The Intellectual Joys of University Administration -- No, Really!

George Justice and Carolyn Dever enumerate how institutional-level service can strongly benefit not only the college or university but also the lives of faculty members.

September 19, 2019
 
 
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Midcareer and senior faculty members: Are you interested in the chance to enliven your scholarly interests? To broaden their scope? To have your mind blown by new ideas and new ways of teaching and learning? To capture the fresh energy of new perspectives?

If the answer is yes to one or more of these questions, do we have some jobs for you!

All faculty members, and particularly those introspective types who might be ready for new challenges but diffident about wielding power, should try a tour of duty in institutional leadership. Obviously, that would be a good thing for our colleges and universities. But we’re convinced, based on our own experiences, that administrative service is also great for the intellectual growth and development of each of us as faculty members.

Now, this is not a perspective that people on campuses typically advance. In a previous essay, we wrote about the mythology of the “dark side” that often stigmatizes faculty members who cross the Rubicon to take on administrative work. We’ve also discussed higher ed’s odd habit of distinguishing campus service and leadership as fundamentally different activities -- rather than as linked forms of commitment to the shared work of the institution.

Here we advance the thesis that institutional-level service can provide strongly positive benefits to the intellectual lives of faculty members.

By “institutional-level service,” we mean significant contributions away from home -- that is, outside one’s home department. Such service could include a full-time position as an associate dean or director of a center, as well as participation on an institutionwide academic or nonacademic committee, among many other possibilities. George’s first such appointment was to the student judiciary committee as a newly tenured associate professor at the University of Missouri. Carolyn’s was as interim director of an interdisciplinary program in women’s and gender studies, also as a recently tenured associate professor.

We took those first major service appointments under the guise of the requirement for service as part of our faculty workloads. But they proved to be stepping-stones to a more time-consuming set of serial appointments that culminated in full-time institutional roles. We had wanted to do good for our institutions, our colleagues and our students, and in that, we hope we were correct. What we couldn’t predict was how intellectually stimulating our experiences would be -- not just in general but also quite specifically to our work as scholars.

We have been changed as scholars and teachers by our work as deans and, in Carolyn’s case, as a provost. We feel lucky to be able to bring those changed academic selves back to our faculty roles in our home departments. Indeed, American colleges and universities would significantly benefit if more of our colleagues were lucky enough to experience what we have.

The intellectual joy of university leadership results from a variety of positive and distinct aspects of administrative work:

Your institutional world vastly broadens and diversifies. You suddenly realize the massive scope of scholarly pursuits on your campus and see how your own work, and your own discipline, fit within something much larger.

You stretch your mind regularly. Our lives as faculty members are spent, for the most part, close to our areas of expertise. Our lives as administrators are spent almost exclusively outside our areas of expertise, including with staff members, alumni and other institutional stakeholders. That departure is a shock to the system, but curiosity about others and the skill of engaged listening are important muscles to build.

The water in the fishbowl is not the water in the fishbowl. Many of the things you take for granted turn out to be products of disciplinary culture, not universal truths. As an associate dean working on the future of graduate education, for example, Carolyn had the chance to understand the wide variety of ways that faculty members across disciplines teach and support graduate students. In response, she began to try new approaches to graduate education that emphasized collaboration, to the benefit of both her own work and that of her students.

You become an expert translator of ideas. Different faculty members relate differently to the institution, as do students, staff members, alumni, trustees and so on. It’s a great privilege to be responsible for making connections between and among those various constituents.

You sit in the catbird seat. As an administrator, there’s a lot you don’t know about. But that said, you might be one of only a few people positioned to learn about complementary ideas emerging in different places within the institution. Wearing your administrative lenses will let you make connections and open new opportunities for other people.

You become an expert systems thinker. The complexity and the chaos of a campus somehow add up to something consequential and invaluable. Your perch offers you rare insight into how this unlikely synthesis occurs, and on top of that, how you might make it better.

The expectations for writing are different. You must now write on deadline, on word count, in format -- and you just have to say it. This translates for the long term. We’re both far less labored as writers than we were before entering administrative service. And more important, we each find ourselves better writers as a result of the responsibility for clear and direct communication with diverse audiences.

What -- and how -- you read changes. Perhaps most unexpected, we’ve found that our tours of duty in administration changed our reading practices. Yes, we have become competent, if not fluent, in the languages of our colleagues from other disciplines. But we also feel as though we read the stuff of our own shared discipline -- poems, plays and novels -- more deeply and richly. Our great writers haven’t written for English professors but for the world. As lapsed administrators for the past year, each of us has read more poetry and fiction, with more joy, than we had in many years. Yes, we have a bit more time that isn’t specifically scheduled. More important, we each recognized a renewed intellectual vigor that has us hungry for knowledge. Literature seems to mean what it did when we were teenagers and in college, when poetry and fiction went right along with a world that was opening up to us.

We faculty members are intensive specialists. But for the most part, our students are generalists with a major (or two or three). Each of us has found excitement in returning to what might be a more student-like mind-set, where the scholarly questions that characterize our own expertise come to us framed in the wide, wild context of an entire university. The biggest antidote to “my stuffism” that has faculty members nervously focusing only on their research subareas might be a tour of duty in campus leadership.

In George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, the character Edward Casaubon vainly searches for the “key to all mythologies,” a synthetic research program hoping to unify what we would now understand as the humanities and social sciences. At the same time, Casaubon stifles the personal and intellectual growth of the novel’s primary character, his wife, Dorothea Brooke. When we discuss how administrative work abetted an explosive increase in our understanding of how intellectual life works across our campuses, we aren’t suggesting that administrators take on the vain ambitions embodied by Casaubon. Instead, we are promoting the idea that the greater extent of understanding -- of real joy -- that comes from leadership work will diminish the power of those few Casaubons who occasionally dominate our departments without promoting true discovery through energetic engagement.

Both of us know a lot more than we did before going into administration. We know more things, sure, but even more important, we understand some of the ways colleagues from other disciplines pursue knowledge with rigor and integrity. We know that our personal pretensions to knowledge are limited. And we marvel at the complexity and beauty of the magnificent institutions that produce new knowledge and share it with the remarkable young people whom we’re privileged to know as our students.

Bio

George Justice is professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of How to Be a Dean, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Carolyn Dever is professor of English at Dartmouth College, which she served most recently as provost. Together they have begun Dever Justice LLC, which supports faculty leadership of our colleges and universities.

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