Monday, November 08, 2010


The retirements are nearly upon us.

My college, like so many, hired a bunch of people all at once, then relatively few for a very long time. In terms of age cohorts, it looks like a pig in a python, and the pig is getting near the end.

The dam hasn’t broken, but it’s creaking.

Looking ahead just a few years, I can see the majority of the administration changing. It’s alarming, because in many areas, there’s really nobody in the pipeline to come next.

If mine were the only college in this situation, it wouldn’t be so bad; we’d just import the talent we need and be done with it. But it’s not.

The usual pipeline for academic administrators is from department chairs or program coordinators, who themselves come from the full-time faculty. The idea is that higher ed is such an idiosyncratic creature that it wouldn’t make sense to import people directly from business or the military; they’d quickly run headfirst into what it means to manage contrarians with tenure. (I just finished Robert Sutton’s latest book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, and chuckled ruefully every time he mentioned that most of his advice is inapplicable in academe. It’s funny because it’s true. If only someone out there with decanal experience would write a book about how to be a dean. Hmm...) So we try to promote from within, to ensure that deans and their counterparts will have a personal sense of how colleges work, and of how faculty see things.

But a generation or two of adjuncting-out the faculty has left the pipeline thin. There just aren’t very many faculty here of my generation. Gen X’ers -- and even the younger Boomers -- are rare birds. Most of the faculty is either in the very early stages, or within a short shot of retirement. The middle is missing.

The “administrative farm team” argument (the official term is “succession planning”) strikes me as a very intelligent objection to the adjuncting trend, even though the opponents of the adjuncting trend tend not to use it. They should; as no less an academic unionist than Sherman Dorn has noted, competent administrators make unions’ jobs easier. (The same is true in reverse; good labor relations make my job easier.) Colleges need people to do the work that deans do; those people can have a sense of the traditional faculty outlook, or not. Better that they do.