David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Administration 101: the Big Decision

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst 

Many years ago, I was offered an academic leadership position but turned it down. I spent several anxious nights making that decision. After all, I had just survived the tortuous and time-consuming process that led to the offer. Furthermore, the location of the campus was closer to my extended family, the responsibilities attracted me, and the salary was what I wanted.

At the same time, there were enough warning signs that I visualized the Robot from the old Lost in Space series klaxoning out, "Danger, Will Robinson!" First, many of the institution’s administrators seemed cagey about the campus culture. Second, the ambitions of the unit I would head were high, but there were no new resources evident to achieve them. Third, hardly anyone showed up to any of my public meetings and presentations — suggesting that faculty expectations were low. Finally, I just got a personal vibe that I did not wholly sync with upper administration.

I declined the job.

In the Admin 101 series, I’ve been dissecting the hiring process for academic leadership positions. As every candidate knows, not every road has a final destination. I have known colleagues who during a particular hiring season were semifinalists (Skype or airport interviews) or campus finalists for dozens of positions — yet ended up staying put. Clearly the answer to a job offer is not always "Yes, sign me up." So if you are offered the post, what questions should you consider before you take the job?

How stable is the job you already have?A friend who was in the midst of applying for several leadership positions made his motivation clear: He hated everything and everyone at his current institution. Likewise, a provost I met who was looking to move up told me: "The moment I told my president that I wanted to be a president he said, ‘You have a year to get a job elsewhere, then I fire you.’"

So one reason why you may accept an offer is because you need to exit — and soon. Of course you must weigh the sickly bird in hand with the new, yet-unknown one fluttering before you. Some candidates I know have decided to reject both and stay on the job market.

How good are the personal aspects of the offer? Generally, the higher you rise up the academic ranks the more complicated the hiring deal. For university presidents, an entire specialized subfield of law exists to craft and review contracts. Ironing out all the details — whether they involve a replumb of the president’s house or a bonus if you stay in the job more than three years — will require turning to legal advice.

Even in the most straightforward contract, there are complexities to weigh. Among them:

  • Salary: Your definition of a good income, for instance, might have to factor in whether your kids will be attending private schools, or what kind of home you will need to accommodate the level of entertaining expected of you as president.
  • Cost of living: As always, measure your potential income relative to location. The same salary in a small town in Ohio might be subjectively worth half if you plan to live in downtown Denver.
  • Downtime: One of the great obligations of administration is time. Your day may start in darkness and end after a campus dinner event. You will want to live as close to your job as possible, and there is likely a premium on proximity.
  • Living expenses: As a friend of mine who became a dean commented, "Your costs go up along with your salary. If you wear a suit every day, dry cleaning becomes a noticeable expense." You may or may not be reimbursed for other expenses, such as a new car, a better cellphone, or even club memberships.

It is a good idea to ask local, peer administrators to share information about their hiring packages.

How much support can you expect in the new position? You already should know the list of people who will report to you and the goals you will be expected to achieve within, say, your first five years there. But the crucial determinant for whether you want to accept the offer (or not) has to be the support you will get on the job.

Let’s take a dean position as an example. You must know:

  • What is the current budget for your potential college, and is it likely to change?
  • How will your successes — for example, growth in enrollment or in grants — affect your future budgets?
  • What are the details of your administrative start-up package — including things like guaranteed new hires and increase in base budget?

How do the expectations match the support? You want to be able to harmonize what you will be expected to do in the job with what you are actually capable of doing, given the resources at your disposal. A colleague who was offered a deanship said the provost told him his job was to "turn the ship around" after years of faculty infighting and declining enrollment and grants productivity. The provost admitted, however, that the future dean would have to do all of that with the college’s current budget.

In other words, my friend was supposed to lift himself and his college up by their own bootstraps, a risky proposition indeed. No matter how much faith you have in your own management talents, a kamikaze mission has only one terminus. Don’t take the job unless you are going to get what you need to succeed.

How good is your "fit" institutionally? Culture matters. As is often observed about leadership positions in academe, we hire on CV and fire on fit. The most frequent epitaph for an administrator who "did not work out" was that the person "did not fit us." It is a question every department’s faculty members will ask themselves before they hire an assistant professor, so you must ask it of yourself if you plan to be a chair or dean.

Start by recalling what you learned from your intel gathering — both about the campus and about the unit (department, center, college, office, etc.) you will oversee. Then consider whether you and the institution mesh on two broad factors:

  • Personality and pace of decision making. I heard about a new president at a state university who tanked within a year of appointment. He was brilliant, but unfortunately he acted like he knew he was brilliant. He had the answer to every question before people finished asking it. Each day he found many "problems" that demanded quick and decisive resolution. Anyone who counseled caution or greater deliberation was deemed an obstructionist and had to go. Needless to say, he was the one to go. The verdict: "He didn’t fit us." Many observers concluded that some of his innovations would have worked if he had been more adaptive to the local ways of accomplishing change.
  • Notions of what is possible. Some academic departments suffer from Ivy League Envy Syndrome. The scenario is familiar: In a tight job market, a department of languages at a distressed regional state university is able to hire Ph.D.s from top programs. But sometimes the new elite ignore the realities of the local situation (budgets, culture, preparedness and economic constraints of students, state of facilities) and set out to create the proverbial "Harvard on the Platte." Failure and disappointment are inevitable. So ask yourself whether your ambitions ("We can be a top 10 department in the world!") fit what can plausibly be achieved.

How good is the "fit" with your boss(es)? If you take a position as an academic administrator on a campus where you are a tenured professor, you will have job security for your "nine-month" faculty appointment. But for your administrative position, you will "serve at the pleasure" of someone directly above you. In my 25 years in higher education, I know of — directly or through word of mouth — hundreds of chairs, deans, provosts, vice presidents, and presidents who have fallen from grace and lost their administrative jobs (or moved on to avoid being removed).

Accordingly, a supremely important question is how you think you will get along with your "boss" — something you don’t have as a faculty member but you do as an administrator. Do your goals and ambitions align with those of your boss(es)? Are you comfortable with one another in style and mood? Can you "manage up" — i.e., negotiate your relationship with your supervisor — effectively?

It is no new insight to any reader of The Chronicle that American higher education is in crisis. Actually, I don’t recall when we were not, even if some of us did not recognize it to be so. But the pressure on campus leaders today is greater than many of us who hold the title of chair, dean, or president can ever recall.

That’s all the more reason to assess carefully, when you’re offered a leadership position, if it’s a good match for who you are.

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