Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Succession Planning

There’s a piece in the Chronicle berating academia for failing to do enough ‘succession planning.’ Succession planning is the practice of designating heirs apparent for positions in the food chain in advance, so internal candidates will be prepared when the time comes. It’s gaining traction in the corporate world.

There’s something to be said for good succession planning. It can act as an incentive for good people to stick around; it can be an incentive for a college to invest in professional development; it can reduce the trauma of change; it can almost guarantee short learning curves; it can preserve institutional memory and continuity; and it can reduce the likelihood of change for change’s sake. These are not to be sneezed at.

Still, on a visceral level, the entire concept makes my skin crawl.

Most obviously, it’s not at all clear how succession planning and affirmative action can exist in the same universe. Affirmative action done right is about looking for candidates who don’t fit the traditional mold, but who have real strengths that could still allow them to be effective. Succession planning is very much about perpetuating the traditional mold. In practice, it’s often hard to distinguish from the old boys’ club.

Beyond that, it strikes me that greater stability is the last thing that most colleges need. By virtue of tenure and tenure-based culture, the great danger facing most colleges isn’t so much the lack of institutional memory as the trap of it. When a college is dominated by a single generational cohort that has been together for decades, the value of a fresh set of eyes is considerable. The new guy has license to ask why things are done a given way, and to arch his eyebrows at the response “because we’ve always done it that way.”

In that sense, much of traditional higher ed is very different, culturally, than much of the private sector. In the corporate world, where personnel churn is significant and sustained, a conscious decision to place a premium on stability makes sense. In the academic world, where the weight of history bears down on even the most trivial decisions, the occasional infusion of new blood is to the good.

That’s not to say that internal candidates are always a bad idea. It’s just to say that the good ones will win fair fights anyway, so why not have fair fights? Throw the searches open, and let the strongest applicants win. At my college, we’ve recently had some incredibly good internal candidates win fair fights, with the result that nobody begrudges them their new positions.

Succession planning can lead to a culture in which brown-nosing and office politics trump actual performance or ability. (In academia, we usually prefer to confine that culture to grad school.) Worse, once someone has been anointed, there’s a temptation for the anointed one to slack, and for the non-anointed to simply tune out. Neither is fair, and neither is helpful.

Professional development is great, but the goal should be to create candidates strong enough to win fair fights. Anything else is just extending the monopoly of the current group.