• 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.


Growing Your Own?

Where will the next generation of deans come from? It’s an increasingly urgent question, since the current crop is largely aging out of the profession. And in many settings, there’s no heir apparent at the ready.

April 15, 2012

Where will the next generation of deans come from?

It’s an increasingly urgent question, since the current crop is largely aging out of the profession. And in many settings, there’s no heir apparent at the ready.

A study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently made the rounds on the interwebs because it made the striking claim that managerial talent really only shows when it’s used, which means that the talent pool looks thinner than it really is. People with experience, it claims, are given more credit than they deserve, because people without experience have no way of showing their talent (or lack thereof). The only way to be really safe in hiring, then, is to hire for experience, which leads to a game of musical chairs among incumbents.  

It’s one of those “magnesium is the secret of the universe!” theories that explains a few things, but is easily oversold. The most obvious flaw is that it takes “talent” as a given, and reduces experience to pure signaling.  As with teaching, though, that’s not quite right.  Rookies make rookie mistakes, even with talent; the first few years of experience may signal, but they also hone.  Most professors will admit that their teaching was better a few years in than it was the first time out; why administration would be any different is not obvious.  While I’ve long argued that the value of experience is not linear -- the years between fifteen and twenty make much less difference than the five years between zero and five -- it’s not zero, either.  Those first few years matter.

That said, though, the study does hit on a few basic truths. The most basic, and the one that the AACC is trying to address through a “grow your own” leadership development program, is the leap of faith involved in giving someone that first experience. Academia fully admits the need for a leap of faith in the context of teaching; it’s the stated rationale behind giving graduate students teaching assistantships. The idea is to create a rank from which rookies aren’t ruled out for being rookies. But as an industry, we like to pretend that anyone can just step into administration at any time. Once in a while, that works, but the fail rate is high enough that you’d think we would have moved past it by now.

The “grow your own” approach helps get around the “no job without experience, no experience without a job” dilemma by creating cultivated experiences for their own sake.  While it’s hard to imagine just what those cultivated experiences might look like, the concept makes some sense.  I’ve seen perfectly wonderful professors flame out when they’ve had to work with others as equals, and I’ve seen high-performing perfectionists who simply couldn’t bring themselves to rely on other people. (“To get it done right, I’ll just do it myself.”)  In my own case, chairing the campus accreditation self-study was the introduction to administration.  While I made my share of rookie mistakes on that, I was able to show that I could work with other people and take the occasional punch, both of which are core competencies of administration.  

The flaw in the “grow your own” model, though, is that it presumes the presence of a willing and basically capable generation of full-time faculty.  But the pig-in-a-python generational problem that they’re trying to solve -- a monster-sized cohort aging out -- exists, too, among the faculty.  Decades of minimal full-time faculty hiring have resulted in a thin bench. If we had plenty of full-time faculty in their mid-thirties to mid-forties just waiting for their big break, then the “grow your own” model would be just the thing. But when an entire generation got basically skipped, as mine did, then the grow your own model will hit its natural limits pretty quickly.

Worse, all the recession-driven shedding of administrative positions over the last few years has led to some incredibly flat organizations.  When you don’t have associate deans -- my college doesn’t -- then you don’t have easy ways for people to move up the ladder.  The ladder was sacrificed a few budget cuts ago, and we’re seeing the consequences of that now.

I wish the AACC program well. It’s well-intended, and there are probably a few folks for whom it will present a real opportunity. But at the end of the day, you can’t skip a generation of hiring, eliminate intermediate positions, and heap calumny on an entire class of employees, and then pretend that a training program will make up for it.  It just doesn’t work like that. The next generation of deans will face an entirely different set of challenges, and often will not have had the kind of experience we would have liked. If only someone would write about that...


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