Monday, October 01, 2007

Juniority: The administrative version

Liz Phair
Liz Phair appreciates the virtues of youth. Does higher education?
A long time ago, I wrote about Juniority in this forum. Courtesy of Rick Bales, I now write to extol the virtues of reaching academic administration at a young age. Call it Juniority: The Administrative Version.

A recent column in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported this striking statistic: "Nearly half of college presidents are now over 60 years old (49 percent in 2006 as compared with 14 percent in 1986)." That factoid caught the pseudonymous columnist's attention because she is "a midcareer academic in search of an upper-level administrative position" who has achieved everything you'd expect of a successful candidate:
I've followed the appropriate career path -- tenure-track faculty position, program director, assistant provost, and dean -- and have performed exceptionally well at each level. I've attended professional-development seminars, I've published, I've presented at numerous conferences, I've raised money, I've honed my technology skills to complement my Ph.D. in the humanities from a prestigious institution in the Northeast.
By the way, the "midcareer academic" in question "just happens to be 36 years old."

To which blogger New Kid on the Hallway responded: "I have a hard time wrapping my mind around working somewhere with a 36-year-old dean." Shame on you, New Kid. And shame on those who reported similar sentiments at a conference that Rick Bales recently attended. ("I heard in the halls of last weekend's conference from a faculty member who admitted to finding it a bit difficult to adjust to a new dean who is, as I understand it, in his/her late 30s or early 40s.")

I strongly prefer Dean Dad's reaction:
[W]hat if, just for the sake of argument, we looked at performance and talent, rather than age? What if . . . we accepted the possibility that you don't need gray hair and an AARP card to know something about management? What if we stopped hiring the same faces over and over again, expecting different results? . . .

Ted KnightIf we're going to see progressive change, we're going to have to support getting folks with new perspectives into the roles to enact those changes. Sometimes, that will mean getting past the idea of only hiring people who look like Ted Baxter. If that makes you feel old, so be it. There's work to do, and I don't want to have to wait another ten years to do it.
Indeed. There's work to do, and I don't want to have to wait another ten years to do it.

Alas, trends in higher education cut in the opposite direction. The Chronicle's columnist -- so young, restless, and pseudonymous that we should call her "Dr. 36" -- quoted David Ward, former president of the American Council on Education:
[S]earch committees and college governing boards are increasingly selecting leaders with prior experience in senior executive roles in higher education. This approach to appointments limits opportunities for young leaders, women and people of color, and we need to ensure that a new generation of individuals are in the pipeline and are prepared for the new challenges of leadership positions in higher education.
All together, folks. You don't need to look like Kingsfield to lead a law school. But if law schools -- and, for that matter, universities -- seek people who look like Kingsfield, they will surely hire them.

Like Dr. 36, I take this issue personally. So I'll make it personal.

Jim ChenI was designated the dean of the University of Louisville School of Law on the week I turned 40 years old. I will have completed 50 weeks on the job by the time I turn 41. At least for the moment, the XL that applies to me is the one that applies to the Super Bowl: forty, not extra large.

I've made mistakes, and I've had to learn on the job. But not one moment since January 2, 2007, have I wished I had decades of experience in place of youthful exuberance, vigor, and vision. Louisville Law is so now, and I am delighted to have been given the chance to lead it at a relatively young age.

I don't care if articulating my ambition makes it less likely to happen. It's my dream, and I'll tell if I want to. By the time I'm 50, I'd like to lead an entire university.

Before I retire, I'd like to be able to catch a 90 mile-per-hour fastball thrown by my (strictly hypothetical) firstborn. I won't care whether she throws it over- or underhand.

Life doesn't wait. Neither should the academy. In administration as in teaching, juniority has its virtues.

And if you don't take my word for it, perhaps you will take Liz Phair's:


Blogger Marie T. Reilly said...

Youth is one thing. Liz Phair is quite another.

It occurs to me that the preference for age in administrative leaders that you identify might correlate with the subject's experience as a parent of teenagers.

10/02/2007 10:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FWIW: I didn't express myself well originally, and yes, my comments were ageist. What I was really concerned about was whether a 36-year-old would have been likely to have reached the academic rank expected of an academic dean (which is the position I believed she was aiming for), which is generally full professor in my neck of academia. When I said, "36-year-old dean" I was thinking "not full prof," which I would have a hard time with. If the person has reached that academic status, then I hope I'd support them on their merits regardless of age. My ageism was in eliding the age and rank the way that I did, because in my field extremely few people reach full prof by 36 (I've never met one), and if they have, it's because they've spent all their time publishing, not administering. Nonetheless, mea culpa.

10/02/2007 11:36 AM  

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