Moving Forward into Music Administration

May 1, 2009

Summers for academics bring many gifts, one being time to reflect on one's career and possibly consider new directions. Administration may be one of those directions. In this article Todd Sullivan, the Director of the School of Music at Northern Arizona University and member of the CMS Committee on Academic Leadership and Administration, offers suggestions on preparing an application for an administrative job. He goes beyond a how-to guide by giving a sense of what search committees seek in a cover letter and a CV and what research a person should conduct to prepare a strong application.

  - Keith Ward, Chair, Committee on Academic Leadership and Administration

So you have decided to enter or are thinking about entering the world of music administration! Now what? Any number of professional experiences may have primed your interest in an administrative position. Effective management and expansion of a major ensemble program stirred thoughts of increased administrative aspirations. Service as chair of an important campus committee or a position in faculty governance enlarged your vision of music and its role within university life. A deep and passionate commitment to students, faculty, and staff in your department inspired wider service. Lingering frustration, or a sense of powerlessness as an individual faculty member, compelled a deeper contribution to the future direction of your cherished discipline. Whatever the impetus, you are considering a development in your career that requires thoughtful research, a clear sense of purpose, and an effective presentation of yourself so that you will be seen. How do you prepare a convincing and compelling application?

The initial foray into music administration or the move from one administrative position to another requires the systematic development of management skills, mission-driven actions, assessments of leadership accomplishments, and a constant awareness of practices within higher education administration. This essay offers strategies for building those administrative skills, tracking accomplishments, and preparing to compete effectively for positions in music administration.

Your first appointment will likely involve elected, assigned, or rotating responsibilities at your home institution, where colleagues are familiar with your leadership ability, work ethic, communication skills, collaborative personality, and commitment to the program. The challenge faced immediately by any aspiring music administrator, one that continues throughout the administrative career, entails the acquisition of knowledge, perspective, and skills that are either tangentially related or very distant from the field of music.

Use sources within your midst to expand your knowledge of administrative fields. Expert administrators, who can support your professional advancement, reside on every campus. Engage colleagues across campus in addressing the diverse demands on music administrators. Chief academic officers, college deans, experienced department chairs, assessment coordinators, and, very importantly, faculty peers can contribute to the development of a strategic plan, which will guide the music unit under your leadership. Professional development officers can help maximize the impact of an annual campaign or special fundraising event. Human resource specialists and faculty governance leaders can offer perspectives and guidance in developing personnel policies and professional development plans. Enrollment managers can share best practices in student recruitment and retention. The tenderfoot music budget manager can rely on deans and other administrators who have managed complex units for assistance with budget and fiscal management.

Of course, one of the richest storehouses of knowledge and experience resides with the music faculty, staff, and students. Calling upon their collective wisdom and imagination is nowhere more valuable than in curriculum and program development, where faculty passion and expertise often lead to unexpected and imaginative results. As a music administrator, you can stimulate creativity and reinforce a sense of accomplishment by synthesizing ideas, guiding deliberations to deeper levels of inquiry, and suggesting alternative solutions to problems.

Master the policies and locate the untapped resource pools at your own school, but also investigate other institutions for best practices that might improve or offer new perspectives on your local issues. Every higher education institution confronts a unique set of challenges, but widespread approaches to universal issues do exist. An understanding of national standards and common practices within the disciplines will benefit your music program and ultimately increase your attractiveness as an applicant for other administrative positions.

Understand the opportunities and limitations of your current position, and build a plan to expand your range of leadership and managerial experiences. The department chairperson balances a wide variety of curricular, budgetary, and personnel tasks but may not possess a background in critical areas, such as grant writing or overseeing doctoral programs. Seek partnerships across campus that provide these missing experiences. For example, interdisciplinary curricular innovations or campus/community educational programs can open doors for major grant funding.

Gather information about yourself. Track measures of success, not to encourage résumé-building but to assess the effectiveness of planning and initiatives. For students, these might include growth in enrollments or student credit hours, improved standardized test scores, diversified demographics, higher graduate school placements, employment immediately upon graduation, and alumni awards and recognition. Faculty achievement might be tracked in the percentage of successful tenure and/or promotion applications, prestigious invited performances, commissioned compositions, the acceptance rate of grant applications, and honors within the profession.

Present yourself in a compelling way. Make your curriculum vitae stand out from the pool of equally qualified candidates. Search committees should be able to gauge your administrative style, philosophy, and values very quickly from succinct, descriptive phrase (e.g., facilitated faculty deliberation, enabled student organizations, and consultative approach to decision-making). Listings of previous administrative positions should include a detailed description of positional responsibilities and a summary of major accomplishments. Distill data collected throughout your administrative tenure into noteworthy trends; save the details for a later point in the search process. Cite specific actions that improved communication and built community among faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents, and donors. Mention significant curricular revisions, enhancements, and innovations. Quantify the results of fundraising, grant-writing, or other development activities. Point out strategic growth, international initiatives and how they advanced the music program. List special awards and honors accorded the music unit. Carefully distinguish between communal accomplishments and personal achievements, remembering that departmental success also reflects positively on its leadership. There will likely be more "we" than "me" in your summaries.

Do your homework. Begin background research on the institution before writing your cover letter, and continue to add knowledge as the search process proceeds. The deeper your understanding of an institution, the better informed and on target your recommendations for its growth and future direction. Since all institutional planning begins with vision and mission, so must your research. Locate the university and music statements and consider ways that they can be brought into greater alignment. Identify opportunities to refine or expand programs that will help the university achieve its strategic goals. Remember also that you will be interviewed by faculty, administrators, students, and staff who have a clear sense of place about their institution. They will be looking for a match, for evidence that you are serious about coming to their school, that you have invested time and energy in learning who they are, that you recognize both their strengths and challenges, and that your commitment is clearly evident by the time you have spent trying to understand them.

Memorize fine details about the music department or school. The number, type, and level (associate, bachelor, master, or doctorate) of degree programs are key indicators of institutional traditions, priorities, and, possibly, stature within the field. Course titles and catalog descriptions reveal considerably more about pedagogical values. The ratio of undergraduate to graduate students further suggests institutional priorities, as does the proportion of full-time to part-time faculty. Compare the institutional profile—number of students, degree programs, faculty size, and budget, among other data—with national averages captured on the Higher Education Arts Data Services (HEADS) Data Summaries, which are available to member institutions of the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM).1 Visit their website, review their online student recruitment materials, and read the online bios of their faculty and profiles of their students.

Acquiring an actual music budget in the early stages of the application process will be difficult, but one can gain an overall sense of an institution's fiscal condition with a little research. During the current economic crisis, most public and private institutions have adopted a degree of fiscal transparency to keep their constituents apprised of changing state revenues, legislated budget cuts, the decline in endowments, and strategies for confronting further reductions. This information is readily available to applicants for administrative positions.

Use publicly available resources to gain a broader measure of the institution. General university data can be gleaned from various reports maintained by the institutional research office. The Common Data Set,2 an initiative of several publishers (The College Board, Thomson-Peterson's, and U.S. News and World Report) captures various student attributes including enrollments, demographics, average standardized test scores, cost of education, financial aid, class size, and graduation rates. Most universities publish an annual Fact Book containing additional data about students, faculty, budgets, facilities, and alumni, as well as historical information specific to the institution.

Many institutions also file mandatory state reports or, if they participate in the federal student financial aid program, the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).3 Private higher education colleges and universities participate in the Higher Education Data Sharing (HEDS) Consortium, which provides access to historical data and special reports about and for member institutions.4 Miscellaneous reports and surveys—among them the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE),5 Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE),6 and HERI Faculty Survey7—shed light on student engagement and faculty satisfaction at the institution and in comparison to national averages. Many other data services exist to provide factual information on various issues in higher education. All this information may contribute to preparing a successful application.

Being an internal candidate requires special attention. Competitive searches demand evidence of prior accomplishments, particularly as indicators of future success for those individuals moving upward through the administrative ranks. Universities often prefer to hire administrators laterally (an experienced chairperson for a chair position, or a veteran dean for a vacant deanship), but they have increasingly opened chair searches to a national, or even international, pool of candidates. Viable internal candidates face a highly competitive process in which the outcome is not guaranteed. The pitfall of being an internal candidate is not so much over-familiarity but its exact opposite. That is, colleagues with whom you have worked on a daily basis may know very little about your broader background or general leadership philosophies. Take no prior knowledge for granted, and compete will full vigor and commitment like an outside candidate.

A successful music administrator relies on a constantly expanding accumulation of expertise borrowed from other disciplines, creative collaborations with music faculty, staff and students, and mission-driven decisions that lead toward consensus on strategic goals, all of which should optimize the current and future health of a music program. These lessons, experiences, and skills remain deeply ingrained in administrative leaders, whether they spend their entire careers at one institution or carry that knowledge inside them in pursuit of opportunities elsewhere. It all begins, however, with the leap into administration. So gather your thoughts, do your homework, prepare your materials, and jump!


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