Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ask the Administrator: One Prediction Leads to Another

In response to yesterday’s post predicting huge personnel movement as soon as the market starts to thaw, a new correspondent writes:

Your latest post on a coming personnel movement is right on, I think, and it brings me to this question: Do you see any benefit to junior faculty who stick it out? That is, will the realignment in higher ed open paths to administration or other promotions that might not have existed before? If so, will there be greater freedom to do those jobs in new ways (i.e., less structural resistance to change due to sheer desperation)? That could be an exciting prospect for some of us.

The first two numbers of my salary have not changed since I began my current job, leading me to seriously regret not negotiating harder at the point of hire, as you recommend. The salaries at my SLAC were already near the bottom of our conference, and the administration is absolutely unapologetic about this. On the bad days--those days when I'm sweating over a course, or dealing with departmental dysfunction, or defending a decision to kick a hostile student out of class--I think to myself: I could be getting paid so much more to do something way easier. (I spent years in the field before and during graduate school, so there is some basis for this line of thought.) However, I love the intellectual work of higher ed and I'm looking for reasons to stay. Might one of those reasons be future opportunities?

I don’t mean this to be evasive, but it depends on what you mean by “stick it out.” (And of course, every local context has its own quirks; any given college could run counter to a larger national trend.)

That said, I can say with confidence that I’ve found it far, far easier to fill tenure-track faculty positions than to fill dean’s positions. There is no shortage of intelligent, qualified, engaging people who are eager to step into tenure-track roles, even for colleges like mine, at the lower end of the prestige hierarchy. The same simply cannot be said of deanships. Those are proving devilishly hard to fill with people who fit even the minimum qualifications.

I don’t see the latter trend changing anytime soon; if anything, as I mentioned yesterday, it’s likely to intensify. With the last huge generation of hires aging out of the profession, the thin faculty bench stands exposed. With budgetary pressures getting worse, many intelligent people see administrative roles -- largely correctly -- as no-win, so they stay away. And if your college is late to the party when the thaw finally comes, I’d expect to see people with options start to bail quickly. The resulting vacuum could create a powerful updraft. The key will be positioning yourself to take advantage of that updraft.

That’s where I hesitate with your mentions of “sticking it out” and “doing something easier.” The one thing that almost certainly will not work is standing pat. You’ll need to be willing to step outside the traditional faculty role in order to gain the experience to be a viable candidate. Whether doing administration is easier or harder than teaching is a matter of taste, I guess. Judging solely by the number of applicants, it must be harder. Overall, I’d describe it as the difference between distance running and sprinting. I’m not sure which is harder; they’re just different.

The issue of whether the jobs will change in time to keep good people, I think, depends on whether academia is willing to change to survive. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m pessimistic on that one. It seems likelier to me that change will be done to us, rather than by us. I’d like to be wrong on that, though.

If the updraft happens before the structural collapse, you should be in good shape. I’d just advise getting some experience now, to make yourself a good candidate.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? How would you advise playing the situation?

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