Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ask the Administrator: When the Bench is Thin

A longtime reader and correspondent writes:

In my academic program, our dean will be retiring in 4-5 years. We have an associate dean (gone in 2 years) and an assistant dean (gone in 4 years), and that's our entire administrative structure. Only one other faculty member (me) has any administrative experience (I served as dean, not with what one would call great success, from 1998 to 2000; I retire in 4 years as well). The last two deans have been internal hires, and given the current and foreseeable future state of the budget, we're likely to have to hire from inside again. Among the current faculty, only one might be administrative material, although I don't know if he has any interest (there are no signs of it) and I don't know how well his candidacy would be received by the faculty (he's made some fairly divisive curriculum proposals, although he's also done a good job with assessment issues).

The question is how we can, now, immediately, begin to develop some additional administrative depth. Especially as no one seems especially interested, what we might do looks awfully difficult to me. (This comes up because I've been asked, by one of the current administrative incumbents--not the dean--which is itself an interesting issue--for ideas.) Anyone have any ideas?

This sounds awfully familiar. With the top-heavy age/seniority distribution at my college, I have several departments in which there's no obvious successor to the incumbent chair. Since we only hire chairs from within, it's a real issue. (For deans and above, we do open, internal-and-external searches.) When you don't hire anybody full-time in a given department for twenty years, these things happen.

Although Marc Bousquet likes to complain about full-time faculty being part of a hiring chain for administration, I'm not entirely convinced it's a bad thing. After all, the alternative to drawing from the faculty ranks is to draw from the ranks of people who haven't been faculty. On the academic side of the house, I'd like leaders who have actually been in the classroom. They're more likely to understand the reality of how decisions play out on the ground.

(Frankly, if the argument that you need to develop a bench wins you some full-time lines, I consider that a good thing. And several of the faculty hired on my watch have had administrative experience elsewhere, which I've considered a huge plus. They get it.)

Sometimes, though, you see someone in the wings who seems to have the temperament for the job – it's really much more about temperament than almost anything else – but just hasn't thought about it. In those cases, sometimes an early tap on the shoulder, followed with some professional development funding for a quasi-administrative conference or two (the AAC&U is usually good, for example), can serve to whet an appetite. (Alternately, it can help you dodge a bullet, if she attends and comes back saying “Oh, God, No!!!!!!,” better to find that out early.)

It's also possible that folks who would avoid a chair position if offered 'cold' would accept a lower-level administrative assignment and discover a taste for it. That happened in my case, and I've seen it happen with a few others. The cultural taboo among faculty against breaking ranks is strong, but once the ranks are slightly broken and the world doesn't end, it's easier to keep going.

Anybody smart enough to be a college professor is smart enough to manage. The issue with the people who crash and burn, in my observation, is usually something like 'thickness of skin' or 'willingness to endure conflict' or 'ability to remain calm in the face of patent insanity.' People who pride themselves on not suffering fools gladly are well advised to steer clear of administration, since the cutting remark that seemed witty when you were a professor is suddenly cruel when you're a dean. And if you pride yourself on being universally liked, don't even think about it.

Good luck. You're in a tough spot.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.