Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Ask the Administrator: The Tap on the Shoulder

A rising young correspondent writes:

I am a newish faculty member at a large
community college. During a recent interview, I made a positive impression
on our division's Vice Chancellor, and he has decided to groom me for a dean
position that he plans to create in the next year or two. Of course, I
wasn't sure he was serious at first, but after a long conversation with him
a few days ago it seems this is not a cruel hoax. If everything goes well
and I get this position, I will be the youngest dean on campus and will have
been promoted to my boss's boss's job.

O I have so many questions. Here are a few:
1. The V.C. says this is not a secret; furthermore, his "grooming" plans
will eventually be obvious to my program coordinator and department chair.
Still, should I tell them up front the future dean position? Will it sound
as if I am suffering from delusions of grandeur?
2. I have many professional friendships with faculty here. Should I tell
them about this turn of events now or later?
3. Are there any pitfalls to being a new dean (or to the deanship grooming
process) that I could avoid with some advance warning?

First, congratulations on the faculty job! Next, a few thoughts.

I'd be wary of someone offering to leap you several levels so abruptly. People who make strange decisions on a dime often change them on another one, so even if he's sincere right now, he may get distracted by a shiny object next month and that's that. And I absolutely would NOT go around telling all and sundry that you've been promised a much higher-level job that doesn't exist yet. (Among other reasons, jobs like that are supposed to be advertised, and subject to open searches. Even if he were consistent, he couldn't actually promise that you'd win an open search.)

Instead, I'd re-frame the discussion as an opportunity for faculty/leadership development.

Although I don't buy into the cult of seniority nearly as much as many academics seem to, I do believe that some experience beats no experience. (My difference with the Seniority Squad has to do with how we envision the payoff to experience over time. They think it's linear, or even exponential. I think it plateaus relatively early, and can even turn negative eventually. But we agree on the first few years.) Going directly from 'new faculty' to 'dean' is quite a leap, and you'd arrive in the new office with very little sense of the jobs of the people who report to you. Unless you're either preternaturally talented or really, really lucky, you'll make some basic and costly mistakes that a little more experience (or exposure, if you prefer) would have prevented.

For example, fielding student complaints about other people is very different than fielding students complaints about you. You know what you did or didn't do; that won't be the case when the complaint is about someone else. What do you do when a student storms in and complains that "Professor so-and-so is biased"? Or that she doesn't return papers, or doesn't show up for class, or says demeaning things? And what do you do if Professor so-and-so refuses even to address the charge, responding instead with insinuations that The Administration (cue ominous music) is simply out to get her and everybody who looks like her?

Or, what do you do when a department chair refuses to add sections of a popular class – despite all existing sections being full, and despite a very real budget problem at your college – on the grounds that "it's hard to find good daytime adjuncts"? (I've had them say this six months in advance.) If you've chaired a department, or otherwise been responsible for hiring adjuncts, you'll have a good idea of the relative truth of that. ("Gee, I always managed..." has a way of changing the conversation.) If not, you'll have a harder time.

The tap on the shoulder is a good thing. It's a recognition that you have the talent and temperament to deal with some of the issues that plenty of otherwise brilliant people just don't handle well. But jumping multiple levels at one time can actually set you up for failure, even if unintentionally.

My advice is to express gratitude for his confidence in you, and interest in preparing yourself for possible future administrative opportunities, whatever those might be. Then take on a lower-level assignment to get some experience (and maybe some course release), and cadge some travel funding for a relevant conference or two. (The AAC&U, the AACC, and the League for Innovation all offer worthwhile options.) Get some exposure and some experience, so you'll be prepared not just to get a job, but to succeed at it. It may take a little longer upfront, but you'll be setting yourself up for more success, and more opportunities, over time.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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