The Toughest Class You’ll Ever Take

Why become an academic leader? Elizabeth Simmons contends that it enables you to extend your love of learning into a new arena.

February 15, 2013

Why become an academic leader? I contend that a powerful motivation can be extending your love of teaching and learning into a new arena.

My last article stressed how your teaching experience can provide guidance on approaching the unfamiliar tasks you will be asked to undertake as a chair or dean. Here, I discuss how to use the familiar role of student to guide your interactions with colleagues and supervisors, while informing your perspective on information flow and evaluation.

My time as an academic leader has been a multifaceted class, as complex, in its own way, as my entire doctoral experience. I am the dean of Michigan State University’s Lyman Briggs College, a residential science college focused on undergraduate education within the larger research university. Our primary mission is bridging the sciences and humanities through teaching and research collaborations; individual faculty work in STEM fields ranging from astronomy to zoology or in the history, philosophy and sociology of science. Because we come from such diverse disciplinary backgrounds, we must make a conscious effort to be aware of our underlying assumptions and to appreciate the perspectives of others. Moreover, when I became the head of Lyman Briggs, I was new both to the institution and to academic leadership; a steep learning curve lay ahead of me. Fortunately, those who had been part of Briggs for years, or even decades, proved to be generous mentors. The context of my administrative experience has therefore made the connections between leadership and learning particularly vivid.

As you step into academic leadership, be alert to what you need to learn and whom you can learn it from. Some aspects of the job will be laid out as clearly as any course syllabus, while others will appear to form a “hidden curriculum” that you must discern as you go. 


The senior faculty and staff in your department or college will effectively serve as your professors in an ongoing topical seminar.  If you are new to the unit, bear in mind that they have more experience with its culture, politics, policies and practices than you do. Although your ultimate goal may be to improve the way the organization works, you must start by understanding what already exists, and these individuals will be your best sources of information.

On the other hand, if you are a longstanding member of the unit who is merely new to administration, it is crucial to be aware that the senior administrative staff members still know far more than you do about procedures and forms that you are now required to execute. They also know how to access essential data sources and can explain how those data are collected and reported (e.g., enrollment data may be calculated at the “first quarter of the semester” or academic space may be valued in “research expenditures per square foot”). 

At the same time, the senior faculty and staff members will have a vision of how an ideal leader should behave in order to be most effective (including being most helpful to them).  Strive to learn about their vision: converse with them, listen to their stories, take notes, ask questions, and talk some more. While it may be tempting to think of conversation as a mere diversion from the “real work” of making decisions or completing documents, this is a seminar course and discussion is a crucial part of the learning process. Talking with your professors is an essential way to test your ideas and see where they can be improved by incorporating insights from others.

The faculty and staff in your leadership team, such as budget officers or associate chairs, will function as in-house members of your thesis committee. They are knowledgeable about certain aspects of the way the unit functions, and are initially more expert than you in their areas of specialization. Over time, you will have the opportunity to absorb administrative information, data, and perspectives that are not necessarily available to them; this will make you better-informed on certain topics, since any thesis student becomes the true expert in his or her own area of investigation. 

However, just as members of the thesis committee are still likely to have a wider and deeper perspective on their field than a student, so the faculty will still be more proficient than you in their own subject areas, in the topics they teach, and in the political realities of their research fields and departmental interest groups. It will be important for you to acknowledge and respect their expertise even as you gain mastery in complementary areas.

Your supervisor (e.g., a dean or the provost) represents the external examiner of your thesis committee. Because she or he is external to your unit, you will need to justify all of your local assumptions and present the evidence that supports your conclusions. You cannot rely on having any common jargon or similar perspective at the outset. Moreover, she or he is an examiner in the sense of being someone more experienced in administration who is judging your performance and providing you with feedback. 

As with any thesis committee member, this supervisor is a gateway to the resources or outcomes you are seeking. Your goal must be to explain your ideas as clearly as possible and to elicit as much feedback as possible so that you can make maximum progress toward your unit’s goals. Remember, too, that the external examiner can be a valuable source of perspective beyond what you can see.  Asking for preliminary advice on a new idea can prevent you from flouting external politics or policies beyond your ken (e.g., an institutional ban on differential tuition rates or another unit’s interest in an field your department hopes to enter).

Other senior administrators with whom you work on committees or special projects are like guest speakers in this class. They can provide a window into areas outside your purview that may have some overlap with your interests.  Absorbing some of their specific working knowledge and learning their impressions of your unit can reveal potential for future collaborations. At the same time, the mere fact that they are also academic leaders means that they can lend their perspective on effective approaches to common problems, such as handling disruptive personalities, stretching tight budgets, or deciphering arcane protocols.


Whenever I started a new course in my student days, I skimmed the syllabus to absorb the arc of the course: how often problem sets were due, whether the term project had multiple components, and whether tests were cumulative.   It was clearly up to me to know and meet the schedule the professor had set.

As a dean or department chair, it is, likewise, your responsibility to keep track of your responsibilities (e.g., tenure reviews, budget requests, end-of-year reports) and the associated deadlines.  If you are fortunate, your predecessor may provide you with an annotated timeline. More often, you will simply receive assignments and requests from your provost or dean periodically throughout the year and will see the full pattern only by spending a year or two in office.

It is worth expending the effort to jot down the schedule of regular assignments with notes about how they are connected. This year’s faculty evaluations can provide valuable input into next year’s award nominations or tenure reports.  The budget request you submit to your supervisor should reflect the priorities you identified in your last strategic plan. The course sections you have opened to meet overwhelming demand in recent semesters can be cited as supporting evidence when you next seek enrollment funds. Current faculty requests for equipment to facilitate inquiry-based courses can underpin your next pitch to donors for transformative gifts. In essence, you are creating a conceptual map of the different aspects of your administrative role to use as a guide for future years.


The syllabus of a formal course also contains information about the rubrics or metrics used to judge work and the relative weighting of different factors in the grading process.  As a student, I certainly pored over the course materials for clues about expectations and grading, so as not to misdirect my efforts or fail to complete part of an assignment.

In your current administrative class, general guidelines about performance expectations will appear in the position description and are probably reiterated, to some extent, in your letter of offer. More explicit directions may accompany particular assignments: a request to provide input on tenure cases will refer to passages of the faculty handbook, the call for a budget report will include a spreadsheet template for you to complete, the opportunity to seek funds for new faculty computers may require your unit to provide matching funds. 

However, much of the feedback you receive may be jarringly concrete (Did your unit’s candidates receive tenure? Were your budget requests granted?), yet frustratingly nonspecific. It may not ultimately be clear what led your supervisor to follow or overturn your recommendation in any particular case. Unlike your college term papers of yesteryear, the reports or spreadsheets you provide to your dean or provost will probably not be returned with the reader’s queries or judgments scrawled in the margins. So arrange a meeting with your supervisor to discuss your ideas and upcoming requests, answer questions about your evidence or aims, and receive feedback about how to approach the next step of the process.

As you can see, this class often has a significant hidden curriculum. Not everything you need to know is spelled out in the handbooks, memos, forms, and spreadsheets that make up the “required” readings and assignments.  It is essential to take advantage of the “recommended” readings as well: campus leadership seminars, administrative meetings, presidential blogs, press releases and annual reports. These can reveal the themes and approaches that underlie the most successful enterprises at your institution. Moreover, the 10 minutes of unstructured conversation that often precedes and follows any formal meeting is an excellent time to glean peers’ insights about current assignments or puzzling items from another meeting. This harks back to student days when informal study groups gave rise to free and valuable flows of information.

We have come full circle, back to your teachers.  Clearly, consulting them and truly listening to their insights is important for grasping what you are expected to do and how you can be most effective at accomplishing it.  Do remember, however, that no one person or group has a monopoly on the truth.  If you have not seen Akira Kurosawa’s classic film "Rashomon" before taking an academic leadership role, I highly recommend this as a class co-requisite. Learn from everyone you encounter, but be sure to fit the evidence they proffer into a larger mosaic that makes sense to you.

Good luck in your foray into academic leadership!  I hope you will find it not only a tough class, but a rewarding one.


Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and professor of physics at Michigan State University.


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