Tuesday, June 09, 2009


Growing Your Own

The Chronicle and IHE each have articles about succession planning for college administrators. They're both relatively supportive of hiring internal candidates, and for many of the same reasons. Internal candidates know their institutions and are known back; national searches are expensive and often unsuccessful; in the age of plummeting house values and two-career couples, the classic two-body problem is also a two-house problem, so now even successful candidates may not actually take the offer.

Those are all true, as far as they go, but they strike me as missing a lot. While I'm not quite as 'anti' as I was a few years ago, I'd still offer some caveats on internal succession planning.

First and most obviously, sticking with internal people guarantees inbreeding. (That's the flip side of 'continuity.') That can take the form of the old boys' network, certainly, and the usual diversity-based objections to closed networks all apply. But it isn't just about protected classes; it's about new perspectives. Someone who has been a part of a particular campus culture for a long time just can't see it with fresh eyes. I've been in meetings in which a newbie asked about a particular longstanding practice; when told that it couldn't be done, s/he responded that it had been done at her/his previous college. That kind of reality check may or may not be worth the risk at low levels, but it's incredibly valuable at high levels. A close variation on that is that the newbie brings the benefit of having lived through mistakes elsewhere that haven't been made yet at the new place.

Second, it's nearly never the case that there's a single person internally who's clearly right. Usually, there are several people who each think they're right. Competing for the role of 'heir apparent' can lead to really toxic and awful internal politics, diverting effort from the real work of the college. It can also foster unfounded senses of entitlement that lead to misplaced anger when things don't pan out.

Third, even when the internal candidates are relatively strong on their own merits, there can be times when the local culture is so poisoned with crosscutting histories that anybody from within will automatically be perceived – rightly or wrongly – as a champion of one faction against others. That's nobody's fault, but sometimes you just need someone completely new to cut through the clutter. While it's true that outsiders tend to have steeper learning curves, they have the relative advantage of not denying that they have learning curves. Unlike some internal candidates, they know that they don't know. I've seen plenty of local 'experts' find themselves shellshocked when they move up a level and discover that knowing everything there is to know about one department doesn't prepare them to be dean of several. At least with the new outsider, there's usually a period in which s/he's allowed to admit ignorance, which can lead to some remarkably productive clarifying conversations.

None of this is to deny that outsiders sometimes crash and burn, or that national searches are expensive, or that some internal candidates are entirely wonderful. It's just to say that moving to a presumed preference for internal candidates is probably much costlier than either article seems to assume.

All of that said, though, there's certainly an argument for developing the skills of talented internal people. Some of that may ultimately redound to the benefit of other places, as the newly-hot candidates take their skills elsewhere, but that's a cost of doing business. The alternative is to keep everybody ignorant, the better to control them. I'd rather build my people, and then take my chances that some of them will decide to move up at times that make sense for them, rather than for my college. It's more consistent with the ethos of an educational institution, and in the meantime you get amazing performance. When they go, you get connections at other places.

Some of that will involve 'professional development' as it's usually defined, but much of it (in my observation) involves rolling the dice on smart and curious people stepping into new roles. In fact, I'd argue that the root of the lack of good candidates for many administrative positions is precisely the lack of full-time faculty hiring over the last few decades. When the farm team shuts down, sooner or later the big club will run out of rookies. In the short term, they can go the free-agent route, but the entire pool is aging. While I'm skeptical of a hard application of succession planning, I do think there's a good long-term argument from 'succession' for hiring more full-time faculty. And there's certainly an argument for taking the occasional chance on, say, a promising but relatively untested rookie.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? Have you seen succession planning done well in a higher ed setting? If you did, how did it work?

We are facing this locally in hiring a superintendent for the K-12 school district (large urban district, in crisis). All three of your problems with internal candidates apply -- the old boy's network that hires friends and protects allies instead of hiring good people; the senses of entitlement from those who've put in X years in the district and feel it's their "turn"; and the internal politics that mean any internal hire will alienate half the teaching staff.

On the flip side, the last two external searches have ended badly -- one in a spectacularly failed superintendent who left us with a crumbling district and a multi-million-dollar lawsuit, the other in an internal default candidate with all the problems above.

I have no good answer -- and there's a statewide shortage of superintendents who have the qualifications required by state law.
We run a Leadership Academy for faculty and staff. Among other things, the participants select a project each year that they attempt to bring to fruition. This allows them to claim (and actually have) some administrative experience in making something happen. I like this better than a stricter succession plan, which has the pitfalls DD cites. Instead, I like that we 'groom' a group of people that interested in moving into/toward administrative work. I only wish we had some version of voir dire that would allow me to exclude awful faculty who should not be allowed to get any ideas that they might be good in a different position at the college.
I've been in meetings in which a newbie asked about a particular longstanding practice; when told that it couldn't be done, s/he responded that it had been done at her/his previous college.

This cuts both ways, though. It is also common for administrators to dogmatically advocate strategies/plans that worked at their previous institution, with little consideration of the culture of their current institution. "Not seeing things with new eyes" can be a problem whether the new administrator is an internal or an external hire.

My point here is simple: if you want creative solutions, hire people who are flexible and creative. Whether they are internal or external hires doesn't really matter.
I think the nature of the administrative position requires thought. When I was an undergrad they traditionally promoted a well like faculty member to Dean of Students.

That failed rather spectacularly in both cases got the college sued once and created a deep division between the administration and the students.

Both of these men approached being Dean of Students kind of like being dad, and not a cool dad, who was willing to listen, but a rather authoritarian father knows best dad.

They were miserable, and the students weren't very happy either. (BTW once anyone who knew them as DOS graduated they are back to being popular professors.)

The next time they hired someone from outside who had experience as a DOS or associate DOS somewhere else. He was instantly rather popular because he could deal with students better. He didn't change any policies of substance. Mostly, he was just better at listening and not responding "Don't be ridiculous . . ."

It was a small school so there weren't really associate dean positions to promote from. I think since the skills required were so different from what any of the faculty could demonstrate an outside hire was key.
DD, can you speak about the relative merits of having administrators come up through the faculty ranks (whether internal or external)? It seems to me that one of the major shortcomings of the faculty-as-feeder model is that people are being recruited for something that has little relation to the (extremely long) professional training they have already done.

Grad students are taught to focus on research and are trained with an eye towards producing new contributions in their field (hence the doctoral dissertation). For most faculty, however (with the exception of R1s), original research is no more important than teaching (and often substantially less). Transitioning from faculty to administration requires the same people to now learn a third area of skills.

With such a convoluted career path, is it any wonder that the pool for quality administrators is thin even in times of plentiful faculty hiring?
"we 'groom' a group of people that interested in moving into/toward administrative work"

My current (non-academic) employer does something like that for management, and I think it's a great idea. I think it's a component of a formal succession plan, but certainly could stand alone in improving the internal candidates.

My boss asked if I was interested, and I turned it down, because my desire to be a manager is so small as to be indistinguishable from zero. I'd just like to keep doing my job, thanks.
Fourth: Sometimes you need an outsider who doesn't have pre-existing personal relationships with people, and therefore can make painful decisions that an insider would find too difficult.
As a faculty member, I've enjoyed watching a series of one-year appointments started by the president taking a sabbatical. The trickle down was seeing different people bumped up into roles we (and they!) weren't used to. Another dean took a one-year temporary position at the state level (now two years) and the interim dean came from the faculty. Not sure how this will all work out when people return to their regular roles, but it's good to have seen other ways of doing things and other folks doing them. So interim moves as helpful?
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