Thursday, September 02, 2010

 

Ask the Administrator: Importing Administrators

In a follow-up to an earlier discussion, a correspondent wrote:

Do outsiders stand a chance at landing admin jobs on your campus? Most admins on my campus are promoted/drafted from within the ranks of tenure-track faculty with an assumption that they'll serve for a couple of years, get a big pay bump, and then return to their academic positions (which results in a lot of self-serving behavior, poor administration, and acrimony upon return, but it happens anyway). Consequently outsiders, or even non-tenure insiders, are rarely offered a shot at admin jobs. But maybe, hopefully, things are just strange on my campus?



Having been hired as an outsider, I can say that context is everything.

Coming in from the outside as a dean is a unique challenge, since deans’ jobs frequently are built on relationships. (Here I’m speaking of community colleges, where nobody has money to throw around. An R1 with serious cash is another universe altogether.) That’s especially true in tenured settings with superannuated departments; there, a newbie might as well be from Mars. When everyone has history except you, you’re opaque and therefore distrusted. Navigating a setting like that is like trying to start a Faulkner novel in the middle.

If you walk into a context in which several former admins have returned to faculty and are still nursing old wounds, it’s that much harder. I have personally been in situations in which Professor Smith and Professor Jones will not work together for any reason, because Professor Smith’s husband offended Professor Jones’ wife at a social gathering in the 1980’s. When your success or failure is predicated on relationships, and you’re walking into that from the outside, well, good luck to you.

Of course, sometimes the whole point of hiring an outsider is to try to shake up a division or college that has grown stale. I’m not a fan of that; middle managers, which is what deans are, are uniquely unsuited to be change agents. They aren’t high enough on the food chain to have real power or resources, and they aren’t in the trenches to do it themselves. Over time, if a bunch of tenured faculty decide that the untenured dean is a pain in the ass, it isn’t hard to figure out who’ll win.

Inside hires have it easier in many ways. They often carry tenure with them, which at least makes for a fair fight. They have a sense of local history. They’re rarely expected to be change agents, so the standards to which they’re held tend to be more realistic.

The downsides are that they’re often too steeped in local politics to have fresh eyes; they usually lack the comparative perspective that an outsider can bring; and sometimes there just isn’t anyone local who’s both willing and capable. Oddly enough, this suggests that outside hires may make more sense at higher levels -- presidents and vp’s, say -- than at lower levels.

The outside hires I’ve seen succeed have arrived quietly, almost humbly, and have spent time asking questions and listening before trying to make waves. That’s possible only when they aren’t hired to be change agents.

To answer the direct question, yes, outsiders sometimes have real shots, and occasionally even get hired. But when they do, they have a narrower strike zone.

Wise and worldly readers, do outside hires have a good track record on your campus? Do inside hires? Is the variable even relevant?

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

Comments:
The deans at our CC are half insiders and half outsiders. As DD noted, most of the outsiders were brought in to Divisions where a shake-up was required. In every case however, I think that we did a fair and rigorous search - so when we hired an insider (me being one), everyone agreed that s/he was the right choice. There have been allegations of 'privilege' or 'entitlement' at times, but I don't think that they were valid.

Speaking as an insider, I can say that there are indeed advantages in having already developed relationships. At the same time, newly-hired administrative insiders will always have to deal with some of their colleagues accusations of "going over to the Dark Side". This was particularly hard for me when once-friendly colleagues became implacable enemies overnight because I now had a different title next to my name.

I think outsiders have freer reign to be more creative and invoke more sweeping changes, precisely because they have no 'history'. I sometimes have been amazed at my own lack of vision when confronted by actions that some of our outsider Deans have taken, because they felt no prior constraints.

As DD notes, outsiders who show up and try to throw their weight around are spectacularly unsuccessful; but outsiders who are listen and develop relationships before making gradual changes, have been well-accepted on our campus.

I will say that whenever things go particularly badly, like when the sh*t rains down hard from above, it is very comforting to know that I still retain my faculty tenure, and could simply return to my old job!
 
The deans at our CC are half insiders and half outsiders. As DD noted, most of the outsiders were brought in to Divisions where a shake-up was required. In every case however, I think that we did a fair and rigorous search - so when we hired an insider (me being one), everyone agreed that s/he was the right choice. There have been allegations of 'privilege' or 'entitlement' at times, but I don't think that they were valid.

Speaking as an insider, I can say that there are indeed advantages in having already developed relationships. At the same time, newly-hired administrative insiders will always have to deal with some of their colleagues accusations of "going over to the Dark Side". This was particularly hard for me when once-friendly colleagues became implacable enemies overnight because I now had a different title next to my name.

I think outsiders have freer reign to be more creative and invoke more sweeping changes, precisely because they have no 'history'. I sometimes have been amazed at my own lack of vision when confronted by actions that some of our outsider Deans have taken, because they felt no prior constraints.

As DD notes, outsiders who show up and try to throw their weight around are spectacularly unsuccessful; but outsiders who are listen and develop relationships before making gradual changes, have been well-accepted on our campus.

I will say that whenever things go particularly badly, like when the sh*t rains down hard from above, it is very comforting to know that I still retain my faculty tenure, and could simply return to my old job!
 
And, that goes double for me!

(I don't know why my comment appeared twice)
 
The comment by your correspondent describes a familiar situation where temporary administrative appointments are used to solve the problem of salary compression when regular raises are either out of the question or cannot be big enough to make up the difference.

It is a plus if the person turns out to be pretty good and gets promoted into a position of actual authority.

As for our campus, we have had bad luck with outside hires in administration (one drove our stepping stone division deep into the muck) and good luck as well. One advantage of an inside hire you don't mention is that they might already own a home in the area and are thus unlikely to slip away in the dark of night. One thing that helps make this work is a program of developing persons who might make good leaders, to prepare them for quasi-admin or full-time admin positions.
 
At my community college it doesn't seem to be a factor in most cases. There's a pretty even split at all administrative levels of the campus. Of course we don't have the tenure problem here (I had no idea that some community colleges had tenure deals, is that common?).

However that's just one campus of a three-campus system. I think the same is probably true for the other two campuses. I moved to the campus from the district administrative offices, and I can say for sure that there it's a completely different story. Our district offices are rife with politics and the majority of administrative hires are insiders cashing in on favors. It's a mess there.
 
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