Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Chairperson Interview Questions

A new correspondent writes:

I was wondering if you could share some questions you might ask a chairperson candidate.  Thank you.

Context is huge here. At some cc's, department chairs are elected by the departments, so interviews are either pro forma or nonexistent. At others they're appointed by deans, but wise deans usually take the pulse of the department first. I've also heard of colleges where department chair positions are externally posted, and people are hired into chair positions. I've never been anywhere that has done that, other than one-person departments, but I'm told they're out there.

Chair duties also vary by college and department. I've seen systems in which chairs formally evaluate faculty, and in some they're even responsible for allocating merit raises. In others, faculty evaluation is left to deans, and the chairs primarily tend to class scheduling, adjunct hiring, and administrivia. At some colleges, chairs effectively serve for life; at others, there's an expectation (sometimes formalized) of a fixed and finite term. Sometimes the positions are hotly contested, and sometimes actively avoided. (In the latter case, interviewing is more about recruiting than about screening.)

Those distinctions matter a great deal in determining interview questions. Rather than phrasing questions, I'll address qualities.

To the extent that I have a say in choosing candidates for administrative positions, I tend to focus mostly on motivation and temperament. Intelligence is great, but most college professors have more than enough of that. Great professors become lousy chairs (or deans) where the motivation and/or temperament isn't right. Red flags include:

The resigned “I could really use the course releases.” Run away, run away. If the candidate sees the chair position as a chance to relax, you don't want him. I've actually seen this.

Any sign that the candidate is power-hungry. I've mentioned before using the waiter test, or the secretary test. If the candidate is obsequious during the interview, but cold or cruel to the waiter or secretary, run away. The “kiss up, kick down” personality is toxic to the entire organization. (To my mind, the difference between this and a more constructive ambition is in the focus. Is the drive to be the center of attention, or is it to get things done?)

Thinness of skin. It's possible – difficult, but possible – to have a thin skin and still succeed in the classroom, since there's an element of control there. But in any administrative position, you will be attacked vigorously and repeatedly, often in breathtakingly unfair and/or personal ways. Academia seems to encourage this, for reasons I still only vaguely understand. To be effective over the long haul without resorting to a reign of terror (or giving away the store), you need to be able to maintain relative equanimity while being put on the spot. You have to be capable of refusing the bait. This is related to, but somewhat different from, 'conflict resolution' as it's usually presented. The relevant skill is resolving a conflict to which you've been made a party.

Too much idealism. See 'administrivia,' above. Yes, good chairs bring out the best in everybody. Yes, they provide academic vision and a key leadership role in the trenches. But they also have to get classes staffed, assessment outcomes reports done, budgets balanced, labs or studios maintained, and the like. Nobody enjoys all of those, so I look for people who are capable of, for lack of a better term, sucking it up when necessary. I've seen a few wonderful, successful, well-meaning, widely-respected professors wash out as chairs because they just couldn't be bothered with the little things. I could sympathize, but dealing with those little things is an essential part of the job. This is sometimes disparaged as the 'management' part, as distinct from the 'leadership' part, but it's important. In my first quasi-administrative role at Proprietary U, I quickly drew positive notice by dint of being the first person from the academic side of the house to actually get people information when they wanted it. You'd think this would be basic, but for some reason, it isn't.

Those should be fairly portable across most contexts, I imagine.

Speaking of contexts, I'd like to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one. Wise and worldly readers – what have you seen in successful (or, perhaps more importantly, unsuccessful) chairs?

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