• April 23, 2014

Dear Would-Be Dean

I spent several hours each day last week reading letters of application as a member of a search committee for a new dean of arts and sciences at my university. The position is a critical and demanding one. Our arts and sciences college has 650 full-time faculty members, an annual budget in excess of $90-million, and 15,000 students.

As I read through the covers letters, I felt a growing urge to write back to the applicants. I wanted to express the reactions of one reader, to explain my votes, partly to myself, but also to present some feedback, however indirect, to those who worked so hard on their letters and were about to receive an official response that began, "thank you for your application," and continued a few words later with "unfortunately."

What follows are my own impressions, but the most recent meeting of the search committee confirmed that the candidates who topped my list were also the ones preferred by the majority of the committee.

Dear Applicant:

As a serious candidate for a deanship, you have been on many search committees and read a large number of applications over the years. Probably the most valuable thing I can recommend to you is to try to reread your own letter and dossier with the same critical eye and skeptical attention that you have given to the applications of countless others.

Even with an impressive vita, as I do not hesitate to say most were, there are still things in your cover letter you might want to reconsider. You might begin by trimming it down. I realize that advice probably reflects the habits of an English teacher used to advising his students to "omit needless words," but I prefer a cover letter that is short and to the point. A seven-page letter, which is not uncommon, is harder to read than a report from the vice president for development; especially if it is full of the same slick boosterism that that office favors.

When you write your letter, long or short, use it to highlight the important things about you. Why, for example, waste your first paragraph telling the search committee what job we are offering and where you read our ad? Rest assured that we did not place false ads with misleading job descriptions in prominent journals in hopes of trapping applicants less wary than yourself.

I also tend to bristle at the three or four overly complimentary sentences about our institution that many applicants include in their first paragraph. Since anyone can look us up on the Internet, those few phrases don't suggest any real knowledge of the institution or earnestness in applying for a position. Consider using the first paragraph or two of your abbreviated letter to make the four or five most telling points about your own abilities and experience.

As you describe yourself and your approach, it is important to realize that while your vision for the future of the institution is important, it is very challenging to present it effectively in a letter. Likewise, your leadership style, commitment to teaching, and respect for diversity are all very significant. They too, however, are very hard to write about in a way that does not make your letter sound like an entry in an American Legion essay contest.

A big part of the problem stems from the fact that almost everyone in academic administration stands for the same things. You confidently assert that enrollments should grow, research should expand, endowments should increase, and faculty members should feel well rewarded and enfranchised. You describe your management style as team-oriented and collaborative.

You must realize that none of the other applicants advocate rolling back enrollments, rethinking the worth of academic research, or making college management more authoritarian. So, while your vision is terrifically important, in fact, statements of your vision are apt to be flat and undistinguished.

While there is no easy answer to that problem, some applicants do manage to navigate those shoals more successfully than others. One approach is to frame your statements about vision in communal instead of personal terms. Rather than asserting the uniqueness of your vision, you might acknowledge that what is best about it is the fact that it matches up with the current community standard. That in itself suggests a belief in collaborative thinking and governing. Instead of asserting ownership over the commonplace, your vision statement might illustrate that you, too, are fully committed to what most people in most institutions now believe and aspire to.

It is probably most effective to disclose your vision through a narrative of your experience and achievements. Show how you have acted out your vision in normal times and under fire. In general, of course, the search committee will put greater trust in your vision if your dossier shows that it has been developed and tested through appropriate experience.

Here I have to confess that while I put great store professionally in narrative, I read CV's more enthusiastically than cover letters. A CV is like a detective novel; it offers clues as well as facts and invites the reader to look between the lines. As I read your dossier, it will come as no surprise that the first thing I looked for was the rank and placement of your highest and most recent administrative appointment.

Given the nature of our search, however, I looked for very particular things. First I wanted to know that you have administrative experience at an appropriate level. Are you an associate dean now or do you now head a large department or division? If you hold one of those positions, have you held it long enough to suggest that you have been successful at the job?

I was very surprised to find that many of the applicants for our deanship have been in jobs at the appropriate level for a very short time; in one or two cases for periods as short as a year. If you have decided in the course of a year that you are ready to find another job, that decision makes me suspect that something is wrong. I wonder if you have chosen unwisely in accepting your current position, or if the search committee that selected you made the wrong choice. Either suspicion weakens your case.

Cover letters seldom address that very touchy issue, and when they do, they sometimes attribute the desire or need for a change to externals: "The opportunity to be dean of your college is so appealing...." In Hemingway's somewhat cynical words, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

I am especially interested to know if you have administrative experience in an institution that approximates ours. The dean of a medical school, a nonresidential college, or a professional school must have valuable and potentially transferable management skills, but administrators in such positions lack day-to-day experience with the routine strengths and problems that define a college of arts and sciences.

Pure science research on a massive scale in multiple disciplines, a vast demand for undergraduate general education, the peculiar exigencies of humanities research -- those, among many other things, make unique demands on the leader of our college. Experience is essential, but relevant experience makes the final difference between successful and unsuccessful candidates.

In addition to your administrative experience, I look for teaching experience and not just a self-confessed "commitment to teaching." Despite your administrative duties, I expect to see that you have published interesting things in good places recurrently over a period of time; I think you should have experience supervising theses and dissertations. Confirming a commitment to diversity is very important and especially challenging. I would like to see evidence in your dossier and in your cover letter that you have worked in an equal relationship with (and not just supervised) women and men of diverse backgrounds.

I realize that it would be asking too much that only the right person apply for the job -- the person whose letter of application could be converted with a few strokes of the pen into a letter of appointment. Still I hope that this candid response to your application will help with your next search. And I wish you good luck.

Palmer Briggs, Search Committee Member

Palmer Briggs is the pseudonym of a professor of comparative literature and associate department head at a research university in the South.

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