Friday, May 27, 2011

A Good President is Hard to Find

The Chronicle had a piece this week (behind the paywall) about a small college’s struggle to hire a President. It struck a chord. It’s about how difficult it actually is to get qualified and trustworthy people to step into leadership roles in academic administration.

It’s true. My own college has had similar issues with deanships.

The running joke about hiring deans is that you want someone smart enough to do the job, and dumb enough to take it. As the jobs get harder to do successfully, that will only get truer.

It was in that light that I read this piece in IHE debunking the widely-held myth that the driver of resources away from tenure-track faculty positions is administrative growth. As the article details nicely, the number of tenure-track positions has declined by about nine percent in the last decade; the number of managerial and executive positions has declined by twenty percent. Which accords almost exactly with my own observation on the ground.

The growth that has occurred has been in other areas; IT, most notably, and compliance-driven student services like disability services and financial aid. Purely academic administrators are vanishing even more quickly than tenure-track faculty, with predictable effects on the workloads of those left behind. Then we wonder why it’s getting harder to recruit.

The main reason that most academics should care is that future presidents will be drawn less often from the ranks of the academic side of the college. There will be fewer candidates from which to choose, and apparently many of the chief academic officers -- the traditional pre-Presidential job -- don’t want to be Presidents. That makes sense, given the wild disparity between the demands of the two roles. Chief academic officers -- VPAA’s, or Provosts, or “Deans of the College,” depending on context -- are managers who have to maintain and promote an academic vision while dealing with the very real constraints of tenure, budget cuts, and the like. Presidents are focused much more on external relations. In the context of private colleges, that largely boils down to fundraising.

Since the skill sets of the two positions are so different -- a wonderful manager may be a mediocre fundraiser and vice versa -- the traditional route upward is becoming less common.

The concern there, of course, is that Presidents who don’t come from the academic ranks won’t really understand the institutions they’re leading. Academic culture is an odd duck; in some ways, it’s closer to something like local government than to business management. Folks who come in thinking that they just have to apply corporate-style management tend to crash and burn pretty quickly. Given that the core operation is run at a loss by design -- effective education generates far more value than it can ever capture -- and given that the political climate is increasingly hostile, there’s a difficult balance to maintain. If you don’t understand that balance, or the motivations of the people who make it work, you’ll have a hell of a time leading a college.

And if you don’t understand the shifting balance of staffing, you’ll have a hell of a time explaining the economics of college.

Really good academic administrators understand the culture and mission of academe, and also understand the realities of keeping institutions running. They’re getting rarer, and fewer are coming along in the pipeline, contrary to stereotype. I’d expect more failed searches in the near future, with difficult consequences for higher ed generally. And in the meantime, if you want to identify where the resources have actually gone, drop by IT.