Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Elephants (A Play in One Scene)

Scene: The Dean’s Office. A large elephant defecates calmly on the floor. The Dean attempts to address the elephant in the room with Prof. Ben Long-Tenured.

Dean: Thanks for coming, Ben.

Prof: Glad to, Dean. What’s on your mind?

Dean: Well, Ben, it’s the elephant. The smell is overpowering, and

Prof: Why wasn’t I told of this before?

Dean: Huh?

Prof: Why wasn’t I told of this before? I thought everything was fine! I have memos from you thanking me for showing up for (last official function)!

Dean: Yes, and I’m glad you showed up. But about the elephant...

Prof: What elephant?

Dean: The one in the room.

Prof: This is really about my (race/sex/age/sexual orientation/disability/religion), isn’t it?

Dean: Well, no, it’s really about the elephant.

Prof: You hesitated, didn’t you? Now I’ve got you. I’m going to file a complaint with HR.

Dean: To get to HR, you’ll have to step around the elephant.

Prof: You can rationalize it any way you want. This isn’t right.

Dean: The elephant isn’t right.

Prof: You’re too inexperienced for this job. It’s true what they say about you, you know.

Dean: This isn’t about me. This is about the elephant.

Prof: We’ve been working this way for twenty years, and nobody ever complained. Now you come in, sitting pretty, passing judgment without the facts.

Dean: Ben, the fact is, I’m knee-deep in elephant shit. There’s nothing pretty about it.

Prof: This isn’t right. You don’t know the history.

Dean: Well, the recent history involves a large elephant...

Prof: Twenty years! Does that mean anything to you?

Dean: Not nearly as much as the flies...

Prof: This is evil. You’re committing an evil deed. There’s evil in this world, you know. Bad consequences come to evildoers.

Dean: We disagree on that. Now, about the elephant...

Prof: What does (the VP) think about this?

Dean: He keeps asking me about the elephant. Also about my shoes.

Prof: The Administration doesn’t care. You people don’t know what it’s like.

Dean: (sigh)

Prof: When I started here, back in...


Monday, January 30, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Ethics and Internal Candidates

A new correspondent writes

We are a small department at a CC. We currently 3 full-time, one
one-year and one full-time adjunct. Last year we hired the third
full-time person and the one-year. This year we will fill another
full-time position. It is unclear whether or not there will be an
additional one-year position or whether our course offerings will
expand to allow the adjunct to keep her current job.

I'm working under the assumption that I'll be on the hiring committee
again this year, as I was last year.

I would like to help the one-year candidate to be a better candidate,
and would be willing to help the adjunct as well -- if she asks. I
know I cannot do or say anything when I am actually on the committee,
but what are ethical concerns or limits before the committee is formed?

Also, I could use some words of advise about how to handle bad
potential bad news given to either one of them. Since I'll have a
hand in making those decisions, I'm afraid of being in a hard spot.

What’s a “full-time adjunct”?*

I’ll start with the positive: it’s great that your department is growing! That’s relatively rare these days, and all told, the problems of growth are the problems you want to have.

That said, I see several issues here.

First, don’t do anyone else’s jobs for them. You never actually say that either candidate has asked you directly for help. That’s good; if they don’t ask, you shouldn’t go out of your way. I don’t mean that to be heartless – your first obligation is to run a full, open, and aboveboard search. Too much ‘hinting’ in advance can look like fixing the results. Figuring out how best to package themselves is the candidates’ problem, not yours.

If they do ask, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, at the risk of seeming evasive, don’t overestimate your own power. (Apparently, it’s not even a given that you’re on the committee!) Decisions that are made by committee (esp. if there’s veto power at higher levels) are inherently unpredictable. You might believe in good faith that you’re giving the best possible advice and that your friend is a shoo-in, only to have an unanticipated application simply blow her out of the water. You just don’t know.

Second, a tainted search may be a re-opened search. In trying to do someone a favor, you could be setting up the department and the candidate for disaster. Imagine, for example, that a strong external candidate in a protected class doesn’t get the job, hears about ‘hinting,’ and files a civil rights lawsuit. Ugly, ugly, ugly. Sometimes playing fair requires circumspection, even with friends.

Finally, you really do have an obligation to your department to make the best hire for the department. If that happens to be one of the incumbents, great. If not, it may look like you’re being evil, but you’re actually doing your job.

I’ve faced something along those lines at my current school. There’s a culture of waiting in line, in which it’s simply assumed that long-term adjuncts who show loyalty to department chairs are next in line for full-time jobs. The problem is that, in some cases, the only distinguishing characteristic these adjuncts have shown is loyalty. That’s not a small thing, but over time, it has led to some pretty inbred departments. I know it’s hard to say ‘no’ to a loyal, local adjunct, but you don’t make a permanent hire just to avoid a difficult conversation.

In terms of breaking the bad news, again, don’t do someone else’s job. Usually, it falls to the department chair to break the news. If you’re not the chair, it’s not your problem. If you are the chair (nothing in the correspondence indicates either way), my advice is to break the news as directly, and succinctly, as possible. Don’t try to justify your decision to the denied candidate; nothing you say will make it hurt less, and it could very well hurt more. Simply say that the department was impressed, but has gone with someone else, and good luck in the future. It’s banal, but there’s a reason for that.

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

*Okay, grammarians, have at it. Does the question mark go outside the quotation marks or inside them? I know a period or a comma goes inside, but putting the question mark inside scans funny. The entire sentence is a question, not just the part in the quotation marks. Your thoughts?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Zoology, with The Boy

Last night at dinner, apropos of nothing, completely serious:

The Boy: Daddy, did you know there's an animal called the mallrat?

Thursday, January 26, 2006


On “Marketplace” the other day, an academic was talking about the latest round of layoffs at Ford. She mentioned that the danger in laying off so many people at once is that you become so thin-staffed at the operational level that the room for new ideas to germinate gets squeezed out. The organization gets better and better at doing the same old thing with fewer people, the market moves on, and it efficiencies itself right into oblivion.

It sounded familiar.

At a relatively ‘mature’ organization, the layers of bureaucratic goo encrusting even the simplest tasks thicken and harden almost imperceptibly over time, like sedimentary rock. When the sedimentation increases but the staffing decreases, you get some very harried people running around trying to remember which step is next, taking focus off the very real changes going on in the outside world.

When it’s time to cut costs, managers look for slack in the budget. In the short term, obviously, this makes sense. Over time, though, I can’t help but wonder.

No less an observer than Aristotle noted that contemplation requires leisure (which is why he wouldn’t let women, or slaves, or workers, vote – they don’t have the requisite leisure to discuss matters of public import). 3M famously tells its researches to set aside some of their time for projects of their own design and choosing, and supposedly some of its best breakthroughs came from that. Teens and twentysomethings produce many of the breakthroughs in culture and technology in part, I suspect, because they aren’t distracted by the obligations of real life: childcare, earning a living, etc. Even the idea of a ‘sabbatical’ derives from ‘sabbath,’ or time of rest, since it was thought that leisure is necessary to recharge the creative batteries. (These days, of course, sabbaticals have to be justified with projects. We don’t trust rest.)

I’ve noticed many of my best ideas come to me in the car. I think it’s because I’m not ‘on call’ in the car, so my mind can just go wherever it goes. In the office, it’s a stream of emergencies, purchase requisitions, and quotidian details. Faculty who can be brilliant in their own fields often appear organizationally illiterate, even after decades of working in the same place, because they just never bothered to learn the reasons behind the policies. I think it’s a form of self-defense, trying to preserve some free space for creative thought, but it looks horribly self-indulgent to those of us tasked with cleaning up the same old messes, over and over again. It’s understandable, if sometimes maddening.

Honestly, part of the appeal of blogging is that it’s outside the normal, well-worn daily grooves. In cyberspace, if not in the office, I can air out ideas and see what happens.

Even at the office, the best ideas seem to come when I go places I normally don’t. I’ve written before about ‘listening down,’ but listening sideways is good, too. The trick is in not confusing productive casting about with basic loafing. A nuanced appreciation of slack, if you will.

Where do you get your best ideas?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A Modest Proposal: Eliminate References

Eliminate references, letters of recommendation, and anything along those lines from searches.

The parallel, I think, is to selective colleges eliminating SAT’s from admissions decisions. What looks, at first blush, like a lowering of standards actually winds up increasing the quality of the applicant pool.

In the case of eliminating SAT’s, it does so by signaling that the college has a deeper view of education than can be shown on a multiple-choice test. (Do they even use number two pencils anymore? I’m so old. Back in my day, we wrote with burned bark, and we liked it!) The selective colleges that have taken this step have thrived, achieving both greater diversity and higher academic standards among their students.

I think we should do the same for faculty and (especially) administrative searches.

Letters are badly flawed for entry-level faculty positions. Different writers have different standards and styles, there’s no generally-accepted template for letters, and European letter-writers often take a more diffident approach, inadvertently dooming their charges to extended unemployment here. But at least at the entry level it’s not weird to be looking for a job.

At more senior or administrative levels, though, asking someone to write a letter for you pretty much tells them that you’re looking. The only time you want anyone at your home institution to know that you’re looking is when you have an offer in hand. Until then, it can only hurt.

If I’m right about that, then a college that doesn’t ask for references could attract a much larger, and much more interesting, pool of applicants.

Each candidate would stand or fall based on his or her own presentation. This is not a bad thing; if I hire a turkey, it’s of little comfort to me that someone at his old school liked him. Besides, one of the running jokes about references is that truly glowing references at senior levels reflect not glowing performance, but a burning desire to be rid of the candidate.

Given anxieties about litigation, few references come with anything approaching candor. To compensate for the lack of candor, many writers have resorted instead to hyperbolic praise, making the slightly less inflated letters look lukewarm by comparison. An arms raise of puffery ensues, with each letter writer working the thesaurus just a little harder than the last. To base decisions on this rather than, oh, I don’t know, any other input is insane.

I can imagine an objection that failure to check letters would constitute a failure of ‘due diligence,’ especially if it turned out that the candidate has a shady past. That said, in all the searches on which I’ve participated, I’ve never seen a letter reveal (or even refer to) a shady past, and in today’s litigious climate I’d be shocked to. I’ve never seen anything along the lines of “Rest assured that the charges of public bestiality were somewhat exaggerated” in a letter.

Instead, it seems to me that letters are required because it looks like rigor, because it’s always been done that way, and because nobody ever got fired for requiring them. That’s fine when times are easy and flush, but these aren’t those times.

Who’s first?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Pigs and Pythons

Like so many other cc’s across the country, mine was founded in the Golden Age (mid 60’s – early 70’s), and most of its full-time faculty was hired within a few years. (It’s so common that I can reveal that without meaningfully compromising anonymity!)

Social scientists have a lovely phrase – “a pig in a python” – to describe a generational cohort moving together through the years. The image captures the faculty here pretty well. At this point, the pig is getting near the end of the python, and (predictably) it isn’t pretty.

The location of the pig has become especially relevant recently, with multiple full-timers falling seriously ill within days of each other. Statistically, it’s not that odd; in that large a group with that high an average age, absenteeism due to health should be expected to climb. The problem is that the pig is so clearly defined within the python that there just aren’t that many people around who can step in when someone gets sick.

Aside from the obvious humanitarian concerns, extended faculty illnesses are unfortunate due to the quirks of academia: expertise in given courses isn’t always shared across entire departments, semesters can’t be adjusted much once they’ve started, and the harm from switching instructors ten weeks into a semester is substantial. In much of private industry, ‘cross-training’ is the norm: a good manager will try to ensure that any given job function has multiple people who can cover it, both to cover for absences and to help make more intelligent operational decisions. In academia, that often doesn’t make sense. If my Japanese instructor gets sick, I can’t just tell my French instructor to step in, no matter how good a sport she might be. I also can’t conduct a full national search for a replacement, since Board of Trustees approval takes a month and I have two days.

It gets weirder. Under FMLA, seriously-ill employees are entitled to 12 weeks. Imagine that the illness strikes two weeks before the semester starts, and the semester is 16 weeks. Assuming that all goes well for the professor, she’s back right in the heart of the semester. At that point, I’m tasked with conjuring enough face-saving makework to justify a full-time salary for the full-timer, while the adjunct actually teaches the classes for an embarrassing fraction of that, since switching instructors at that late date would be grossly unfair to the students. In other words, I have to effect an almost complete separation of work from pay.

Your tax dollars at work!

Honestly, I’d love to see an amendment to the FMLA that addressed semesters, rather than weeks. Then again, I’d love to see a lot of things.

Sometimes it’s even worse. Sometimes, in consecutive semesters, we have to hire the same adjunct as a temporary full-timer to cover for different absences. Then one of the absentees retires. It’s tough to conduct a real national search when LoyalAdjunct is just standing there, but we have to. And it’s even tougher when the search turns up someone better than LoyalAdjunct, especially if LoyalAdjunct has made friends in the department. An emergency hire becomes permanent, based more on geographical convenience than quality. Or, a war ensues between my office and the department. Either is bad.

The pig-in-a-python problem goes far beyond my campus, and far beyond illness leaves. Since salaries are determined mostly by seniority, our average salary is much higher than you might think, even as our entering salaries are low enough that we lose potential hires. Entire pedagogical and research movements have come and gone in the time that some departments here were between hires, leaving no trace here. That’s not always a bad thing, but it does mean that certain departments have become like the fabled Japanese snipers in palm trees who don’t know the war is over. It leads to some odd interpersonal dynamics, too. Since the average age of full-time faculty is as high as it is, people have become (unthinkingly) accustomed to assuming that anyone under 50 is an adjunct. One of the highlights of my first month here was a full professor asking me, to my face, if I was an adjunct. (When I clarified that I was the new dean, the look on her face was priceless.) On those rare occasions when we make new hires, they often find themselves the youngest in their new departmental homes by multiple decades.

The real danger of the pig-in-the-python, obviously, is what happens when the really meaty part of the pig comes out. Will the python have an appetite for new hires, or will it continue to snack on the fast food of an all-adjunct approach? Stay tuned…

Monday, January 23, 2006

College Hour

Both of the colleges at which I’ve managed have had pitched battles around ‘college hour.’ College hour is a class period when relatively few classes meet, preferably in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, set aside to allow student clubs to meet. Since students who get involved in clubs have higher retention rates than students who don't, we consider this important.

The battles over college hour are constant. Faculty want to be able to run classes then, since they’re always in the middle of prime time. Organizations want students available during college hour. Students generally want classes during college hour, since they seem to care much more about getting off campus at the earliest possible moment than about joining clubs. So we’re in the odd position of telling both faculty and students not to have classes at mutually convenient times, in the name of improving student retention.


Seems like there’s a flaw in here somewhere…

Since both of my employers have been commuter colleges, we couldn’t get around the issue by basing the extracurriculars in the dorms – we don’t (and didn’t) have dorms. Students commute from home, leaving as quickly as they can to get to jobs. By about 2:30, the place is pretty empty; by 4:00, you can bowl in the hallways safely. (It gets busy again around 6:00.)

In some ways, it would be easy simply to abandon the ‘college hour’ concept altogether. Class scheduling would certainly be easier, which is no small thing. But it would be nearly impossible to schedule department meetings before 4:00 (and nobody wants them after that), the clubs would almost certainly die, and there wouldn’t be any logical times to schedule Events (speakers, job fairs, etc.).

Has anyone out there found a reasonably workable solution to the college hour dilemma?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Noel Coward Has Nothing on The Boy

The Boy, last night, during dinner:

"Boogers Rock!"



Lectern Lojack

Where do lecterns go?

Every semester, I get multiple exasperated calls from faculty, asking where the lecterns have gone. They seem to think that I keep a secret stash in my office. (It’s probably in the secret vault they think I have, where I apparently keep all the secret money for my secret nefarious projects. That’s also where I store my secret plans for world domination. But I digress.)

Is there a black market in lecterns? Do people fence them for drugs? Can you get high by inhaling the smoke from a burning lectern? Are there gray-market stores in Nearby Big City offering lecterns that fell off the backs of trucks? Do students take lecterns home to make art out of them? I’m perplexed.

This happens every semester.

I’m thinking of springing for lojack for the lecterns. I want to know where they’re going, and some sort of electronic tracing device seems the best way. Your tax dollars at work!

These aren’t even especially attractive lecterns. They’re basically beige or black sheet metal, some foldable but most not. They rest on the tables in the front of classrooms. We’re not talking about mahogany here.

Maybe lecterns go to chop shops, where they’re disassembled and resold as, uh, new lecterns? Maybe lecterns that have been through too many classes commit suicide, walking to a nearby hill and jumping off (though, strangely, we’ve never found their carcasses)? Maybe gang members make off with them and use them as weapons; that would account for all of those lectern-related fatalities you hear so much about.

Does this happen anywhere else? Has anyone solved the mystery of the vanishing lecterns?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Finally! Or, the True Moral Hazard of HMO's

The Girl is just over 18 months old. She’s walking, and talking (in her way), and laughing, and feeding herself with a spoon.

I mention that because the HMO finally finished paying the doctor who attended her birth.

I’ve read umpteen analyses/discussions/arguments about our health care system, and I’ve never seen anybody address the glaring loophole in HMO’s. Once you’ve actually been to the doctor, the HMO has no incentive to follow through and pay. None.

This one was particularly bad. (It rhymes with “shoe floss.”) As I posted last year, it initially refused to pay for The Girl’s birth on the grounds that she was not listed on the (family) policy when I joined my current employer a year before she was born. I politely explained that that was because she hadn’t been BORN YET. (I also raised the ontological question of what ‘childbirth coverage’ means if it does not, in fact, cover the birth of a child.) Apologies ensued, though payments didn’t. With the help of a beleaguered and indefatigable unsung heroine in HR, I’ve spent the last year and a half nagging them for payment. In the meantime, it calmly went on earning interest on the money it wasn’t paying my daughter’s doctor.

To recap: you aren’t allowed to have a baby unless the baby is already listed on your policy. You can’t list a baby without a social security number. You can’t get a social security number for a baby until after she is born, which isn’t allowed unless she’s listed on your policy.

This, in the name of efficiency.

Who benefits from this arrangement? I don’t – my credit rating was hanging out there for the last year and a half. The hospital didn’t. The doctor certainly didn’t. Hmm. Can’t quite put my finger on it…

To make matters worse, HMO’s are immune from lawsuits. So I can’t even threaten to sue. They know that, of course, so they take their sweet, sweet time to pay bills, tossing off progressively more ridiculous excuses while quietly earning interest on the money they aren’t paying.

How is that not stealing?

Since most people get their health insurance through their job, they don’t even have the option of ‘exit’ if they get jerked around. I was lucky to the extent that my employer offers a choice of several plans, so I was able (eventually) to switch carriers, just to punish this one. In some companies, I wouldn’t even have had that choice. I have no illusions about the one I switched to – it has the same perverse incentives as any other – but at least it hasn’t jerked me around yet. Then again, we haven’t had another kid.

A modest proposal: if we’re going to go the market route for health care, let’s at least hold HMO’s to the same standard as any other company. Failure to pay for covered services within a reasonable amount of time should be considered actionable breach of contract. If we can’t do the civilized thing and embrace single-payer, instead favoring the open brawl of the market, we should at least make it a fair fight.

In the time it took this multi-billion dollar operation to get around to fulfilling its obligation, a newborn learned to walk and talk. Give me a break.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Cabin Fever

Winter is tough with little ones.

The Boy is a very intelligent, very active four-year-old, which is to say, he’s uncontainable. He’s bouncing off the walls. It’s a challenge in the warmer months, but it’s exponentially worse in the winter months. It’s too cold outside to run around for very long, and he’s too young for any of the organized sports. Add that The Wife and I aren’t skiers or joggers or anything along those lines, and it’s tough to find ways to burn off his energy between late November and March.

We do what we can, but a distressing amount of our time is spent playing traffic cop, trying to keep The Boy and The Girl apart. She wants to be wherever he is, but his favorite indoor activity is building remarkably elaborate cities out of blocks and matchbox cars. Naturally, being the age she is, her form of participation consists in knocking everything down, which really sets him off.
The only thing (other than blocks) that stops his constant motion is tv, but we don’t like to go to that well too much.

Anybody who has tried to play traffic cop with a four-year-old for more than a few hours knows what I’m talking about. It’s sort of like yelling at the sun.

The Wife has it worst, since she has to deal with it seven days a week. I at least have the relative ‘break’ of a full-time, high-stress job. Long commutes aren’t entirely bad...

Question for other parents of little ones in colder climes: what do you do with them in the winter? It’s only January, and we’re completely out of ideas. And, heaven help us, The Boy gets stronger and faster every day.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Five Years

This weekend I realized that I now have five years of deaning behind me.

I think that makes me eligible for parole.

Academia is probably the only industry – or at least one of the very few – in which five years’ experience is considered light. “Nimble” is not one of the terms usually used to describe academia. The upside of our worship of seniority is that it reduces the level of faddishness in both management and day-to-day culture generally. The Wife, whose background is in business, has started scanning job ads in her field. She reports that some companies require a ‘green belt,’ which I think is a reference to Six Sigma, which is one of those fads that has bypassed academia almost completely. (I say ‘almost’ because it may have hit someone, somewhere, but I’ve never heard it mentioned in a college setting.) My belts are whatever color I damn well please.

The downside, though, is that cultures in which you don’t move up until somebody dies don’t do much in terms of motivation. They reward risk aversion, which is tolerable in good times but absolutely devastating in bad ones. When the only way to move up is diagonally, you will often either lose or demotivate your stronger people. When the external environment changes but your management team is made up of people hired twenty years ago, you’re pushing your luck. If they’re great at their jobs, the decades of experience will help them avoid mistakes while doing the right things. If they’re average or worse, the decades of experience can prevent clear perception of the nature of the changes.

Reflecting on five years of deaning, I see a paradox. I’m much more conscious of the structural and economic constraints of the role than I used to be, yet also much more appreciative of the difference a good manager makes relative to a bad one. The unity at the heart of the paradox, I think, is that rule and resource constraints place an even higher premium on competence than might be the case otherwise. I can’t spend my way out of a problem, so I have to figure out how to solve it, or how to live with it, or how to contain it. And any solution has to respect both the rules and the culture of academia, which don’t often match the rules and culture (or salaries!) of the business world. Since most management books are written with the business world in mind, and are therefore largely irrelevant, I’ve had to resort to blogging to stretch my thoughts. (And a HUGE “Thank You” to all the folks who’ve helped me extend those thoughts! You’ve already given me more than all of the official management literature I’ve read, combined.)

Tenured faculty see deans come and go, and I can understand why. Sometimes, the obstacles to intelligent action are simply individual personalities, and you can’t change those. (As a colleague of mine likes to say, you can change the people, or you can change the people. And tenure pretty much eliminates the second possibility.) After some years, I could imagine any manager just getting sick of dealing with the same old personalities. From a faculty perspective, administrative turnover probably looks like something between politics and a soap opera, and there are elements of each. But there’s some rationality behind it, too. When you get down to an irreducible clash of personalities, and one of those personalities has tenure, well, do the math.

On bad days, I’m acutely aware that deans put the ‘middle’ in ‘middle management.’ We’re between the department chairs, who make operational decisions, and vp’s, who make policy decisions. (Between the dog and the fire hydrant, if you will.) I can definitely see an expiration date on this position – after a while, I’d want to either move up to a vp level and actually make policy decisions, or go back to faculty and teach. My office is a great place from which to observe and learn, and I like to think I’m pretty good at putting out fires, but after a while, there’s something vaguely unsatisfying about being an understudy. One way or another, I’d like to move from reacting to acting. Five more years? I don’t know about that…

Enough whining. Registration is upon us, again, so it’s time to put on the game face. If history is any guide, many fires will break out this week. Once more into the breach…

Monday, January 16, 2006

Section Triage

As the semester starts, my chairs and I have to make the final calls on which small sections to let run, and which to kill.

It’s tougher than you’d think.

Ideally, it wouldn’t happen at all, since we would have projected absolutely perfectly what students would want, and the students would have signed up early, and paid their bills, and every faculty member would be full-time and self-motivated, and there would be peace on earth. In reality, we never quite get it right, students never quite behave the same way twice, and no matter what minimum threshold we set for class size, we have to make exceptions.

Every call is hard. Essentially, the VP sets a threshold that a section must meet in order to run. This threshold reflects, at some level, the very real resource constraints on the college. Then, we start making judgment calls about exceptions, and likely late enrollments, and faculty loads. Juggling that many variables requires a certain amount of guessing, some of which, inevitably, will turn out to be wrong.

But this is the only section of the course that meets in the evening! But this is the second semester of a two-semester sequence! But this is a graduation requirement! But these students always enroll at the last minute! But if this professor’s class goes, he has to bump SuperAdjunct, and we’ll never get her back! But we’re trying to establish a presence at Branch Campus! But all the other sections are full, and we need a place to put latecomers! But this is the only section that doesn’t conflict with another course/lab/requirement!

And on, and on.

What makes it hard is the aftermath. I’ve worked with students as they’ve tried to create schedules for themselves; it’s often a real challenge for them to balance school, transportation, jobs, sleep habits, and the realities of late adolescent life. To pull the rug out from under a student by cancelling his class isn’t exactly helpful; doing it more than once (as can happen to a student in a low-enrollment area) must be downright demoralizing. But we don’t, and won’t, have the resources to run sections in the low single digits across the board, and the vast majority of students stubbornly refuses to register early.

Looking back, I’m amazed at how my alma mater handled registration. (Keep in mind, it was small, wealthy, and residential.) Students would get the course catalog that listed every meeting time for two years. At a given point in the semester, we’d be issued little gray index cards that we’d fill out by hand, requesting classes. We would have several weeks to return the cards. Several weeks after that (!), we’d find out what we got. Staggering. Here, they get crabby if the web page is slow.

As a cc, we’re the college of last resort for kids who crashed and burned when they ‘went away’ to school, so they show up to us at the last minute. Many of our students are adults with jobs and families, and their work/transportation/childcare arrangements often only come together at the last minute. It’s just not reality to think that we could get most of the courses filled far enough in advance to make triage less frantic.

My inner libertarian put down his cigar and brandy long enough to suggest a price mechanism for rewarding early registration. The problem with that is precisely that it would exclude or punish the students who actually need us the most. We exist to serve the entire community, including those who show up at the last minute.

I’d love to see some numbers on how many times you can cancel a kid’s class before he walks, or how many good adjuncts never return after being bumped. I suspect the numbers are non-trivial, but they’re also inaccessible, and therefore largely disregarded. If we could somehow get a handle on the true cost of closing classes, these decisions might seem less arbitrary. Until then, it’s time to grit my teeth and frustrate lots of people.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Ask the Administrator: My Colleague Isn't Very Good...

A new correspondent writes:


We are a decent sized community college, but my department is
relatively small. I teach the same basic courses as the two other
full-time people. The problem is that I've noticed a distinct
pattern of student complaints about the way a colleague teaches one
of our common courses. This colleague is off of probation and is
generally well-liked by faculty etc... I will be off of probation at
the end of this semester.

My colleague insists on teaching two sections of this course every
semester, probably because she has it all prepped. She won't
consider changing books and seems resistant to faculty mentoring or
other pedagogical suggestions. She maintains she has high standards
and refuses to compromise. I suppose she sees the way I teach as
requiring lower standards.

Since the first day of my first class here students have voiced
consistent problems with her teaching style and significant
complaints about the textbook she uses. It also seems that her
completion rate is significantly lower than mine in that course and I
often have significant numbers of students who finish the course with
me when they don't with her.

To compound the issue, the counselors seem to be telling students not
to take this course with her and rather to take it with me. I
finally brought this to the attention of my dean this week, because a
student had just come to me with the issue after recently being
advised.., I framed the problem more as an issue with the
counselors, rather than a problem with the way my colleague teaches
the course itself.

My problem is twofold...

First, what should I say to students when they want to complain about
my colleague? I try to be positive and to tell them that I think she
is good with the material as well as a good teacher. I tell them
that the students who have problems with her don't follow her
directions. This feels dishonest to me, because I think that I would
recommend close friends avoid her course.

Second, should I bring this to the attention of my dean? I'm sure
she knows there are complaints about my colleague -- and she also
knows that there are very few about myself or the other people who
teach this course. I can't honestly say that I don't have concerns
about the way my colleague manages her classroom. I don't think the
problem is in the material itself, rather it is the way she relates
to her students creates the problem.

I would also love any suggestions as to how I can tactfully help my
colleague become a better teacher. I am sure she would be
significantly happier if her students were happier.


To answer the first question first, don’t criticize a colleague to your students. I’ve dodged a few bullets like that by simply not saying anything. “How is professor so-and-so?” “He’s been here a long time.” “That didn’t answer the question.” “Hmm.” They figure out the gist of it, but you haven’t actually said anything that couldn’t be repeated. Don’t be falsely positive – that does active harm to students and to your credibility – but instead use carefully-selected silences.

(I’m constantly surprised at how many students at registration honestly expect me to say ‘don’t take professor X, he’s awful.’ Not gonna happen. I give honest praise when it’s called for, but I don’t air dirty laundry to students. They don’t have the framework or context in which to interpret it, and I’d be absolutely livid if I heard that a colleague was talking me down to students.)

How to mentor her? Honestly, I wouldn’t, at least not yet. If she’s either work-avoidant or simply untalented, nothing will help, and you’d probably just get her hackles up. If she’s basically okay but just doing a couple of (fixable) things wrong, I’d wait until you’re off probation before bringing them up. You’ve already (cleverly) raised a flag with your Dean, which is smart; now it isn’t your problem, at least until you’re in a position where it wouldn’t hurt you. I wouldn’t repeat the issue to the Dean for a while; you’ve raised it, the ball is out of your court, move on.

In a perfect world, of course, constructive criticism would be gratefully received, she’d be eager to improve, and all would be well. But it’s as likely as not that spreading bad impressions of her would hurt you, and leave her unchanged, a bit defensive, and increasingly unpleasant.

Once you’re off probation, if the problem is still gnawing at your conscience, you could always gently ask the Dean for his/her advice. It’s a little passive/aggressive, I admit, but it makes it harder to brush off your complaint as simply a personal vendetta. “I’m concerned that students aren’t succeeding as much as they might. Have you seen the numbers? What do you think we should do?” Something along those lines. If you present it as a student issue, instead of a faculty issue, you won’t look petty. Once that discussion gets going, large differentials in attrition rates by instructor should become hard to ignore.

(That is, depending on the data gathering at your college. My previous college made a fetish of data-gathering, for better and worse. It was much better at gathering data than interpreting it, which led to some very frustrating meetings, but at least it had data to discuss. My current college doesn’t collect that kind of information by instructor, making it hard to judge at all.)

One of the privileges of faculty (as opposed to administration) is the prerogative to not notice when your colleagues aren’t doing their jobs right. There are times when that is a good prerogative to use. Sometimes, that’s the single part of the faculty role I miss the most.

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

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Intrepid Boy

This morning, at breakfast:

The Boy: I'm not afraid of anything, Daddy. (pause) Except squids.

Now that we've got that straight...

The Hollow "Yes"

When I ask a professor to do something, I can handle any of several responses:

1. Sure!
2. Well, okay.
3. If I have to.
4. I’d really rather not.
5. No.
6. Go *#$)@($* yourself.

The one that frustrates me to no end is a yes, followed by not doing it. A hollow yes. (One of my colleagues refers to it as “yes-sing you to death.”)

Any of the previous six at least give me a basis to estimate the likelihood of it actually happening. I know if I have to ask someone else, or reframe the task, or simply drop it. The hollow yes misleads me, setting me up for public embarrassment later. There are few more effective ways to antagonize your dean than to set him up for public embarrassment.

I still don’t understand the psychology of the hollow yes. It buys a short-term escape from the room, I guess, but at the cost of future trust. And given the turnover rate in academia, that future can be a long, long time.

An honest ‘no’ is far less frustrating. A professor with a generally good track record can use the occasional honest ‘no’ without consequence. At least then, I haven’t been set up to fail.

I’ll ask my wise readers: what’s behind the hollow yes?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


(No, not the cars.)

As the start of the semester looms, it’s time make the final, heartbreaking calls on which small sections to run, and which to put out of our misery.

In looking at the course counts, I’ve seen a disturbing pattern return.

Broadly speaking, we run courses in three formats:

1. Traditional – instruction occurs in class, one hour per week per credit. The classic.

2. Online – the class never meets physically, but occurs entirely online. New and popular.

3. Hybrid – class time is reduced by about half, with the difference moved online. Should offer the best of both worlds – meet once a week instead of twice, say.

In practice, the hybrid classes are persistently and deeply unpopular. Even when we run them for courses that usually fill, hybrids often don’t even make the minimum enrollment to survive.

Educationally, I can see a lot of upside to the hybrid format. Tests can be offered in class, to prevent academic dishonesty, and classroom discussions offer a welcome safety net in case a given online lesson or exercise doesn’t work. Students can have much freer schedules, but they still get a chance to build rapport with an instructor. (Logistically, the upside is that we can fit two sections of a course into the timeslot that used to hold only one. At prime time, that’s nothing to sneeze at.) The parts of a class that make the most sense on the internet can go there, and the parts that just don’t make as much sense there can stay in the classroom.

But for some reason, students just don’t sign up for them.

For a while, we thought that the problem was a lack of either awareness or understanding. We’ve gone out of our way to educate the students as to what a hybrid is, and they seem to pretty much get it. They just don’t want it.

Has your campus experimented with hybrids? Have you had any luck? What worked? It seems to early to just give up, but the results thus far haven’t been encouraging, or even acceptable. I’m banging my head against the wall, and it’s starting to hurt...

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Breaking In

A young, disenchanted Ph.D. student in a Spanish program writes:

I am currently in the middle of my first year in a Ph.D. program and, well, I
don't like it. I have an MAT in my field already, but not from such a
prestigious institution as the one at which I am currently studying, which is
why I'm loath to drop the program entirely. However, I, like the
adjunct/waitress, really do enjoy teaching and would like this to be the focus
of my career, so I have been casually looking around for higher ed teaching
jobs, mainly at community colleges. What I would basically like to know is what
are the chances of a bright, well-recommended 26-year-old like me getting a FT
job if my teaching experience is limited to the six semesters I taught while
getting my MAT? Should I go the starving adjunct route first and try to build
up contacts in my new state before applying to FT jobs, or does that even
matter? Any advice to breaking into the cc field would be greatly appreciated.

There’s no magic number for the number of semesters of experience you need. Six isn’t bad for an entry level position, actually. Given your age, it wouldn’t be realistic to expect much more than that. In fact, some community colleges (not my own) actually prefer less experienced candidates, since they command lower salaries. (There’s one not terribly far from me that refuses, as a matter of admitted policy, to hire anyone to faculty who has more than five years’ teaching experience. They explain it as a budgetary move. I consider it unethical, but they do it.)

The burden on you will be to explain that you’ve rediscovered your first love, rather than simply falling back on teaching when the Ph.D. thing didn’t work out. I know that some people see community college positions as fallbacks, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. When I’m hiring, I want someone who actually wants to be here, not someone who just needs a port in a storm until something better comes along.

I’m not a big fan of “go[ing] the starving adjunct route” as a strategic move. I don’t know the circumstances of your graduate program; if you have some sort of stipend there, it might be advisable to ride the stipend for a year or so while you adjunct and apply elsewhere. If you have another source of income (say, a well-employed spouse), the adjuncting thing can work for a while. If you’re on your own, it’s awfully risky.

The good news is that Spring is typically the big hiring season for cc’s. We’ve learned the hard way that we get much deeper applicant pools in the Spring than in the Fall (that damned ‘fallback’ thing again…), and our fiscal situations are usually clearer in the Spring than in the Fall, so that’s what we do. If you choose to, I don’t know why you couldn’t send out applications over the next few months, aiming for a September start. Since your field isn’t as crowded as some others, I like your chances.

As my regular readers know, I take great exception to the common practice of treating extended adjuncting at a given college as a sort of audition, a prerequisite for a full-time job there. To my mind, it devalues graduate training, and severely devalues professional development for full-time faculty, instead promoting silly political games. That said, it happens. A foot in the door counts, in some cases, even if graduate training is supposed to be enough.

Good luck!

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

Monday, January 09, 2006

It Goes Without Saying

I’m beginning to think that much of the conflict I see at work (and in politics, for that matter) comes from different conceptions of what goes without saying.

For example: what constitutes ‘lateness’ for an assignment? As a teacher, I’d say that if a paper is due in class on Monday, it’s due at the beginning of class on Monday. Students will frequently interpret ‘due in class’ as ‘due by the end of class,’ so if they saunter in 45 minutes late they’re still okay.

As a rookie teacher, I didn’t even say ‘due in class.’ I just gave a due date. 11:59 p.m. submissions quickly cured me of that habit.

Within a few semesters, I learned to enumerate all kinds of things on syllabi that I had always assumed everybody already knew: plagiarism is forbidden, late work carries a defined penalty, x number of absences will hurt your grade by x amount, etc. I wasn’t the kind of student for whom these policies were relevant, so I didn’t give them much thought, initially, as a teacher.

From the dean’s office, I encourage faculty to make certain ground rules and assumptions explicit in their syllabi and/or assignment handouts, just to prevent students from claiming that they didn’t know. It works, to a point. But you can’t prevent every wacky interpretation or bizarre assumption, and it’s unrealistic to think that you could.

When the ‘goes without saying’ stuff gets challenged, people are often dumbstruck. It hasn’t occurred to them that challenges were realistically possible, so they haven’t bothered thinking through arguments. I think that much of the vitriol in our politics comes from different conceptions of what goes without saying. Take health care. To a conservative, it’s simply obvious that the ‘moral hazard’ of insurance raises costs, since it insulates consumers from the true cost of what they’re buying. Therefore, if you want to reduce health care costs, you have to make people more sensitive to those costs by making them pay more. Besides, it goes without saying that the government screws everything up, anyway. To a liberal, it’s obvious beyond argument that the American system covers fewer people (by percentage), at higher cost, than any other system in the world; any theory that fails to acknowledge that simple fact of life is not to be taken seriously. Besides, it goes without saying that the market is based on voluntary exchange, and nobody volunteers to get sick. Therefore, the market model is inapplicable, and anyone who says different is either heartless or a moron.

It’s possible to reconstruct rationality after running into the brick wall of goes-without-saying, but it takes good faith and patience on both sides. That’s asking a lot, especially when people can build lucrative careers out of short-circuiting rational argument.

At my college, due to low turnover over the years, there are some goes-without-saying’s that need to change. Since many who work here haven’t figured that out yet, they get upset beyond measure when I challenge one of them. As far as they’re concerned, I’m arguing that gravity doesn’t exist, or that oxygen is overrated. In fact, I’m arguing that the world has changed, whether they’ve noticed or not. They haven’t, so they aren’t terribly inclined to listen. Some folks find it easier just to fall back on ad hominem attacks; they’ve had a lot of practice, and it’s easier than thinking.


It goes without saying that the combination of tenure and ‘faculty governance’ creates a ‘moral hazard’ of the first order; senior faculty, who have the most power, have the least at stake in any decisions made. They’re insulated (bulletproof, really), since even sustained decline won’t cost them their jobs. The folks who would be the most hurt by our failure to grow – prospective hires – don’t even have a seat at the table. So there’s a built-in, structural bias against change, much more so than in other kinds of organizations. Some rational, far-sighted types are capable of seeing beyond their own immediate self-interest, but that will almost never be a majority.

I’m struggling with ways to reach the folks who are, in many ways, immune to the dangers I see the college facing. To them, it goes without saying that managers justify their paychecks with asinine, pointless projects, and that smart faculty avoid buying in. To me, it goes without saying that continued enrollment decline jeopardizes everything the college could otherwise achieve, and that doing more of the same pretty much guarantees more of the same.

Round and round we go. How hard can it possibly be...?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Ask the Administrator: How to Give Good Meeting?

A long-suffering department chair writes:
My question in brief: how do you run a good department meeting?

I have run other meetings with success. For example I was in charge of
the chairs group at the college for 2 years and people seemed happy
with how meetings were run and what we covered. But department meetings
are tough. It is tough to get them there and to get them focused on
business. It is hard to get them to stay for an hour. I try not to
have meetings to chat. We are a small group and our offices are close
together. We talk a lot. I know the business is not fun: assessment,
program planning, scheduling, but it needs to be done.

Before I was chair I went to a lot of pointless meetings, but I went. I
never saw them as optional. How do I let my colleagues know that they
must make meetings, that they need to begin on time, and we have work to
do while we are there without being heavy-handed or getting angry?


Are you insinuating that assessment isn’t fun? I’m shocked!

Obviously, much will depend on the size, and personalities, of the group, as well as its historical patterns. That said, I’ve had good luck in multiple settings with a simple technique:

- a printed agenda with at least ten points
- a time limit
- food
- carefully-phrased questions, and
- a firm hand (hopefully not too heavy) in moving the discussion along.

If the agenda has too few points, people will take that as license to pontificate. Food tends to filter out the less important comments, since they’re busy chewing. (The same principle works with kids.) A time limit helps, but you have to be willing to stick to it. Starting promptly, oddly enough, can actually help, since it conveys a certain sense of urgency.

(With food, you can score no-pun-intended brownie points if you observe everyone’s dietary restrictions – vegetarian, kosher, Atkins, whatever. At my previous school, I won major points simply for breaking the all-pizza-all-the-time habit in recognition of dietary diversity. It seems like a little thing, but the folks who’ve consistently been excluded will notice. This is tricky when the group is huge, but it works wonders in groups as large as 25. If there’s a decent grocery store with a decent deli nearby, a few veggies-in-vinaigrette will make quite the impression.)

Scheduling the meeting to end before a popular class hour can help you enforce the deadline. If everyone has class at, say, 1:00, then a meeting that starts at 11:30 or 12 has a natural limit. If you have it at 3:00, it could drag on forever.

If Professor Blowhard insists on trying to filibuster, cut him off by asking for a proposed action item. “Is there a proposal on the floor” can work wonders. If he’s undeterred, offer to continue the discussion ‘offline,’ meaning after the meeting.

If this seems a little too directive, a way to make sure that nobody can claim that you’re railroading them is to distribute the (long) agenda a day or two in advance. That way, they’ll know what’s coming, and if one of their pet topics is coming, they won’t be ambushed. Mention on the agenda that food will be served. If you feed them, they will come.

In terms of phrasing, never ask “what do you think about...?” Instead, propose something, and ask “are there any objections?” The former question almost requires pausing, and invites speechifying. The latter puts the burden of interruption on anyone who raises a point, implicitly raising the bar for relevance. Use social dynamics to your advantage.

Question to my readers: do you give good meeting? If so, how?

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

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Interim Ad Nauseum

A veteran of administration writes:

The institution at which I teach (and at which I deaned for two years)
has, for years, had what seems to me to be an extraordinarily large
number of upper (dean and above) administrators holding interim
appointments. Right now, the chief academic officer, the head of
student services, the head of external relations (including
fundraising), the dean of the school of business, and the dean of the
school of public administration are all interim. We have
one--one--person holding a permanent appointment at the VP level (admin
& fiscal, who's also acting VP for IT. We do have 4 (out of 6) permanent
deans. These proportions have been roughly constant for the past 5
years. (We're on our ninth year of interims in academic affairs.)

My question is whether this is normal, or if we're just lucky? It seems
to me that the primary consequence is a bunch of administrators with
reduced power and with little incentive to make tough decisions--or
support for making tough decisions.


From what I’ve seen, no, that’s not normal. In fact, that’s pretty weird.

Normally, I would assume that these are signs of crisis. Either a really severe fiscal crisis (since interim people actually make great hatchet men), or a really severe political crisis (i.e. the leadership is buffeted from many sides, and can’t commit to one direction).

In a fiscal crisis, interim appointments can make sense on a couple of levels. If you bring in someone from the outside, preferably someone towards the end of a career, you can do so with the understanding that the interim person will be the Bad Guy. Sometimes you need a Bad Guy to make the necessary changes – closing academic divisions, making drastic resource shifts, etc. Then, when the changes have been made and the Bad Guy thoroughly reviled, bring in a permanent person to be the Good Guy. The Good Guy reaps the goodwill from both stopping the cuts and not being the Bad Guy. K-12 districts have done this for years with superintendents.

Alternately, sometimes someone internal will get talked into serving in a higher, interim role, while the college decides whether or not to keep that role. If it decides to keep the role, then the interim serves until a permanent person is found. If it decides to eliminate the role, the interim simply returns from whence she came. (I’ve seen both.) If the college doesn’t want to commit yet to keeping a position, it probably won’t want to go to the trouble of a national search to fill it, so the internal interim becomes very attractive.

(Along those lines, there’s a great article waiting to be written about the perils of appointing to ‘interim’ roles internal people who intend to apply for the permanent role. It can be done, but it puts both the institution and the candidate in very awkward positions. If the interim is either terrible or wonderful, and the outcome a foregone conclusion, it isn’t so bad, except to the other external candidates who put time and effort into a Potemkin search. If the interim is good-but-not-great, things can get very ugly. The faculty variation on that is the good-but-not-great loyal adjunct who applies for a t-t line.)

Since this has been going on for five years, I assume that it isn’t a response to a crisis.

It may be a response to a political dilemma. One community college in my state (not my college, thankfully) is shared between two bordering counties, and the two counties have very different visions of what they want. (Interestingly, both counties are controlled by the same political party.) As a result, the college changes direction frequently, in response to whomever is angrier at the time. It blows through Presidents fairly quickly, since any given President can change direction only so many times before his credibility (and/or motivation) is simply shot. What looks like a failure of internal leadership is really a consequence of a larger political battle.

Alternately, if you have stability at the Presidential level and instability underneath, I would assume the problem is with the President. S/he may be micromanaging, or domineering, or really annoying, or simply floundering. If that’s the case, good people either won’t come (if the flaws are obvious) or won’t stay (if they take a while to surface). At that point, if the Board of Trustees values stability, it will find a new President.

If you have instability at the Presidential level, instability below is to be expected.

There are other possibilities, of course: a mismatch between salaries and the cost of living in that area, or a fuzzy and rapidly-changing institutional mission, or strongly entrenched and unmanageable unions (rendering the administrators figureheads), or just dumb luck. (I’d buy the dumb luck explanation for a year or two, but probably not for five.) It may be like the French government, in which the ever-changing elected officials (deans and up) are largely irrelevant, and the equivalent of the civil service (the faculty) runs the country; if that’s the case, I wouldn’t want to manage there.

My general view on these things is that interims should be used sparingly. Better to have people stick around long enough to get the lay of the land, and to be held to account for their decisions. If upper administration has a sort of attention-deficit disorder, the institution as a whole will suffer.

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

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Preparing for the Dean's Interview

One of my favorite bloggers wrote:


I have a couple campus visits coming up, and I'm beginning to wonder exactly what the visit with the dean is all about. I have no idea what to expect. This is the one part of the job market process that nobody really talks about. That makes no sense to me, because this part of the visit is certainly important--my understanding is that the dean talks salary. But the visit with the dean seems to be overlooked in prepping job candidates for the market.

I guess I really have two main questions:

1. What questions should I be prepared to answer--and to ask?

2. Do I begin negotiating salary during this meeting with the dean, or do I wait until I have been offered the job? My gut tells me to play it cool with the dean and take what he/she tells me as an opening number; I think I should wait to negotiate until the job has actually been offered. Given the fact that I just finished reading Women Don't Ask, a good book about how women don't negotiate enough, I am questioning my gut, however. Maybe I am just hesitant to negotiate (the thought does make me nervous). So, I thought I'd ask you when real negotiations begin: will the deans be expecting me to negotiate right then and there, or to wait until the job has been offered?

One of the annoying little quirks of my college is that the salary negotiation occurs in HR, after the job offer has been made by the dean. It leads to frustrating moments, like the following:

DD: After a careful search, we’ve decided that you’re our first choice. I’m happy to offer you the position.

Candidate: Great! I have a few questions.

DD: Okay.

Candidate: What does it pay?

DD: I don’t know. You’ll have to discuss that with HR.


Candidate: Oh.

(Sound of crickets.)

Since the cost of living in this area is orders of magnitude higher than in other parts of the country, salary matters a great deal.

I’ve asked about the strange separation of hiring from salary, and the answer I’ve received is that as a unionized campus, any incoming salary offer has to follow the criteria listed in the faculty contract, and has to be fairly consistent with people already here. To my mind, that doesn’t really answer the question, but there we are.

The rule of thumb, based on the two places I’ve managed, is that you’re allowed one refusal. Balk at the second offer, and a third one won’t be forthcoming. (Keep in mind, though, both places were teaching-oriented and not at all interested in paying extra to recruit stars. I’d imagine that the dynamic is very different at R1’s recruiting heavy hitters.) And the bumps from the first offer to the second are pretty small – a thousand or two, if that. Worth asking for, certainly, but not earth-shattering.

Either way, I’d certainly recommend waiting to negotiate salary until the job is offered, and asking for a few days to think about it. A strategic show of looking slightly underwhelmed, followed by a request to think about it, may give you the leverage for the first refusal. Although the vagaries of the job market might lead you to feel powerless, the truth is that selecting someone for a job is a difficult task for a college, and failing to land a candidate will lead to one of several less-desirable outcomes: hiring a less attractive candidate, re-opening the search (costly in both time and money), and sometimes even losing the line altogether. Once you’re the anointed one, you do have a bit of leverage.

Other than salary, I usually use the dean’s interview to give an administrative gloss on what the college values, knowing that it will often be substantially different than what a given academic department values. I discuss the tenure clock, the criteria we use, and what I particularly look for when evaluating a professor. I also give a brief account of my view of what makes the college a good place to be, and of the direction I see the college moving in the next several years.

Then there’s the all-purpose “is there anything in your background that would embarrass the college, if it were to become public knowledge after you start here?” If asked, I clarify that I’m looking for any criminal convictions, sexual harassment findings, etc. You’d be surprised at what I’ve learned with this question. Revelations here aren’t necessarily deal-breakers, depending on what they are, but they give the college an ‘out’ if something really unsavory comes up later. At that point, the issue is not simply the unsavory fact, but failure to disclose. If you do have something that falls in this category, I say, reveal it if asked. If the college hires you anyway, the issue is rendered moot; if it doesn’t, at least you’re spared moving your family only to have the sword of Damocles fall on you. As background checks have become standard operating procedure, and as Google has advanced, secrets have become harder to keep. Better to disarm them upfront.

I expect candidates to come in with questions about tenure, salary, benefits, and parking. (Parking is the one constant.) The more impressive ones ask questions about enrollment trends at the college (both overall and specific to their department), strategic direction of the college, faculty turnover rates (VERY revealing), key issues facing the college in the near future, gender balance on the faculty, student demographics, funding for both technology and faculty development (not the same thing, though they overlap), the state of outcomes assessment at the college (you don’t have to care, but it’s good form to ask), and the overall budgetary health of the college. Questions like these show me that a candidate is interested not just in being someone who teaches classes and draws a paycheck, but also in being a citizen of the college. Simply bringing them up shows a refreshing absence of provincialism.

I’ll ask my readers: what came up in your dean’s interview?

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

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Do-Nothing Administrators

Whenever the subject of budgets comes up, some among the faculty quickly trot out the old chestnut about do-nothing administrators and their high salaries representing unconscionable waste. After all, they don’t teach, so they must not be working, right?

Uh, no.

Much of what we do is invisible, if we do it right. If you notice it, it’s because something went wrong. Over time, with this kind of adverse publicity, most managers get bad reputations. Add to that honest differences of opinion, personality conflicts, and genuine screw-ups (hey, they happen), and the shelf life of the average dean is far, far shorter than the shelf life of the average professor.

In my office, simply managing budgets takes a substantial amount of time and energy. Given finite resources and public-sector accounting rules, doing anything new requires constructing an elaborate set of work-arounds. These are largely invisible to the faculty; they either get their goodies or they don’t, and ascribe either to the personal inclination of the dean. What I want has very little to do with anything. For example, one of our high-tech areas just purchased a boatload of software upgrades, only to find out that the software company (which has a monopoly in its area) just implemented a requirement to buy a series of USB keys to activate the software, to prevent piracy. These keys ain’t cheap, at least in the quantity we need, and there is no meaningful competitor. So I have to sniff around the budget for enough loose money to absorb the unplanned cost, move it around with the right paperwork and approvals, and get it through quickly enough to have everything in place for the start of January classes.

Is this because I want to spend more on USB keys? Puh-leeze. It’s because the software company has its patrons over a barrel, and knows it. It is because I’m feathering my own nest? Uh-uh. Is it because I don’t care about the students? If I didn’t care about the students, I’d make some anatomically-impossible suggestions to the software company and just shut down the program.

The fiscal year tracks the academic year, more or less, so money spent now on an unplanned cost is money not available later for the great idea a professor develops in April. My preference has nothing to do with it.

Sometimes, though, doing nothing is a conscious choice. I get a steady stream of student complaints about faculty; by the time they get to me, they’ve already spoken to (and been frustrated by) their professor and the relevant department chair, so they’re pretty worked up. What’s striking, especially for someone who has been full-time faculty, is how minor some of the complaints are. I get complaints about accents, complaints about not being offered second or third makeups after skipping multiple exams, complaints about not being allowed to take ‘important’ cell phone calls in class (!), and complaints about conflicts between class hours (published, unchanging) and work hours. Much of the time, I do what I can to calm the student down, but I don’t actually follow through because there isn’t anything reasonable to follow through on. If you want to call that being a ‘do-nothing administrator,’ go ahead, but I see it as discretion.

There are times when choosing to do nothing is actually the best course of action. As someone who respects academic freedom, I’ve found myself choosing to do nothing even when faced with inexplicable pedagogical judgments by faculty. If it doesn’t amount to the academic equivalent of malpractice (i.e. selling grades for sex or money, not showing up for class), I leave it alone. Questionable judgment calls are addressed at regular faculty evaluations; I only break the cycle if something extraordinarily awful happens.

So why do I get a manager’s salary?

Part of it is compensation for putting in a longer-than-faculty workweek. I used to be faculty, which to my mind should be a prerequisite for academic management. Getting me to give up the shorter weeks, casual dress code, longer breaks, etc., required compensation.

But most of it, I think, is that the combination of knowing what you’re talking about and knowing when not to talk is relatively rare. I’ve worked under managers who flunked one or both of those tests, and it made my life miserable. Honestly, one of the reasons I stick around in administration is the firm conviction – call it arrogant if you want – that I’m better at it than most, in part because I know when not to act. Given the choice between a manager with discretion and a manager without, most of us could decide in a heartbeat. To the more conscientious faculty, the ones who do their jobs well and really contribute to the college (which is the majority), it may look like I do little or nothing. That’s okay. I’m happy to leave the productive, self-directed types pretty much alone. A certain swan-like presence – tranquil above the surface, paddling like hell underneath – is actually constructive.

So this week I’ll be doing all manner of work that faculty won’t see. When they get back in a few weeks from their extended break, some of them will mutter about do-nothing managers. I’ll keep a straight face, and the game will be on once again.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Shaking Off the Rust

And...we’re back.

Thanks to everyone who left such thoughtful comments. The break was great, and badly needed. If not for the confines of anonymity, I’d post a few pictures of The Boy and The Girl; there’s one of The Girl in a Santa hat that makes all who see it bust out laughing.

Some highlights of the break:

Me, resigned: “Don’t pile-drive your sister.”

The Girl’s mouth forming a perfect ‘O’ when we first turned on the lights on the tree.

Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Reading actual books.

The Boy: Why are turtles slow?
The Wife: Because they have tiny legs.
The Boy: Mice have tiny legs, and they’re fast!
The Wife: um...

We had imitation lutefisk – this year, it was tilapia – and it was lovely.

A week without office politics is sheer heaven.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled life...