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Thoughts on Hiring Outside Academe
October 1, 2009 - 9:19pm

There's a thought-provoking piece in IHE this week by Charles Middleton, President of Roosevelt University, about hiring senior administrators from outside of higher education. It touches on themes I've addressed in part before, but is worth some reflection in its own right.

The piece starts by noting that more than half of the college Presidents in America are over the age of 60, and that more than half of the chief academic officers (usually called vpaa's, daa's, or sometimes provosts) are over 55. (Chief Academic Officer is the most common previous position held by new Presidents.) It doesn't go into why that's true, though. The short answer is that the traditional pipeline to CAO positions starts with full-time faculty status. It then runs through department chair and dean positions. With the long-term trend of adjuncting-out the full-time faculty, the pipeline has run relatively dry over the last couple of decades. Now the people who weren't hired 10 or 20 years ago as faculty aren't in deanships or cao positions. The trough has moved up the ranks.

Middleton responds to these developments with a twofold strategy. First, allow some professional development opportunities for people at lower levels, and take some risks on internal people with obvious talent but not so much experience. Let them grow into mid-level jobs.

So far, so good. Yes, internal hires can lead to inbreeding and tunnel vision, but they can also be wildly successful. And leaving an obviously talented person on the shelf to instead bring in a mediocrity from the outside doesn't make sense. Besides, everyone with experience lacked experience at some point. They all got their first big break somewhere. Paying it forward can make sense.

But Middleton advocates a different strategy for the senior positions. Growing your own registrar may be reasonable, he suggests, but growing your own Vice President for Student Services isn't. For positions like that, he suggests, you're often better off looking outside academia.

I'll admit finding the disjuncture mystifying. It's certainly true that academia has no monopoly on talent. Some of the most effective administrators at my cc came from outside academia, though interestingly enough, they came from other nonprofits.

That said, though, it's notable that Middleton's examples don't include the academic side of the house. A fundraiser who previously worked for a symphony might make sense, but a CAO without academic experience is very likely to fail. The culture of the faculty, even at the cc level, is unique. (In how many industries is the "crossing over to the dark side" line used so extensively?) And someone who hasn't lived it will likely have a rough time learning it from on high. There may be cases in which that has worked, but it's an exceedingly risky strategy.

All of this is by way of suggesting that faculty -- including younger ones -- with good academic priorities and even temperaments are exactly the folks who should be recruited into administration, and not stopped at midtier levels. The de facto glass ceiling that Middleton proposes is both mystifying and counterproductive. I wouldn't want a CAO who has never taught a class, any more than I'd want a financial VP who has never managed a budget. To the extent that Presidencies five or ten years from now will reflect vice presidencies now, I'd hate to see too large a shift away from the academic heart of the mission at the highest levels.

We stick to the "dark side" rhetoric at our own peril. If people with academic backgrounds don't step up to leadership, others will. In some areas of the college, that may not matter much. But as Middleton correctly points out, future Presidents have to come from somewhere.

 

 

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