What the University of Lethbridge’s short list of candidates for Dean of Arts and Science says about it as an institution

The University of Lethbridge has just posted its short list of candidates for Dean of Arts and Science. Now that we’ve seen it, I think it is worthwhile thinking about what this says of us as an institution (full disclosure: I was an unsuccessful candidate for the position).

This is especially true because the committee this time was very much a creature of the administration. It was conducted under new rules written that give additional power to management and the incumbent (if any), and it has been run in almost complete secrecy and with almost no input from members of the University community. For better or for worse, it reflects their vision of how things should be done at this institution.

So what is there to reflect on? I think there are four main things:

  1. There are no internal candidates on the shortlist
  2. There are no female candidates on the shortlist
  3. We run the risk of recreating a disciplinary monoculture among our senior administration
  4. Although the committee was enpanelled for more than a year, the search was rushed and almost no community input was solicited

1. There are no internal candidates.

I’m not sure the administration realises what an indictment this is of how the University of Lethbridge is run.

If you are a member of the University community and are able to access the shortlisted candidates’ CVs, you’ll see that both were given chances at their home universities to develop their managerial skills and were given progressively more responsible roles in the institution. We used to do this same kind of thing here. Our current VPA (an internal candidate) was hired to the second highest academic office at the University after a year as faculty association chair, a stint as department chair, and a year and a bit as Associate Vice President directly under his predecessor.

The massive centralisation that has taken place at the University of Lethbridge over the last decade or so, however, has meant that there are very few opportunities for faculty to develop progressive management experience. Our chairs have less authority than chairs or associate chairs at most other institutions and committees and faculty councils are now routinely excluded from discussions leading to the most fundamental changes in mandate and process.

More importantly, junior management appointments (and some senior) are increasingly made non-competitively or after pro-forma competitions. An increasingly common practice at the U of L is to appoint somebody to a position (often somebody with relatively limited experience) in an “acting” capacity and then run a competition soon after, which the “acting” incumbent usually seems to win (indeed, I was once told by our current Vice President Academic that, in his opinion, appointing somebody as an “acting” administrator meant that you were promising them the job). Associated with this is the recent practice of not revealing application deadlines: while we used to indicate when applications are due, we now (at best) indicate roughly when they will be considered. Especially for junior positions not involving a search consultant (for which application will be the norm), this process seems designed to ensure an advantage to the “acting” incumbent.

We have made some excellent hires this way and since I was an internal candidate who was eliminated in the first round, this may seem like sour grapes. But I don’t think it is. An important but relatively basic function of senior management is to develop the capabilities of your personnel, especially in a knowledge industry such as ours. The method we increasingly commonly use, on the other hand, is recipe for preventing the development of the broadest capacity. Instead of an environment that encourages healthy ambition and a diversity of approaches to management, our method creates a world of gamesmanship and sycophancy in which ambitious faculty are encouraged to seek out a patron who can ensure their success in non- or minimally competitive entry-level positions (I should say that this is a trend at the U of L and not—yet—a rule: I can think of at least four (junior and senior) hires that more or less followed this rule; but thankfully we still do seem to have some vacancies that are filled in a more open fashion).[*]

That this is creating a serious problem was revealed when the Search Consultant indicated at the Town Hall meetings that she thought we were almost certainly looking for an external candidate: while a department head from somewhere like Regina might have the requisite experience, she suggested, she didn’t think one from the University of Lethbridge would. In other words, we are prepared to consider the people who have benefitted from other universities’ mentoring systems (in some cases from Universities that are doing far worse than us on many scales), but not develop our own talent.

When you enter a search relatively sure that the systems you have in place will make every possible internal candidate too inexperienced to be eligible, you have a major management failing on your hands.

2. There are no female candidates.

Our senior academic management at the University of Lethbridge is entirely male and has been such, with a few isolated exceptions, pretty much since the University was founded as far as I can tell.

There is no excuse for this. And, given our history, there is no excuse for the lack of female candidates on the short list of finalists. Our history as an institution suggests that addressing the lack of female leadership should be an institutional priority—certainly it has been amongst the academic departments themselves for many years.

Search consultants produce lists of candidates that match the priorities their clients establish. Many universities across the country have been able to put women in senior management positions: both the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta, for example, have female presidents and women in other senior academic positions. If addressing this gender issue had been a priority, we could have made sure a female candidate was on this list.

In fact, our lack of interest in this question is betrayed by the fact that our shortlist is, well, short. When we hire an assistant professor at the U of L, we commonly bring three candidates to campus. And I have been on searches where we have had four (indeed, in one case, the list was lengthened to ensure a female candidate was brought to campus). For dean of Arts and Science, however, we are interviewing two. Had we conducted our search for the new dean with the same seriousness we bring to hiring junior faculty, we might have expected the committee to use a third slot to at least establish an opportunity for addressing our historic problem with gender diversity among our senior administrators.

3. We run the risk of recreating a disciplinary monoculture among our senior administration.

We have at least a 50% chance that our next dean will be a Kinesiologist. This is not a problem in and of itself: Kinesiology is an important discipline that ensures our success across a number of key performance indicators. It is also a very popular and very wide ranging discipline. It makes a lot of sense to appoint a dean who is a Kinesiologist.

What is more of a problem is that if we do appoint a Kinesiologist as dean, then almost all our top academic positions will be held by people with a background in that (very broad) discipline. Our current President is a Kinesiologist. Our Associate Vice President Research is a Kinesiologist. Our Vice President Research was inducted into the American Academy of Kinesiology and Physical Education. Add Dean of Arts and Science to this list and the only senior officials above the level of Associate Dean who are not Kinesiologists will be our Vice President Academic (Chemistry) and our Associate Vice President Academic (Management).

Once again, the people involved have in most cases performed extremely well as individuals and there is no rationale reason to use academic discipline as a selection criteria in assessing individuals. In fact, I would say, on an individual basis, that this new generation of Kinesiologist administrators has on the whole greatly improved the University they inherited.

As an institution, however, we should be worried about what this disciplinary concentration suggests about our hiring practices and our ability to respond to the challenges that face us. Just as our traditionally all male administration apparently has found it difficult to introduce women into their ranks, so too an administration that consists almost entirely of people with a similar disciplinary background might find it difficult to recognise opportunities that lie outside their collective, but relatively narrow, base of experience. Committees shouldn’t exclude people from consideration on the basis of their discipline; but if there is a clear trend towards hiring from a narrow set of domains, the committee should devote at least some attention to ensuring a compensating diversity is found in the candidate pool.

In fact, there is considerable evidence that the University of Lethbridge has suffered from this problem before. Before the Kinesiologists, the University of Lethbridge was managed (for the most part) by Chemists. At one point soon after I was hired, for example, our Vice President Academic, Associate Vice President Academic, Vice President Research, and one of the two Associate Deans of Arts and Science were all Chemists. Only the Dean (a Social Scientist) and the President (a biologist) had not had their training in that one discipline. Once again, these were all fine people who worked hard and no doubt did their best. But in this case we can show that the presence of a disciplinary monoculture actively harmed the development of the University.

The evidence lies in the difference between impact and funding success among our Humanities and Social Science scholars as revealed in the latest Research InfoSource and Maclean’s university rankings. Although we have recently done quite well recently in these tables (third in our category in Maclean’s and first in Research InfoSource), we have a notable outlier to this success in both lists: our success in gaining external funding in the Social Sciences and Humanities lags far behind all our other performance indicators.

This is not because our Humanities and Social Science faculty are stupid or lazy. In fact (and contrary to the prevailing mythology on campus), HSS faculty at the U of L have a far greater relative impact in their disciplines than do faculty in the natural and applied sciences. Out of 61 universities in the Research InfoSource impact ranking for the Humanities and Social Sciences, for example, the University of Lethbridge faculty comes in at just under the median: 33rd place on a list of 61 universities (our natural and applied scientists, on the other hand, come in about 3/4 of the way down, 42 out of 55 institutions surveyed):

When you look at funding success on the other hand, however, a different picture emerges. Here our natural scientists have a funding success rate that is slightly higher than their impact would predict (38th place out of 55), while our HSS scholars do much worse: 57th out of 61 (and 19th out of 19 in our category Maclean’s):

How could this be? No other University in the country shows anything close to this discrepancy between impact and funding levels in any discipline or domain.

The answer is that this is what is happens when your management team develops an unhealthy monoculture. At the time when our senior administration consisted almost entirely of experimental scientists, I was told by our then VPA that the University of Lethbridge had decided several years earlier to concentrate on the low hanging fruit—that is to say on those areas in which we were strong in order to leverage their success and improve the standing of the institution as a whole. And as it happened, the supposedly strong fields turned out to be those closest to the disciplinary interests of the administrators themselves (i.e. especially the experimental sciences), while the weaker ones seemed to all lie in disciplines that were not well represented among our managers (the Social Sciences and, especially, the Humanities).

This had serious consequences. Resources were channeled away from these “weaker” areas and towards the “stronger” ones. And to an extent that went far beyond the normal pro-science bias found in most universities. Until very recently the University of Lethbridge was the only comprehensive University in the country without a Canada Research Chair in the Social Sciences, for example. And we still don’t have one in the Humanities (though rumour has it one may be hired for next fall). Departments in the Humanities and Social Sciences found it harder and harder to get positions, even during the economic boom that preceded this recession. And our university publicity machine focussed its attention of the work of our scientists.

The problem, as the Research InfoSource results demonstrate, is that our senior administration was spectacularly wrong about where our strengths actually lay. Perhaps this was because misallocation of resources is a perennial problem with command economies (which was essentially how resources like research chairs were distributed at the U of L in those days). Perhaps this was because almost every member of the administration at the time was conditioned by their similar background to find the same things interesting and important (it has been more than 20 years since a Humanist controlled a budget at the University of Lethbridge). Either way, the result was a disastrous misreading of our actual strengths as a university from which we have yet to recover fully. Indeed, despite our current wave of success, it is still pulling us back: if it were not for these abnormally low HSS funding scores, the University of Lethbridge would have jumped 13 places in the Research Infosource rankings—further securing our title as the number one undergraduate research university—and even average HSS funding scores might have pushed us into second or maybe even first place in Maclean’s. In other words, the fact that we are scoring significantly below our potential is a direct result an administration with an exceptionally narrow disciplinary base thinking, incorrectly, that it had sufficient information to pick winners and losers non-competitively.

I want to stress that the issue here is not the disciplines in question or the capabilities of the people involved. There is no reason why administrators should not be Chemists or Kinesiologists or English professors or Economists and on the whole our University is a better place for the individual Kinesiologists and Chemists that have served in its administration.

And the issue is also not that administrators only look out for their “home” departments: indeed it is our current VPR (who has a background in Kinesiology and cognitive psychology) and AVPR (also Kinesiology) who identified the issue with humanities funding and have done the most of anybody in the last decade to solve it.

What is an issue, however, is the fact that the U of L has a historic tendency towards creating disciplinary (and gender) monocultures in its administration and that such monocultures inevitably result in experiential blindness. I would be as worried if our administration was becoming a monoculture of English professors, or literature specialists, or humanists, or even Humanities and Social Science researchers. The point is that if everybody you work with belongs to the same scientific societies, had a similar training, and attends the same conferences then you inevitably lose breadth of vision as an organisation. We have done this in the past and we are now in danger of doing it again.

4. Although the committee was enpanelled for more than a year, the search was rushed and almost no community input was solicited.

This is perhaps the root of the all the above problems: the extent to which the committee did not take advantage of the time it had available to it. If the lack of internal candidates, the lack of female candidates, and the tendency towards creating monocultures are symptoms of a deep-seated problem at this University, the failure to consult, despite the extraordinary length of time available in this case for doing exactly that, reveals the disease: we are led by an administration that simply does not believe that its community has anything meaningful to contribute to determining the strategic direction of the institution.

To understand this, you need to realise just what an extraordinary amount of time this committee had to carry out its business. After a failed reappointment process two years ago, the rules governing our decanal search committee were reconstituted so as to give an advantage to the incumbent: instead of being forced to announce whether he or she would like to be considered for reappointment before the appointment committee was enpanelled, the rules were rewritten to require the reappointment committee to be assembled first—presumably in order to give the incumbent an opportunity to contest its membership or estimate his or her chances of success. Since incumbents are required to say whether they are planning to stand fifteen months before the end of their term, and the committee is required to be established at least a month before that, this change means that current and future decanal appointment panels are now appointed almost a year and a half before the start of a new decanal term.

One result of this is that our current appointment committee, once the current dean decided against standing for reappointment, had far more than a year in front of it to conduct this search (in fact this committee was formed almost a month before it was required to be established by the new rules).

This represented a superb opportunity for self-evaluation and discovery. Our previous dean had served for 12 years: no matter what you thought of his incumbency, this transition represented a major opportunity for strategic reevaluation of the faculty. But there were other reasons as well for taking advantage of this committee’s long term: we are in the middle of crafting a new strategic plan, there has recently been serious discussion about splitting the faculty by discipline, we have recently received a new brief from the Provincial Government, and we continue to face very uncertain financial times. An appointment committee with at least 13 months available before it had to announce the selection of a new dean for the University’s largest faculty could have represented an incredible opportunity to discover and advance the interests of the University.

In other words, what we could have done given this opportunity was spend the year thoroughly examining where we were now and where we should be going in the future. We could have used last spring and summer to consult widely and seriously across the University, both within the faculty and without. We could have asked departments to report on their future plans and ideas for the strategic direction of the faculty. We could have invited external experts in to advise the committee on the options available to it, and asked committee members to research comparable institutions. This research then could have been used to provoke a useful discussion early this fall, when the committee could have met with faculty members to discuss the profile it wanted to create for the position. We could then have put our ad out early in the Fall and beat our competition to the best candidates. We could have advertised early and widely and asked faculty to consider nominating strong candidates who might not otherwise think of us.

Instead we sat on our hands. The committee, which was enpanelled in February, did not meet again until after the new academic year began in September. Once it did start to work, it limited its consultation with faculty to two brief townhall meetings which were, bizarrely, both held on the same day. Instead of asking the committee of senior administrators to lead these consultations, they were handed over to the search consultant, who made it clear that they were following rather than preceding the committee’s own initial development of a profile. Instead of advertising early, it advertised late, just before the December exam and holiday period, with the (unannounced) deadline set to the first weekend after New Years. It then took three weeks to start eliminating people from its shortlist and a little more than a month more to choose the two finalists and seed rumours throughout the faculty by releasing different amounts of information to different constituencies through a multiplicity of channels.

There is no way to describe this process as anything but a squandered opportunity. We were given the chance to consult and deliberate in a manner befitting the seriousness of the decision we are making, and we threw it away in a process that thought secrecy was the same as confidentiality and lack of consultation the same as decisiveness.

I wish both finalists the best of luck and the successful candidate success in his new position: it is not the fault of the shortlisted candidates that the search was so badly run and became such a terribly squandered opportunity. But I hope they, and the rest of the University community, will recognise just how much we have to learn from the process we just ran them through. The University of Lethbridge must change the way it runs things if it is ever going to realise its potential.

[*] I had somebody point out to me last night that I may be too sanguine here about such searches not being the rule at the U of L. In fact, according to this person, it appears that for the last seven or eight years most if not all hires at the ranks of VP, Associate VP, and Dean have followed the following rules:

  1. There are two kinds of shortlists at the U of L: those with one internal candidate on them, and those with none. There are never any shortlists with two internal candidates, though you can have shortlists with two or more externals.
  2. If there is an internal candidate on the shortlist, then the internal candidate wins. Usually this person was put into the position in an “acting” capacity before the competition for the permanent position was announced.
  3. External candidates win only when they are not competing against an internal candidate.

I don’t have enough data to say if this is true of all senior administrative searches at the U of L at these ranks. But it certainly matches all the ones I do know the details of. If it is true, then the U of L has transitioned fully from a competitive mentorship and development system to a non-competitive patronage appointment system.



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