Friday, August 29, 2008

Actual 1st Sentence of a Note Left by Our Plumber

“1st, do not be alarmed by the burning smell in your kitchen.”

Oh, goody.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ask the Administrator: A Grad's Gotta Eat!

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a graduate student (of the Master's variety) at a private university in {Very Big City on the East Coast}. The field in which I'm interested in pursuing is a concentration in the field of English, one that is not widely offered, so when I had begun looking at graduate programs, my options were limited. I'm in my early 30s and had come to college later than many (I graduated with an undergraduate degree in 2007) and had to consider various factors, both personal and financial. I ultimately decided on the university that was closest to home; this would allow me to commute and not have move to another part of the country (thereby not having to leave a long-term partner), as well as be able to commute from home. I felt this was a decent decision, since I would not have to worry about the expenses of moving and finding a new place to live, neither of which I could afford, but because I was a newly certified secondary English teacher, I would theoretically be able to teach while I studied for my Master's degree. (The other university that had accepted me is out of state.) School A, which had accepted me and which is out of state, had a better program and was stronger overall, but School B, where I am currently studying, suited me well enough, and also offered its graduate students teaching fellowships, research fellowships, and teaching assistantships. I was accepted fairly late but still managed to be offered a teaching assistantship; in fact, I've since been offered three, as well as a research fellowship, which has helped finance my education, and which is especially helpful as I continue to struggle to find a teaching job. 

At the end of last spring, I was offered a teaching fellowship, which permits me to teach a freshman writing class; it offers a small stipend and tuition remission. A few weeks ago I had thought there was a possibility of a  teaching gig, which I desperately need: I need the income much more than I need a teaching fellowship. Although the deal fell through, and it was late in the summer, during the time in which I thought there might be a conflict, I immediately contacted both my mentor (who would be guiding me through teaching the freshman writing class) and the graduate student advisor. My mentor seemed to be willing to make some small concession (an afternoon class), but of course that was for naught. However, my graduate student advisor seemed outright put out (if you will). She expressed disappointment that I, as she put it, put this teaching opportunity as something that isn't a solid commitment, and went on to say that when a time is agreed upon, that to her was a set deal.  I felt this was a bit harsh, and in reply, I tried to express my desire to teach both at the university which I attend and which had offered me said teaching opportunity (which I really am eager to do), but that I also had to consider a salary and benefits. I am no kid anymore and sorely feel the need to maintain those fun adult responsibilities like paying bills. I emphasized that this has come to nothing, of course, and that I would still be teaching the originally agreed-upon section, and that I hoped she could appreciate the situation in which I am placed.

Was there another (and/or better) way I could have handled this? Obviously, in a perfect world, I would have a full-time teaching gig (I would like to be teaching at a middle school or high school, and utilize my training, after all) and not have to shirk any other teaching opportunities. But I feel that my needs as an adult are not quite being recognized by some parts of my department, either. Your feedback would be very much appreciated.

I'm not a fan of people who punish the desire to make an adult living. They're out there, and in dispiriting numbers, but that doesn't make them right. That said, though, your advisor's reaction isn't necessarily out of line.

In many graduate programs, as I understand them – and I don't work in a graduate program, obviously, so comments from folks who do are especially welcome – TA lines are relatively scarce and prized. Their value isn't so much in their cash wages, which, as you correctly say, don't correspond to adult responsibilities. It's in the combination of tuition remission and health insurance. Although you don't feel either of those as cash in pocket, they're both real costs to the institution, so they aren't given out lightly.

The idea behind such (relatively) costly compensation for graduate students is that TA lines are supposed to allow for some actual mentoring of your teaching, and some time for your research. I won't deny for a minute that there's often a gap between theory and practice here, but that's what distinguishes TA's from adjuncts. TA's are far more expensive to the institution than are adjuncts; what the institution gets back for its (relatively) greater investment is supposed to be successful graduates of its program.

By trying to couple a TA line with a regular job, you're defeating both institutional incentives for providing TA lines. You won't be around much for mentoring, and the extra time for the regular job is likely to slow down – if not halt – your progress in your program. You're asking for TA compensation for adjunct work, and the institution has little reason to agree to that. Put differently, your advisor would have a hard time defending that when other advisors go to bat for their advisees.

Your question about handling it is hard to answer on its face, since personalities differ and seemingly minute changes in circumstance can matter a great deal. But the seemingly-irrational response of your advisor actually makes some institutional sense even if, as you correctly point out, it offers you a choice between poverty and stasis.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Attachments and Speed Reading

I’m really growing to hate that little paper clip that comes with so many emails.
On any given day, at least half of the emails I receive have that little paper clip.  Invariably, I’m supposed to read whatever is attached, immediately grasp every contentious point, and remember it all when quizzed randomly a week later by someone saying “but you knew about that!  I copied you on the email!” 
Honestly, I’m starting to think that speed reading is a job requirement. 
Geeky Mom has written insightfully about the intellectual demands of administrative positions.  While they aren’t always the same as those of faculty, they’re certainly related.  Among the intellectual demands of this role is keeping track of umpteen different projects at the same time, remembering who objects to what and why, and speed-sifting through far too much information.  It isn’t usually the same kind of reading that one might apply to a classic text, although that certainly happens with the union contracts; usually, it’s more like glancing at poorly-written directions while driving in the rain at night.  You just want to get the one or two key facts as quickly as possible without doing any damage.
Annoyingly, I’ve never really developed the ability or patience to read long documents on a screen, so the attachments usually get printed out.  (I have never believed in the ‘paperless office,’ and probably never will.)  By the end of the day, the pile on the desk is even more impressive than it was in the morning, and that’s saying something.
I can always tell when I’ve been speed-sifting too much, because The Wife will catch me dropping details at dinner.  A typical exchange:
TW: So what did Tom say?
DD: Tom?
TW: You know, Tom?  Who I just mentioned two minutes ago?
DD: You did?
TW: (sigh)
It’s a variation on the old Far Side cartoon in which the kid asks to be excused from class because his brain is full.  That can actually happen.  It usually takes a good night’s sleep to hit the ‘reset’ button.
I don’t know what these jobs were like back in the days before email.  My guess is that they involved a lot less reading, if only because the effort involved in writing and duplicating documents (maybe with ditto machines?) would have been so much greater.  I’m beginning to think that those costs came with some underacknowledged benefits.
Wise and worldly readers – have you found a reasonable way to deal with flurries of attachments, all of them written in academic-ese?  I can’t think of one, since my brain is full.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dittos and Ditching Darkrooms for Digital

Readers of a certain age (ahem) will remember dittos.  Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and photocopying was still considered the province of the elite, public schools did mass-reproductions of handouts on ditto machines. 
Ditto machines were basically rollers with a hollow drum that would be filled with a mildly hallucinogenic purple liquid.  Freshly-run dittos had a distinctive smell to them, and it was a common sight to see students sniff new dittos intensely.  (The movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High has a scene of an entire class sniffing dittos.)  Primo ditto had a way of brightening an otherwise dreary day.  My pet theory on why illegal inhalant use rose so much in the 80’s and 90’s is that students lost access to fresh dittos.  In the 70’s, we got it from our teachers.  It was a different time.
I thought of dittos again as I had a conversation with some of the folks in the art area about photography.  As the whole world knows, the world of photography has migrated fairly quickly from film to digital media.  I literally don’t remember the last time I bought film, but it has been several years at least. 
Film is a delicate medium, requiring lots of care and feeding.  A photography program routinely required well-ventilated darkrooms, enlargers, and all manner of distinctive chemicals with complex disposal protocols.  (I still remember the pungent aroma of stop bath.)  Processing black-and-white film took some doing, but processing color film was really not for the faint-of-heart.  Some programs did their own black-and-white processing in-house, but outsourced the color due to the sheer expense and difficulty.
Digital photography requires an entirely different infrastructure.  You don’t need darkrooms or stop bath, but you do need rooms full of very high-powered computers.  (In my observation, the cognoscenti typically use Macs.)  In place of enlargers and stop bath, you have very high-end printers and Photoshop.   Although it's still usually found in Art departments, the equipment required looks more like what you'd find in a media or computer animation program. 

And yet, whenever someone has the gall to mention that maybe it's time to admit that the 90's are over and it's time to ditch the darkrooms and get on with it, we get the "we need both" arguments.

To hear the photography profs tell it, letting students start with the current technology would be to prevent them from understanding the medium.  It's as if the computer science department insisted on Altairs and Apple Lisas alongside their current offerings, or colleges had to run typewriter pools parallel to their computer labs.  Skip dittos, and you won't appreciate -- really appreciate – photocopying.

Color me skeptical.

Yes, it's fun to take trips down memory lane. And yes, it's probably hard to admit that a technology you spent so long mastering has gone by the wayside. (Apparently, much of Kodak's downward spiral was due to little more than denial.) But money and space dedicated to denying the passage of time are money and space not spent on something else. Keeping the darkrooms open and running is a real cost, both in terms of the operating budget and the opportunity cost. Those rooms and funds could have been used for something else.

This is when I really wish that we had a stronger system for tying curricular decisions to budgetary decisions. Should we keep the darkrooms alongside the digital, or should we use those resources to increase the number of students we could take in the allied health programs? Should we continue to keep a dying technology on life support, or should we use that money to expand our information security program? If you don't make the opportunity cost concrete, it's all too easy to make decisions based on conflict aversion, nostalgia, and personalities. When the possible futures are almost as concrete as the living past, it's easier to get clarity.

Technological progress has its uncomfortable moments, but there's something to be said for facing up to reality. I remember dittos well enough to know that photocopies are just plain better, even if they don't smell like lilacs in the Springtime.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Beginnings of Self-Awareness

We're trying to raise The Girl to be a strong and independent woman, which, given her lineage, is a bit like pushing an open door. But she's four, and sometimes she has a little trouble finding the sweet spot between 'registering an objection' and 'being an insufferable diva.'

Last week, towards the end of an extended tug-of-war between TG and The Wife:

TW (exasperated): TG, you're being mean and bratty.

TG: I'm not mean! (storms off, downstairs)

(a few minutes later, overheard from upstairs)

TG (voice climbing higher with every word): ...and I said no and she said we have to and I said That's (stomp) Not (stomp) Fair! (stomp) and she called me mean and bratty!

The Boy (earnestly and sweetly): Well, Sweetie, sometimes you are a little mean and bratty.


TG: Well, I'm not usually...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Safety School Shuffle

With classes starting any minute now – I can see the dorsal fin in the water – the folks in Student Services are working full-tilt. They're trying to get everybody registered, to deal with all the financial aid paperwork, and to get all the details under control before the start of classes.

That's fairly standard. What I didn't really appreciate until a passing comment today was how much of the late crush is due to the 'safety school' phenomenon.

In talking briefly with the Admissions director, she mentioned that one of the trickier variables they deal with is students who apply, complete all the steps, and then don't enroll. Her office has done follow-up calls to many of those students, and has found that the most common reason was that we were a safety school, and they got a more desired offer.

Community colleges are the ultimate safety schools, since they're open-admissions, nearby, and cheap, and many of their programs are built specifically for transfer. What many people outside the industry don't know is that scholarships exist at most four-year schools specifically for transfer students, and that students who couldn't have made the cut based on a high school record frequently do make the cut after hitting it out of the park at a cc. Nothing proves the ability to succeed in college like succeeding in college.

But it creates some serious registration headaches, since the percentages vary so much from year to year.

From reading, say, Money magazine, you'd think that safety schools exist primarily among the elites; Skip couldn't get into Columbia so he settled for Bucknell. But the larger picture includes unsatisfactory financial aid offers from schools – often public ones – that the applicant actually got into. We get kids who made the cut at Flagship State or Private Religious College, but who couldn't (or whose family couldn't) pony up the tariff. Recessions are typically boom times for cc enrollments, since families living with – or in constant fear of – layoffs find the lower cost attractive. (Annoyingly, those same times are typically when our public funding gets cut.) The safety school factor fluctuates from year to year with the economy, among other things.

Since cc's generally enroll students into classes right up to the deadline, it often isn't clear until very late in the game who's showing up and who isn't. So the kid who applied as a safety and is actually going elsewhere is sometimes taking up seats in classes that could have gone to students who are actually here. The folks in Student Services have the happy task of sorting that out, which is why the next few weeks are among the toughest of the year for them.

(There's a sadder variation on this in January, when we get the kids who drank their way through a semester at Faraway U, and show up here with hangdog expressions. At that point, the cc is somewhere between 'fallback' and 'purgatory.')

Identifying who will show up and who won't is a crapshoot, since the safety school applicants generally don't self-identify. We don't do deletes for non-payment until well into August for students who've applied for financial aid, since it usually takes until well into August to get the financial aid sorted out.

August is when I'm happiest to be on the academic, as opposed to student services, side of the house.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

An Open Letter to Money Magazine

Dear Editors of Money,

This one has been making the rounds on campus.

The September issue of Money magazine features an article by Penelope Wang entitled “Is College Still Worth the Price?” (I haven't been able to find it online.) It features the obligatory references to Vassar, climbing walls, arms races, the Chivas Regal effect, and superstar professors. It's intended to motivate parents to subject the pricey colleges and universities to cost-benefit analyses, and it could easily have been written ten years ago. But it also contains a memorable howler:

“The outlet for students who can't play this game has always been public colleges, which 80% of undergraduates attend.” (p. 90)

The outlet, which 80 percent of undergraduates attend.


I know that Money magazine assumes a certain class background among its readers. I know that among certain strata, 'college' is synonymous with 'exclusive' and 'private.' And I know that higher ed isn't really your specialty. But this is really a bit much.

By any reasonable definition, 80 percent is not the outlet, or the exception, or the afterthought. It's the majority. It's the norm. For that matter, almost half of the undergraduates in America attend community colleges, which merit no mention – not one – in the entire piece. Compare the complete silence on community colleges to this sentence from page 89: “But they're spending even more on building Hogwarts-style dorms with mahogany casement windows of leaded glass (Princeton's newest $136 million student residence); installing 35-foot climbing walls and hot tubs big enough for 15 people (Boston University); providing multiple eateries with varied cuisines and massive fitness centers (too many schools to name).” Tell you what – find me one community college in America with mahogany casement windows of leaded glass, and we'll talk.

Among public four-year and community colleges, the lead is likelier to be found in the interior paint of the 1960's brutalist concrete squares showing the fruit of decades of deferred maintenance. I've been on plenty of community colleges campuses over the last several years, and have yet to see a hot tub. The 'varied cuisines' part I'll concede, I suppose, if you count Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.

I'd just roll my eyes at the article and be done with it, if I weren't convinced that it feeds an incredibly destructive attitude among powerful people.

It took me a few re-reads to figure out how the intended reader was intended to respond. Are elite colleges acting irrationally? No, because the market seems to bear the cost just fine, judging by the Chivas Regal effect. Should Congress crack down on wasteful public colleges? No, they barely merit mention, though you do manage to quote a few prominent Republicans taking potshots at an undifferentiated Higher Ed. Are tenured liberals living high on the hog, thumbing their vegan-fed noses at their ignorant but well-meaning benefactors?

That's the nearest I can get to an intended reaction. Although why it's bad for elite colleges to respond to the market, and good for everyone else to, remains, shall we say, obscure. And adjuncts – who far outnumber tenured radicals – are as unmentioned as community colleges.

It's the 2000's version of redbaiting. Pick a few wildly unrepresentative outrages, and tar an entire system with them. (If the article were entitled “Is the Ivy League Still Worth It?,” it would at least be a little closer to honest.) Moving from outrage to outrage, without even a feint towards actual analysis, the piece is obviously intended to generate self-righteous, undifferentiated anger. And the taxpayers who feel that anger direct it at the public sector, where it damages the reasonably-priced majority.

Call the article a limited success. I'm angry, and maybe even self-righteous. But I know precisely why.


Dean Dad

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

That Hurt

Last week I was in a meeting with the college controller – the money guy – who mentioned that this July’s gas and electric bill for the college was forty percent higher than last July’s.  (And this isn’t one of the really huge cc’s, either.)  Over the course of a year, that’s roughly half a million dollars extra on what, in the short term, is really a non-optional expense.
The increase was almost entirely at the ‘rate’ level, rather than the ‘use’ level.  Which means that unless we have a really mild winter, we’re hosed.  And while any given winter may or may not be relatively mild, over the years, there will be some nasty ones.
Since we aren’t in a part of the country that’s awash in money – Wyoming is looking better and better – we can’t just dip into the magical replenishing money pot and either pay the bills without incident or rebuild the campus to be greener.  Yes, we consider energy efficiency on those rare occasions when we can build, but in between, there are real limits to what we can realistically do. (This is especially true given the age of many of the main buildings.)  And the weather will do what it will do.
Community colleges generally are in an awkward position when it comes to energy use.  Most cc’s don’t have dorms, which is both good and bad.  It’s good in the sense that we have fewer buildings to heat, cool, and maintain, but it’s bad in the sense that a true measure of our carbon footprint includes students commuting to and from campus.  (In four years in the dorms at Snooty Liberal Arts College, I never had a car, but I never missed a class.)  We generally don’t have the massive athletics facilities or student life compounds, either.  What we do have is essential, and therefore devilishly hard to cut.  And since our per-student aid (and tuition) is much lower than our counterparts’, our extra efficiency carries no payoff.  It’s simply assumed as a baseline.  When you’re already running with minimal slack, external shocks are that much harder to absorb.
(To make matters worse, our operating aid is actually being cut at the same time.  Income down, expenses up.  Double ouch.  And don’t even get me started on health insurance…)
This kind of money is particularly hard to come by, since it doesn’t typically attract the attention of philanthropists.  (“These BTU’s brought to you by…”)  It has to come out of the operating budget, which is the same budget that pays salaries (and repels donors).  We can’t float bond issues for operating expenses.  Politicians are sometimes willing to throw ‘capital’ money our way – that is, construction – but operating budgets are largely considered our problem.  How, exactly, we’re supposed to use those buildings goes unaddressed.
Administrators catch a lot of flak for championing online classes, but honestly, if we were to move the Saturday classes online and shut down the classroom buildings on Saturdays, that would save a meaningful chunk of change.  It’s not ideal, of course, but neither is cutting a half-dozen positions to pay the gas bill.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Annual Emergency

This year I'm seeing again some very creative definitions of the word 'emergency.'

It's a special word, since it gives license to ignore the usual rules about all manner of things. It's easy to come up with cases in which a drastic, sudden change in circumstance required some improvisation in the short term – natural disasters, a string of snow days in a row, an unexpected and abrupt death. When things like that happen, there often isn't enough time to fulfill every procedural nicety, and there's a general understanding that some slack need be cut.

The catch is that some people figure out, over time, that invoking the magic word can be a way to get what they want. So they start to invoke it to cover what most people would consider non-emergencies.

In discussions with a colleague, she mentioned in passing that a particular department was facing its annual staffing emergency, and was pressing for its usual dispensation from certain rules.

My response: “annual emergency?”

We started to discuss the nature of an emergency, and whether an annual emergency even qualifies. (I argued that it doesn't.) To my mind, an emergency is emergent – that is to say, new – and urgent. If it's annual, or perennial, then it isn't an emergency. It's something else: a structural flaw, a failure to plan, a pattern of corruption, perhaps. If the staffing in a given area is so terribly thin that anything at all can throw it into chaos, and that has happened for several years running, then a short-term fix isn't the answer. In fact, a short-term fix can become addictive or counterproductive, since it can make the underlying problem seem more manageable than it really is.

Worse, those serial fixes (in several senses of the word 'fix') send a message to the more responsible folk throughout the college that their extra efforts aren't necessary or important. Why do the painstaking work of constructing a department within all the rules when you could easily invoke the e-word and just do whatever the hell you want? And what, exactly, does it say about the leadership of a department when it hits the same emergency year after year after year?

I asked her what the department was doing about it. Her response, which I am not making up: “oh, the usual things.”

So much for 'emergency.'

What this group had apparently learned over the years was that it could just roll over the same Fall schedule every year, wait until August, declare an emergency, and break all the inconvenient rules. No, no, no.

(Something similar happens with budgets at the end of the fiscal year in June. Lo and behold, the same department overspent the same line that it did last year and the year before that!)

Long-term, structural changes are hard, expensive, and rarely won without serious engagement. They aren't nearly as easy, in the short term, as emergency dispensations. But they last, they work, and they're defensible in public.

Wise and worldly readers – what's the annual emergency on your campus?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Salaries in Advertisements

A frustrated correspondent writes:

In looking at the academic job market (including academic library
positions), I have noticed that a lot of institutions do not publish
the salary (or specify benefits in any meaningful way) of the position
in the posting. Often, there will be some vague comment to the effect
of "TBD - depends on experience and qualifications." Why not provide a
range or a minimum/maximum though? I find it difficult to believe that
the university/college does not have a minimum or maximum already set
before it starts the search. Why hide it? Or fail to include it? There
are a lot of cases (esp. in cases where a collective agreement defines
salary levels) where it is included in the ad, but I'm curious why it
would be omitted in any case.

On the potential applicant side of things, that is important data to
know. It can help determine if it is worth packing up and moving to a
new city, for example. Any ideas about this?

Ooh, I like that. Put the salaries in the ads, and see what happens.

Unfortunately, there are several reasons not to do that.

The most basic is that, for many positions, the actual salary depends on the applicant. In a collective bargaining setting, there's often a grid you have to use, based on the person's degrees and experience. Depending on which person gets the offer, the offer will differ.

Ranges can help, but they can also cause problems of their own. Say the range for a given position is listed as 45-60k. You're offered 46, and told that they can't really negotiate. How do you respond?

In the real world, you either walk away, or you take it but start nursing a sense of resentment. Either way, the employer loses.

Say, instead, that you somehow negotiate your way into the middle of the range. What happens internally? Salary compression, and crabbiness amongst the natives. The employer loses again.

Worse, I've seen ranges like 42k-92k. Those are so broad as to tell you almost nothing. They're usually artifacts of some outliers caused by weird historical survivals, but try telling that to a disappointed applicant who expected 65 and got offered 48.

From the applicant's perspective, some truth in advertising could certainly save a lot of time. When I was trying to escape from Proprietary U, I had an interview for a faculty gig at Nearby Catholic College. What I didn't know until the end of the interview was that their salary scale had been set back when the faculty were all nuns, and hadn't really been adjusted since. It would have represented a substantial pay cut even from PU, and that's saying something. Had I known that upfront, I wouldn't have bothered applying, and wouldn't have wasted everyone's time with an interview that wasn't going to result in a hire.

Benefits are even harder to specify. Health insurance packages change almost hourly, and their value depends largely on the family and health circumstances of the employee.

Public institutions have to make their salaries known, but they don't have to make it easy for you to find. They also don't have to explain them, so it wouldn't be hard to reach some shaky conclusions based on very partial information.

Annoyingly, you can't just infer likely salaries from combining, say, national averages for a given position with a vague multiplier based on region. Salary scales are often artifacts of relatively arbitrary decisions in the distant past – before what Bill Bishop called 'The Big Sort' in his wonderful book of the same name – and then changed incrementally. Since the rest of the country polarized much more than incrementally, some serious mismatches have developed. My rule of thumb, at least at the community college level, is that salaries tend to cluster closer to a national average than does the actual cost of living, so cc faculty can generally do better in the Midwest than on the coasts. Of course, that's just a general trend, with plenty of exceptions, so extrapolate to your own case at your peril.

It's worth noting, too, that private industry generally doesn't post salaries in its ads, either. There's a broader cultural norm at work here.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? Should colleges list salaries (or at least narrow ranges of salaries) in job ads? What's in it for the employer?

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

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ask the Administrator: The First Adjunct Job

A faithful reader writes:
I am writing to get your advice about seeking adjuncting positions. I am finishing up my Ph.D. (godwillingandthecreekdon'trise) from Big Name University back east this upcoming June. I live out on the West Coast and would like to find some adjuncting work for the following year 2009-10 - in part to gain experience, in part of delay the geographical issues a full-fledged national job search would bring into my marriage, and in part to spend some time with my lovely Sweet Monkey who is a little newborn thing right now. I thought I would put together a list of all the schools within a hour + drive radius, the compose a letter to send to the dean of the humanities division. For what it is worth, I am in a 'timely' field - Islamic Studies - and many places seems to be adding classes in my specialty.
Any thoughts about what might make such a letter compelling and maximize my chance of landing a class or two? Should I also call or try to make an appointment for a face-to-face meeting? In terms of local institutions, do I need a different letter/approach for cc's, CSU's, and private universities? (I'll also probably send my letter to a couple of local seminaries, but I'd rather not teach there as I don't want to get pigeoholed into seminary teaching....).
If you have any thoughts you can share, I sure would appreciate it.

First, congratulations on having the presence of mind to weigh factors like geographic separation and parenting before making a jump. (And congratulations on the baby!)

In my observation, adjunct jobs often aren’t all that hard to find.  It’s the full-time ones that pose the challenge. Of course, Islamic studies is somewhat more specific than, say, General Psych, and my experience has been closer to the Atlantic than the Pacific. Readers with more local or field specific knowledge are especially invited to comment.

Adjunct hiring is typically done on an as-needed basis. If what you're offering doesn't fit what they need right now, then your general wonderfulness is beside the point. So if you want in, you need to figure out what they need, and show how you can give it to them.

The easiest way to do that – and I'm still surprised that more people don't do this – is to go through the course catalog for each college to which you intend to apply, and actually pick out the courses you believe you could teach. Then list those courses by name in your letter. Could you teach Intro to Religious Studies? Western Civ? Eastern Civ? Non-Western Religions? Sociology of Religion? It would also be a good idea to give some sense of timeslot availability. My chairs tell me, consistently and independently, that good daytime adjuncts are much harder to find than good evening adjuncts, since the evening pool includes high school teachers and people with day jobs. (I found the same thing when I was in their shoes.) If you can pick up those mid-day prime time sections, you go to the head of the line.

(Close reading of catalogs/course schedules will also tell you whether you want the humanities division, the social sciences division, or a particular department. It will probably vary by school, which is all the more reason to be specific.)

This may vary by region and personality, but I wouldn't recommend cold-calling. Include a few different ways to reach you, and be quick to respond when called. (I know that sounds basic, but honestly, I've seen last-minute staffing decisions made based on who returned a call first.) It's August, so they're probably in whack-a-mole mode at this point, trying to staff those last few stubborn sections; speed is of the essence. So if you don't usually use your cell phone, don't give them your cell number. If you give them an email address, check it frequently.

When you get called, the image you're shooting for is 'professional and ready.' That's not the same as 'deep,' necessarily. They want someone who can hit the ground running in just a few weeks; to the extent that you can convince them that you can do that, you should be fine.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what would you add (or correct)?

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Past Non-Practice

“Past practice” is a magical, if murky, phrase. It’s the status given, by default, to policies or practices carried out over time that never quite found their way into actual contracts or handbooks. It’s understood to have a binding power of its own, such that any change to an established ‘past practice’ needs to be negotiated or otherwise made explicit through proper channels. For example, even if the contract or handbook doesn’t say anything about a four-day teaching week, if everybody always got four-day teaching weeks, assigning someone a five-day teaching week would trigger a grievance based on past practice, even in the absence of anything in the contract saying it couldn’t be done. It’s akin to legal precedent, except that it’s often unconscious.

It’s a difficult concept to work with, since anything both old and unwritten will necessarily be subject to differing recollection. Over the years I’ve been in countless discussions in which different parties recalled the same ‘past practice’ differently, each with great conviction and moral fervor. Past practices also sometime outlive the contexts in which they originally made sense, but they don’t lose their quasi-binding power for that. They’re a way of giving moral force to “but we’ve always done it that way.”

Over the years I’ve made my peace with the concept of past practice, even with the obvious shortcomings and difficulty of application. (I’d rather be explicit and actually document what we do, but that’s me.) Now I’m wrestling with past non-practice.

A few seemingly great ideas have percolated up of late on campus. In looking into whether we can do them, I’ve run into several very confident “oh, we can’t do that”s. When I’ve asked why, there’s invariably a silence, followed by a variation on “we’ve never been allowed to do that.” When I ask why they weren’t allowed, I get variations on “long gone so-and-so never allowed that. I think it was based on a statute or something.”

This does not inspire confidence.

So I’ve gone to the union contract, the union leadership, the HR director, my counterparts at nearby cc’s, and folks with very long memories. Nobody can point to a rule that would actually forbid what we’re thinking of doing, nor can anybody explain why forbidding it would make any sense. In fact, most of our neighboring cc’s already do this, apparently without issue.

And yet, I keep hitting that same wall of theological rejection. It can’t be done, because it can’t be done, because it can’t be done. Someone told me so, and we’ve never done it, so there.


Wise and worldly readers – have you found effective ways to defeat past non-practice?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Committee Creep

This probably happens almost everywhere, but I’m noticing it more here lately.

Committees are supposed to come in two flavors: ‘standing’ and ‘ad hoc.’ (The same is supposed to hold true for subcommittees.) Standing committees exist for their own sake, and they’re built for permanence. Locally, for example, the curriculum committee is a standing committee. It isn’t going anywhere, since nobody anticipates abandoning curriculum. Standing committees typically have membership based on ‘representation’ of various parts of the college, with the idea that every affected area should have the opportunity for input.

The strength of a standing committee is typically a relatively clear charge, and a relatively clear place in the college. We know what the curriculum committee is supposed to do, where it ‘reports out,’ what its deadlines are, and where it’s supposed to get its membership. The weakness is that long-standing committees are subject to capture by a few strong personalities who make them into their personal fiefdoms. When a committee has a chair-for-life, it’s unlikely not to fall victim to certain predictable pathologies.

Ad hoc committees, as the name implies, are constituted to address a particular issue. In the best cases, the issues they address are temporary, so the committee can dissolve itself when the issue passes. Self-studies are like that, and so are groups to address, say, the design of a new building. Once the visiting team has left or the building has opened, the committee has lost its reason for being and can disband. In my very limited observation, ad hoc committees tend to be far more effective than standing committees, if only because they’re more concerned with problem-solving than with representation. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Then there’s the weird third category. These are committees that are formed to address ongoing concerns, but that aren’t given ‘standing committee’ status. Locally, an example might be a committee within the English department that addresses issues with developmental (remedial) English courses. I don’t expect remediation to go away anytime soon, but the committee’s focus is too narrow to warrant ‘standing’ status. Instead, it’s a sort of hybrid.

Hybrid committees come from every-which-where, and frequently bump into each other as they (inevitably) recognize that their issues overlap with other areas of the college. To stick with the remedial English example, it didn’t take them long to figure out that they needed to address ESL, ADA/Learning Disabilities, registration, Academic Standards, developmental math, high school outreach, new student orientation, and so on. And their forays afield inevitably bring cries of anxiety from other committees and areas of the college, each jealous of its own autonomy.

Worse, some of these hybrid committees have been supported with (limited) release time at their formation, out of a sincere sense that their initial charge was important. So folding committees into each other, or disbanding those that have outlived their usefulness, becomes a collective bargaining issue. (“Why are you taking away my release time?” As if the release time belonged to the person, rather than the position.) The easy response to inequities is usually to bring up the lower party, which involves…wait for it…creating even more committees with even more release time, so nobody gets more than anybody else.

(The more difficult response is to simply shut down or consolidate the past-their-prime committees, and use the freed-up resources to address other issues. It’s the right budgetary move, but the internal politics are often bloody. Folks who lose their sinecures can be very quick to put the worst possible light on any change.)

I’m beginning to suspect that part of the reason so many admins like to do reorganizations is that they’re often the only politically-palatable way to put zombie committees out of their misery. Pick on one or two committees, and you have an anti-(fill in the blank) agenda. Pick on a dozen and start a few new ones, and you’re just doing another re-org. I’m not a fan of re-orgs generally, but they can serve a purpose.

Committee creep – both the Incredible Growing Mission and the sheer number of committees -- is insidious, and remarkably hard to stop.

Wise and worldly readers – has your college or organization found a sustainable way to keep committees reasonably close to their purposes?

Monday, August 11, 2008


Actual conversation with The Girl last Friday:

TG: What did you do at work today, Daddy?

DD: It was pretty busy. I had to talk to a lot of people.

TG: But what did you do?

DD: That’s what I did. I had to meet with a bunch of different people.

TG: Meetings?

DD: Yeah, that’s when people get together to discuss things.

TG: But didn’t you do any work?


DD: Well, I did use the computer some…

TG: Yeah, that’s how people work.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Administrative Salaries

This should be fun...

In light of Wednesday's post, an alert reader sent me a link to this article from Academe, which is published by the AAUP. It's a faculty-driven attack on high administrative salaries, drawing particular attention to some particularly obtuse Presidents.

At the risk of being drummed out of the administrative guild, I have to admit that it's about 90 percent right. Ostentatious compensation packages are abuses of any nonprofit. They're especially offensive when combined with pitiful raises for the rank and file.

That said, the figures thrown around in this article bear no relationship at all to my daily world. There isn't a dean at my college who makes six figures; they range from about 75k to just over 90k. In other words, they make about what most senior professors make. The President here makes far less than the deans listed in the article do. A quick glance at the Chronicle salary survey suggests that my cc isn't unusual; eye-popping administrative salaries are rare in the community college sector. There may be a chancellor of a statewide system somewhere who's raking it in, but that's pretty much the level you'd have to hit to find anything in a league with what the article notes.

And that's part of what I like about the community college sector.

Community colleges keep costs down in any number of ways. For the most part, cc's don't have high-profile athletics, or opulent student centers, or so many of the trappings of the 'arms race' that four-year college Presidents talk about when they talk about tuition increases. The ones I've seen have instead poured what little money they do have into the classroom or laboratory. (The reason we're still strapped, despite such frugality, is a combination of lower tuition and lower per-capita public aid than the other sectors receive. If we achieved aid parity, we'd be in very, very good shape.)

Frustratingly, part of the reason we get less public financial support than other sectors is our lower prestige. The history of American transfer payment programs suggests that transfers to the poor will usually be much more vulnerable politically than transfers to the upper-middle class; that's why welfare as we knew it ended, but the mortgage interest deduction is considered holy writ. (Alternately, compare the relative fates of 'national health insurance' and 'federal deposit insurance.') Since cc's are identified in the public mind with 'losers,' we don't have the appeal of the Flagship Universities, which combine exclusivity and football in a way we just can't.

The way to fight that inherent disadvantage is to show over and over again that we're good stewards of what resources we do receive. Show the student success stories, the positive community impact of grads who stay in the area, and the clear focus on a clear mission. These are slow and boring, and they achieve their impact over time, but they're effective in their own ways. But that only works if they aren't counteracted by a single blowhard in a President's suite raking in indecent sums. A single ill-chosen bit of conspicuous consumption can undo years of patient goodwill-building.

(Where I take issue with the article is in its denigration of search firms. The traditional system of administrative hiring, which the article glosses over, is the old boys' network. Bringing some procedural regularity to searches strikes me as a good idea, rather than as a sign of corruption. And expanding searches beyond the people already on campus can be an effective way to bring new perspectives, different experiences, and people without local baggage. Beware appeals to the Golden Age.)

Yes, good administrators should be paid well enough to stick with the job through the headaches. (I've noticed that some of the same people who complain about high salaries also complain about high turnover, without noticing the contradiction.) But you don't go into higher ed – particularly community colleges – to get rich. The best administrators aren't in it for the trappings or the power; in this setting, power comes from trust, which is lost anyway the minute people decide you're in it for the money. Professors are routinely cast as idealistic, but the best administrators are, too. The point of doing this job is to make the colleges worthy of their students. Ostentatious salaries are perversions of the mission, and betrayals of public trust. Have at them.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


(or, in which I shamelessly use the blog for my own professional purposes)
Hypothetically speaking, let’s say that you worked at a community college with finite funding.  (Shocking, I know, but bear with me.)  And let’s say that the state in which your college is located is also taking some nasty financial hits, so the ‘public subsidy’ side of things is likely to get worse before it gets better.  (I think that narrows it down to about 48 states.  I’ll admit that I’m not in Wyoming.) 
And let’s say that the already-paltry funding available for travel and professional development is being squeezed even more, since so many other costs are fixed. 
To up the ante a little, let’s say that you’re thinking that the fairest way to decide how to divvy up what little travel/PD money is available is to charge a group of faculty to come up with criteria for you to use when comparing proposals.  The idea is that they’ll come up with ground rules, and you’ll take responsibility for implementing them.
A few questions:
What criteria might you suggest?
What traps might one expect to find?
Would it make more sense to go the other way around?
How would you comprise the committee, if at all?
Wise and worldly readers, I need your guidance.  What do you think?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Two Cultures

Faculty attitudes towards Administration are pretty well known. (“Crossing over to the dark side” is one of the nicer phrases.) This article in IHE turned the tables, reporting on a study of administrators' attitudes towards faculty.

It's worth checking out, if you haven't already. I found myself nodding in amused agreement to most of it. But rather than just listing pet peeves – regular readers could probably predict some of mine – I'd rather think through some of the contradictions and what to do about them.

I've mentioned before the two iron laws of faculty life, which in practice are mutually exclusive:

1.Nothing should happen without faculty consultation, participation, and approval.
2.Faculty should be left alone at all times.

It's perfectly possible to hold either of these positions, but absurd to hold both. I've seen far too many faculty resolve the contradiction by fleeing responsibility, then nitpicking and blaming those who actually step up. See that move a few hundred times, and it starts to get a little stale.

The article notes, too, a contradiction in administrators' attitudes towards faculty. They generally claim to want more faculty involvement in decisionmaking, but list several specific complaints about what happens when faculty actually do (quoting directly from the article):

2.Inability to see the big picture
3.A self-serving approach
4.A lack of appreciation for the role of administrators

Write off number four as special pleading if you want – I'd substitute 'comprehension' for 'appreciation,' to be more accurate and less whiny -- but the first three are really variations on a single theme: provincialism.

Provincialism is a tough nut to crack, since it's a relatively rational response to a competitive environment and the existing incentives. You get to be a professor by specializing in one discipline – and usually one subset of one discipline – for many years. You give up more lucrative opportunities to spend your time focusing on things that most of the rest of the world will never understand or value. You gain admission to graduate school, and to your first faculty gig, by being the shiniest individual star. Then you spend years in the classroom as the undisputed authority figure, holding forth at length on topics on which you are indisputably the most informed person in the room.

The outlook and skills that go into getting that gig have little to do with the outlook and skills that go with administration. Once you get above the department chair level, you don't have the luxury of caring only about your own field. The intellectual one-upsmanship that got you noticed, and rewarded, is suddenly dysfunctional. Snide, cutting comments that come off as 'witty' in a graduate seminar play as 'selfish' or even 'hostile' in meetings. Detailed critiques are self-indulgent, and waiting for all the data to come in is simply not an option.

The problem is that many faculty never quite figure out that the rules are different when they switch from the classroom to the committee. They stick with what got them there, playing to their own strengths, and judging administrators as vapid for not going toe-to-toe with them. They don't get it.

That's why I shudder whenever I see simplistic recommendations like “increased budget transparency,” as if reading a budget and knowing what it means are the same thing. Budgets are the results of choices within constraints. If you see the budget but don't know the constraints, you'll misread it. (Easy example: “The administration can find money for a new building, but it cuts our travel? Where are its priorities?” Construction money comes from capital accounts, which are usually grant-driven or state-driven. Travel money comes from operating budgets, which are generated internally. The two pots of money come from different places, with different rules attached, and they can't be mixed or switched. The comparison is demagogic, rather than helpful.)

In my more optimistic moods, I like to think that starting real conversations about constraints and the actual issues driving budgetary choices might help bring faculty into the conversation in a more productive way – get the participation without (as much of) the provincialism. That's part of why I keep blogging – it's my way of making some of the behind-the-curtain stuff legible, without betraying any local confidences. I hope that grad students and faculty who read my stuff will get a clearer sense of why (some) administrators behave in the ways we do, without resorting to the usual stereotypes.

But sometimes I get worn down, and think that the gap is just too great. That was at the root of my post last week about service, after which Sherman Dorn correctly called me out for abandoning my usual support for faculty taking on administrative roles.

Wise and worldly readers, I'll confess to sometimes getting tired. It happens. (Maybe if I had summers, let's not go there...)

So I'll just ask for some positive suggestions. Have you seen effective ways of bridging the two cultures?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Ask the Administrator: The Emergency Hire

A hopeful/scared correspondent writes:

I have a job dilemma and no one seems to be able to give me a helpful answer. I live in [California] and teach composition part-time at a community college and at a UC school while I am finishing my dissertation on something totally unrelated to rhet./comp. Two days ago, a position opened up at a major state school in the Midwest in my field; the professor who normally holds the position had to take emergency leave. Because of the school's rather desperate situation (school starts in three weeks), they are willing to take an ABD. I think that, if I apply, I'd have a very good chance of getting the job because my research interests align exactly with the position and because I doubt there are many people willing to pick up and move on this sort of notice.

My question is this: would having a year of experience teaching upper-division courses in my field be significant enough when I applied for tenure track jobs next year to warrant some major sacrifices? These sacrifices entail leaving my husband behind for nine months (the job is only for a year and he needs to be here for his job), moving on two weeks notice, moving somewhere where I don't know anyone, and living in a climate that I find unbearable. I went to prep school up in your northeast neck of the woods and found myself significantly depressed by the weather, although I know that sounds wimpy and insignificant to most people…

My first thought is that a ‘very good chance’ is speculative. Maybe, maybe not. Counting chickens, and all that. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some strong local candidates, given that it’s an evergreen discipline.

That said, the real question here is about the wisdom of a short-term job-related separation. (The point about the weather, I can’t answer. Different people have different tastes. If it’s full blown seasonal affective disorder, it can be treated. If it’s just a matter of taste, then there’s nothing else to say.)

Would a year of teaching upper-level courses make you a better candidate? Probably. Would it slow down the dissertating? Almost definitely. Are you likely to face variations on this same geographic dilemma a year from now, and two years from now, and three years from now? Yup.

The two-body problem in academe is absolutely brutal. For reasons I still don't understand, it's seldom addressed directly in graduate programs, so each new cohort discovers it anew. If the two halves of the couple are both academics in evergreen disciplines, and neither is a superstar, then the odds of them getting satisfying jobs within live-together distance are vanishingly small. (The preponderance of one-year positions actually makes things worse, in some ways, since they add 'constant moving' to all the other burdens.) Absent a wonderful coincidence, most of the available choices suck: you can do the long-distance relationship thing, you can split up, or one of you can become the de facto 'second' career in the family, and simply go along with the primary one.

(Interestingly enough, among the academic couples I've seen do that, the woman is usually the one with the primary career. I don't know if that's just a function of a small personal sample or a broader generational shift.)

To the extent that these things are under anyone's control, I recommend finding partners who aren't academics. Most of the rest of the world doesn't live this way.

Should you take a shot at the job? Sure. But I'd advise some serious discussions about the possibility that a one-year long-distance arrangement could quickly become much more than that. Go in with your eyes open.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – I suspect this is a sore nerve for many, but what do you think?

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

Monday, August 04, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Deletes for Non-Payment

A returning correspondent writes:

I have a "student as consumer" question for your blog.

Our students have been able to register for fall classes for months now and all of the prime sections are full, but many have not yet paid their fees. In a week or so the ones who have not paid will be dropped from their classes, opening up those sections to kids who put off registering until now. The deadline is in the dead time between semesters, before most students come back to town. The questions are

1) What does your college do if they only owe some small amount, say for fees that are not covered by financial aid? Do they lose all of their classes, only one class so the others are paid in full, or do you carry that debt until the first week of class or even the end of the semester like parking fines?

2) Is there any penalty for not paying on time? Some colleges lock them out for a day, giving all other students a shot at the classes they didn't pay for.

3) What payment policy would you have at your ideal college?

I’ve seen this handled in different ways.

At Proprietary U, there were all manner of payment plans, revolving funds, and extensions available; the thinking was that once you kick someone out, you may not get him back. The downside, though, was that students figured out pretty quickly that payment was effectively optional. As a commuter campus, the only place students could be found reliably was in class. (For reasons unknown, they never seemed to check emails, and we used to joke that our snail mail was sent by Pony Express. Phones were completely hopeless.) So in practice, faculty had to be bouncers. They’d receive ‘callout lists’ each week, and they were expected to send the identified students out of class to either Financial Aid or the Cashier’s Window (what most colleges call the Bursar). This was never popular with the faculty, since the students would invariably (and sometimes correctly) claim that their names were included on the list in error.

In my faculty days, I’ll admit that my compliance with the callout list was, um, let’s go with ‘spotty.’

When I decamped for my current college, I saw a much more straightforward ‘delete’ policy, in which students who weren’t paid in full by X date (well in advance of the start of the semester) were simply dropped from the classes for which they had signed up. You still hear denial, sob stories, and the rest, but the incentives are different; rather than rewarding foot-dragging, this system rewards promptness. Issues still pop up, but not to the same level they did at PU.

The headaches come when a deleted student pays up and tries to re-enroll, only to find that several of his classes are now full, since others swooped in and took the newly-opened seats. (This is especially brutal in areas like Biology, which combine high demand with fixed capacity.) Students can get thrown off their intended path to graduation because a lender dragged its feet. In practice, we’re likelier to try to bend rules for students in those situations, but certain courses have hard caps that really can’t be exceeded.

I’ve heard suggestions from time to time of pro-rated deletes, wherein a student whose payment is, say, two-thirds of what it should be is only deleted from two-thirds of his schedule. While there’s a certain intuitive appeal to that, the implementation has ‘nightmare’ written all over it. It also ignores the reality of the magical 12 credit threshold, since a great many benefits hang on ‘full-time student’ status.

I don’t have an ideal solution to this. Ideally, financial aid would be painless, seamless, and quick, and everybody would be conscientious about paying their obligations. Also, I’d have washboard abs, Laura Dern would have me on speed dial, and it would only rain at night. In the real world, things are messier.

Wise and worldly readers – what have you seen? Is there a better system?

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

Friday, August 01, 2008

Ask the Administrator: President's Interviews

A regular correspondent writes:

Like most places, our screening committees don't hire.  They send a list of three candidates (unranked, in alphabetical order) to the college president who then makes the final recommendation to the Governing Board.  A good president will meet with the screening committee before s/he makes his final choice, but it's not required.

I've always wondered how a president chooses.  S/he has to rely on the fact that the screening committee for math has asked all the math teacher questions and the English committee has asked all the English teacher questions, so what does the president do?  It's hard for me to imagine that the president doesn't talk to the committee chair-the dean of the area that's doing the hiring.  Of course, that's illegal, or at least outside the official guidelines.

To mix a metaphor, in the crapshoot we call hiring, the college president is the joker in the deck.  I'd be willing to bet that if the same three candidates were interviewed by a number of different college presidents, there would be three different outcomes.  So where's the objectivity and fairness here?

A brief and (I hope) illustrative anecdote:  I taught English in China for a year in a very informal teacher exchange between my college and one in Shanghai.  Three people representing my campus went, even though I was the only one who actually taught there.  When we got back, we each received a nice plaque from the Academic Senate thanking us for our participation.  At the awards ceremony, the president presented a plaque to one woman and kissed her on the cheek.  Then he gave a plaque to my wife and kissed her on the cheek.  When it was my turn, I grabbed the president by his shoulders, bent him backwards, and kissed him on both cheeks.  It was absolutely unplanned and completely spontaneous.  Everyone in the room, including the President, howled with laughter.  He liked it, and he liked me.  Afterwards, every time I saw him, he'd call me by name and stop to chat.

Six months later, a full-time, tenure-track position in the English department came open, the first one in (many) years.  I'd been adjuncting for (over a decade).  I got through the interview process and was one of the three finalists for the job.  My interview with the president was a non-interview; we talked about everything except job-related matters.

Of course, I got the job.

I've never been a President, so I can't address that directly. And different colleges structure their hiring processes differently. That said, I have been the interviewer-at-one-remove for several years now, so I can speak to that.

In the systems in which I've worked, faculty search committees do the first screening for faculty candidates. They read and score the applications, do the first-round interviews, and decide who to invite for callbacks. Other than a basic 'rules of the road' charge from HR, they do this entirely without any administrative presence above the rank of department chair.

The idea behind that hands-off period is to defer to faculty expertise on content, including teaching methods. Administrators above the department chair rank, by definition, have jurisdiction over areas beyond their own scholarly training. The smarter ones know that and delegate accordingly. I'm confident that my languages department has a better sense of various candidates' fluency in, say, Italian than I do. (My knowledge of Italian is a blend of dimly recalled high school French and a few food words.) So when the department sends three finalists my way, I assume that all three have subject matter competence and the ability to do the basic job.

When it's my turn, I don't spend time on the subject matter they'd teach. Instead, I try to get a sense of what the person brings that the department doesn't already have. (Put differently, I try to guard against inbreeding.) I ask questions like “why do you want to work at a community college, as opposed to a four-year school?” (“How do you work with underprepared or undermotivated students?” is another favorite.) I discuss some of the strengths of the college, and some of the issues it's facing, and the nature and duration of the tenure process. And I try, within my admitted limitations, to see if the candidate is right for us.

(That isn't the same as locating the objectively 'best' candidate. I've had candidates brag at length about their impressive publication/performance histories, only to segue quickly into questions about course releases for research. Some of them are bright and engaging, but at a cc, that's the kiss of death. If you haven't even received the offer yet and you're already trying to cadge release time for your pet projects, I have my suspicions about how you'll behave once you're here.)

I also look at some really basic stuff that, somehow, some committees don't. Can the person communicate effectively? Does she have a clear sense of what cc's do? Is she on board with our mission? I've found that some search committees get so caught up in counting years or publications that they let some distressingly weak people through.

(One thing that has never come up is the candidate's politics. I don't give two hoots whether the new Music professor is a Republican or a Democrat, and I don't know why anybody else should, either.)

My guess about the President's behavior in this case is that he was already satisfied that you were the strongest candidate, so he treated the interview as a formality to be dispensed with as painlessly as possible. I wouldn't have handled it that way, but some people do.

Wise and worldly readers – what have you seen happen at upper-level administrative interviews?

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