Three years ago, as a newly tenured associate professor, I was looking forward to my third year directing the Center for European Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. As an African-American woman with some administrative skills, there was a lot of interest in getting me into university administration.
The university was going through a major transition with a new president, a provost search underway, and new areas such as undergraduate studies and diversity and community engagement going through major expansions. I discussed my situation with several mentors, including the outgoing dean of liberal arts, the outgoing provost, the outgoing vice provost for undergraduate studies, et. al. I decided to wait a few years before entering administration, to earn the rank of to full professor, and to ensure I had time to make my mark in political science.
That plan fell apart when I was called to the provost’s office by Steve Monti, the interim, who offered me the job of vice provost for undergraduate studies. I often look for the dent in the floor of the provost’s office where my jaw must have hit it. I had no idea I would be offered such a high-powered position so early in my academic career. The first words out of my mouth were, “But I just got tenure!” I had a few days to make my decision – the outgoing vice provost would be around for another week or two and I would need to get up to speed on her work.
After long discussions with my husband, I accepted the job. Immediately a wide vista of future academic positions opened up: I could become a dean or even a provost if I performed well. Although many people said I would make a good university president some day, I focused on the job at hand. My portfolio included not only undergraduate curriculum and faculty council, but also international initiatives. This made me the university’s chief international officer.
During the next two years I worked hard, developed new programs, and tried to break down silos that prevented units from working together. I juggled two kids (currently ages 5 and 8), marathon running, endless meetings and at least monthly travel, all while managing to maintain a semblance of a research agenda that included a major book project. I faced major challenges in reorganizing our International Office, managing major personnel and personality issues -- both at the staff level and in working with other top administrators.
As time passed, I could only watch as the favorite part of my portfolio, internationalization, fell from a top priority, during my first year as vice provost, to not being mentioned in the university’s capital campaign that launched two years later. Although constantly told I was doing a great job, I would often think about the cost of being an administrator.
Despite having an extremely supportive spouse, I began to tire of the monthly travel, attending meetings to discussing issues over which I had little control, and constantly falling behind on my own deadlines to complete articles or chapters of my book. The political landscape was undergoing major changes, both in the United States and Europe, my area of research. I began to find myself thinking seriously about what I wanted to do, and whether or not I would continue as an administrator.
I realized at the beginning of my third year as vice provost that I was reaching a crossroads. I would have to choose a full-time commitment to being an administrator, or return to the faculty.
At first, this was practically unthinkable, since I was one of the few African-Americans in a top-level position. For example, I helped to bring the provost to the table when our center for African and African-American studies was having difficulties working with other departments to recruit faculty. Others would point to the many initiatives that wouldn’t have materialized without my support and/or influence, such as pursuing programs in Africa. What would it mean to my career if I stepped back at this point? I had a strong enough academic record to make it to full professor -- so why would I want to go back to the faculty now?
I turned again to my mentors. My former dean, who became a provost at another university, encouraged me to consider stepping out of the administrative track to solidify my academic credentials. My former provost understood the difficulties of juggling my personal life, academic career and administrative career. When I finally broached the subject with my current boss, the provost, he encouraged me to stay, but ultimately understood that I was being pulled in too many directions. My current dean was very supportive. Although he understood that I was managing to be successful despite all of the demands on my time, he was also concerned that I might burn out and decide that I didn’t want to be an administrator ever again. He was also concerned in general about associate professors being pulled into high-level administrative positions early in their careers.
As I thought about the pros and cons of going back to the faculty, I knew it would be difficult to give up the influence I had over both international education and undergraduate studies at the university. I had been through the major transitions and played an important role during a difficult time. Why was I giving it up when things were finally falling into place?
On the other hand, my research was starting to get attention at the international level. My first book, on the radical right in Western Europe, was still of interest, and my new book project on antidiscrimination policy in the European Union was extremely timely. There was a part of me that really wanted to have the time to be a player in the policy arena. With a new government in place in Washington and people I knew taking positions in it, I realized this was the stage of my career when I could actually have an impact on policy, both here and in Europe.
It finally came down to the fact that those administrative jobs would still be there in five years and my academic career wouldn’t, if I chose to pursue the administrative route. I will still be a rare commodity -- an African-American woman with good administrative experience who actually likes being an administrator. My fate was sealed when my dean and the provost agreed that I could have a year on leave in order to catch up on my research. I had planned to apply to take leave the year that I took the vice provost position and had always regretted not having that opportunity. To have it now, when I have much more confidence in my abilities and a strong desire to pursue my research agenda, is even better.
I don’t regret the three years I have spent in upper administration. I have learned more about myself and my abilities than I have at almost any other time in my career. I have made wonderful friends, and developed a whole new set of mentors who will continue to be supportive over the years. I have gained a new respect for university administration, developed a better understanding of the pros and cons of faculty governance, and learned exactly how difficult it is to be a university president. Most importantly, I have gained a great deal of confidence in myself, and realized that I have many opportunities ahead of me, whether it is as an academic or as an administrator. I am fortunate to have had the experience, and as I count down the days until my leave starts, I look forward to new challenges ahead.