Sunday, December 15, 2013

Outsiders and natives

RU is auditioning provosts. Since I'm away from campus, I can't attend the auditions in person--but since I'm on sabbatical, I actually have the time to read through the finalists' vitae and application materials and watch the videos of their Town Hall meetings.

And I have. Watched them all.

(Listen. It's cold and it's snowy and the cats sleep a lot.)

Obviously, I'm not privy to the real meetings and interviews, and so much of what one sees in a Town-Hall style interview depends on not-strictly-relevant performance skills. I've dutifully given my feedback to the search committee, but I don't imagine that I see the full picture or that I'm the best judge. That said, watching all four of the finalists in short succession and hearing them talk about their various initiatives or the way their current institutions have handled such things as Gen Ed requirements, accreditation, or assessment, has clarified why it's valuable to hire from the outside--and why administrative turnover isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Now, anyone who's worked in a college or university knows why it's frequently a bad thing. There's a type of upper-administrator who parachutes in only to be airlifted back out a few years later; he arrives talking about "vision" and "mission," excites the trustees, starts an institute or erects a few buildings, and then--C.V. sufficiently enriched--moves on to the next job. These are what a friend refers to as "tourists at the top": people with only the shallowest interest in or understanding of their new institution, how it works, and what it might really need.

But it's certainly possible to hire a smart and talented outsider: someone who's genuinely interested in and attentive to the needs of the place that hires him, and who intends to stay long enough to see whether his ideas pan out. He needn't stay forever (there are problems with that, too), but he doesn't see himself as just passing through.

The bigger problem, it seems to me, is not that administrators parachute in from outside, but that so few of the other people charged with helping the university run come from outside. Unless you're at an R1, most of your tenure-line faculty and lower administrators have probably spent the bulk of their careers at your institution. That's not a bad thing--it means stability, institutional memory, and a shared understanding of the college's identity and mission--but it limits their hands-on experience with systems other than their own. RU rarely hires at the associate or full level, and though most members of my department have worked elsewhere (either on the tenure track or off), it's not usually for very long. That means little if any service on university-wide committees, and certainly no longitudinal perspective on how certain approaches, policies, or curricula might have played out elsewhere.

Sure, we all have friends who teach elsewhere. And sure, we all do research when a change is proposed: what's the norm for colleges or departments like ours? How have other institutions handled these challenges? That goes a long way. But when all your upper administrators come from outside and very few of your lower-administrators (or committee chairs, task force members, faculty senators, and so on) do, there's likely to be friction or suspicion.

When someone parachutes in and starts talking to the natives? Both parties are quick to declare the other the ignoramus.


Susan said...

The key to these things working is when both sides think they have something to learn. An outsider can say, "I've seen it done this way, and maybe something like that will work." But ze has to listen to the insider who says, "We have found X, but maybe this can be tweaked this way."

As a relative newcomer to my institution, the one argument that kills me every time is "we tried something like that five years ago and it didn't work." If you have done no analysis of why it didn't work, you are lost...

Flavia said...


Yes, analysis is key! As is the ability to recognize significant differences (did you actually try to do X, or just something loosely-analogous-to-X? has the student population or the curriculum changed since then? Etc.).

And I agree. Ideally both parties are sincerely interested in and respectful of the other's experiences and expertises.

Belle said...

At RNU, we have a whole tier that did their undergrad here, and were hired by former teachers/admin overseers of work studies. The place is simply crawling with 'it's always been done this way, so this is the way we do it'-ers. When any of us push for an outsider - seeking people who've seen other things and have new ideas - we are regarded as disloyal to RNU alum.

My best example is the LAS Dean. We had Old Man, who'd been Dean for 10+ years, dept chair before that, a stint as Acting VPAA... really likes to pontificate and has spent his entire career at RNU. He hired ND as a new prof when ND got his PHD, having his BA from RNU. The only place ND has ever worked. OM retires, another life-time prof takes over, and her AssDean is... you got it. ND, nurtured and trained by OM. ND then becomes Dean of Other School On Campus, AssDean retires, we hire Outside dean, who transforms all kinds of things - including faculty salary structures & incentives, has lots of new ideas that work and inspire. He gets VPAA job after 5 years, and you guessed it, ND, trained, vetted and mentored by OM, comes back to LAS. And we are back to OM style policies and attitudes.

I'd rather have turnover than not. IMHO.

Flavia said...



I got nothing to say to that, except, yes: you really need some fresh blood over there.

I can only think of one faculty member at RU who went to RU as an undergrad, and no admins (and as an institution we tend not to hire people from local PhD programs or within the state system). But a sizable number of the support/student services staff are our own grads. There are great things about this--they really care about the students and relate to and advocate for them--but sometimes it leads to a weird suspicion of or hostility toward the faculty, or a belief that we aren't committed to the students or the institution. It's not usually about consequential stuff (just snarky or dismissive asides), but it's still not helpful. I can't imagine what it would be like if it were happening at the administrative level or coming from people with real structural power.