Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle
Go into academic administration, and you will spend a good amount of your time asking for things — money, permission, accommodation, service. Presidents ask boards for tuition hikes. Deans ask provosts for bigger budgets. Chairs ask deans to approve new hires.
Knowing what to ask for, and how and when to ask for it, are fundamental skills for an academic leader, no matter your location, institution, rank, or position.
A few years back, in a series on fund raising, I wrote an essay about "making the ask," but it focused on the art of presenting major gift requests to donors. Now, in the Admin 101 series on leadership practices in higher education, let’s turn to the broad array of requests you will make in any campus administrative position.
Identify your "ask" style and campus "ask" culture. We’ve all sat through job presentations that had strong content but failed because the presenter was bumbling and inarticulate. How often are those candidates hired? Not very. Like it or not, the messenger is part of the message.
In your role as chief advocate and persuader for your department, college, or institution, your communication skills will affect the outcome of any request, no matter how good (or poor) your case. Which is why developing a successful style — tone, manner, timing, technique — is fundamental to being a good asker.
The key variable, however, is that your default or preferred style must fit the campus culture and the audience. For example:
- I know a chair whose university had a hard-charging and competitive culture. The chair himself, however, was a mild-mannered person who never liked to seem pushy. The result: He was often ignored or overlooked, elbowed out of the way by his more aggressive peers.
- At the other end of the leadership spectrum, I met another chair from a low-key, "homey" campus whose brash "look at me" requests for his department were met with discomfort and rejection. Eventually he opted to seek a job elsewhere.
Your style of asking must fit what works — politically, culturally — in your situation, and with the people you are approaching.
Be precise. Before you ask for something, you should know what it is. That sounds painfully obvious, but over the decades I have seen plenty of administrators — including yours truly — not think through the exact need their request is trying to fill.
Let’s take a typical scenario: Say you’re the new chair of a department that is experiencing rising enrollment in a certain subfield. Unfortunately, it’s one in which your department has limited teaching depth. Armed with that increase, you go to the dean and say, "I need an additional faculty line to fill this gap." Chances are, the dean’s reply will be something to the effect of, "I’m going to need more details."
To improve the odds that you will get what you are asking for, you have to answer not just the "What?" question, but also the "How much?" and "Why?" questions. Here is a checklist of information that our hypothetical chair needs to gather before meeting with the dean:
- What numbers support this need? How many new credit hours is the department trying to cover? And why do we see this trend continuing?
- What type of position is our department seeking? Is the need entirely related to teaching obligations — meaning the potential hire would be a full-time lecturer or instructor? Or are there also research and grant possibilities here that could make the case for a tenure-track position?
- Is this an introductory-level teaching requirement so that it’s fine to hire a recent Ph.D., or will these kinds of courses require someone with much more classroom experience and disciplinary expertise?
- What are the credentials of the ideal candidate? For some positions, an M.B.A. or an M.F.A. might do the trick, while others would require a Ph.D. in a specialized field. (Accreditation standards may influence your answers.)
- What are the market salaries for such positions?
Know what the collective "you" wants. It is always a mistake in academe to run too far ahead of the people you purport to lead or represent. In our hypothetical case, that means the chair needs departmental consensus about the hire before going to the dean. The chair could poll some influential faculty members or call for an advisory vote.
It’s very embarrassing — for you as a leader — to make a big ask to the upper powers, and have it approved, only to run into local objections afterward from the people you supervise and serve.
Yet what makes these situations so tricky to manage is that you can run into trouble in the other direction, too. The administrators you report to, for example, might start to resent you if they feel like you are setting them up to be the villains who said no to some major request that your constituents want. The ability to "manage up" is also a fundamental survival skill in academic leadership. You technically serve at someone’s pleasure, but you have to please many stakeholders — and sometimes you have to choose among them.
Campus politics can be tricky and personalities touchy. As I’ve noted before, being a good academic administrator, and surviving in your job, often calls for shrewd read-the-room skills. You should know enough about the people and politics involved to figure out the best pathway for each ask.
Make sure your request is sustainable. Once you get what you’ve asked for, there is always a risk that it will prove entirely unworkable in practice. That happens all the time in the world of fund raising, but, for obvious reasons, nobody issues press releases about it.
I nearly made that error, earlier in my administrative career, when I was director of a school and relatively new to fund raising. I had met with two donors who were eager to propel a certain area of research and learning. If I had asked them to commit the amount of money they were talking about, they would have done so right then and there. Luckily, a little voice in my head restrained me.
I did some research, talked to faculty members, ran the numbers, and realized that we could not possibly fulfill what the donors envisioned. We would have disappointed them, diverted our resources, and hurt our reputation. So I never asked for that gift. Instead, I kept talking with the two about different kinds of related projects that would satisfy them and us.
Better not to ask at all than to ask for the wrong thing and see it fail.
Fit your ask into a bigger picture. So you’ve done your homework, you know what you (collectively) want, and you’re sure it can be achieved. But just because your request is sound doesn’t mean somebody higher up is going to grant it. One of the key mistakes that rookie administrators all make is to think that a local need constitutes the grounds for up-the-chain approval.
For our hypothetical chair seeking a new faculty line, the trouble is that six other department heads have laid out a similarly precise case for why they need a new hire, too. There is never room in the budget to fund every ask.
Your ask has a far better chance of being granted if you can show how it meets goals and needs beyond your own.
For example, when I started as a dean at my current university, a new president and a new provost were just taking charge. Our campus is geographically isolated, and both of the new leaders were emphasizing the need for more distance-ed, online course options. We had seen that need within the college, too. We were losing summer credit hours as our undergraduates went home for the summer and took classes elsewhere — and even during the academic year, some students who worked or had other obligations wanted more online course options. Likewise, most of our B.A. graduates live far from the campus and couldn’t participate in our master’s program. So we put together proposals for online undergraduate courses and for an online master’s program.
Both efforts were funded (and have proved very successful) because they were a win-win for the asker and the asked — and for the students.
What if the answer is no? Anyone who gives advice about higher-education leadership today should always add the caveat "local conditions may vary." You might find yourself in a culture where asks are easygoing affairs — or high stakes and high stress. That affects whether you should appeal a rejection up the chain of command.
Just keep in mind: Maintaining a good, long-term relationship with people above and below your rank is generally preferable to the success of any individual ask.