Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why Me?

This has been happening to me a lot lately:

I meet someone for the first time in my new capacity as an Administrator and one of the first questions they ask me is "Why (or how) were you selected?" I italicized you because in 87.3% of the cases, there is an emphasis on you, not necessarily in an impolite way, but to emphasize the you-and-not-someone-else focus of the question.

There are unambiguous 100% neutral examples of these questions -- that is, when I meet someone who has a similar position at another university and we compare notes about our jobs.

But then there are some situations in which the motivation is less clear.

Possible explanations for why someone would ask this question:

Some people (academics or not) may be curious about how things work in the intriguing world of academia in general and/or in particular at my institution.

Some people are surprised, at least at first, at finding someone like me in this position (the first woman ever to hold this particular position at my university). Which leads to these further possibilities:

- They think it is cool and wonder what excellent change has happened at this institution so that finally a woman was selected for this position.

- They wonder if I am qualified for the job, or at least, was I really the most qualified? Perhaps I was selected because I am a woman?

Do men get asked this question so frequently? I don't know, but in a recent poll of n=2 male peers, I realized that, although I had been asked this question nearly weekly for months, these guys had not yet been asked it once.

I don't actually spend a lot of time obsessing about the motivation of these questions. I think that these issues will fade with time.

I will mention, though, that a few days ago when I was asked this question, for the first time there was a witness to it, and it was a different experience altogether. I didn't realize until then that all the other conversations had been one-on-one. This time, a colleague (another administrator) was present and disagreed with the apparently disrespectful way in which the question was asked and did not stay silent. I can fight my own battles when I want, but sometimes it is very nice to have allies.


Alex said...

The next time somebody asks why you were selected for an administrative job, just tell them that the Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that you, FSP, were to carry Excalibur. That is why you are an administrator.

Anonymous said...

For whatever one anecdote is worth, I am male and got that question quite frequently when I first became an admin. For those who served on campus committees with me, I think it was probably obvious why I was considered -- but it was not at all obvious to those in my home department or my colleagues at other institutions, and plenty of curious people asked fairly blunt questions about both my motivation and the provost's thought processes.

I'd try to take it as an opportunity to mentor other future academic leaders. Some of those who ask are really asking "how can I do that too?", even if they haven't realized it yet. These people want to be more like you. Take that as a compliment, however awkwardly expressed.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, I do not doubt for a moment that you can fight your own battles, yet it is great to have allies! May the tribe multiply.

GMP said...

They wonder if I am qualified for the job, or at least, was I really the most qualified? Perhaps I was selected because I am a woman?

Sigh. I love this overemphasis on "the most qualified" that is particularly important when the chosen candidate is a woman. As if there is always one clear winner and all the others are clear losers and the winner is of course a dude. In every successful search I have been involved in, we have several good candidates who are all likely to be successful and then pick on based on intangibles -- whom we like best as a potential colleague, etc. So what if scales were tipped in your favor because you are a woman? Scales tip in the men's favor all the time.

Anonymous said...

Following up Anon@ 1:25, where people asked about "...the provost's thought processes", I agree as I can readily imagine that the questioner may be probing for more information on the future plans for the department. For example, if they learn that you have experience in bringing together collaborations between individuals who historically were reticent to collaborate, this may lead to a follow-up question on whether plans are afoot to merge departments. Their question is their way of fishing or flushing out this type of information, and in such cases, of course the question would be asked on one-to-one basis.

Some people are very interested in "hidden agendas"

Female Science Professor said...

additional info, FWIW: most of the people who have asked have been (older) alumni of my department.

Unknown said...

When I was assigned an administrative position, a white man told my husband that my appointment was "clearly affirmative action." Thanks, a-hole.

Anonymous said...

How about the fraction that can't believe a successful scientist would take on an administrative role?

Mark P

Anonymous said...

FSP - when you say "(older) alumni of my department" - are you referring to graduates? or retired faculty? It could be that you get asked this question, as did Anon@ 1:25, because both of you are approachable and friendly people, whereas your colleagues in a similar position may not be. Otherwise, if your witness felt compelled to defend you, and these are old crusty guys asking you this question, then I think there would be something to worry about.

Anonymous said...

At my institution, it would be asked with the same emphasis and tone but the underlying question would mean "Why did you get moved to an administrative position when you are successful as a researcher/teacher/mentor? Only losers end up in administration". Whatever the reasons, I am grateful that your colleague witnessed one incident and took action. That is how change happens -- when innocent people do not stand by and do nothing.

John Vidale said...

With most administrative jobs I've had, the usual question is "why would you want the job"? rather than "why were you selected for the job"? Or the more vague "Why are you doing this job?"

All bring up the same issues, what are you going to do with the opportunity that is worthy and could be interesting. The only times I remember being asked why I was selected was when there were factors of personal history involved in getting selected for a job that make me the logical candidate despite being the least qualified.

So if the wording was "why selected", I'd be suspicious that you've failed to fit into their stereotype.

plam said...

I've actually had this question as well since I started in a Minor Administrative Position this July. I can't remember who asked (colleague? student?).

mathgirl said...

In pure math you are supposed to continue producing mathematics on your own and you can't rely solely on students work to keep your research program going. Then administrative jobs are seen as pretty detrimental to research programs. Each time I learn of an active researcher (in math) going into an administrative job I ask "why" meaning two things: 1) why is he/she doing this move that could kill his/her research and 2) why the department is allowing itself to loose the research of such person.

Anonymous said...

I think if people were going to ask this in a respectful way (as in, you are a productive scientist, why are you doing this administrative work?) it would be said in a different way from Why did they pick you? In the first case, the emphasis is on the person making a decision to be an administrator (hard for some of us to understand). In the second, the emphasis is on why would anyone pick you?

plam said...

mathgirl: Someone's got to do the administration, and it would really be best if it was a reasonable person, ideally someone who knows about research.

Some of my geometer friends are scheduled to be associate chairs in a pure math department. I don't think they're expecting it to affect their research. They also get course releases, I'd expect.

It also seems that at least some department chairs maintain an active research profile, even though that job takes a lot of time and energy. At dean-level and above, though, it doesn't really seem to be possible to do a significant amount of research.

Anonymous said...

At least they are being (somewhat) respectful. When I was hired, I was told it was "either the chick or the gay-boy and we picked the chick". Welcome to the modern world