'm in my thirties, so I find her account credible. Whether those things we hear are actually true, or are simply the easiest letdowns readily at hand, I don't know.
But then I read New Kid's take, which suggests that the "too young" reason isn't just an easy 'out.'
NK writes, in all apparent seriousness:
"I have a hard time wrapping my mind around working somewhere with a 36-year-old dean."
"Would you, personally, support the candidacy of a dean who was 36?"
Wow. Which part of "age discrimination" don't you understand? Would you, personally, support the candidacy of a dean who was unmarried? Would you, personally, support the candidacy of a dean who attended a different church than you? What about someone overweight? Or short? Gotta look the part, you know.
The fact that the question was addressed respectfully in the comments shows just how deep this bias actually runs.
I'm in my thirties, and look it. I don't get mistaken for a student, but I'm not graying yet, either. In any other industry, I would look like most people at a comparable rank.
But in higher ed, as the average ages have moved up, the expectation that leaders will be eminences grises has taken hold. It wasn't always so; as the article points out, in 1986 only 14 percent of college Presidents were over 60. Now, nearly half are. As with the "contagion of obesity" studies, which have basically found that people determine 'normal' by looking around them, there's a contagion of reverse ageism. The kicker, of course, is that if you do the math, it quickly becomes apparent that some of the folks who just couldn't handle the idea of hiring someone under fifty were, themselves, hired under fifty. But that was a long time ago, and the gradual aging-in-place has been happening for so long that it seems like things have always been this way.
What makes this bias so frustrating, other than the obvious, is that it's self-reinforcing. As the age bar moves ever-higher, it becomes harder to find 'suitable' candidates. So we see the same faces popping up all over, as they rearrange the deck chairs while the ship sinks. We complain that campus leadership is a bunch of old white guys, but we reject younger candidates, both men and women, for not being old enough. Alrighty then.
Diversity is more than race and gender. The fact that I even have to make this point makes me want to bash my head against the wall.
I've written before on some of the dynamics that lead to a remarkable upward trend in administrative ages: the paucity of full-time faculty hires over the last few decades that has left the pipeline thin; the ratcheting-up of expectations on the new hires, such that many new faculty are research machines who view even chairing a department as an imposition (but who regard tenure as a right, and don't see the contradiction); the much-higher vulnerability of administrative roles (as opposed to tenured faculty). All of these result, mostly unintentionally, in an increasingly gray administrative population.
Here's a thought: what if, just for the sake of argument, we looked at performance and talent, rather than age? What if, and I know this is reaching but bear with me, we accepted the possibility that you don't need gray hair and an AARP card to know something about management? What if we stopped hiring the same faces over and over again, expecting different results?
The barriers to entry in this profession are among the highest of any. Talented twenty- and thirty- somethings in many industries escape stultifying corporations to start their own businesses. Talented twenty- and thirty- something doctors and lawyers can start private practices. The reverse ageism in higher ed is a reflection of barriers to entry, not quality. I'm older than the founders of Google, for God's sake. Would you, personally, use Google?
If we're going to see progressive change, we're going to have to support getting folks with new perspectives into the roles to enact those changes. Sometimes, that will mean getting past the idea of only hiring people who look like Ted Baxter. If that makes you feel old, so be it. There's work to do, and I don't want to have to wait another ten years to do it.
Seemingly arbitrary barriers are indeed frustrating.
Now, asking those questions may be discriminatory. But, coming from a field where time to PHD is conventionally very long, these questions might come to mind (NK is in history). In English, I made it through with what many would call lightening speed - took no time off between undergrad and grad, had degree in hand at 28, got my job at 28. I'm 33 and still haven't gone up for tenure. Is there any way I'd have the relevant qualifications to move up in the ranks to a position like dean at my institution by 36? No. There just isn't. So it's not that I can't conceive of somebody having those qualifications (and I'd imagine the exact nature of the qualifications would depend on the size of institution as well and any number of other institution-specific factors), or that I wouldn't support somebody, whatever the age, if they did have them. But I think I would be more inquisitive about a younger candidate (which is, I know, discriminatory) because of what I outlined above about my own experience.
It's not right, and I'm not saying it is. But I also don't think it's so simple as you make it out to be in your post. Yes, age isn't something people can control, like race or gender. That said, everyone "has" age, sooner or later everyone's "age" changes, and how old you are does have an affect on how much you may have been able to accomplish in your chosen field (and life). When we evaluate applicants, we are evaluating their qualifications based on accomplishments. If you're in your 30s with no or limited admin experience, and you go up against somebody in their 50s with loads, yes, it's going to be harder for you to convince those in charge of hiring that you're the best candidate, based on CV alone. So is that age discrimination? Is it age discrimination that most faculty job openings in this profession are specified according to rank, which, loosely, relates to age of applicant?
Again, I see where you're coming from, but I think that you paint New Kid's post with a bit of a broad brush.
I do resonate with your point about what accomplishment looks like. The president at my undergrad was obese and (being a christian school) i heard lots of "how can he be qualified, he obviously has serious issues with self control" and the like. So I do think people get a vision of what smart and capable is and they won't deviate from it. Smart is not fat, black, brown, female, too young, too old. That's clearly just plain wrong. But discrimination on those bases does happen.
Seriously, I've seen people achieve the rank of dean at a pretty early age and more than once, although I've observed that there's a direct correlation between age expected of deans and the relative prestige of the institution (the fancier the R1, the older the decanal candidates). As others have noted in NK's comments, some places expect a dean to come in at full professor rank and with a shelf full of publications -- hard to achieve at 36 unless you're devoting yourself almost entirely to scholarship at the expense of administration. As well, if the expectation is that the dean will step down to a tenured professorship after a term, that probably ups the ante in terms of hiring for publications as much as administrative ability.
I'd like to see more recognition that deans are not just uberprofs, however, but academic administrators who don't have to be superstars in terms of publications. We all know that some of our most prolific colleagues are far from equipped for admin work! And using age as a stand-in for experience and ability never does anyone good, so I'd hope that hiring committees don't get caught up in the image of the office.
That said, I did muse in NK's post about the effect of Ryan's applications coming, now, from outside academe. It's often hard to break back into the game if people assume you're out of play. That and her references to a disastrous previous administrative tenure might mean that she's not being seen as a good risk by committees. And, who knows?, she might be better served to seek out academic admin work of a different type (program directorship? dean of student affairs? an admin in computer services?) that'll get her foot back in the door if that's her aim.
The Superintendent of "State Capital School District" who is in her low/mid 30's. How did she get her qualifications? She worked her ass off in large urban school district, that's how.
Or the low-40's VPAA at my college. Same deal. It won't be long before he's a mid-40's President at some college.
It's ironic that the same boomers who didn't trust anyone over 30 are the gatekeepers saying "no, you are too young." Now it's "don't trust anyone under 40."
And people wonder why Gen-X'rs like me are suspicious.....
It's making me bitter, as if excellence is a crock; it's going lockstep with the herd that gets you in where you need to be. Don't excel until you've secured a permanent position or you'll be punished for it.
Now, if you want to be the graduate dean, you do need the publication AND grant record to do that.
Because of the same "graying" effect that Dean Dad mentions in academe, K12 education has been hiring 20-something administrators with maybe only a few years in the classroom because of a shortage of administration-interested faculty.
It is still too bad that to be promoted in any level of education often means you are put further and further away from the classroom.
That said, I was appointed dean at a major research institution before my 40th birthday, with the requisite "shelf full of publications," and I was quite far from the youngest ever appointed here. But such cases (including mine) are flukes, accidents of being in the right (or wrong!) place at a key time. I could never have been successful if I had decided (at, say, 26 when I got my PhD) to be a dean at this type of institution at 40 and set out to build a CV that could support both the full prof promotion and the dean appointment. But I did have time to build enough credibility to be asked to step into an unexpected hole, and then to demonstrate administrative competence and leadership through some tough challenges.
It's fair to say that what's involved in, say, an academic deanship will vary by institutional type. I don't bother applying for gigs at R1's, since my experience has been at teaching institutions. If you're looking for someone to bring in gazillion-dollar grants, that's the experience you'd look for.
That said, I like Kelly's point a lot. Administration is a unique task, calling on a different skill set than either teaching or research. Single-mindedness can be a boon for research superstardom, but it's death in administration. Similarly, the need to be the center of attention can pass for 'charisma' in a classroom, but it would be fatal in administration.
Deans do different tasks than faculty; it shouldn't be surprising that different skills are required. To my mind, academic deans should have faculty experience, so they'll know the reality of the faculty job. But do they need twenty years of faculty experience to get that? I'd need proof before I'd agree with that.
A coal miner is at mid career at 36, with 16 to 18 years on the job. An academic who has held 3 or 4 positions for a short time each could look like a dilettante to a search committee.
The one thing I noticed in the CHE article as the word "tenure track", not the word "tenured". In most cases, universities want someone who has earned tenure making the decision about whether to grant tenure. That said, I do know of one R1 where the President came out of the admin side, and had to make a very special case to convince the faculty and board that s/he had the relevant skills.
It may sound like I've got a chip on my shoulder, and well, that's not that far off. All of the comments here and on NK's blog seem to track along the posters age and position in the academy. That's probably more than a coincidence.
To the anon commenter who writes, "All of the comments here and on NK's blog seem to track along the posters age and position in the academy. That's probably more than a coincidence."
What kind of consensus are you noticing? Because both DD and I are in our 30s, so you'd think we'd have the same opinion, from what you post, and we don't, yeah? And New Kid's in her 30s, too. So what is the trend you notice in the comments? Here's the thing: I do think that any qualified applicant should get fair consideration for a job. I suppose that my response to DD's post comes very much out of my own institutional context - NOT an R1 - where in order to be dean one has to have a great deal of experience AND to be a full professor. (We just ran a dean search, and I think the youngest candidate was in his/her 40s.) I grant that it could be possible to achieve that maybe even by one's late 30s, but I think it would be very difficult to manage it before that, given the ages of most starting academics.
Also, I will say that a good faculty member does not necessarily a good administrator make, but no, I don't want somebody without tenure making my tenure decisions.
Dear 26-looking-18 anon: my anecedotal data does not bear out your experience.
Me and another individual were hired simultaneously as adjunts. I have a few less years of business experience (due to age difference - 17 years. I had 7 years college teaching experience while the other candidtate had 6 months. I have a masters degree, the other person does not. The other candidate received two courses, I received one. You do the math. It makes absolutely no sense that this person was offered more courses to teach. In all honesty I look young, sometimes confused for a student even when I am in a suit - which makes no sense.
What makes even less sense is that my subject area is very techie therefore it would be common that younger people have more current skills.
of course, the analogies are obvious. but still, as of yet the young are not a protected class
It seems to me that the very same people demanding respect for being older and more experienced are not rendering it upon those younger. Another possibility is that some of these academics were pushed out of the professional sector for lack of keeping up to date technologically (this pertains to my area of computers) and are using colleges as a safe haven. We all know tenure can be a major safety net. I am not saying this is right or wrong, but one college I taught at restructured their courses from the classroom to computer lab to bring on current and younger professors. It has been my experience that departments which are under the gun to keep current tend to be dominant on younger faculty, not necessarily chairpersons though. But even the chairs, regardless of age, are progressive thinkers. The departments that have alot of tenure and focus on keeping the status quo are heavier on older faculty.
In a field related to technology, it may mean something to be younger and more in tune with new trends. That said, my husband works as a software engineer and he's constantly updating his knowledge as are his colleagues. The only reason folks aren't up on the latest is if they transition to managerial positions where technical skill matters less.
I agree that it may not be purely an age issue.
As I understood NK's question, it had to do with how it would be possible to have the necessary qualifications and yet be so young. It varies by field and institution. Dr. Crazy is, I think, making the same point, based on her field and institution type. In her corner of the world, it would be more than a little difficult to have the goods. Nothing to do with age per se and everything to do with having had time to gather the skills. Not that it couldn't happen.
In my field, you would have to graduate from college at 20, go straight to grad school for a 2 year master's and then finish your PhD in four years--something that happens, but 5 or 6 is more average at my institution--in order to get out by age 26. I'm not saying it couldn't happen. It's just...it would be a little unusual.
This is sort of a tangent but I'm also not totally convinced that getting done faster earlier faster earlier is the best thing. At the least, it isn't something to be valued for it's own sake. That's just my two cents.
Basically, what I could have said more briefly is this: all the deanships in the schools I know expect one to be a full professor to be a competitive candidate. Ryan states that she was on the tenure-track, but not that she's tenured. Is it likely that she's a full professor by 36? It's possible, sure, but is it likely? and if she's not, is she as good a candidate as she claims she is? That's my concern about her experience being limited - that she's not reached the appropriate rank - not the actual admin part. (Now, one could argue that full prof. is an unfair expectation for a deanship if someone has the relevant experience, but that's a different question.)
What I didn't consider and your post makes a really good point about is the fact that different kinds of institutions would have different expectations for experience (e.g. if you're in a community college system that doesn't have tenure, you're probably not all that concerned about whether the candidate has tenure or not).
Because Ryan was vague about 1) her academic rank and 2) the kinds of institutions she was targeting, I plugged her into the context of the institutions I know. That may be completely inaccurate.
As for my question, "Would you, personally, support the candidacy of a dean who was 36?" - that was an honest-to-god question, not meant at all rhetorically or snarkily. I really wanted to know what my readers felt about it, because I had a knee-jerk reaction that 36 is too young to be a dean, and I wanted to know if that was a purely ageist response or if there was anything in academia that would in fact make being a 36-year-old dean hard to achieve.
People gave great examples of exceptional deans who have been in their mid-30s, and that helps me out a lot. But the truth of the matter is that at least in my field, very few people have reached full prof by age 36, and that was the academic model on which I was working. Although I didn't express it well, that was the concern I was trying to get at in my post.
And while I understand your point about academe having the highest barriers to entry of just about any profession, I think comparisons to lawyers and doctors and especially the founders of Google are just invalid, since the industries are apples and oranges. It may well be that academia as an industry should change (though I don't see it happening any time soon). But I was curious about Ryan's situation given academia as it is, not a hypothetical academia.
I hope I'd have no problem accepting the candidacy/hiring of a 36-year-old dean who had reached the appropriate rank for the position in a given institution (and Ryan may have - she just didn't say). I also really agree that we should NOT just keep hiring the same old faces for administration. I guess I just think there's a bit of room between the gray-haired AARP member and the 36-year-old (if the latter hasn't yet reached the requisite academic rank).
(As for the comment about responses tracking along age/position - well, my position is pretty darn low down on the totem pole. Pretty much everyone in my institution is superior to me. So I'm not some kind of full professor harrumphing about whippersnappers these days. Granted, I might be a bitter underachiever who resents someone with actual talent - up to you to decide that.)
Now, whether or not the skills that get you to full prof (in those academic contexts, which are many, where such is the expectation) are at all related to the skills necessary to be a good administrator is a good one, and probably they're not always. But in light of the reference to a candidate for a presidency who came purely out of the admin side having to make a hard sell of their qualifications - one thing that faculty are concerned about, I think with justification, is the possibility of getting "chief academic officers" who don't follow an academic model as much as a business model - someone who's been in academic administration and not a faculty member may not fall into this category, but they might. Concerns about faculty governance often translate into a desire to have leaders be firmly in the academic camp (at my last job, there was much resentment of the president's right-hand person, who was not an academic and did not have a Ph.D., yet wielded an immense and ill-defined power over academic decisions. Again, such resentment might be misplaced, but it's a fact of academic life). So I think a lot of concerns about having a dean who's been a full prof are not about age but about the implications for faculty governance (unfortunately this ends up having implications for how people think about age, too).
In any case, as always, thanks for the discussion. My ageist tendencies have been called out and I will be on guard against them.
True, attorneys can start their own practices during their 20's and 30's. But there is still the perception that they are too young to be a lawyer or do not have enough wisdom to handle a case. There is still the perception that attorneys are older, While males. I started my own law practice when I was in my early 30's and experienced that first hand.
I just don't believe that one should make apologies for ambition. If they got the skills, then let the fly.
I was recently passed up for a true promotion because I was seen as "new to the profession"--an industry I have been in for the last 6 years. The notion of new was simply to state that in relation to the management team I would have sat on that I would have been the youngest, in age, by 10 years--however my skills were/are directly in line with the functions of the position. So, I didn't get the promotion, but I was given the extra responsibility and told that I am now to report to a "veteran" in the field and be a strong right-hand man.
I rather someone with the ability and know how than someone just because they "look" the part of a senior college administrator.
Now, of course, they're glad one of the panel took a closer look at my complete resume instead of stopping at 2006. :-) Needless to say, I was completely shocked to find this out after I was hired.
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