David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Admin 101: Sometimes Good Leaders Should Play Favorites

Full vitae admin101

Image: Kevin Van Aelst 

No doubt most senior administrators, if asked to confess their biases toward particular fields, would insist: "I don’t play favorites." And indeed, not playing favorites is both ethical and managerially sound.

Yet if pressed, every administrator (including this one) would also admit that nuances abound in putting the principle into practice.

Those nuances crop up routinely in leadership searches. Say an institution is hiring a new dean of arts and sciences. The job ad says the university is looking for an "accomplished scholar tenurable at the rank of full professor in one of our departments." In other words: You won’t get the position unless you have a distinctive record of research and teaching in some field.

In the hiring process, however, that expertise becomes the subject of two unwritten — and contradictory — rules:

  • Before you are hired, people outside your field will wonder: "Will s/he appreciate what we do?" The philosophy professors, for example, might be concerned that the selection of a STEM scientist as dean will mean that the humanities folks will be (or continue to be) second-class citizens. Meanwhile, biologists will cheer for a biologist and psychologists for a psychologist.
  • Yet after you get the job, you will be expected to scrupulously avoid playing favorites — so much so that the folks within your disciplinary area will worry about the negative effect of having "one of us" in the leadership position.

Let me use my own experience — as dean of a college of media and communication — as an example. When I interviewed for the job, I went out of my way to avoid overemphasizing the importance of my own subfield of political communication. I have consciously, purposely held to that custom for five years now. But sometimes I wonder whether that effort has meant that political communication has not expanded as an area of programs and research, as it reasonably should have. Have I overcompensated to elude charges of favoritism?

This month’s column in the Admin 101 series delves into the unexpected hitches you might encounter in trying not to play favorites. (Browse the full series — on the process of hiring academic leaders and the many dimensions of doing those jobs — here.)

Don’t favor your own subfield — but don’t ignore it, either. There is an adage shared among administrators: The department or field you will have the most trouble with is the one in which your faculty position resides. I have observed that happen enough to know there is a kernel of truth in the belief.

I heard one such story from the chair of a music and dance department. Faced with a major curriculum revision and the retirement of two senior professors, the department had to petition the dean to retain those two jobs. The internal politics, however, were delicate: The chair’s subfield was, by far, the most popular among students, while the areas in which the retiring professors taught were in steep decline.

The chair’s solution: Rely on the analytics. She wanted the department to make an evidence-based decision, not one driven by emotion, politics, or perceptions. She convened a committee made up of some of the department’s most responsible and dispassionate professors, along with a luminary in the field from another institution. They looked at objective measures, polled students, and surveyed trends. Their eventual recommendation proved to be unassailable and won support from the department and the dean for a new direction in hiring — one that happened to be in the chair’s area.

So somewhere between favoring your own subject of study so radically that you are obviously unqualified to be the leader of a broader unit, and shunning your own area simply because it is your own, you will have to find a sweet spot that makes sense within your local situation.

Find people you can rely on — but try not to overburden them. Years ago, I came across a quote from a British admiral: "Favoritism is the secret of efficiency." I would guess most managers and leaders in higher education understand the sentiment.

As an academic leader, you will develop a mental or actual printed list of "reliables": people who, when asked to take on a certain assignment have proven successful, time and again. Eventually, another list will emerge — advisedly not on paper — of the unreliables: folks who are simply unsuited for a particular task.

Some names will be on both lists. Because not everyone is good at every aspect of a job — or even wants to be. A faculty member might be a terrific teacher but a woefully incompetent search-committee chair. Someone can be an award-winning researcher but a terrible graduate director. And of course a terrific department chair might flop as a dean.

Academic leaders have to be careful about "punishing" people for doing good. You may be chair of a department with some professors who always do an efficient job leading a search committee while others inevitably get lost in a fog or run aground. Your "favorites," however, will end up unfairly taxed if you put them in charge of every search. Try to spread out the work, even if that means a little more work for you.

Don’t favor one program — unless you should. In a perfect world — the kind sometimes constructed in the minds of politicians or economists — decreases in funding would result in increases in efficiency for an enterprise. I have rarely found that to be the case in higher education.

Take a typical situation I witnessed years ago at a public university where a state budget cut was imminent. Many meetings, task forces, town halls, and political battles later, the administration announced that "the only fair thing to do" was to cut everyone’s budget across the board.

What those "leaders" really meant was that making selective cuts was just too unpopular internally. They didn’t have the political will to declare: "We will cut some departments heavily and preserve investment in others." You can tell how rare that sort of bold move is in academe, because when it does happen, it receives a lot of media attention.

As a leader, you may have to play favorites with budgets a little bit, or in certain circumstances. If one particular undergraduate program is very popular with students, exceeds the standards, and attracts enthusiastic faculty interest, then it’s worth investing in. If another program continually shrinks in enrollment, has trouble meeting its accreditation or assessment metrics, and does not seem to have vigorous faculty involvement, maybe it’s time for it to go.

Whenever you favor one program over another, make sure your decision is based on quantitative and qualitative factors. Be fair and transparent.

Don’t favor yourself. The "don’t play favorites" principle should be applied most insistently to yourself — because, as I’ve noted before, both ethics and optics matter.

A case in point: When I started work at another university, the provost held a reception for incoming faculty members. About 100 showed up for a pep talk and a lunch buffet. I was struck by how the provost followed an ancient military dictum: Commanders shouldn’t eat until they’ve seen their soldiers fed. I watched as our provost dutifully placed himself last in the buffet line.

Of course, not favoring yourself can apply to many more practical areas of administration. For example, a dean I know recounted how she got a phone call from a graduate-program director announcing that an applicant had specifically expressed interest in doing research on a pet project of the dean’s. The graduate director eagerly offered to "auto-admit" the student. The dean wisely insisted that the applicant go through the normal review process.

Dozens of maxims apply to academic leadership — from "no good deed goes unpunished" to "Rome wasn’t built in a day" to "don’t play favorites." What you learn on the job is that even seemingly straightforward advice can’t be followed rigidly all the time. Circumstances, context, and intervening variables will affect what you do, and sometimes it is appropriate to play favorites. The key: Be as transparent as possible about the reason why someone or something deserves to be favored.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.