Over the course of the 2011-2012 job market cycle, several clients wrote to me inquiring about how they should talk to the Dean they were scheduled to meet during their campus visit. Indeed, many, if not most, campus visits still include a visit with the Dean, and this is often the least understood element of the entire experience. What in the world do Deans want to talk about?
Well, I have never been a Dean, so I don’t as thorough a grasp of this question as I do of job interview matters at the departmental level. Because of that, this is one of those topics that will benefit greatly from the collected wisdom of the group. Please share your own experiences of meeting with the Dean in the comment stream below.
For now, I am reliant on the experiences that I had myself on the job market, many years ago, added on to the more intimate knowledge of Deans I gained as a department head. Based on this set of experiences, I would say that Deans tend to fall into three general patterns in terms of interactions with job candidates—the explanatory pattern, the budgetary pattern, and the intellectual pattern. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
In the first pattern, they take their job to be a primarily explanatory one, and focus on the “compensation package” aspects of the job, which include not just salary range but also the benefits and retirement plans, as well as general policies about 3rd year review and tenure, and the raises associated with promotion. In cases like this, the meeting with the Dean is actually very easy for the candidate, who mainly occupies a listening role.
In the second pattern, the Dean takes his or her job to be primarily a budgetary one, and asks questions that relate, directly or indirectly, to money. The forms these can take are varied, but include inquiring about a candidate’s past success with major grants; plans for future grants; budgetary requirements for research and plans for fulfilling them; comfort in teaching extremely large classes; commitment to interdisciplinarity and cross listing of classes (ie, filling multiple teaching needs with this single line); and willingness to be the “sole” representative of a field in the department or on campus.
This last one is particularly treacherous for candidates. In the course of the conversation you might inquire, very reasonably, “are there plans to build the program in xxx and hire other xxx specialists in departments such as xx in the next few years?” The Dean responds, “of course we’d always like to build in every worthy direction, but in the current financial situation, hard choices have to be made, and there’s a good possibility you will be the only xxx specialist for the foreseeable future.” And then she looks at you expectantly.
Here is how you probably will want to respond: “I hope that there will be hires at LEAST in the xxx department because I can’t be expected to carry the weight of an entire program on my own…” And that would lose you the job (at least from the Dean’s perspective—and some Deans play a large stealth role in hiring decisions).
The correct answer is, instead: “I see plenty of opportunity for growth with even a single faculty member. With strategic collaborations with yy and zzz scholars in departments such as yy and zzzz, and leveraging the resources already on campus in the form of qqqqq, I can imagine creating opportunities for students in the areas of bb and cc even without the addition of another dedicated line.”
That, my friends, is how you deal with a Dean who is taking the budgetary line.
In the third pattern, the Dean takes his or her job to be primarily an intellectual one. This means that the Dean takes the interview with you as an opportunity to quiz you on the state of your field and its most important directions of future growth. This tactic kills two Deanly birds with one stone. On the one hand, obviously the Dean is quizzing you on your intellectual breadth and confidence, determining the degree to which you can look up from your narrow dissertation project to speak to the broad trends in your field as a whole. On the other hand, the Dean is getting an excellent candid perspective on the emergent trends in your field, against which he or she can judge and evaluate what the current members of the department are talking about and doing. If three candidates come through the Dean’s door all telling her that the most important new trend in the field is xxxx, and nobody in the department is currently doing xxxx, the Dean has a very useful insight into that department’s likely lack of status and competitiveness, nationally, over the next several years and thus diminishing worthiness for increased budget allocations and raise funds.
If you encounter a Dean who is taking the intellectual tack, you need to be prepared to speak broadly about the most important current debates in your field. An “intellectual Dean question” will sound something like the following:
“What do you think are the most important current debates in your field?”
“How do you think your field will change the most in the next ten years and why?”
“What is the single biggest challenge facing your field right now?”
“What is the most important text published in the last five years in your field, and why?”
Sadly, most job candidates are ill-prepared indeed to deal with the intellectual Dean’s line of questioning.
Many years ago a senior colleague of mine in Anthropology told me a story about going on a campus visit to an Ivy League anthropology department, and meeting with the graduate students. “What are you reading right now??” he told me he had asked them eagerly, “What is the book that everyone is reading and talking about??”
The graduate students paused, and looked at each other and thought for awhile. “The Nuer!“ they finally responded. “Yeah, everybody is reading The Nuer!”
For those of you who are not anthropologists, let me pause to explain that The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People is a classic ethnography, a foundational text of old school British social anthropology, written by E.E. Evans-Pritchard, and published in 1940. A core element of a “History of Anthropology” seminar reading list, The Nuer is a book that “everyone” reads only if “everyone” is conceived of as 1st and 2nd year anthropology graduate students in a very old-fashioned department indeed.
What my friend was asking, but what the graduate students entirely failed to grasp, was not “what is everyone reading in their classes,” but instead “what is the thing that everyone is reading that is exciting, new, dynamic, controversial, and that has the department riled up, challenged, inspired, thinking, and talking?” Ie, what is the book that is changing our field?
Although it’s a different set of circumstances entirely, this story encapsulates at a thematic level the problem of green job candidates confronting an intellectual Dean’s question. The green job candidate is very likely to be, still, myopically focused on the grad student experience. That is, the experience of taking classes, suffering through comprehensive exams, and enduring the dissertation defense. This narrow, terribly narrow, set of experiences is entirely based on the graduate student “proving” that he or she has read enough, knows enough, is legit enough, to be “passed” to the next stage as a credible practitioner in the field.
However, the Dean demands something else, something more. The Dean, who is mostly likely not in your discipline, is prepared to accept that you are indeed perfectly qualified as a practitioner of your field. What the Dean is testing is whether you are, or are poised to be, a LEADER in your field. A leader is someone who doesn’t just accept others’ judgments about the traditional, foundational core thinkers and writers (The Nuer), but who thinks and judges independently, in an organic and evolving and up to date way about what is important now, what is becoming important, what needs to happen next, and why.
The best job candidates will be thoroughly prepared to answer the kinds of “intellectual Dean questions” I listed above. Now, it goes without saying that the Dean you encounter on your visit may never ask them. But the fact is, you really never know who will. These questions have a pesky habit of popping up from the search chair, the department head, the graduate students…. all sorts of people. And to be prepared to transition to the next step, and assume your rightful position as a important scholar in your field, someone who is listened to, respected, and cited, you actually need to have an answer. You must leave behind your graduate student blinders, and learn to think and speak like an intellectual leader.