Thursday, November 09, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Preferring Idiots

A director of a career services office writes:

We have an opening for a career counselor position. I've talked to a number of people and forwarded with a recommendation a person who has more experience than me in career counseling. He's trained career counselors; he's written books about it; he's got a PhD. The dean doesn't want him. The dean complained that my candidates for career counseling positions have experience career counseling. . . . I kid you not. He wants me to look for other candidates.

Do you suppose that he'd hire a physicist for the economics department? Or how about an architect for accounting? Does this make any sense to you?

Yes and no. It could make sense in the presence of other variables, none of which help you.

A few possibilities leap to mind. First, the dean might already have someone in mind for the position, but knowing that his 'pet' candidate isn't all that strong, he has to tank the upfront search to make his choice plausible.

Second, the dean might not want to fund the position at all, but rather than being upfront about it, might find it politically easier to just nitpick each candidate until you just give up. If this is the case, then I'd nominate your dean for 'moron' status. There are much better ways to do business.

Third, this position might have been unofficially designated somewhere as an affirmative action hire, so you'll have to keep going until you find someone who allows them to check off the desired box. If this is the case, there's not much to be done about it, though I would expect the dean to give some sort of hint about which box is desired.

Fourth, the dean might fear 'flight risk' from a strong candidate. If there have been multiple recent departures, he might be spooked about people leaving, so he'd avoid anybody that anybody else would want (that is, anybody who's conspicuously qualified). On the upside, you could expect loyalty from the new hire. On the downside, the new hire will probably suck, at least at first.

Fifth, and probably the likeliest, the dean might want to be able to lowball on salary, and assumes (probably correctly) that anybody well-qualified wouldn't accept a low salary. Somebody who's just grateful for an incredible break, on the other hand, might be willing to accept a lowball offer.

Finally, your dean might just be a blithering idiot. I prefer to treat this as a 'residual' explanation; that is, don't resort to it until all else has failed. It tends to short-circuit understanding, since there's really no understanding a blithering idiot. That's not to say it's never true, just that you shouldn't go to it too quickly.

One of my continuing frustrations in administration is that I keep seeing very intelligent, savvy, hardworking people making boneheaded decisions. (I've worked under enough different regimes at this point to have some comparative perspective on this.) Often, a boneheaded decision reflects some underlying variable to which you don't have access. Sometimes it reflects personal connections and/or weaknesses (family ties, personal loyalties, blind spots generally). And yes, sometimes it's just a brain cramp. Usually, though, if a smart person gets called on a brain cramp, s/he'll admit it.

I've heard worse. A friend of mine at a department in the midwest reported that one faculty search almost wound up hiring the candidate everybody acknowledged as weaker, just to screw over the faction within the department that the candidate would join. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, but it was close, and it took a fight.

I'm suspicious of any manager who always has to be the smartest one in the room. As a manager, if you don't have the self-confidence to hire people smarter than you, you're in the wrong job.

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