Friday, January 04, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Contemplating the Jump

An occasional correspondent writes:

I have an interview for a job. It will be a big change for me if it works out.
Director of Academic (Support Function) at Nearby College. NC is
a regional private school that has a good academic reputation. The
position will report to the VPAA. I have a friend who teaches there and
she likes the VPAA a lot and also knows the other folks the person will
interact with and likes them as well. She inquired on my behalf and
found that I was already on their short list and our connection helped.
(I also have another acquaintance who knows NC well and has heard good
things about the academic administration there generally.)

I have (15+) years of teaching experience and (5+) as chair. I am now on
sabbatical--I don't even want to consider the ethical issues of that

The job does not require a Ph.D., and in some ways is a step down, but I
heard from my friend that they hoped to get someone with college
teaching experience. Other candidates have some experience. In my letter
I sold them on my experience as a chair who has done (regional accrediation)
review, a (state) program review, and has moved my department along in
terms of planning. I worry a bit that I have too much experience in some
ways and none at a private college.

Of course the job would be very different from being an associate
professor of (discipline). I would have to give up tenure and
wouldn't be a faculty member, but also would lose a 75 mile commute over
a wind swept and sometimes snow covered highway. I have grown tired of
the drive in recent years. It would also a fresh start, something I
would welcome. I would trade it for a 25 minute commute to the office
EVERY DAY and being one of THEM. They also have a tuition deal if I
survive. (I have 2 kids.)

My interview is in a couple of weeks.

My questions: interview advice? I have done a lot of professor
interviews as chair in the last 5 years, but haven't been on the market
in forever. How do I handle the 'why I am leaving' question? How do I
sound interested, but not desperate?

Am I crazy to even consider this? What sort of career path, if any,
would I have from a job like this?

Any input would be helpful.

First, congratulations on the interview! I assume that you must be at least a plausible candidate, or you wouldn't have been invited for one. So far, so good.

I don't think you're crazy at all to consider this. Having spent the first twenty or so years of my life in snowy and windswept regions, I can attest that long drives there can be a little more exciting than is healthy. Shorter commutes have a lot to recommend them. And tuition remission for the kids is not to be sneezed at.

Your point about becoming, as you put it, "one of THEM" is very real. At my college, the closest analogue to the role for which you're interviewing is someone who does a regular 40 hour week, twelve months a year, with annual vacation days measured in the teens. It's much closer to a traditional office job than to a faculty job, in terms of face time. Whether that makes sense for your life is a question only you (and your family) can answer. The upside is that when you're home, you're home. The downside is that you'd lose the considerable autonomy to schedule your time that comes with the faculty role. (In my first months in full-time administration, I found it much harder to schedule, say, oil changes or haircuts or dentist appointments.) You'd also lose tenure, which would expose you to an obvious risk.

In other words, the whole culture of the job would be different.

As a career move, I'd have two concerns. First, where does the job lead? Second, would your position have the tools to succeed?

Since the job would involve relying on tenured faculty to comply with certain requests, I'd use the interview to ask about the culture of the faculty and the carrots and sticks at your disposal. If some folks simply blew off your requests, what could you do? Would you be blamed? One of the many reasons that administrative turnover is so much higher than faculty turnover is that in a clash between someone without tenure and someone with it, it's institutionally easier just to side with the tenured one.

One of the unwritten requirements of many administrative roles is the ability to get unaccountable people to do things they'd really rather not do. Failure to perform that interpersonal magic is grounds for termination. That's why the time-in-office of the average administrator resembles the time-in-role of the average NFL running back. (I think I owe that line to Chad, at Uncertain Principles.) Sooner or later, your magic won't work, and it's easier just to blame you than to confront – and change wholesale -- a perverse structure.

(In a rational system, organizational goals would be mapped onto individual roles, and everybody would be held accountable for performance. But nooo...)

If the role is based on wishful thinking (you'll inspire universal compliance because you're just so darn likable, unlike the last four occupants of this office...), I'd walk away. It might also be a good idea to ask about support for your professional development. Is there a decent budget for that? I've seen campuses (not naming any names...ahem...) where 'support for' means something like 'a hearty handshake,' as opposed to, say, money.

If you're reasonably confident that your office would have the tools to succeed, then I'd look at career paths. Where did the previous Directors go next? The kind of role you describe, especially with your experience as a department chair, sounds to me like it would map nicely onto a later "Associate Provost" or "Dean" role. That's not a bad thing, if those jobs are to your taste. However, if the last few folks who held that job subsequently returned to faculty, or retired from that office, or fell off the face of the Earth, I'd be a little suspicious.

In terms of interview advice, I'd recommend going in prepared to talk about problems you've solved. When were you able to see around corners? How have you resolved interpersonal conflicts when you couldn't just spend your way out of them?

I'm not a big fan of the 'why are you leaving' question, since it practically invites lying. If it's asked – and I beseech interviewers out there, let this question die a well-deserved death – I'd go with something like “because the prospect of doing something differently is so much more exciting than the prospect of repeating myself until retirement.” Don't oversell that, since too much novelty would imply a lack of qualification, but something along those lines should be harmless enough.

(The one I have no patience for at all is the 'what's your biggest weakness' question. I'm always tempted to say something like “an inability to suffer fools gladly, you illiterate jackass.”)

All of that said, I'll confess having gone 0-for-3 in my own campus interviews last year, so take this for what it's worth.

Good luck! (And drive safely!)

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.