Whiffing the Airport Interview

May 27, 2008

In April, I had an "airport interview" for my dream job. Not only was it my first airport interview ever, it was my first interview, period, for the type of deanship that I am beginning to seek.

For those of you who don't know what an airport interview is (and I have found myself having to explain the concept repeatedly), it is an initial interview for a senior administrative position conducted at an airport hotel not too far from the campus in question.

Meeting at an airport enables a search committee to interview a large number of candidates in a short period of time with a degree of confidentiality. At the conclusion of the airport interviews, a more limited number of candidates is invited back to the campus for two- or three-day visits, at which point the provost (typically) selects the top choice.

In my case, I worked with both the search committee and an executive-search firm to make travel arrangements, provide documentation related to my candidacy, and receive information about both the division I would be heading up and the campus as a whole. They handled the process in an absolutely first-rate manner. Many Ph.D.'s can vividly remember, years later, the humiliation of interviewing for tenure-track jobs while trying to finish a dissertation. Let me assure you, this is a whole different world.

I became aware of the job opening at a national meeting of administrators. By trade I am a humanities professor, but for the past couple of years, I have worked in a midlevel administrative position in a cross-campus academic unit.

Conferences in my administrative area are a far cry from those in my academic specialty -- I have witnessed far more cooperation, problem solving, and support among the administrators. Their productive energy is one of the reasons the work has been so satisfying.

So when I heard that Dean Bigwheel was leaving his position to assume a more exalted title at his university, I felt a pang. His deanship was the kind of job I could see myself doing happily for years to come. The position involved overseeing one of the most important academic divisions at one of the top research universities in the country. Geographically, the location was where I wanted to be, and its faculty members and facilities would make life there appealing for me as a faculty member and a human being as well as an administrator.

I briefly considered applying before it occurred to me that I would see people from that institution for the rest of my career; I didn't want them to laugh.

But then I got a call from the search firm hired by the university. I know the consultants were probably just doing their job and calling everyone who had a reasonable-sounding title at a reasonable-sounding institution. And, in fact, I know that I have a very good title at a very good university -- I just haven't been in the job that long.

But I liked the initial conversation, and I heard myself promising to send in an application. I talked to my wife, who encouraged me, and to my supervisor, who told me she thought I was ready.

Over the next few weeks, at odd hours, mainly in the middle of sleepless nights, I crafted what turned out to be a great letter of application. I poured my heart as well as my intellect into the letter, and the finished product truly reflected my experience, my aspirations, and my vision for the future of the division.

Still, I was shocked when the search firm called in late February to invite me to an airport interview in early April. When the time came, I was prepared. I had read the sheaf of papers sent to me by the university (via FedEx) multiple times. I had provided my list of nine references. I had looked up information on the members of the search committee. I had bought a new suit. I had had my shoes re-soled.

I left home on a Wednesday afternoon, flew to the remote airport, spent the night in an airport hotel, and had the interview the next morning. Afterward, sitting at the airport waiting to board my return flight, I called my wife and gave myself a B+. I had talked too much, but the search-committee members -- a distinguished, friendly, and engaged bunch -- were able to get a sense of who I am and what I would bring to their campus.

When I called my aunt a few minutes later, I had already downgraded my performance to B-, and I still think that's the accurate assessment. What went wrong?

  • I spent an hour and 15 minutes in my world rather than theirs. The committee members signaled to me, quietly but insistently, that they wanted to hear about my plans for administering their programs rather than my global plans to rethink higher education.

  • I was given a chance to predict how I would reflect upon 10 years of success in the job, but instead I blathered on about our duties to the citizens of our country and world.

  • I should have spoken clearly about enhancing the reputation of the university and its programs, and making sure that faculty members and students were satisfied with the services we would provide. Instead I muttered vagaries about enjoying the day-to-day management of people and programs, and never took the time to prove my competence.

  • I was so keen to show the search-committee members what I knew about them that I didn't actually listen to them.

Looking back, the "that was very good" comment made by the consultant while leading me out of the room was a very clear, although very polite, "that was pretty bad."

I was told that I would be informed by Monday (at the latest) if the committee would be calling my references. The call came on Saturday on my cell phone. I was standing in my living room. I heard the head of the search committee tell me how impressed the members were with my vision (damn my vision!) but that they wouldn't be pursuing my candidacy.

It was really about the nicest rejection I have ever received. The committee chair told me that I had "made the semifinals, but not the finals," and that they all thought I had a very bright future ahead of me, and that they expected they would be seeing me in a few years.

I motioned to my wife with a thumbs-down gesture. She gave me a warm, much-needed hug, and my children instinctively did the same. I tried to sort out my feelings, and lay on my bed with my arm covering my eyes for a half-hour, overwhelmed by disappointment.

Here's a surefire way to gain the sympathy of colleagues, friends, and students: Use your status update on Facebook to declare that you are "feeling very sad." I did so, and was soon flooded with well wishes. Pathetically, I derived real comfort from those messages.

But eventually I saw that my failure to reach the campus-interview stage really couldn't be a surprise. If I had looked at my relatively thin résumé with a critical eye, I should have been amazed even to have received an interview for that plum position.

That Monday my supervisor consoled me by pointing out that a lot of people with a lot more experience than I had applied. I should learn from the interview, she said, and be encouraged that I had made the initial cut. And anyway, she was glad I wouldn't be leaving, as we have a long agenda to accomplish.

My period of mourning was surprisingly short. After three or four days, I changed my Facebook status to "has recovered." In contrast, I had suffered for three months when, during my first time on the job market as a newly minted Ph.D., I was a finalist for a top job in my field but didn't get the offer.

Rarely have I regretted missing out on the job I "almost" got right out of graduate school. But I know I'll have pangs about losing out on this deanship. Indeed, I'm dreading the day when I read about who got the job. I know it will really hit home at next year's national meeting, when the new Dean Bigwheel is lauded, and I am in the audience clapping. But that's in the future. Right now it's time to roll up my sleeves and get back to work. My Facebook status today says, "David Williamson is doing just fine."

David Williamson is the pseudonym of a midlevel administrator at a large research university.