The year I became a dean I thought I no longer wanted to be one. By that point, I had been a finalist in many dean searches, only to never get the job. Three-fourths of those searches, I would guess, were fake — that is, someone had been preselected for the job and the search was a mere legal formality, a political fig leaf. I ended up burnt out and cynical, and told myself that was it: No more candidacies ever.
So when a search firm repeatedly contacted me about a deanship, three separate conversations ended with my stating, in effect, “Very flattered, but I’m not on the market.”
Yet here I am in the job.
In this series on surviving and thriving as an academic leader — from chair to dean to provost and all positions in between and beyond — we first covered the initial decision to enter the game. Now we focus on the hard candidacy prep: Getting your personal and material ducks lined up for search firms, committees, and all the hiring constituencies.
Decide to go all in. Some of my most enjoyable experiences as a dean have been helping to hire other academic leaders. I have chaired two search committees for deanships and now (as of this writing) serve as chair for my university’s search for a new provost. My opening line on these searches: “The ideal candidate is not someone desperate to get out of where they are and actively scanning the want ads; it’s someone who is happy where they are, doing well, but could be tempted by the opportunities we offer.”
That may seem like a contradiction. Shouldn’t we want to hire someone with the proverbial “fire in the belly”?
Yes, and no.
Once you are in the pool — and certainly in initial interviews and campus visits — coming off as “uninterested and uncommitted” is near fatal to your prospects. But at the precandidacy stage, it is tactically better to be wooed than to woo.
That said, an excellent piece of advice I got from a dean when I was looking to become one was, “Go all in and all out.” The dream job at the perfect institution rarely falls into your lap at precisely the right time in your life. All the deans I know were up for multiple positions before actually attaining their goal. I was a semifinalist or finalist in 10 dean searches before I became one; another highly qualified dean I know was a semifinalist or finalist in 20 searches before landing the job.
Why so many? To oversimplify, the odds are long. Fake searches abound, as I noted. In addition, just because a search is fair doesn’t mean you will get an offer. The final selection may be due to innumerable factors including the most common: Someone else was deemed the best fit for the position.
So before you think about moving into academic administration, understand that you will have to play the odds and it may take a while for you to win.
Assess the local political ramifications. What happens if you are seen as “on the market”? There is always possible blowback if people find out you are searching for a new job, whether you are an assistant professor or a president.
One of the most painful parts of an administrative job search is its public nature. In my case, perhaps because of my field — journalism — in one instance my (small) hometown paper where I was director of a school featured a story on my interview for a deanship out of state. Strangers at the supermarket were asking me about it.
And, of course, my faculty and the administrators to whom I reported knew as well. Fortunately, in the latter case I had briefed my dean, and he was encouraging. After all, he had been a chair and had recently left another university to become our dean. “I will support you if you stay; I will support you if you choose to go,” was his reassuring phrasing.
I was lucky. The perception that you have “one foot out the door” may hurt you politically at home, and may even cost you your current administrative position. A professor I know described how he had been a finalist for dean positions “one too many times” — when his term as chair ran out he was not reappointed. He is certain that faculty support eroded because they wanted a “full-time chair.” Spend too much time looking for a new job, and you might lose the one you have.
Develop an alternate (administrative) CV. If you are an academic of any seniority and a researcher as well, your CV has grown to considerable length. Mine is now hitting 45 pages, single-spaced, in its full, unabbreviated form. I have seen CVs of 100-plus pages for National Academy-level scholars.
Now, almost any achievement in research, teaching, and service is helpful for an administrative job search in that it builds your stature and credibility. But search committees do not want to get clogged in the weeds of minutiae when they are looking for specific key markers. If you’re applying for a deanship, your fund-raising accomplishments should be near the top of your CV while your conference papers might sit at the end. For a department chair’s post, you might spotlight your committee and service work on your CV,
To avoid the forest-trees problem, create a second CV that is specifically focused on leadership. Instead of beginning right off with the positions you have held, publications written, and classes taught, have a “cheat sheet” of itemized, major administrative achievements. Think big-ticket, game-changing innovations — a significant fund-raising coup, a substantial increase in research dollars, a successful new academic program.
Define your “right fit.” Creating an administrative CV will also help you with another crucial preparatory step for the academic-leadership market. While it is true that you will certainly face more than one search committee, you should identify ahead of time your target types of positions and institutions.
Are there parts of the country that are “no go” for you and your family? Would you prefer to be at a top-level research university, or is another institutional profile more to your taste? Is there a title and a budget size that you require? You may even think a bit about cultural fit — both town and gown.
Your dreams, of course, may not match your CV. Once established in a certain type of educational institution, it can be difficult to gain the “cred” that you would be the best fit for another. A research university is unlikely to hire a dean from a community college, and vice versa.
Build a lineup of strong (but honest) advocates. Find people who will vouch for you enthusiastically, as nominators and references. They are the people who contact the search firm, for example, to suggest that you would be perfect for a position. Tactically, it is almost always best for those folks to be already at the level to which you aspire (or above it) at peer or higher-ranked institutions. So if you are up for a deanship at a major public research university, deans or provosts at similar universities would be your ideal advocates.
Finally, if you expect serious nominations and recommendations, make sure your champions have in hand that list of major achievements fronting your administrative CV. Ideally, your references would also speak to your positive character and leadership qualities.
In truth, becoming a candidate for academic leadership positions is no small decision. The political risk is weighty and the preparations are burdensome. As much as for a major research project or a new course prep, you should study, plan, and make sure every element in the trials to come is ready to go.
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.