David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
It's not that I'm scared of pricks, I just don't think we need a transfusion

July 14, 2011: It's not that I'm scared of pricks, I just don't think we need a transfusion

I am the outsider.  I am the new blood, which often can imply that the old blood is stale or tainted.  And I recognize the slow process it might take to get new colleagues to fully accept me.  That is o.k.

Knowing this, I fully applaud a recent editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  In "Colleges Should Cultivate Leaders Within Their Own Ranks," Cristina Gonzalez posits important considerations regarding two recent trends in higher education:  a) the outside leader can come to an institution and break old patterns, leading the institution to bigger and better things, and b) the search firm is the best way to find that best outside leader.

In an earlier blog, I commented on the recent study about brief tenures for college presidents and provosts.  Gonzalez uses that study to blast her first fusillade against the "new blood" principle:  "Access to academic-leadership positions has become a game of musical chairs, in which the same executives rotate from institution to institution, for shorter and shorter stays, at ever-greater rates of compensation."  She goes on to lament the element of increasing compensation that accompanies the ambitious executive job hopping.  Perhaps surprisingly I don't want to talk about the monetary issue.

What's more intriguing is Gonzalez's recognition that with these presidential changes comes a perceived pressure to create change.  After all, if President X has been brought in because new blood is supposed to vitalize the institutional body, then that must mean some dying cells must be replaced by newer, living cells (I have no doubt I'm mixing my anatomical/physiological/biological/farcical metaphors here, but you get the drift).  The truth of the matter is that such dramatic change in other areas of leadership leads to a more unhealthy culture.  Read Gaye Tuchman's WannabeU to see how faculty often dig in their heels at institutional reform because they know they can ride out about a 3-year period before their current president and/or current provost is gone. 

Meanwhile, the nurturing of internal talent, also emphasized by Gonzalez in the terms of succession planning, becomes an obvious act of placation.  What are a number of chairs, associate deans, deans, even Vice Presidents supposed to think when new (either created or vacated) positions under President X are given to outsiders? Consider the one internal candidate who may be lucky to earn the coveted promotion.  What's that person supposed to do when the rest of the university casts a cynical eye on his/her promotion, as if it was a token act to throw the collective dogs a bone?

Note, these kinds of hiring decisions may be made with the best intentions, but that won't matter with a faculty and staff made exceptionally cynical by the cyclical nature of these changes.  As also pointed out in WannabeU, faculty, especially, contact their acquaintances at other universities and colleges where their provosts or presidents have come from, learning about the patterns of their new leaders. 

As Gonzales says, this transient leadership leads to "intellectual poverty."  (A great image:  I picture a Ph.D. student sitting in the administrative parking lot of a university with a sign reading, "Will Cogitate for Food!")  Moreso, the institution can never really benefit from long-term planning and follow-up, because, as Gonzalez writes, "transient administrators cannot engage in real planning, which requires time, commitment, and a level of thoughtfulness that their agitated lifestyles simply do not allow."  

The more underlying problem, which Gonzalez lobs a grenade at but abandons for meatier direct academic issues, is the role of the search firm.  As Gonzalez says, "Search firms, meanwhile, garner profits by constantly putting forth outside candidates. To keep the churn going, search firms, unsurprisingly, tend to disfavor internal candidates."

Since the standard contract with a search firm pays them, along with their expenses, some percentage of the final salary offer to the chosen candidate, it is in their best interest to find candidates who can demand higher salaries, and then to encourage the hiring institution to pay at the top end of its wage scale so that you don't "lose the candidate."  

Allow me to point out that I have had experiences with search firms both as the employer and as the potential candidate.  And some situations have been good.   International Search Consultants is as professional and classy as an organization gets, keeping me constantly updated as it related to their search.  Others, after contacting me several times, appear to fall off the face of the earth, not even acknowledging that a search has been closed or completed, allowing me to find that out through The Chronicle of Higher Ed.  

Don't get me wrong. As a job seeker, I know it is a tough position and I don't expect any special considerations.  However, since I have sat in meetings with search firms presenting me with candidates for their searches, I know I'm only being presented with the first 10-12 application materials in their packet.  Hundreds of other potential candidates appear in a long list with little information.  Unless you absolutely know a candidate in that "other category," good luck moving them into the ones under serious consideration.  

I am still amazed that so many institutions will take their most important resource, the human resource in the form of leaders, and allow an outside entity to manage that search.  I don't care how many focus groups, meetings, interview team sessions your search firm consultants sit in, they do not really have the pulse of the institution. They do not really have the culture of the institution.  They do not really have the deepest interests of the institutions.  There's no way they can.  Why do we ask most potential outside candidates what their first six months will be like on the job?  We know intuitively that we have to give them plenty of time to meet people and understand the institution.

So, in addition to everything Gonzales says in her article about nurturing internal talent and basically allowing for "sustainable academic leadership," I would only add that institutions are selling themselves short by not using their own resources to assess fully where they are at when they have an open position, what do they have in terms of talent to meet the demands of that position, and if not, how would they want to recruit talent that can come in and support their culture and long-term planning.  Do that enough and some of the "dig-in-the-heels" cynicism of faculty and staff will translate into shared leadership.  And that will be sustainable.