Advice

Administration 101: Mind Your Manner

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

October 08, 2017

A s a finalist for a position in academic administration, your basic qualifications for the job are in little doubt by the time you arrive on the campus. Whether you are actually offered the job as chair, dean, provost, or president may come down to far more subjective factors — specifically, your personality, outlook, manners, and attitudes.

Finalists reveal all of those things during the campus interview.

I have led three campus leadership searches, and dissected dozens of others in conversations with search-committee chairs. In all of them, the focus of the hiring decision was mostly on the person and the persona, not just on the CV. In the searches I ran, people evaluating the top candidates on official feedback forms didn’t write: "What an excellent CV." Instead they lauded their favored candidate as "highly intelligent," "a great listener," and "an exciting leader," and as someone who "respects us and our culture," "sounds like a fair and transparent person," and holds "a reality-based vision of where we want to go."

The Admin 101 series is exploring the hiring process for academic leaders — starting from the initial decision to move into administration and ultimately through to the final hire and the job itself. (Browse the full series here). This month’s column is on how to show you are a "good fit" — both for the place and for what people there want from a new leader — during the campus visit.

You are always being watched … and judged. People at your prospective institution are looking for indicators of your character and conduct. Academe abounds with stories of highly touted candidates who blew up their own prospects when they arrived on the campus. A few from the gallery of horrors:

  • The candidate who was always checking his phone — during meetings and meals — prompting people to assume "he doesn’t really want the job enough to focus on us."
  • The candidate who overslept for his first morning appointment and kept the search committee waiting 45 minutes — without apology.
  • The candidate who lost her temper with a waiter in front of search-committee members.
  • The candidate who informed the local real-estate agent: "I don’t need to look at anything but rentals; I can’t see myself out here among the country folk for more than a few years."
  • The candidate who was visibly tired at the end of each day of the campus visit, calling into question his stamina.

Is it petty, or even unethical, to judge potential leaders by their momentary attitudes and actions? Perhaps. But it is also universal and almost inevitable.

You can never let your guard down because anyone — from the person sitting next to you on the plane to the front-desk clerk at the hotel — may have some connection to the university, or even to someone on the search committee. Drop hints that you: (a) do not plan to tarry long in your position, (b) don’t care for the locale, (c) would be a condescending tyrant on the job, and/or (d) fail to radiate hardiness for the 10-hour days required of an academic leader — and they will be counted against you.

Finally, know the audience. A friend who spent many years in the urban Northeast before moving back to teach near his hometown in the rural Northwest recalls how a provost candidate "was the wrong personality type for the local job" but would have "wowed them in New York." He was an extremely fast talker, "finished everyone’s sentences," and wore a gold Rolex on the visit. Stereotypes aside, character traits and behaviors that are viewed positively in one place may not be valued so highly at another.

Curb the distracting habits. You are seeking to become a leader, someone who impresses people and inspires them. Now is the time to inventory any small tics or habits that detract from your message and make people wonder about your competence. I am always amazed at how many administrative candidates undermine themselves in an interview with mannerisms they should have edited from their behavioral portfolio long ago. Some verbal/behavioral safeguards:

  • Don’t "um," "ah," or "you know" to excess. Somehow I picked up — maybe from my students — a "you know" filler default. That horrid two-word bridge haunts me when I am excited or tired. In conversation among friends, it’s not so lethal a flaw. But when I’m presenting to the faculty senate, it’s an irritating distraction from my message.
  • Adjust your sound level to the occasion, audience, and venue. A provost candidate for a Southern research university prepared to give a "vision" presentation in a large ballroom with hundreds present. She eschewed the microphone provided and then offered her talk at a low conversational-level volume. Five minutes in, somebody in a middle row yelled out, "We can’t hear you!"
  • Refrain from repeat use of catch phrases or statement closers. Your audience in a campus visit — whether it’s members of the search committee at dinner or graduate students in a classroom — will be highly intelligent and will pick up on pat and insincere-sounding rhetorical tricks. My No. 1 example: "That’s a great question!" Used sparingly, it’s an appropriate response, but say it a dozen times in the Q&A portion of a campus vision presentation, and you come off as artificial.

Before you visit the campus, film yourself and scrutinize your deportment — assisted by friends who will be honest about your less-than-endearing quirks.

Balance the need for candor versus caution. When I was a candidate for dean of the faculty at a comprehensive liberal-arts college, I was asked an odd question that I’ll probably never forget. A faculty member at an open forum intoned, "The chair in my office is broken and I can’t get anyone to give me a new one." At first I thought it was some kind of metaphor. Did she mean the chair of her department was underperforming? Or was she joking about the wacky questions candidates sometimes get? But no, she really had a broken office chair and wanted a new one: What would I do about that if I became dean?

My answer: Well, I didn’t promise her a chair outright. Instead, I replied: "It’s important to have a fair and transparent process — no matter what the budget — on technology and equipment support." In other words, I tried to make a global case for how I would manage such day-to-day complaints on the job.

This points to a major dilemma for the outside campus visitor. You will be tempted to be specific and make politician-grade campaign promises — as in "You are right, the forestry department deserves three new faculty lines!," or "We need to upgrade the engineering labs immediately," and so on. But you simply don’t know what is possible yet — not until you are offered the job, and even then, maybe not until you are on the job for months. Overpromising will be fatal to your candidacy (and to your success on the job itself if you are hired and can’t deliver). On the other hand, being too vague and cautious in your answers will convince many observers, "S/he can’t deliver."

Try to call an audible on every play, sensing when it feels right to get specific and when you have to admit, "I don’t know yet what can be done."

Decide how to reply to offensive or oddball questions. In a previous essay on the academic job search, I argued that we all need to know how to play "left field" — that is, how to respond when someone asks a patently illegal/unethical/immoral/weird question, perhaps about your politics or family status.

When it happens to you, everyone in the room, and especially the key players, will be watching your reaction. Remember, they are trying to divine your character and assess how you will treat them on the job. Poise and professionalism will make a favorable impression.

So expect the oddball question and consider using it to your advantage. At dinner with three members of the search committee, a female candidate for an English department chair was asked whether she had children and what local church she might join. Glancing around the table, she noted that the other two faculty members rolled their eyes, and she surmised, correctly, that their inappropriate colleague was famous for putting his foot in his mouth. She decided to answer the question straight, "No children and I’m an atheist," but then dived right in to the issue of how best to recruit and retain great faculty members ("Your question brings up an important topic"). She suspects she scored points for handling a potentially rocky moment with equanimity and aplomb.

Crazy or unfortunate things will happen during most campus visits. The microphone at your presentation will conk out. A member of the search committee will be unaccountably hostile or badgering. A snowstorm will force the cancellation of some of your meetings. View those moments as occasions to demonstrate your character and leadership qualities — above and beyond the content of what you actually say.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book, Promotion and Tenure Confidential, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.