Administration 101: Why You Should Be a Finalist

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

August 13, 2017

Before taking office as a dean I was, of course, on the job market to become a dean. Almost a dozen times I found myself at that moment of contemplation and doubt, invited to be a campus finalist and having to evaluate whether to actually go to the interview. In each instance I decided the campus visit was worth it — even when, objectively, the odds of my both wanting the job and being offered it were slim.

But that’s just me. Everyone is the captain of his or her own professional ship and should weigh many factors before making the choice to visit a campus as a finalist for an academic-leadership position.

So far in the Admin 101 series, we have reviewed the decision to become an administrator, the ways to prep for the job hunt, the challenges of working with search firms, the tricks to assembling your application, the difficulties of getting your name in the right candidate pool, the first-round interview, and, last month, the reasons why you might decline an on-campus interview and choose not to become a finalist.

Now come the motives for why you should make that campus visit and become a finalist, despite some rational misgivings.

The political blowback will be light. You might hesitate to go through with a campus interview because that is the moment — at least for most searches at public institutions — when you could be outed to everyone on your current campus.

For some candidates, there are negative consequences to everyone knowing you are job hunting. But for others, there may be none. If, for example, you have been a dean for nine successful years and enjoy a positive relationship with your colleagues, alumni, and provost, the fact that you are interviewing somewhere else may have no measurable effect on your current day-to-day operations.

Certain explanations you offer may lessen the fallout. You might be a candidate at a place you can plausibly describe as a "one-off" application because of its location (e.g., near aging parents) or pre-existing institutional affiliation (e.g., at your alma mater). Such justifications gain less traction if you are known to be a finalist at half a dozen places.

Rank affects optics as well. Generally, the higher you ascend, the greater the risk if you aspire upward and elsewhere. A department chair might be applauded for pursuing a deanship; a straying provost might lose the confidence of the president; a president with wanderlust will definitely have trouble with some trustees.

The fact that you are "considering other options" may not be a big deal to anyone — or big to some and not to others. A fellow dean at a regional southern public university fretted for months about telling his provost that he was applying for provostships. At the meeting in which he intended to brief the provost, the latter upstaged him by casually mentioning, "By the way, you will hear soon that I am a finalist for a presidency."

It might benefit you to be seen as having "market value." A department chair at a cash-strapped, liberal-arts college in the Midwest described asking his provost for an equity pay increase. The response: Get an offer from elsewhere and I will counteroffer. Indeed, many tenured professors have discovered that "market worth" is best determined by being on the market.

Likewise, there is a psychological value in your faculty and the people to whom you report knowing that you are in demand elsewhere. It’s a form of outside validation — not unlike external tenure letters. The effect is heightened if the institution where you are a finalist is considered prestigious by people on your home campus. Being named a finalist there may well enhance your reputation back home.

You won’t know enough about the job or the campus unless you visit. One of the reasons you may decline to be a finalist is that the Skype/airport interviews made the position seem less attractive. Perhaps the budget or the job responsibilities of the administrative post were not as extensive as the hiring profile made it sound. Or maybe you witnessed some fissures in the committee that boded ill for campus or unit harmony.

But a few troublesome early warning signs don’t necessarily mean that doom lies ahead. For one thing, a committee is not a campus. If some faculty members seemed to squabble over one point, maybe that was just the nature of the individuals involved.

Moreover, people on the search committee may not know everything about your future possible job. Take budgets, for instance. The average faculty member on a committee searching for a dean may never have seen the college’s financial spreadsheets. So the fact that you were told, "We are really struggling on budgets," may not mean much in terms of the insider picture. The real confirmation about the money situation will come from the provost.

The only way to gain more intel about the opening or the institution is to go see for yourself.

The inside candidate is not a sure thing. Many leadership searches in higher education are fixed or fake in some way. Sometimes a candidate (almost always an insider) has been preselected, and the powers that be are just slapping an HR fig leaf on the process. At other times a particular candidate may be heavily favored but not a lock.

Then there are the cases when the search committee’s preference is not for a person but for a particular qualification, and the hiring trends are brought on less by conspiracy than by circumstances. For example, the huge push toward securing federal grants has put a premium on administrative candidates who possess direct job experience on that front. In such cases, it’s almost impossible for a candidate from the humanities — as opposed to one from the sciences — to be hired for a position as vice president for research and grants at a major research university.

Note: Not everyone on the campus is necessarily in on "the fix." The entire search committee may be sincerely and fairly appraising candidates for a deanship while the senior administrator who will make the final choice may have a particular person in mind from Day 1.

Nevertheless, refrain from jumping to conclusions about a search being predetermined. Just because an insider is in the final pool does not mean he or she has the job in hand. In fact, internal candidates may have biases against them because, after all, they have a local track record that is unlikely to have pleased everyone.

Finally, they may blow it: Candidates might be a "shoo-in" but then flub the campus interview so badly that no one in good conscience could reward them with the job.

Why not play the odds? The perfect position never comes open at the right time in the right place and then just falls into your lap. The reality is that there are many political variables out of your control. Go all in for the job search or don’t go at all.

I know deans who applied for 10 provost positions before they landed one. If you are too choosy about where you will become a finalist, you may never get picked at all. And if after your visit it does not seem like a good fit, you can always bow out.

It’s a good learning experience. I am a better dean because I was a finalist for deanships so many times: I got to compare and contrast many local situations and see what was working and what was failing. I certainly became a better candidate for dean by repetition and assessment.

As this series will discuss in essays to come, visiting a campus as a finalist for a leadership position is part Broadway monologue, part proctologic exam, part boot camp, and part astronaut stress test. You will strain your physical and intellectual limits. Nothing you can do to prepare for it equals actually going through with one campus interview — or five. It can be the training ground (with great meals!) that may prove educational for the long run.

So go — if you can. But keep your sanity and stay analytical. Take notes, measure responses, test tactics. Get a sense of how you perform in the many scenarios and situations of the visit from personal interviews to public lectures.

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.