Advice

Administration 101: Why You Shouldn’t Be a Finalist

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

July 16, 2017

When you are in a temporary academic job, no one begrudges your looking for a better position. However, the moment you are on the tenure track — and certainly if you are an administrator — the political risks of "job hunting while on the job" become more treacherous.

So far in the Admin 101 series, we’ve explored the decision to seek a leadership post, the ways to prep for the job hunt, the challenges of working with search consultants, the tricks to assembling your application, the difficulties of getting your name in the right candidate pool, and the first-round interview.

But if you succeed at every step and are invited to the campus as a finalist, must you actually go?

That might seem like a strange question after you have worked so hard to get to this point. Let’s review here why you might choose not to go through with being a campus finalist.

The campus visit will be too public. Many private colleges and universities have closed searches. In one common model, members of the hiring committee sign nondisclosure agreements, and no public announcements are made about who is in the pool, who is invited for first-round interviews, or even who are the campus finalists.

Even in those circumstances you might be outed as a candidate. Where humans gather, leaks occur. You can be promised confidentiality but not guaranteed it. And you report to superiors — who will likely be called as references — so they will know.

At most public institutions you are assured that the search will be private until the campus finalists are announced.

Whatever the type of institution, there is always a risk of disclosure before, during, or after the search. News organizations, for example, have obtained candidate lists from public institutions under Freedom of Information Act or local sunshine-law requests. So your privacy is really dependent on the goodwill of strangers — which is an uncertain proposition.

Moreover, there are degrees of disclosure to weigh. Some searches are more open than others. For example, will your town-hall meetings or public presentations be filmed and posted on a non-password-protected website? Will your application materials, such as your cover letter, be similarly open to anyone (like your current colleagues) to scrutinize? How far in advance of the campus visit will your candidacy be publicly announced? Will the search committee call "off-list" references, not just the names you provided? Does the rank of the position (say, a presidency) or the type of unit (like a business school) tend to attract press attention, so that there will be even more publicity than might be garnered just from campus websites?

Your current colleagues might react badly. In theory, none of us should feel irritation at someone else seeking to move up the career ladder. A department chair shouldn’t fear the wrath of professors simply because he or she got a job interview somewhere else.

In practice, some people get angry or feel betrayed when a colleague leaves for a new position elsewhere. Personal, community, and political factors affect how you and your job hunting will be viewed.

One common variable is timing. Faculty and staff members may resent the news that you are a campus finalist for another position if you have been their department chair, dean, provost, vice president for research, or president for only two years. Less so if you have been in office a decade. But the timing can also be related to what is going on: Looking like you might leave right in the middle of some huge initiative, like reaccreditation, may make people feel you are abandoning them midstream.

Even if you end up staying put (because you didn’t get an offer or turned it down), people still might lose faith in your leadership and the causes you advocate because the thought is "She is only a temp, so we really don’t need to listen to her." A provost I know described a faculty member telling him that his new reform of a budgetary process was not worth initiating since "you have one foot out the door already."

Presidents, deans, and other administrators with fund-raising responsibilities also fear — rightly — that major donors might cool their ardor and put away their checkbooks if the person making the case for a gift might not be around to serve as its future steward.

Your superiors might react badly. For most leadership positions, the period after you are selected as a finalist is when references (listed and unlisted) are called. At that point, you must inform the people you report to, under whose "pleasure" you serve. Their faith in your commitment to the institution is vulnerable when you are seen as a flight risk. I have heard of several provosts, vice provosts, and presidents who lost their positions because they were too visibly trying to get a job elsewhere.

Again, timing matters. A president once shared her fury with me at her provost who left to be a president elsewhere after only 18 months on the job. A dean related that he has postponed being a candidate for provost positions until after the renewal of his five-year contract. His reasoning: "I want to solidify my record with my provost. Otherwise, he may simply ask, ‘Why reappoint him if he’s planning to exit?’"

Your family might not favor a move. The higher up you go in administration, the greater the expectations of — and burdens on — your family. Indeed, in many presidential searches, the candidate’s spouse or partner is invited to the campus to "informally interview," too.

When you are seeking to move up the leadership ladder, you may put off "the talk" with your family about what the job will mean for your personal life until after you’ve been selected as a finalist. An invitation to a campus interview means you can no longer avoid that discussion with your loved ones.

At some point, the realities of a prospective move may hit hard. Your spouse might be fine with you taking three trips a semester as a department chair but balk when you announce that, as dean, you will be expected to travel once a week on fund-raising expeditions. Your partner may be OK with a few dinner parties at your house while you are a vice president for research but chafe at four-a-week soirées if you become a president. Your children may revolt at the idea of moving to a new school.

Location matters, too. Is your spouse willing to live someplace he or she hates (be it Lubbock or Los Angeles) simply because an institution offered you a position you wanted?

So discuss the implications of a potential move with your family members but expect that they might not share their reservations until relocating becomes more of a reality when you are named a finalist.

Your chances of getting the job are low. Perhaps there is an inside candidate. Or perhaps some other factor convinces you that your candidacy is a long shot. In truth, you don’t really know if the odds are in your favor — unless the fix is in for you or you have learned it’s in for someone else.

Sometimes the "I have no chance" rationale for skipping the campus interview is based on a gut feeling. A friend — an associate dean who is also a woman of color — described a set of airport interviews where members of the search committee were too solicitous and expressed openly their delight that she would "check the diversity box for the search twice." She decided that her odds of actually being offered the position were slim. She did not want to invest her time and effort — just to help the hiring campus feel good about itself.

When the issue is an inside candidate, nuance must apply. The simple existence of an inside candidate does not mean that the search is fixed in his or her favor — but it certainly could be. There is a gray zone here. Many stakeholders on the campus might hold outside candidates to a higher standard of at least being substantially better than their bird in hand.

That said, as several failed inside candidates have remarked over the years, being an insider means you have made enemies. Plus, you have a known record that is open for detailed critique — which isn’t necessarily a decisive advantage.

You’ve soured on the job or the campus. Perhaps you learned something in the initial interview, or from subsequent intel, that has turned into a deal-breaker for you. Some examples:

  • It is clear from the behavior of the search-committee members that there are deep factional divisions or disagreements about what is expected of their next academic leader. "We Want Change; No, We Don’t."
  • The resources that you would have in the position are fewer in quantity or lesser in quality than you originally imagined.
  • The job itself does not include some of the areas of responsibility or opportunity that the ad and profile led you to believe.

If your intellect, your experience, or your sixth sense is telling you to steer clear, you should listen.

Simply being seen as an administrator who is "exploring other options" can torpedo your career instead of advancing it to the new level. Likewise, the turnover and failure rates of deans, provosts, and presidents are so high that ending up at the wrong place in the wrong job can be a career-ending mistake. Don’t second-guess yourself if you decide not to go through with a campus visit.

Still, there are plenty of good reasons why you should go through with it. In next month’s column I will make the case for becoming a campus finalist.

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.