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  • Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Well, Duh...
September 24, 2008 - 3:52am

A new report from the American Council on Education (see it here) entitled "Too Many Rungs on the Ladder? Faculty Demographics and the Future Leadership of Higher Education" manages to notice something this blog has been saying for the last four years: a dearth of young tenure-track faculty now means a serious leadership vacuum in higher education in the near future.

Some of the stats cited in the report are worth checking out. Among them:

  • Nationally, only 11 percent of community college faculty are tenured or tenure-track, and under the age of 45.
  • In 1986, 42 percent of college Presidents were younger than 50; in 2006, only 8 percent were.

The younger generation of full-time faculty is more diverse than its predecessors, but also dramatically smaller. The shift to adjunct instruction has disproportionately affected Gen X and later. Somewhat surprisingly, the report also notes that an increasing number of community college faculty start their teaching careers above the age of 40; apparently, it's becoming more common as a second career. (That fits my local observation; I just didn't know it was a national trend.)

The report recommends rethinking the traditional upward ladder of faculty – chair – dean – vp – president to allow younger faculty to rise more rapidly, whether by skipping steps or by spending less time at each step. Although it doesn't spell out the alternative, anyone who has been paying attention knows that the alternative is an acceleration of the trend of college leadership coming from outside the academic ranks. That may or may not be a good thing, but it's getting predictable.

This looks to be one of those trends that sneaks up on you, since the current generation of Presidents still hails largely from the boom years, and it's still a big group. One of the most common sources of college Presidents is other college Presidencies; there's a certain musical-chairs quality to many Presidential searches now. But I've seen plenty of dean-level searches fail, and I've seen a few vp-level searches fail, too. The pool is getting thin, which is pretty much what happens when you don't hire new people at the entry level for twenty years.

It's possible to interpret this trend in many ways, but for now, I'll highlight the positive. Youngish full-time faculty who want administrative opportunities may soon find them easier to get than they've been in quite some time. And unlike the folks before them, this cohort will have come up through the system in its current, brutal form, so they're likelier to have a clearer sense of it. It's possible – I'm being hopeful here – that this cohort will have a greater sense of the fragility of the academic enterprise, and will therefore be more thoughtful in its stewardship of it.

Or, it could be a bunch of callow, careerist douchebags. History will decide.

My own sense of the value of experience is a bit more nuanced than what the report suggests. Skipping more than one step strikes me as genuinely dangerous, since each level is meaningfully different than the one before it. (I'd be worried about a new President whose previous experience didn't go higher than chairing a department.) But I also suspect – and the literature I've seen on teaching suggests that there's something to this – that the payoff to experience at any given level plateaus after a certain point, and eventually can even turn negative. Five years of deaning is better than two, but I'm not convinced that fifteen is better than ten. So my recommendation for administrative hiring committees would be a bit different. Be wary of step-skipping, but don't make the mistake of valuing experience linearly, either. That kind of CYA behavior by hiring committees tends to perpetuate the musical-chairs hiring of the same faces over and over again, since the Old Boys have the most experience, by definition.

I'm not naïve enough to think that a looming shortage of deans will provoke a reversal of the trend towards adjuncting-out the faculty. That's a function of much larger forces. But it might make sense for faculty hiring committees to look for certain kinds of skills in new hires, and to encourage level-headed, ethical young colleagues to see past the "crossing over to the dark side" taboo and consider stepping up. Silly stereotypes may have been affordable in an age of abundance, but that's behind us. It's time to recognize that younger faculty with administrative potential should be encouraged, rather than dumped on or ostracized. The alternative is to import managers straight from the business world, with all that entails.

 

 

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