Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Ask the Administrator: References for Admin Job Searches

A gratifyingly-frequent correspondent, currently a department chair, writes:

I've been having some problems with the entirely closed environment at [current college],
which means that new people and outsiders are regularly stonewalled and
sand-bagged. So I decided to serve out the rest of the academic year,
and then move on.

As I prepare to go on the job market again, I'm wondering what to do
about recommendation letters. There are a number of administrative
positions, such as directorships and chairships, for which I feel
highly qualified. Should I have a recommendation letter that speaks to
my administrative skills? The only people who can speak directly to my
ability to lead a department are my faculty. But how weird is it to
have a recommendation from essentially one of my employees
saying "She's a great leader!"? Will search committees think that I
threatened or cajoled them into writing a letter for me? I do have
two friends who are chairs of their respective departments, but they
don't know much about my discipline. Should I go to them instead?
Finally, what are skills I should highlight in my job letters for
administrative positions?

It's a pet peeve of mine that criteria and conventions that make sense in faculty searches are often taken as normative for all job searches. Letters of recommendation strike me as problematic generally, but they're especially out-of-place for administrative positions. (I did an earlier rant against letters of recommendation generally here.)

For graduate students, newly-minted Ph.D.'s, or people in 'visiting' positions, there's nothing weird in looking for a tenure-track faculty job. It's what you're supposed to be doing. Asking your dissertation advisor and any other muckety-mucks you can corral to write you letters is expected, role-appropriate, and The Way Things Are Done. Whether it makes sense as a common practice is another issue, but it doesn't put the candidate in a weird position.

Once you're in a tenure-track or administrative position, though, asking for letters from people you work with is letting them in on a secret, which is that you're thinking of leaving. This information can, and sometimes will, be used against you. (It can work in your favor only once you actually have an offer in hand. Then you can play the 'counter-offer' game. Until you have an offer in hand, you're acutely vulnerable.)

Many administrative positions will ask instead for a list of references, usually with a caveat to the effect that references will be contacted only for candidates at the 'finalist' stage. This is better, but still risky; you could, theoretically, keep your search effectively secret as long as you aren't really in the running anyway. Once someone decides you're viable, though, the calls will be made, and your secret will be revealed. If it results in an offer, great. If you make it to the finalist stage but don't 'win,' though, you're actually compromised at your current job.

When I was on the admin market at my previous college (the search that brought me here), I had a few colleagues with whom I was particularly close, and we all shared a sort of 'siege' mentality about working there. Since several of us were looking for different jobs at the same time, we formed a sort of circle of recommendations, founded on a sort of honor among thieves. It worked, obviously, and I've been a reliable recommender for folks who are still stuck there. Here, though, I don't have a clue how it would work.

Making matters worse, many places require that at least one recommender be someone to whom you report directly. (I've been told that the standard expectation of three letters should be distributed as follows: one supervisor, one peer, one underling.) I was spared that in this search, simply by blind luck. Asking your Dean to write you a letter sends a pretty unambiguous message that you have one foot out the door. If the other foot doesn't follow in short order, your remaining time at your current college could be quite tricky.

I don't know an elegant solution to this on the individual level. In your particular case, if you still have good friends at your previous college, it wouldn't be unreasonable for one of the three references to come from there. Systemically, the obvious solution is to do away with letters of recommendation above the assistant-professor level (except for basic verification of employment, which could be done confidentially through HR). I would strongly encourage anybody on a search committee for an admin position to consider dropping the recommendation requirement, to see if it generates a larger and better pool of applications, much as dropping the SAT requirement frequently results in larger and better applicant pools for entering classes. (I'm guessing it would.)

In terms of what to emphasize in your application, keep in mind that being hired to an admin position is very different from being hired to a faculty position. Many excellent professors make lousy managers. The single-mindedness that can make for a brilliant scholar can also make for the manager from hell. As long as you can satisfy the relevant 'faculty experience' requirement, I'd focus mostly on your talents as a manager. Have you dealt successfully with difficult people? Have you seen projects through to fruition, and were those projects successful? Did you manage change well? Have you handled crises? What budget-management experience have you had? What do you do well that others don't?

I wouldn't worry about being discipline-specific; other chairs, if you can trust them, would be good candidates as references. I don't much care whether the chair of the Art department is the best artist in the department, or even the best teacher. I care that s/he is the best multitasker, the cool head in the crisis who is patient with the annoying little details of running a department (is there enough modeling clay? Did the lab assistants get the right-to-know training on time? Is the kiln properly vented, and were the relevant papers filed on time? Are student issues handled promptly and intelligently?). Those skills are position-specific, rather than discipline-specific.

Wise and thoughtful readers: do you know a graceful way to handle the recommendations issue if you're in a job that you aren't 'supposed' to be leaving?

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