Thursday, September 02, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Importing Administrators

In a follow-up to an earlier discussion, a correspondent wrote:

Do outsiders stand a chance at landing admin jobs on your campus? Most admins on my campus are promoted/drafted from within the ranks of tenure-track faculty with an assumption that they'll serve for a couple of years, get a big pay bump, and then return to their academic positions (which results in a lot of self-serving behavior, poor administration, and acrimony upon return, but it happens anyway). Consequently outsiders, or even non-tenure insiders, are rarely offered a shot at admin jobs. But maybe, hopefully, things are just strange on my campus?

Having been hired as an outsider, I can say that context is everything.

Coming in from the outside as a dean is a unique challenge, since deans’ jobs frequently are built on relationships. (Here I’m speaking of community colleges, where nobody has money to throw around. An R1 with serious cash is another universe altogether.) That’s especially true in tenured settings with superannuated departments; there, a newbie might as well be from Mars. When everyone has history except you, you’re opaque and therefore distrusted. Navigating a setting like that is like trying to start a Faulkner novel in the middle.

If you walk into a context in which several former admins have returned to faculty and are still nursing old wounds, it’s that much harder. I have personally been in situations in which Professor Smith and Professor Jones will not work together for any reason, because Professor Smith’s husband offended Professor Jones’ wife at a social gathering in the 1980’s. When your success or failure is predicated on relationships, and you’re walking into that from the outside, well, good luck to you.

Of course, sometimes the whole point of hiring an outsider is to try to shake up a division or college that has grown stale. I’m not a fan of that; middle managers, which is what deans are, are uniquely unsuited to be change agents. They aren’t high enough on the food chain to have real power or resources, and they aren’t in the trenches to do it themselves. Over time, if a bunch of tenured faculty decide that the untenured dean is a pain in the ass, it isn’t hard to figure out who’ll win.

Inside hires have it easier in many ways. They often carry tenure with them, which at least makes for a fair fight. They have a sense of local history. They’re rarely expected to be change agents, so the standards to which they’re held tend to be more realistic.

The downsides are that they’re often too steeped in local politics to have fresh eyes; they usually lack the comparative perspective that an outsider can bring; and sometimes there just isn’t anyone local who’s both willing and capable. Oddly enough, this suggests that outside hires may make more sense at higher levels -- presidents and vp’s, say -- than at lower levels.

The outside hires I’ve seen succeed have arrived quietly, almost humbly, and have spent time asking questions and listening before trying to make waves. That’s possible only when they aren’t hired to be change agents.

To answer the direct question, yes, outsiders sometimes have real shots, and occasionally even get hired. But when they do, they have a narrower strike zone.

Wise and worldly readers, do outside hires have a good track record on your campus? Do inside hires? Is the variable even relevant?

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