Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Ask the Administrator, vol. 1

A few entries ago, I offered to provide an administrative perspective on questions that faculty or grad students might have, especially about mysterious administrator behavior. Academic Coach came up with a good one: what is it that derails candidates whose tenure bids were supported by their department, but overturned at higher levels? What can candidates do to prevent it?

Gotta admit, that one will differ radically from one institution to another. My experience as a manager has been at a proprietary technical college and a public community college; I haven’t worked at an institution with a research focus. That blind spot admitted, I’ll say that several factors leap to mind:

- Too much sameness. Asexual reproduction isn’t unique to academia, but it thrives here. (Strangely, the other kind doesn’t.) If a given department has a strong leaning in a particular direction, it will often believe itself to be a brave outpost in the wilderness, and will adopt a strong us/them mentality towards its own discipline. When that happens, it will tend to hire and promote mini-me’s. A dean, vp, or even president will sometimes have to veto a decision simply to break the monopoly of a particular group. This will seem grossly unfair and high-handed to both the candidate and the department, even though it frequently is the right decision for the college as a whole. The candidate will believe, correctly, that s/he is a victim of politics. The department will believe, incorrectly, that it is the sole guardian of academic virtue, and that bottom-line managers who understand nothing of their discipline have sold them out.

- Misplaced courtesy. I’ve been through two promotion cycles at my current college, and I haven’t yet seen a candidate who wasn’t “most highly recommended” by his department on the official form. These forms are usually accompanied by more candid oral recommendations. That way, if the candidate is turned down, the chair can say somewhat truthfully “but I recommended you! The department supported you!” Well, yes and no. There’s support, and then there’s support. I’d rather have the departments be more candid with the candidates upfront, but some chairs simply lack the stomach for it.

- Enrollments/Budgeting. In this budgetary climate, some chairs have figured out that if they turn someone down, they’ll lose the position altogether. Therefore, they will try to pass along someone who, in flusher times, they’d flush. If the choice is between Professor SoSo and a hypothetical new hotshot, the chair might roll the dice on the hotshot; if the choice is between Professor SoSo and losing the line, SoSo gets recommended for tenure. The administration has to be the voice of cold reality here.

- Truly nefarious reasons. These can include everything from the classic race or sex discrimination, to personality conflicts, to power struggles between higher-ups, to homophobia, to a simple but glaring inability to recognize talent. (This list could be much longer, but writing it makes me sad.) All I’ll say about these, other than that getting the hell out of there may be a blessing in disguise, is that candidates should use these as residual explanations; that is, only use them when more rational explanations fail. I’ve seen far too many instances of people jumping to one of these, incorrectly, and creating far more angst for everyone concerned.

What can candidates do? Other than the usual, I’d recommend not relying on a single information source. Even a well-meaning mentor, chair, or dean only has a particular angle on the big picture (and yes, I include myself in that). I know it involves swimming against the tide of a profession that tends to isolate (and that attracts more than its share of introverts), but it’s worth building rapport across the institution – professors in other departments, secretaries (unbelievably valuable sources of info, when treated right), professional and support staff. Learn names, and spend a few minutes listening. Over time, you pick stuff up. You may discern the writing on the wall early enough to leave under your own power. Or, you may find that the mentor you’ve trusted is widely considered a marginal figure. You may find that, without knowing it, your reputation bears little relationship to what you consider the actual you. (That happened to me at my previous school, twice.) If you find out in time to take corrective measures, you can save some nasty consequences.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.