Essay on administrator job searches in higher education
I have been in three levels of national administrative job searches — for jobs as a dean, a provost, and a president. I also have been on numerous search committees for administrative positions. I would like to share seven principles in preparing for such searches that I hope will be useful to others seeking such positions of academic leadership. I call these the persistence principle, the proper fit principle, the preparation principle, the pep principle, the pragmatic principle, the purity principle, and the publicity principle.
1. The Persistence Principle. When I applied for a deanship, I had several presidents vying with each other in a bidding war for my services — in my dreams. In real waking life, despite my sterling academic credentials, daunting C.V., impeccable character, Hollywood good looks, and Rhett Butler charm, I could have saved money on wallpaper by papering my bedroom with rejection letters. In some cases, I never heard anything at all from the places to which I applied. I study creativity, and in my talks, I often emphasized the importance of persistence: When you figure out what you want, I said, go for it and don’t give up. Easier said than done. I gave up.
I had forgotten that I still had two applications pending. I was offered both jobs. Administrative jobs at these levels are even more elusive than regular academic ones. If you enter into such searches, you need to have a very thick skin and keep going in the face of rejections.
Keep in mind also that in perhaps one-third of the searches you enter, you don’t really have a chance. Either the job is prewired for someone else, or it will evaporate before it is filled, or they will look at your application the way they would look at one from a Martian. Only enter administrative searches if you are prepared to persist. And keep in mind that each search committee looks for a different thing and different kind of person: Success or the lack thereof in one search does not necessarily predict what will happen in the next search.
2. The Proper Fit Principle. When you apply for a faculty job, the relative strengths of your C.V. and your academic accomplishments in general count most and proper fit to the institution is often secondary. In administrative searches, it’s usually the other way around. The hiring officers want someone who really understands and appreciates the kind of institution they represent. When I applied for deanships out of Yale, some places did not pursue me, I believe, because they thought I would be too elitist. When I applied for presidencies out of Oklahoma State, one place did not pursue me, I believe, because the search committee members thought I would not be elitist enough. Actually, I’m the same person, but was not perceived as such! Stereotypes abound and so search committees often will look for candidates from institutions like their own, or ones they perceive to be slightly better.
In preparing your application and doing your interview, emphasize proper fit — how you are the right person for the institution and how the college or university to which you are applying is the right institution for you. And if you don’t really feel that way, don’t apply. When administrators fail, as often as not it really is because they don’t fit, and they might have fared much better had they taken a position at an institution that was a better fit to who they are and what they stand for. You should come to view a rejection as a relief: If they don’t see you as a proper fit, it just may be you’re not, or that they would not perceive you that way, regardless of how you might perceive yourself.
3. The Preparation Principle. When you interview for a typical academic job, preparation is mostly about having a great job talk and being ready for tough questions in personal interviews and after your talk about your research and teaching. When you prepare for an administrative interview, however, it is additionally important to know absolutely as much as possible about the institution at which you are interviewing.
The search committee will want to know that you really know, understand, and empathize with the values of the hiring institution. If you do, you are more likely to be able to hit the ground running. I’ve seen any number of interviews self-sabotaged by candidates who did not do their homework and who made statements that only could antagonize important decision-makers in the search process. For example, do not tell faculty members they should charge their nine-month salary in part to grants if such a practice is not allowable by policy in the university to which you are applying. Find out all you can about the institution (and search committee) and make sure you show what you know.
4. The Pep Principle. Beyond an impressive C.V. and proper fit, I have been impressed by the extent to which search committees look for a person with pep, enthusiasm, and energy. Administrative jobs are demanding. When candidates come across in interviews as looking tired or phlegmatic or drained of energy, they do not present themselves in a way that suggests they will be ready for the demands of the job. In these jobs, you need to connect with other people, and it is difficult to connect if you are withdrawn into yourself or easily exhausted. Be sure you convey to your interviewers the energy and enthusiasm you feel. And if you don’t feel energetic and enthusiastic about the job, don’t apply.
5. The Pragmatic Principle. Academics land jobs in part on the basis of IQ-based abilities. They are not necessarily highly selected for practical or people skills, which, psychologically, are largely (although not wholly) distinct from the abstract analytical skills measured by IQ tests, SATs, ACTs, GREs, and the like. High-level administrative jobs demand more of the latter — the pragmatic skills -- than of the former — the abstract-analytical ones.
In these jobs, one is dealing with practical and people problems almost all day, every day. Anyone who has been around academics for any length of time knows that many of them shirk from such issues, and some who do not shirk from them just are not at their best in solving them. The result is that institutions are best served by administrators who have developed pragmatic thinking skills. They are not necessarily well-served by people who merely think they are practically or people-oriented, or who, having tired of doing teaching and research, are looking for something else to do. In applying for upper-level administrative positions, you will have to ask yourself not only whether you have well-developed high-level pragmatic skills, but also how you will be able to show, to the satisfaction of a search committee, that you have those skills.
6. The Purity Principle. Search committees feel that any top-level administrator they hire, like Caesar’s wife, must be beyond suspicion. There may be nothing institutions fear more than scandals involving their top-level administrators. Such scandals regularly make national headlines, and bring down the reputations not only of the administrators involved, but also of the institutions at which they work (as illustrated recently by problems at Pennsylvania State University).
When you apply for a top-level academic position, therefore, you can expect a fairly extensive professional background check, a Google search, and also calls to off-list references, basically looking for disqualifying dirt. If you have purity problems in your record, don’t hope they won’t be discovered or even wait for them to be discovered. Deal with them up front and proactively, explaining to the search committee why they are no longer an issue. If you cannot convince the search committee the issues are no longer relevant, you won’t get the job. But better these issues be dealt with early in a search process than after any past mess becomes public yet again.
7. The Publicity Principle. There are basically two kinds of searches: public ones and ones that are supposed not to be public — that is, to be confidential. You may be able to get through the semi-final round of a job search on a confidential basis, but it is really challenging to get through the final round in secret. People talk; they call for references; they drop hints.
If it becomes public you are in a search, which is what often happens, your candidacy likely will appear somewhere on the Internet so that the information about your participation will be available both to faculty and administrators at your present institution and to other search committees. Being publicly in searches does not enhance your ability either to do your current job or to get another job. So only enter a search if you are really interested in the position. After a while, you can become an also-ran. You don’t want participation publicized in a search in which you are not seriously interested.
I do not think there are any guarantees in applying for these jobs. What works in one search totally bombs in another, and vice versa. For example, one search committee may crave change; another may dread it; and the person who actually does the hiring may feel differently from the search committee. But if you take into account the persistence, proper fit, preparation, pep, pragmatic, purity, and publicity principles, you will be in good shape to find something. Good luck! And may you get those calls begging for your services that I only got in my dreams.
Robert J. Sternberg is provost and senior vice president at Oklahoma State University. Prior to that, he was dean of arts and sciences at Tufts University, and before that, IBM Professor of Psychology and Education and director of the Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise at Yale University. He starts as president of the University of Wyoming in the summer of 2013.