Monday, October 01, 2007

Looking the Part

There's an eyebrow-raising discussion over at New Kid's, in response to a first person piece in the Chronicle.

I didn't write the Chronicle piece, but with very few details changed, I could have.

The original piece is written by a candidate for a deanship or academic vice presidency (at least that's how I interpret her). She's 36, but she has already amassed all the relevant experience you'd expect for a serious candidate for an academic deanship. (VPAA strikes me as a stretch in her case, but that's neither here nor there.) She comments that she is frequently dismissed for what amounts to being too young.

Maybe so, maybe not. I'll admit that I've heard almost exactly the same things, and I'm in my thirties, so I find her account credible. Whether those things we hear are actually true, or are simply the easiest letdowns readily at hand, I don't know.

But then I read New Kid's take, which suggests that the "too young" reason isn't just an easy 'out.'

NK writes, in all apparent seriousness:

"I have a hard time wrapping my mind around working somewhere with a 36-year-old dean."

followed by...

"Would you, personally, support the candidacy of a dean who was 36?"

Wow. Which part of "age discrimination" don't you understand? Would you, personally, support the candidacy of a dean who was unmarried? Would you, personally, support the candidacy of a dean who attended a different church than you? What about someone overweight? Or short? Gotta look the part, you know.

The fact that the question was addressed respectfully in the comments shows just how deep this bias actually runs.

I'm in my thirties, and look it. I don't get mistaken for a student, but I'm not graying yet, either. In any other industry, I would look like most people at a comparable rank.

But in higher ed, as the average ages have moved up, the expectation that leaders will be eminences grises has taken hold. It wasn't always so; as the article points out, in 1986 only 14 percent of college Presidents were over 60. Now, nearly half are. As with the "contagion of obesity" studies, which have basically found that people determine 'normal' by looking around them, there's a contagion of reverse ageism. The kicker, of course, is that if you do the math, it quickly becomes apparent that some of the folks who just couldn't handle the idea of hiring someone under fifty were, themselves, hired under fifty. But that was a long time ago, and the gradual aging-in-place has been happening for so long that it seems like things have always been this way.

What makes this bias so frustrating, other than the obvious, is that it's self-reinforcing. As the age bar moves ever-higher, it becomes harder to find 'suitable' candidates. So we see the same faces popping up all over, as they rearrange the deck chairs while the ship sinks. We complain that campus leadership is a bunch of old white guys, but we reject younger candidates, both men and women, for not being old enough. Alrighty then.

Diversity is more than race and gender. The fact that I even have to make this point makes me want to bash my head against the wall.

I've written before on some of the dynamics that lead to a remarkable upward trend in administrative ages: the paucity of full-time faculty hires over the last few decades that has left the pipeline thin; the ratcheting-up of expectations on the new hires, such that many new faculty are research machines who view even chairing a department as an imposition (but who regard tenure as a right, and don't see the contradiction); the much-higher vulnerability of administrative roles (as opposed to tenured faculty). All of these result, mostly unintentionally, in an increasingly gray administrative population.

Here's a thought: what if, just for the sake of argument, we looked at performance and talent, rather than age? What if, and I know this is reaching but bear with me, we accepted the possibility that you don't need gray hair and an AARP card to know something about management? What if we stopped hiring the same faces over and over again, expecting different results?


The barriers to entry in this profession are among the highest of any. Talented twenty- and thirty- somethings in many industries escape stultifying corporations to start their own businesses. Talented twenty- and thirty- something doctors and lawyers can start private practices. The reverse ageism in higher ed is a reflection of barriers to entry, not quality. I'm older than the founders of Google, for God's sake. Would you, personally, use Google?


If we're going to see progressive change, we're going to have to support getting folks with new perspectives into the roles to enact those changes. Sometimes, that will mean getting past the idea of only hiring people who look like Ted Baxter. If that makes you feel old, so be it. There's work to do, and I don't want to have to wait another ten years to do it.