Traditionally, there has been a glass ceiling limiting how high alternative academics (alt-acs) can climb. Above the glass ceiling are senior academic leadership roles, such as deans and vice-provosts and provosts. (With deans of continuing studies being perhaps an exception). Below the glass ceiling are job titles with some variant of director (executive, senior, etc.) or associate vice-provost.
At most institutions, senior institutional academic roles are filled by academics who have come up through the tenure track. They have progressed from junior to senior faculty, department chair to associate dean. They have earned tenure.
Alternative academics often have similar academic credentials (disciplinary PhDs), track records of scholarship and teaching, and experience managing organizations, budgets, and people. Not coming from the faculty, however, alt-acs usually are not considered for the most senior institutional academic roles.
There is a possibility that COVID-19 may play some role in cracking the alt-ac glass ceiling. The realization across higher education that online learning is strategic and necessary for institutional resilience may open up new career options for non-faculty educators. The prominent role that centers for teaching and learning (CTLs) have played in leading academic continuity efforts during the pandemic may create new opportunities for these centers’ directors.
Outside of the teaching and learning world, where many alt-acs work, professionals in areas such as information technology (IT) and finance/operations have (sometimes) made it to top levels of institutional leadership. Leaders such as chief information officers (CIOs) have had uneven success in ascending to institutional strategic leadership ranks. Still, it is generally accepted that these professionals should have a seat at those tables.
It is far less common for educators and scholars who have pursued academic careers outside of the traditional tenure-track path to be recruited for top academic leadership roles. This does not mean that these alternative academics do not have institutional status or influence. However, these leadership attributes are mostly achieved through patient coalition building and the nurturing of long-term campus relationships. An alt-acs campus leadership standing is more reputational than positional.
As we think about a post-COVID-19 higher ed world, it is worth asking if the existing academic caste system will impede colleges’ and universities’ ability to innovate and change? Are schools able to tap into the full range of talent at their institutions as they seek to make broad-scale strategic shifts and investments?
Narrowing the funnel to top academic jobs to tenure track faculty benefits those academics who have followed that career path. That restriction, which has developed mostly out of tradition rather than planning, will limit the pool of qualified academics who can step up into the strategic academic leadership roles of the future.