David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Administration 101: An Intel Checklist for Finalists

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

You have accepted an invitation to visit campus as a finalist for an academic-leadership position. Congratulations — now the real work begins.

How you prepare for the interview will make all the difference. After a recent search for a dean, a professor I know recalled how impressed he was by one candidate’s erudition and intellect but even more so by her evident comprehension of the state of the college and its goals. He noted, approvingly, "She sounded like she was already our dean and knew us intimately."

In other words, she had visibly done her homework. Likewise, your goal in the campus interview is to demonstrate your proverbial "fit" with the position, the unit, and the institution. But first, you must understand the aspirations and the realities of the position and the place.

Don’t underestimate the effort involved. Gaining intel for an entry-level faculty position might be accomplished in a few hours of website cruising. For a deanship, however, you might need to devote days to: online searching; phone calls with local sources; long talks with the search consultant or the head of the hiring committee; and retroactive analysis of what you discerned from the first-round interview.

The Admin 101 series started by exploring the decision to become an administrator. Since then, columns have covered preparing for the job search, working with search consultants, assembling the application materials, getting your name in the right candidate pool, completing the first-round interviews, and evaluating whether you should decline or accept the invitation to become a finalist.

This month’s column assumes you’ve said yes, and catalogs the types of information you need to gather before you set foot on the campus as a finalist.

What do they really want? Every senior administrative position comes with a lengthy hiring profile — a written portrait of the "ideal candidate." It’s usually compiled by many stakeholders, not all of whom sit on the search committee. The profile lists dozens of desired attributes, experiences, skill sets, characteristics, and philosophies — some of them "required" and others "preferred." At first glance, the profile may seem daunting and even contradictory because it represents the wish list of almost everyone who has had any say over the document: the proverbial committee-designed platypus.

Your first task is to rank the desired qualifications in order of importance. Put at the top of the scale things at which every finalist must excel. For example, high on the list for a dean would be "achievements in fund raising" and "a record of respect for faculty governance." If you visit campus unprepared to answer — with evidence — repeated queries on either of those fronts, you are unlikely to get the job.

At the bottom of your ranking should be the lesser qualifications — things that were included to assuage a few people but, in reality, have little or no effect on who is offered the job. A friend who interviewed for an arts-and-sciences deanship said the hiring profile had a long list of qualifications, including experience in an amusingly narrow field of study. It turned out that item had been added to mollify a single committee member. No one else on the campus, including the provost who would make the final hire, cared in the least about it.

A degree of serendipity is at work here. A qualification that tips the scale for you in one position on one campus at one time may be of little or no value for an opening at a different campus. Typically, for instance, fund raising may be valued little for a provost position (as compared with a presidency) because the provost might play only a supporting role for the enterprise. Conversely, "a history of championing diversity and inclusion" is seen as vital for all types of leadership positions today.

Who is the "final decider"? The more status a position holds, the more people are involved (some only nominally) in its resolution. When I chaired a recent search for a provost at my own university, the candidates faced scrutiny from every sector of the campus. In the end, however, the "final deciding authority" was one person: our president.

Part of your research before getting on the plane to visit a prospective campus is to learn more about the key deciders — and, if possible, their vision of the ideal hire. You don’t have to uncover their taste in wine or movies. You are neither stalking nor kissing up. But you should at least know something about their background and what drives their vision. Were they first in their family to go to college? How long have they been at the institution? What fields do they come from? What is their professional style?

A candidate interviewing for a deanship told me that, during dinner with the provost of the hiring institution, he had blanked on what field she had earned her doctorate in. There was some awkwardness, then, when the provost asked him about some of his research that "overlaps with my own."

What, specifically, should you look for in your search for information about the decider(s)? Definitely try to find — in print or online — reports, articles, position papers, strategic plans, profiles, vision statements, videos of speeches, and quotes on social media or in the news media that might shed light on what they are looking for in the position.

A candidate for the provost’s job at a regional public university in the West told me he had put together a keyword analysis of all the available utterances and writings he could find from the institution’s president. The applicant found that the president consistently brought up the need for "innovation in online and distance education" and "new teaching modalities." Accordingly, and eventually successfully, the candidate calibrated his one-on-one interview to highlight his ideas and achievements in those two areas.

What factions will you face? When you’re applying for a faculty opening, you can usually conduct fairly thorough background research of every member of the department as well as its current state of affairs and its future aspirations. That research is a lot more complicated if you’re seeking a senior-administrative post.

Say you are interviewing for a deanship of a college with a dozen departments and hundreds of faculty members. Clearly, it would be useful to know a little about the key individuals, but you can’t possibly know about everyone. Instead, try to understand the various constituencies involved in the search. Members of each constituency presumably have a shared outlook on the "ideal" leader they want to see hired.

The naturally occurring departmental divisions within a college are your starting point. For more heterogeneous units — like a college of arts and sciences — you might end up having to also think in terms of broad categories like, say, the humanities and the STEM fields. Other breakdowns might include the more teaching-oriented faculty members versus the research-focused ones.

Unless you have months at your disposal, you cannot go into too much depth, but what you can do is develop a brief matrix or chart for each identified constituency:

  • What are the areas of specialization within that group?
  • What are its basic stats in numbers of students and faculty?
  • What are its recent metrics in terms of growth (or decline) in enrollment or outside research grants dollars?
  • What are the major components of its self-image? What is it proudest of? What is it trying to achieve?

What are the big issues? Every administrative search has them. They might be divided into the perennial (budget management, fund raising) and the acute (urgent decisions, or even crises, that need to be resolved by the next occupant of the office). Some of these might be spelled out in the hiring ad and profile — as in "Our next provost will take charge immediately of the campuswide effort to produce a new strategic plan."

For example, a candidate for provost at a southwestern state university described how, during his airport interview, a majority of the questions revolved around "equity" issues for faculty hiring, and how to determine adequate salary levels. He later gleaned from social-media sources and campus newspaper stories that the faculty were in near revolt over lack of pay raises. The consensus was also that money from outside grants grants was not being adequately shared with the faculty investigators. That was a good tip-off for him to include — in his presentations and conversations — a discussion of best practices for salary allocation, merit-pay increases, and equity adjustments.

As I have frequently emphasized in the Career Confidential columns on academic hiring, by the time you are invited to the campus as a finalist — for any position — your CV and your references have proved you are "qualified" for the job. In the grueling up-close-and-personal days to come, everyone — most crucially the final decider — will be evaluating you more on the somewhat hazy criterion of "fit." The best way to provide evidence of fit is due diligence ahead of time in your research about the campus and its people.

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