Thursday, June 16, 2016

Foxes, Hedgehogs, and Michael Jordan

If you haven’t seen Elizabeth Lehfeldt’s piece in IHE about recruiting future administrators from among the faculty, check it out.  She makes a solid case for talent-scouting among rising faculty to find folks with the talent and taste for management.

I’d add that the relative lack of full-time faculty positions has led to a thin bench for future chairs and deans in many areas.  When a college essentially skips a generation of hiring, it sets itself up for trouble when the first large group goes.

We all have different senses of what makes for promising managers.  It isn’t really a matter of intellect; college professors are smart people, and have the mental bandwidth for the job.  It’s not even about “organization” in the sense that many people use the term; too much detail orientation can be debilitating in a management role, just as too little can be.  

It’s more about temperament, a sense of the big picture, and a tendency to look for answers when confronted with dilemmas.

Star faculty may or may not make the best administrators, simply because the two roles require different skill sets.  Having one doesn’t necessarily imply having the other.  Michael Jordan may have been one of the best basketball players in the history of the sport, but when he switched to baseball, he washed out of the minors.  He was an undeniably extraordinary athlete, but the skills didn’t translate.  Making a jump shot and hitting a curveball are not the same thing.  

Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay about the folktale of the fox and the hedgehog.  In the tale, the fox knows many things, and the hedgehog knows one big thing.  Faculty are hedgehogs; administrators are foxes.  To the hedgehog, the fox may look like a dilettante.  To the fox, the hedgehog may look like it has tunnel vision.  Both are right and both are wrong, but they aren’t interchangeable.  The forest needs both.

Deaning isn’t for everyone.  A commenter to Lehfeldt’s piece made the valid point that there’s the mentoring that encourages someone to step up, and then there’s the mentoring that encourages someone else to stay away.  Both can be valid.  For folks who think that administration might be a good path but aren’t sure, short-term assignments can give a low-risk taste of what it’s like: those could be interim roles, or they could be project-based work, like self-studies.  (An accreditation self-study was my first exposure to administration.)  I’ve seen people get a taste, decide to step up, and do great; I’ve also seen people get a taste, make a face, spit the bit, and happily return to teaching.  Both made sense.  It can be hard to know if it’s for you until you actually try.

I tend to prefer academic administrators who have actually been faculty.  Partly that’s because they understand the reality of the classroom and of faculty culture.  But it also shows an uncommon ability to shift between the perspectives of the fox and the hedgehog.  That ability to see multiple perspectives at once comes in handy when complicated dilemmas arise, which they do frequently.  I need people who both understand why many faculty insist on the language of “crossing over to the dark side,” and yet, who understand why management is necessary and what’s at stake in doing it well.  

As the founding generation of community college leaders retires, the need for the next group to step up is becoming more pronounced.  That means the need for talent scouting is growing.  I hope those of us lucky enough to be in roles from which we can scout take the task seriously; if not, we’ll have a lot of Michael Jordans swinging wildly in the dirt.