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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.

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December 13, 2010 - 10:02pm

Over the past year, my college has advertised for both tenure-track faculty positions and administrative positions. (More of the former than the latter.) The tenure-track faculty applicant pools, unsurprisingly, have been large and deep, with no shortage of very qualified people. The challenge for the search committees has been to discern relative degrees of excellence.

The administrative applicant pools, by contrast, have been markedly thin. After filtering out the clearly underqualified, we were left in the single digits.

Odd.

If administrators were as wildly overpaid as some like to claim, I’d imagine the ratios would be reversed. That hasn’t happened. I won’t deny that some folks at elite places make staggering sums, but at my cc and at every other cc in my state, this is simply not the case.

People with longer histories here tell me that administrative searches weren’t always so difficult. Ten years ago, administrative postings generated floods of quality applications. Now, not.

I’m guessing the cause is a combination of things.

The most basic is the lack of a pipeline. With so few associate professors running around, the pool of potential applicants is simply smaller than it once was. A faculty hiring shortage eventually led to an administrative candidate shortage.

The housing market is probably also at play. Many of the people far enough along in their careers to be credible applicants own their homes; in this market, you don’t sell unless you absolutely have to. Yes, some folks rent, and there are some local-ish applicants, but the housing market may be exerting some serious drag. (The same would be less likely to apply on the faculty side, since folks fresh out of grad school don’t usually own their homes.) I’d guess there’s less job-hopping when making the leap requires taking a serious loss.

There’s also the ongoing cultural taboo against “crossing over to the dark side,” though I think that taboo predates the last few years. (Notably, many of the same people who resort to “dark side” rhetoric with the most vigor are also the first to complain about administrators coming from outside the faculty ranks, yet they rarely notice the contradiction.)

At some level, though, I wonder if part of the issue is a growing sense -- largely correct -- that succeeding in these roles is getting objectively harder. Resource constraints are far worse than they were even a few years ago, and that doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon. (I get periodic emails soliciting applications for positions in California; I delete them unread. No way am I going to board that sinking ship.) When your first task in your new administrative role is to cut budgets, you’ll have a rough time lasting.

With more no-win decisions to be made, there’s also more litigation to be endured. Since our judicial system has yet to embrace the fundamental fairness of “loser pays,” there’s little incentive to forego retaliatory lawsuits when someone doesn’t like an outcome. Labor relations are always hard when budgets are tight; walking right into a flurry of grievances is no fun. And as bad as regular budget cuts are, midyear budget cuts are inexcusably brutal. Walk into that propeller once, and you will go out of your way to avoid it thereafter.

There’s also increasing external pressure to do things that internal constituencies simply don’t want done, like outcomes assessment. Every time a college replaces operating funding with grant funding, it takes on a new set of reporting requirements and criteria, and a new set of judges for whom to perform. I tolerate rubrics, but have never developed a love for them.

I don’t think it’s anything terribly specific to my college, since it’s pretty well respected in its niche. And its geographic location hasn’t changed in the last ten years, so I hesitate to blame geography.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen anything similar on your campus? Any contributions to a general theory of administrative candidate shortages?

 

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