Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Ask the Administrator: When the Bench is Thin

A longtime reader and correspondent writes:

In my academic program, our dean will be retiring in 4-5 years. We have an associate dean (gone in 2 years) and an assistant dean (gone in 4 years), and that's our entire administrative structure. Only one other faculty member (me) has any administrative experience (I served as dean, not with what one would call great success, from 1998 to 2000; I retire in 4 years as well). The last two deans have been internal hires, and given the current and foreseeable future state of the budget, we're likely to have to hire from inside again. Among the current faculty, only one might be administrative material, although I don't know if he has any interest (there are no signs of it) and I don't know how well his candidacy would be received by the faculty (he's made some fairly divisive curriculum proposals, although he's also done a good job with assessment issues).

The question is how we can, now, immediately, begin to develop some additional administrative depth. Especially as no one seems especially interested, what we might do looks awfully difficult to me. (This comes up because I've been asked, by one of the current administrative incumbents--not the dean--which is itself an interesting issue--for ideas.) Anyone have any ideas?

This sounds awfully familiar. With the top-heavy age/seniority distribution at my college, I have several departments in which there's no obvious successor to the incumbent chair. Since we only hire chairs from within, it's a real issue. (For deans and above, we do open, internal-and-external searches.) When you don't hire anybody full-time in a given department for twenty years, these things happen.

Although Marc Bousquet likes to complain about full-time faculty being part of a hiring chain for administration, I'm not entirely convinced it's a bad thing. After all, the alternative to drawing from the faculty ranks is to draw from the ranks of people who haven't been faculty. On the academic side of the house, I'd like leaders who have actually been in the classroom. They're more likely to understand the reality of how decisions play out on the ground.

(Frankly, if the argument that you need to develop a bench wins you some full-time lines, I consider that a good thing. And several of the faculty hired on my watch have had administrative experience elsewhere, which I've considered a huge plus. They get it.)

Sometimes, though, you see someone in the wings who seems to have the temperament for the job – it's really much more about temperament than almost anything else – but just hasn't thought about it. In those cases, sometimes an early tap on the shoulder, followed with some professional development funding for a quasi-administrative conference or two (the AAC&U is usually good, for example), can serve to whet an appetite. (Alternately, it can help you dodge a bullet, if she attends and comes back saying “Oh, God, No!!!!!!,” better to find that out early.)

It's also possible that folks who would avoid a chair position if offered 'cold' would accept a lower-level administrative assignment and discover a taste for it. That happened in my case, and I've seen it happen with a few others. The cultural taboo among faculty against breaking ranks is strong, but once the ranks are slightly broken and the world doesn't end, it's easier to keep going.

Anybody smart enough to be a college professor is smart enough to manage. The issue with the people who crash and burn, in my observation, is usually something like 'thickness of skin' or 'willingness to endure conflict' or 'ability to remain calm in the face of patent insanity.' People who pride themselves on not suffering fools gladly are well advised to steer clear of administration, since the cutting remark that seemed witty when you were a professor is suddenly cruel when you're a dean. And if you pride yourself on being universally liked, don't even think about it.

Good luck. You're in a tough spot.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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

It occurs to me that hiring administrators from within the faculty is going to be a harder and harder sell over time. The requirements for hiring and tenure have risen steadily, so put up with the process, you have to really, really want to be a professor. A newly-tenured associate professor (who is the obvious person to start prepping for an admin role) has just endured about 15-20 years of the grad school/postdoc/tenure-track grind, and is probably about 35-40 years old. That is a lot of deferred gratification, there.

If you're the sort of person who's gone through all that, then I'd think taking on administrative duties might not look all that appealing. If administration really is your bag, and you're good at it, the opportunities for doing it elsewhere are ample; why put yourself though the tenure-track process? If what you want to do is teach and do research, time spent as an administrator is time away from what you love and have sacrificed a great deal for.

For what it's worth, I'm saying this as a disinterested party; neither professor-ing nor administration is really my thing. I'm just a believer in understanding motivations and payoff matrices when looking at trends. :)
I agree with DD about talking to someone who shows the appropriate temperament, even if they haven't shown interest. My then-dean asked me one day if I'd ever thought about administration--I responded with a politer version of "hell, no." It had truly never occurred to me, and at first blush the much longer hours, working all summer (gasp), and general hardness of it all didn't appeal. However, I mulled it over for a while and reconsidered. A month or two later I went back and told him well, maybe--and thus began my career as an administrator.

The point of all this is that if the person is right for the job, a little nudge might be what it takes to get him or her thinking in that direction. My dean was very honest about what the job entails, and I would recommend that as well--don't sugar coat, because that's not going to lead to a satisfied manager.
Although dictyranger has good points about motivations, the alternative at the other extreme, administrators without significant faculty experience, can function so poorly for the college and the faculty that effort in recruiting and providing some teaching and research opportunities for administrators who want them seem like a very good investment - at least from where I stand.

The president at our community college has no teaching experience coupled with a fairly authoritarian leadership style, broad executive powers, and a yea-saying board of regents. Of course, the president is just one of several factors in this situation, but the college has an unhappy faculty, high turnover, difficulty recruiting, and painfully slow to no institutional development. This would be an undesirable situation at any level.
Anonymous 12:26 has a very good point. The college I'm affiliated with did a search for a new Provost a few years back, and I was startled to discover that there seems to be an entirely separate career ladder for high-level college administrators, with its own credentialing process, preferred conferences, etc. There's a definite danger of siloing, to the detriment of both admins and fac. Crossover people, such as our host, do exist, but they seem to need to make the jump early in their careers.

Offering teaching opportunities to administrators might not really do the trick, though. Being an admin is a full-time job, so at most the administrator could pick up one class a semester (and even that might be a stretch). Would that provide enough background? I don't know.

Wouldn't it be cool if there was some sort of program for adjuncts with significant teaching experience to start moving into college administration? I'm thinking of something like the "executive MBA" programs run by many schools, where people with relevant real-world experience can fill in the gaps in their backgrounds in preparation for a career jump. Experienced adjuncts know quite a bit about how colleges work, and the freeway flyers are very good at husbanding time and resources...many would probably do well as administrators if they could get training.
Two responses: one a possible long-term solution, the other more immediate and practical. Here's the latter: at my school, we've had a lot of turnover in academic affairs since I've been here (10 years) and it's really only been in the last few since we hired a great VPAA and new dean of A&H (to go along with new deans of NSS and the College of Ed) that we've seen any stability, consistency, and direction from our admin. All of them were outside hires; all of them have significant teaching/admin experience elsewhere. Both the VPAA and A&H dean are English professors, and have or will contributed a course here or there to our offerings. And overall the faculty here seem pretty darn satisfied with their leadership.

So the choice you pose may be a bit stark and overstated. On the other hand, my department has been adamant about choosing chairs from within and as my generation has moved into the tenured ranks, we now have a deep bench of people who could be chair if needed (and have instituted an informal rotation in the associate chair position so several people are/will be ready to step up at any time).

You also are ignoring the appeal of academic unionism as an alternative to administrative service for faculty where that is an option (I've done both, so the choice is less stark than I just made it). A good friend of mine at another institution has been president of his union, chair of his department, was recruited to try out a deanship, hated it, and is back doing what he loves. If you identify as a unionist, making the shift into administration is even harder than for other faculty.

Finally, there's the autonomy/job security issue. Entering administration at the low end, where everyone has to, may look particularly unsettling to someone who just got tenure. Particularly if the upper adminstration has little teaching experience, or if the board of trustees is made up mostly of rich people with little connection to or understanding of the workings of the college or university, being hired to do their dirty work or get fired for not doing it the way they like it is a big turn-off, to say the least.

That said, my advice would be to go ahead and try to develop the local bench. But don't be averse to hiring from afar--if you put together a good, representative search committee, you're pretty likely to find a good fit.
We are facing a similar (but more immediate) problem at our CC. Our VPAA (of 30+ years) is retiring in June. We have four academic dean positions: one has been here 3 years, one has been here 1 year, and I'm an Acting Dean (2 years) --currently serving TWO divisions.

I've just announced my intention to go back to my faculty position in July.

I have the temperment (and, I think, the perfect background) for the job: Ph. D. (Philosophy) with 5years FT teaching experience at CC PLUS B.S. (Accounting) with 10 years professional experience as an accountant.

But while I'm devoted to my college and our students -- I can't bear the 12+ hour days anymore when the vast majority of my faculty colleagues work HALF as hard. (And, the truth is, some must be really miserable in their jobs/lives because their only joy seems to come from trying to make others as miserable as they are. )

At our CC, the highest paid folks are faculty. Once a faculty member reaches the level of Professor, s/he would have to take a PAY CUT to start at the minimum salary of a dean (which is where new administrators are placed on the salary scale.)

Faculty also have the power (although they don't realize it.)
[I do.]

And, for me, in the end, my time is more valuable than the money.

The only reason I've spent two years in administration is because I felt obligated to the College, my colleagues, and (most of all) to my VP for all she has done for me and the school.

I don't know what the answer is -- and I'm frightened about the immediate future here. But it's someone else's turn to step up to the plate.
There are fewer and fewer willing candidates for college administration. I became an administrator four years ago after many years in the faculty and still questions my wisdom at making the move. Faculty are typically compensated better and work better hours than administrators. Until presidents and boards begin to substially address the shortcomings of administration, the number of candidates will not increase.
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