Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ask the Administrator: Transparency Ad Absurdum

An occasional correspondent writes:

I have been privy to a trend that at first I liked a lot, but most recently brought me alarm.  (I am bringing this to you not as applicant in either process, just came across them through acquaintances.)  In many VP searches the open forums and much of the interview process is very public. Public to the extent that I am seeing and hearing about more and more of the open forums being broadcast either on the radio, public television or youtube.  All of which bring transparency to the search.
The most recent story I heard included a VP candidate listening to the other two previous applicants' open forums and preparing answers accordingly.  Part of me notices the savviness of this, but the other part of me thinks that this lends to an increased advantage.  And in fact, when I watched both applicants in review to see if I could see any of this "borrowing." It was extremely evident. The applicant had very articulated and polished answers to the questions that both previous applicants got, but struggled a lot in questions that were asked off the cuff by audience members.
My question is not so much about the process, posting forums and interview information before all applicants have had the opportunity themselves is bad HR form in the highest regard.  Yet, there is another part of me that says, why not change the way that we do public searches? 
Why not allow all the applicants interview as a panel?  I roundtable where they can build off of the answers of others, challenge responses, bring questions to other applicants.  Now that would be great viewing!  But besides, it would be totally transparent, and canned answers would be diminished in favor of quick thinking and well prepared applicants who have real experience.  And that is what we all want in VPs?  Someone who knows their stuff without going home and preparing speeches and who can handle themselves professionally in a challenging environment without cratering, lying, or crawfishing?     
What do you say?  Is it time to change the way we hire administrators?

My first thought is: no way in hell would I participate in a panel like that.  

You’re certainly right that the wrong kind of transparency at the wrong moment gives later candidates an unfair advantage that distorts the process.  If that sort of thing becomes common, I’d expect to see savvy candidates start to game the scheduling process accordingly.  What larger purpose that serves is utterly beyond me.

But moving to a sort of “electoral politics” model strikes me as bringing issues of its own.  Yes, a single panel of everyone would eliminate the “who goes first” problem, or at least contain it so that it’s manageable.  But it would reward the wrong things, and set a strange tone.  (“Make our administrators as good as our politicians!”  Let’s really think about that…)

The reason that we routinely have public debates for political candidates is that the candidates report to the public.  (For present purposes, let’s leave the electoral college aside.)  For elected positions, it makes sense for candidates to appeal to the electorate.  

But college administration positions aren’t elected.  I don’t report to the faculty; I report to the president.  Some people think they’d like to change that structure, though I doubt strongly that they’ve thought through the implications of that for matters of, say, employee evaluations, internal resource allocations, or candidate recruitment.  Yes, it makes sense for faculty and staff to provide input on selections; a wise president will take that input seriously.  But moving from “having input” to “making the choice” would be a fundamental shift with serious consequences.

At a really basic level, an administration needs to be able to work together.  In hiring deans, for example, I’ve made a point of selecting people whose styles of work seem compatible with my own.  The kind of gridlock that results from divided government in the elected world would be devastating on a campus.  That’s not to say that everyone agrees on all issues, or that I’ve got a bunch of Stepford people as deans; if you know them, you’d know that’s not true at all.  But I’m acutely aware that if we spent all of our time battling each other, we wouldn’t move the college forward.  Even when disagreements occur, they occur within a larger framework of shared understandings.  If the deans were elected by their respective divisions, it would be easy for collaboration to dissolve into the kind of unproductive political bickering we see in Congress.

One could object that the proposal at hand doesn’t necessarily assume elections, but I have a hard time making sense of it any other way.  

I’d suggest that what many colleges want in administrators isn’t necessarily the ability to be quippy on stage, which is what the proposed process would select for; it’s the ability to listen to multiple sides, to bring people with different priorities together, and to get stuff done.  Those are difficult enough to pull off in settings with conflicting priorities, badly limited resources, perverse cultural norms, and ever-shifting regulations; add the need to play to the cheap seats, and the prospect of it getting done well gets even more remote.  At least with electoral politics, people can use parties as shorthand to know who to support.  But in a context like this, I really don’t see the upside.

One admin’s opinion, anyway.  Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  

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