Monday, March 09, 2009

Grow Your Own

This article from the Chronicle, about spousal hiring, and this one from IHE, about administrative searches in a recession, are worth reading together. They're both about the real-world friction that gets in the way of hiring the best people for a given job.

Spousal (or partner) hiring is a tricky business in the best of times. Any preference given to the trailing partner is a judgment call that the overall gain to the college from the primary hire makes up for the suboptimal second hire. (If the second hire weren't suboptimal, no preference would be needed.) In the best case for the institution, place-bound candidates settle for jobs that would otherwise be beneath them, and the college gets better than it pays for. (Historically, this was how sexism kept the cost of public education relatively low; educated women weren't allowed to do much else.) In the worst case, the college takes on a weaker-than-merit hire, and bleeds performance over time.

In a fiscal crisis, the stakes are much higher, since openings are fewer. If you're bringing in a half-dozen new people to a given program, you can tolerate one being a little behind the others. If you're only getting one for the next several years, though, you need to make that one count. And from the perspective of the denied applicants, to find out that you've turned down for sleeping with the wrong person (or nobody) just adds insult to injury. Oddly, that doesn't seem to register as discrimination, though I'd be hard-pressed to call it anything else.

Add to this chronic issue the new issue of nationally-recruited candidates being held in place by houses they can't realistically sell. Depending on when and how they bought, some folks are in a position where selling a house would involve a drastic upfront loss. Add a deadweight loss on the house to the uncertain prospects for a spousal/partner hire, and otherwise-attractive options suddenly become untenable. To the extent that smaller candidate pools result in suboptimal hires, I expect colleges to slowly bleed performance from this for many years to come.

I started hearing about dean and vp searches failing a few years ago, before the bottom fell out of the housing market.  At that point, the issue was mostly the lack of pipeline.  Now the lack of pipeline is compounded by people not being able to stomach the fiscal hit of moving.

Basic demographics suggest that higher ed is facing a leadership crisis over the next several years. Since the average ages of Presidents and Chief Academic Officers have moved steadily upward for decades, at this point, substantial numbers of both are creeping up on retirement. (The lack of faculty hiring has starved the leadership pipeline for long enough that it's starting to show at the highest levels.) If a college in a relatively less popular region doesn't have the internal candidates ready to step up, and nationally-recruited candidates are held in place by economic friction, then I foresee some real roll-of-the-dice hires coming soon, with predictable consequences.

There's no clean and easy way around these issues. Certainly I'd expect relatively farsighted colleges to start doing some more intensive leadership development of their own people -- the "grow your own" strategy.  When that's tenable, it's great.  But 'professional development' is usually one of the first cuts, and the more recent generation of faculty hires had to clear such high hurdles that many of them are single-mindedly focused on their faculty role.  That's individually rational, but over time, destructive to the underlying institution.  And there's something to be said for cross-pollination, for occasionally bringing in a new set of eyes that doesn't take longstanding local habits as given.  

I've mentioned before that one possibly beneficial side effect of the current crunch will be to put the final nail in the coffin of the idea of pure 'merit' in hiring.  For very different reasons, the same thing is likely to happen with administrative roles.  If there's an upside, maybe some of the capable-but-unsure newer hires will have more opportunities available to them over the next few years.  I hope they can overcome the knee-jerk disdain for the role and step up.  If not, things could get even uglier.