Friday, January 05, 2007

Ask the Administrator: The Chair Talk

A senior correspondent writes:

I am interviewing for a "department head" position of a mid-sized academic department at State U. in a couple of weeks. I am a senior professor in the social sciences and have what I believe (perhaps falsely) is a clear enough sense of what a job talk should amount to these days: relaxed but professional introduction of pressing research problem, undeniably bold and creative research strategy, enlightening results,...

But I have never interviewed for semi-administrative positions before and was asked this time to talk not about research but about my "administrative philosophy," etc. I just wonder how this works. I've never even attended such a thing, which I suppose is the problem. I could compile something pithy and responsive about faculty governance (shared), the consultation process (for it), and strategic planning (excellent idea) but, as I said, I am at a bit of a loss as to what's expected. And google has let me down here. (Though there is plenty on "how to be a chair." P.s., a "head" in this system has more budget autonomy than, say, chairs in my system.)

I haven't chaired a department, though I can certainly share constructive war stories of what it's like in the trenches and I have had a fair number of related responsibilities. I know how to prioritize and link resources to plans. That leaves me short about 40 minutes of material.If it were my department, I would list our issues and my intentions regarding each. I could start with that, but this department is mostly a cipher to me. I could also chat with the previous head, whom I know and is now at another university. But I wonder if that's kosher -- put a better way, I'd rather talk with him once I have an offer.

Put better still, are there 3 main things that deans and faculties want to hear from prospective chairs (and do these take more than 5 minutes to explain)? That would give me all the legs I need, I suppose. Perhaps there is a classic reference...

You raise a tough question. I've never had the luxury of being able to recruit from outside for a department chair position; at both of my colleges, chairs have always been selected from among the incumbent full-time faculty.

First, I wouldn't be shy about talking with the outgoing chair. (I have no idea what a 'head' is, so I'll just go with 'chair.') If you come in guns a-blazin' on an issue the department considers long-settled, you're at a disadvantage. If nothing else, you should get a better sense of what the 'live' issues are.

From the hiring side, I'd look for someone who has survived some difficult administrative-type circumstances. How have you handled intra-departmental conflict? What are your views on student grade appeals, how to allocate travel money (or research money, or any other scarce and desirable good), and the direction the department needs to take for the next 5-10 years? Have you been involved in outcomes assessment, or accreditation self-studies, or anything along those lines? What mistakes have you seen made? How would you have handled them differently? (Good answer: “I was supportive of our first female hire, and I'm proud of that. In retrospect, though, we didn't think through the possibility that she would be saddled with more than her fair share of advisement, since female majors sought her out disproportionately. Now I'm more aware of the background conditions that can stand in the way of positive change, and if I had it to do over again, I would have addressed the advisement issue directly.”) More interestingly, what did you see that struck you at the time as a mistake, but now that you're older/wiser/more experienced, you understand?

The best answers, from my perspective, would reflect a realization that you need to separate processes and decisions from personalities. Have you ever had to say 'no' to a friend in the department, and go along with someone you really didn't like? Have you made a decision for the good of the group, even though it inconvenienced you personally?

You're right that everybody knows what to say about a few givens -- micromanagement bad, open-door policy good, etc. They're sort of the "this class will make you think"s of job interviews. Even if they're true in a particular case -- and they often aren't -- everybody says them. For me, the valuable part of an interview is when the candidate goes off-script. Get as specific as you can, and a little carefully selected candor ("in retrospect, I would have phrased that differently") adds credibility to the cliches.

I'd also come armed with a list of questions to ask the department and the dean. What issues are they facing right now? What's the elephant in the room? If you can draw them out on those, you have a much better chance of showing why you'd be a good choice.

(And no, I don't know of any classic references. Anyone?)

Good luck!

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