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?

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