Friday, October 02, 2009

 

Thoughts on Hiring Outside Academe

There's a thought-provoking piece in IHE this week by Charles Middleton, President of Roosevelt University, about hiring senior administrators from outside of higher education. It touches on themes I've addressed in part before, but is worth some reflection in its own right.

The piece starts by noting that more than half of the college Presidents in America are over the age of 60, and that more than half of the chief academic officers (usually called vpaa's, daa's, or sometimes provosts) are over 55. (Chief Academic Officer is the most common previous position held by new Presidents.) It doesn't go into why that's true, though. The short answer is that the traditional pipeline to CAO positions starts with full-time faculty status. It then runs through department chair and dean positions. With the long-term trend of adjuncting-out the full-time faculty, the pipeline has run relatively dry over the last couple of decades. Now the people who weren't hired 10 or 20 years ago as faculty aren't in deanships or cao positions. The trough has moved up the ranks.

Middleton responds to these developments with a twofold strategy. First, allow some professional development opportunities for people at lower levels, and take some risks on internal people with obvious talent but not so much experience. Let them grow into mid-level jobs.

So far, so good. Yes, internal hires can lead to inbreeding and tunnel vision, but they can also be wildly successful. And leaving an obviously talented person on the shelf to instead bring in a mediocrity from the outside doesn't make sense. Besides, everyone with experience lacked experience at some point. They all got their first big break somewhere. Paying it forward can make sense.

But Middleton advocates a different strategy for the senior positions. Growing your own registrar may be reasonable, he suggests, but growing your own Vice President for Student Services isn't. For positions like that, he suggests, you're often better off looking outside academia.

I'll admit finding the disjuncture mystifying. It's certainly true that academia has no monopoly on talent. Some of the most effective administrators at my cc came from outside academia, though interestingly enough, they came from other nonprofits.

That said, though, it's notable that Middleton's examples don't include the academic side of the house. A fundraiser who previously worked for a symphony might make sense, but a CAO without academic experience is very likely to fail. The culture of the faculty, even at the cc level, is unique. (In how many industries is the "crossing over to the dark side" line used so extensively?) And someone who hasn't lived it will likely have a rough time learning it from on high. There may be cases in which that has worked, but it's an exceedingly risky strategy.

All of this is by way of suggesting that faculty -- including younger ones -- with good academic priorities and even temperaments are exactly the folks who should be recruited into administration, and not stopped at midtier levels. The de facto glass ceiling that Middleton proposes is both mystifying and counterproductive. I wouldn't want a CAO who has never taught a class, any more than I'd want a financial VP who has never managed a budget. To the extent that Presidencies five or ten years from now will reflect vice presidencies now, I'd hate to see too large a shift away from the academic heart of the mission at the highest levels.

We stick to the "dark side" rhetoric at our own peril. If people with academic backgrounds don't step up to leadership, others will. In some areas of the college, that may not matter much. But as Middleton correctly points out, future Presidents have to come from somewhere.

Comments:
I'm all for looking outside one's own institution for talent and new ideas, but I agree that it is risky to go outside of academia. One of the biggest hiring disasters we experienced was when the Board hired a new President who was formerly the CEO of an electrical utility. You all know how the reasoning went - "He is finally going to get this College running like a business!" He never took the time to understand how the place worked, instead just trying to transfer his utility experience to us. He would try to order faculty around and direct them to only speak positively about the institution (and you know how well that went over!). He also spent months developing new Vision- and Mission-Statements without developing any buy-in from anybody below the VP-level. Worst of all, he created mandatory monthly administrator meetings, where we all were expected to purchase and read the latest fad business how-to book and discuss how to apply what we learned to our college.

Needless to say, there soon was a faculty no-confidence vote; and soon after that he departed for greener pastures.
 
All you had to do is watch "The Office" last night to see an example of going over to the Dark Side. Or read "Dilbert". The faculty/admin issues seem similar to the engineer/admin issues raised regularly in that strip, whose author was an engineer for a utility company (see comment above!).
 
Who would want to move from a TT faculty job into academic administration? The former strikes me as a much better gig.

It's a broken system where paper-pushing and bean-counting are seen as a step up from teaching and scholarship.
 
A quick reply to anonymous (post #3). I'm a gen-X'er and have regularly changed jobs every five to six years. I could see devoting myself to teaching, service, and scholarship for the decade it would take to move up to the top of the tenure and promotion ladder and then stepping into administration. The work would be different and interesting. Also the pay, at least at regional comprehensives might be better.
 
As another Gen-Xer faculty member, I agree... I'm tenured at a CC and finishing my PhD. My motive for doing so is to be competitive for administrative jobs.

I'm currently a department chair and would like to at least give being a dean a try.. it may make me want to scurry back to the classroom, but a 5/5 load of the same four courses and 250ish students per semester leaves little time for new challenges.
 
Having a bigger pool to fish from is always a good idea. Limiting the hiring process to a single institution is just not good sense. You are right though, hiring outside the acedemia is risky. faculty confidence is vital. On the other hand, it is also something that can be earned. Instincts play a role in the hiring game, and sometimes taking a risk can produce big rewards.
 
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