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Filling an Academic Vacancy in 8 Days?

posted Dec 29, 2011, 1:44 PM by Greg Smith   [ updated Dec 29, 2011, 1:45 PM ]
My employer, Liberty University, filled its head football coach vacancy on December 14—just 8 days after the previous coach resigned to pursue an opportunity at another institution. I don’t know how that time frame compares with search processes for coaching positions elsewhere, but I can say with confidence that it’s nothing like a typical search for a university faculty member or administrator. I’ve been involved in several nationwide searches in the last 8 years, and they’ve always taken a number of months.

In this post I’ll compare and contrast coaches with 3 other kinds of higher education professionals: professors, librarians, and senior administrators. After establishing some of the ways that coach positions differ from the other 3 types, I’ll speculate on whether it’s feasible for academic hiring to imitate recruitment and selection processes applicable to coaching vacancies.

Pay Grade

At least in revenue-generating sports at larger institutions, head coach positions are known to have higher earning potential than professor and librarian posts. In some cases, a coach’s compensation exceeds that of the president and other high-ranking officers. I suspect that coaching salaries are much more modest outside of NCAA Division I institutions; in the vast majority of smaller and mid-sized colleges; in most sports other than basketball and football; and for positions that play a supporting role to a head coach.

In general, compensation is commensurate with the supply of candidates capable of fulfilling the duties of a given position. In addition, high salaries—whether in coaching, administration, or elsewhere—probably signify the perceived centrality of the position to an organization’s health. Presumably, it’s a good idea to keep vacancies in key positions as brief as possible. Given that administrators are usually paid higher wages than professors and librarians, it’s worth asking if the benefits of recruiting and selecting them more rapidly can be realized without incurring inordinate financial or organizational expense.

Frankly, it’s unusual for the recruitment and selection of professors and librarians to be abbreviated to a process lasting a few weeks. One exception to this rule, an instance of which occurred in the spring of 2010, is when a prominent thinker or practitioner suddenly falls out of favor with his or her institution’s leadership, and is promptly offered employment at another institution.

Work Rhythms

Coaching is year-round work. Activity is divided between the competitive season and the off season. By contrast, teaching professors’ rhythm typically follows the academic calendar, which most often consists of two semesters. In some cases a professor may be assigned summer duties. Administrators work year round, and the same is true of most librarian slots. These differences in work rhythm translate into divergent recruitment and selection processes.

The most obvious measure of a coach’s success is the team’s performance in competition. That said, when there’s a need to select a coach, it makes the most sense to give the successful candidate the greatest opportunity to succeed. Therefore, it is incumbent on institutions to fill coaching vacancies early in the off season, allowing new coaches to recruit players and assemble the support personnel that they need. Chart 1 illustrates this point by displaying trends in advertisements for head football coaching jobs over the last 6 years.


Chart 1. Head Football Coach Job Advertisement Timeline

"head football coach" university Job Trends graph


Professors need to be hired with adequate lead time to relocate and prepare for their teaching duties, and this fact is reflected in historical advertising patterns, with ads peaking about 9-10 months before the start of the fall semester. By comparison, there’s no ideal entry point for administrators or librarians, where work continues throughout the year (albeit with some variations in nature and load). Unless there’s a pressing need, it’s anomalous for professors, librarians, and administrators to be appointed via an expedited selection process. Institutions often find ways to carry vacancies through near-term deadlines in order to create a context that’s suitable for an effective hiring decision.

Number of Positions

The number of head coach positions at an institution is necessarily small. This statement applies generally to librarian and administrator positions as well. However, by comparison, the number of professors is much higher than any of the other 3 position types. That said, it would require a considerable investment of time (and money!) for an institution to expedite the selection of all professors. This is a luxury that a strained sector can ill afford. An institution conducts a relatively small number of administrator searches in a typical year, yet these positions play a significant role in the life of the organization. Given the negative fallout that might accompany a lengthy vacancy, institutions might consider expediting the selection process. Nevertheless, it is unacceptable to rush the process in a way that leads to compromised decision-making.

Visibility of Performance

Coaches’ performance, as expressed through their teams’ performance in competition, is constantly scrutinized—certainly by institutional leaders, but also by students, alumni, members of the local community, and others. Similarly, administrators are accountable for success factors such as financial solvency, recruitment, retention, job placement, and more. By comparison, the performance of a professor or librarian is a relatively private (and arguably more subjective) matter.

Sadly, some stakeholders care more about what happens on the playing field than what occurs in the classroom, lab, or library. At the very least it’s likely that most stakeholders have better access to information about athletic teams’ performance—and, by inference, coaches’ performance—than about learning outcomes. Media outlets devote significant attention to covering college sports. By comparison, how much attention do they pay to the work of individual departments or schools, which might be viewed as analogous to the teams, and, at least in theory, worthy of similar scrutiny?

Recruitment Methods

Professors and librarians are typically recruited via advertising in disciplinary and professional venues, including journals, news sources, job boards, and conferences. Administrative vacancies are announced in much the same way. Coaching positions may be announced via the athletic association’s job board as well as other venues. However, recruitment for high-profile administrative and coaching opportunities is likely to involve the services of a search firm. A search firm’s involvement can expedite the selection process in a couple of ways. First, the firm likely keeps a running list of potential candidates—those who are clearly in a state of transition, and those whose accomplishments qualify them to take on more responsible or prestigious appointments. Engaging a search firm obviously comes at a cost, and this course of action is unlikely to be adopted in the case of most professor or librarian vacancies.

Impact on Institutional Finances

It’s no secret that college sports are a big business. No less than senior administrators, coaches and athletic directors are selected with an understanding of the impact that they’ll have on the institution’s revenue. This is hardly a consideration for the hiring of most librarians and professors, which naturally diminishes the urgency of filling their positions.

Constituent Tolerance for a Prolonged Search

Among many constituents, including alumni and other fans, there’s an expectation that a head coaching vacancy will be filled promptly. By comparison, there’s a higher tolerance for carrying a vacancy for a professor, librarian, or administrator position. Existing professors and librarians can be called on to carry some of the duties that correspond to a vacant position, and the duties of departed administrators may filter down to the departments that reported to them. However, an athletic program can hardly make needed progress without an identifiable head coach, making the expedited search a natural phenomenon.

Size of Candidate Pool

Coaching vacancies may attract numerous applications, but the list of applicants who are truly qualified for the position is likely to be short. The same may be true of most administrative vacancies. By contrast, an announcement for a professor or librarian position may attract applications from dozens of people who hold the requisite degrees and experience. Sorting through the mass of portfolios to determine who fits the position and institution best is a time-consuming exercise—one that militates against expedited handling. For this reason, professor and librarian searches will usually take a number of months.

Turnover

College-level coaches tend to be very mobile in their careers. If their teams fail to perform in competition, they’re susceptible to termination. In fact, they’re subject to constant evaluation and may be particularly vulnerable to the whims of public opinion. If, on the other hand, their teams are successful, they’re likely to receive attractive offers of employment from larger or more prestigious institutions. These generalizations apply to some extent to senior administrators, though the level of volatility is somewhat lower. By comparison, professors can reasonably expect continued employment once they achieve tenure. And even though many librarians are not tenure-eligible and move around some, most have not historically faced the specter of short-cycle employment. The labor of coaching—and, to a lesser extent, of leading an institution—entails risks and opportunities not often associated with teaching or librarianship. This leads to a high turnover rate, and it’s natural for institutions to seek a prompt restoration to normal labor capacity.

Conclusion

Coaching, teaching, administration, and librarianship are clearly four distinct professional specializations within the realm of higher education. Of the 3 comparator position types, administration bears the most similarity to coaching, yet remains distinct in regards to work rhythms and tolerance for a prolonged search. There are good reasons for expediting the process of appointing a new head coach. However, the frenzy of the merry-go-round often leads to less than successful outcomes. Athletic competition is, after all, a zero-sum game.

If fast-track recruitment and selection processes are to be expanded beyond coach searches, it would make most sense to focus on administrator vacancies. Professor and librarian vacancies entail lower exposure in the areas of financial solvency and public relations. In summary, it’s unlikely that many professors, librarians, or administrators will be selected after a vacancy of 8 days. The process is simply too taxing, conducive to poor choices, and, frankly, unnecessary. It makes great sense to pursue more efficiency in recruitment and search processes, but the objective shouldn’t be to mirror the appointment of coaches.
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