In Our Own Backyards

College leaders should take steps to grow their own academic administrators from among the faculty members in their midst, writes Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt.

June 16, 2016

We hear a lot of talk these days about pipelines in the world of education. The discussions are typically focused on placing students on a particular path or trajectory to serve a specific goal: getting more minority students studying STEM disciplines, for example. But what about the pipeline from faculty member to administrator?

Last summer, Nathan Bennett, associate dean for faculty and research in the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University, wrote of an interesting problem within higher education: how, during a cluster of dean searches, internal candidates were told not to apply because the institution would be considering only external candidates. Ouch. His essay went on to explore why external candidates are more appealing. New! Shiny! No known baggage or problems. Yet he concluded, rightly, that institutions that are unable or unwilling to promote from within are institutions where faculty governance has failed.

Putting aside the appeal of outsiders, how might we generate more internal candidates and make a case for their desirability? And how can we tackle a more systemic issue: the recruitment and preparation of faculty for these roles? How can we build a pipeline of talented faculty members who would be willing to become academic leaders?

First, we need to identify such candidates. We can start by reaching out to someone who seems to have the skill set or predilection for administration. Graduate school does not prepare us to think about administrative roles (although perhaps it should, as part of the alt-ac trend), so a number of talented individuals probably just haven’t imagined this possibility yet. What if we point it out to them? But we should not do it as a way of just heaping more service responsibilities on them. Rather, we need to help them see their aptitude for running meetings, managing crises, writing reports and the like.

If you try this at your college or university, and such potential candidates seem receptive and if you are already in an administrative role or have previously held one, what if you offered to mentor them? Maybe they could shadow you. Maybe if you are a department chair cultivating the administrative talents of a faculty member, you could send them to an appropriate conference or provide some other kind of professional development opportunity.

There are probably administrative lurkers as well. These are the folks who may not be readily identifiable as administrative talent yet who are considering it. But they may not be sure how and when to take the plunge. For such people, as well as the ones we actively recruit, we need to provide opportunities for preparation and exploration.

One possibility is to create a forum or brown-bag lunch series, hosted by current and well-respected administrators, where interested individuals can learn more about life as an administrator (the good and the bad), ask questions, and seek guidance.

We also should encourage these individuals to experiment with low-stakes administrative opportunities that will give them experience and exposure to administration and allow them to test their interest and skills. Chairing a college or universitywide committee working on a big project might be one possibility.

Further, at my institution, at least, we offer a host of half-time positions that would allow a willing candidate to dip a toe into the administrative waters while still teaching a bit and getting some time for research. In fact, in my own case, that was the instance that drew me in. I had the chance to see administrative work from the inside, realize that I could still do a bit of research and writing, and discover that I actually enjoyed it most of the time.

For any of this to matter, however, the existing administration at an institution will have to invest in the prospect of internal leadership development. Recruiting and preparing will come to nothing if the scenario described at the beginning of this article prevails. Senior faculty, especially those who are already in administrative positions, will need to champion the advantages of internal candidates and encourage their colleagues to apply.

The newness and shininess of external candidates is tough to overcome, but we should counter it with the knowledge and relationships that such internal candidates can offer. As higher education confronts the various crises and challenges that Inside Higher Ed documents every day, we need leaders who can hit the ground running and respond quickly and effectively.

The external candidate will always have to learn the institution and the ropes. The internal candidate has already passed that course. The external candidate will always have to create new connections with colleagues. The internal candidate has already finished those construction projects. They have built relationships across the university. They know how things work. They have already mastered the internal processes that govern how things get done.

If we are serious about confronting the challenges facing our institutions, we would do well to identify, nurture and promote the talent that is already in our own backyards.


Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is dean of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Honors College and professor of history at Cleveland State University. She blogs about issues in higher ed at Tales Told Out of School and tweets @school_tales.


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