10 Bad Habits

Academics who become administrators need to unlearn behaviors they embraced as faculty members, writes Robert J. Sternberg.

December 21, 2011

Many academic administrators come from the ranks of the professoriate. After some number of years as a professor, they decide to try their hand at administration. The obvious advantage of this background is that professors understand how professors think, and much of being an administrator requires such an understanding. At the same time, being a successful administrator probably requires one socialized in the professoriate to unlearn many of the habits one has acquired as a professor. Put another way, much of what works for a professor does not work at all for an administrator. The problem is that many administrators take too long to unlearn these habits, or never unlearn them at all. They do not fully transform themselves from the perspectives of faculty to those of administration.

I have had to experience this transformation myself. As a psychology professor at Yale, I ran a fairly large research center. As a result of the indirect costs we turned over to the university, we were provided a building — to be exact, a building minus two small rooms in that building. I obsessed over how to get those two tiny rooms. I schemed and plotted, without success. I seethed at how unfair, unjust, and unfeeling the university administration was. Now, as a provost at Oklahoma State University, I find myself annoyed when professors attempt space grabs, until I remember that, not so long ago, I was the professor absolutely needing those two small rooms so I could call the building mine!

Even as an administrator, we can acquire habits in one job that negatively transfer to the next. When I was dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts, I became enraged when I heard that an arts and sciences graduate made a substantial donation to the School of Engineering. During the first month after I became a provost, a development officer at Oklahoma State mentioned a large gift from an arts and sciences graduate to the engineering college. I grimaced noticeably and the development officer asked what was wrong. I realized that I was carrying over a bad habit from my last job. In my new job, my responsibility was equally to all the colleges. I laughed as I told the story of my negative "transfer of training" from the deanship.

So here are the 10 habits of highly unsuccessful administrators — the negative transfer of training carried over from their pre-administration days:

  • Visibility: “Here I am! Here I am!” Academics strive to be visible, and much of the time their advancement through the ranks depends on their visibility to their colleagues at their own institution and to other academics in their field. In contrast, administrators tend to be most effective when they are working behind the scenes and are only modestly visible. The most successful institutions are those that function smoothly — like well-oiled machines -- without administrators sticking out like sore thumbs. When administrators become highly visible, it is often because things are not working out.
  • The Role of Collaborators: “I did it! Me! Me!” Effective academics often collaborate, but the greater the number of collaborators one has, the more doubt there is in promotion and tenure decisions over who did what. In papers with many authors, it can become difficult or even impossible to tell who did what, whereas in a single-authored book or paper, there is (in theory) no doubt.  In contrast, administrators typically can do almost nothing by themselves. They must work collaboratively and as a team in almost everything they do.
  • Individual Glory: “Am I great or what?” Successful academics bask in glory — of sole- or first- or last- authored papers, of prizes, of research quoted by the media, of outstanding teaching ratings. Successful administrators, in contrast, often go out of their way to deflect credit and to ensure that others beside themselves get the glory. A commonly used technique is to engineer change so that faculty members get credit for ideas, whether the ideas were originally theirs or not. After all, they are the ones who are going to have to live with them.
  • Strong Positions: “Give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile!” Academics are often rewarded for taking strong positions in professional discourse and debates. Their work may receive less attention if it is viewed as sitting on a fence or as lacking in boldness. Extreme positions get attention, and even if the attention is negative it can sometimes help advance a career. In contrast, administrators making decisions typically have to take into account the interests of diverse stakeholders with very different interests and points of view. Such balancing of interests often results in positions that are middle-ground attempts to achieve some kind of common good. On matters of ethics or principle there can be no middle ground, but most of the issues one deals with in administration involve balancing of interests whereby any of a number of potential courses of action are ethical and principled, but with very different possible outcomes depending on what one does.
  • Privacy: “My personal life is my own business!” The personal lives of academics are typically out of bounds unless they flagrantly misbehave, especially toward their students or colleagues. In contrast, the personal life of administrators, for better or worse, is usually considered fair game. If an extramarital affair or other personal indiscretion is discovered, for example, it may be viewed as fair grounds for terminating an administrator because he or she is bringing unwelcome attention to the university and the moral ground on which it stands. Obviously, such indiscretions become especially problematical when committed with subordinates. In administration, "my personal life is my own business" applies only until one's superiors decide it doesn’t, often as a result of unwanted publicity.
  • Schedule: “I love the freedom this job gives me to live a balanced life.” Many of those who go into academe do so in part because of the flexibility in schedule that it allows — at least for those who do not have mind-numbingly large numbers of courses to teach.  Administrative schedules typically are, at best, 9 to 5, allowing much less flexibility, and further usually require one to show up for events on nights and on weekends.
  • Reporting Structure: “No one tells me what to do!” Professors often do not view themselves as working for anyone in particular, other than, perhaps, themselves. They may view themselves as entrepreneurs who create new intellectual enterprises.  Although they usually will be under a department chair or head, dean, and so forth, they usually do not view such people as “bosses” but rather as people who best should stay out of their way (except when they require additional resources).  In contrast, academic administrators have clearly defined supervisors, and if they fail to please their supervisors, they may quickly be in trouble or out of a job.
  • Degree of Latitude in Behavior and Dress: “I never got over the hippie look!” Professors typically are allowed a large number of "idiosyncrasy credits" in terms of how they can act and dress.  As long as they do not show up nude or outlandishly dressed, for example, they typically are permitted to carry on with their activities. Administrators, however, usually are expected to wear business attire and to act in ways that are not excessively idiosyncratic. Professors can be annoying in ways, such as being habitually late for appointments. Such habits would put administrators in jeopardy of their positions.
  • Focus on One’s Own Teaching and Research: “Enough of my talking about my work; it’s your turn; what do you think of my work?” Academics typically focus their greatest attention on their own teaching and research.  In contrast, administrators are expected to focus on supporting the teaching and research of their charges. Their main goal is to help the professoriate, staff, and students, not themselves. If they focus too much on their own professional interests, they are viewed as not having successfully made the transition from professor to administrator.
  • Suffering Fools: “Stuff it, Pal!” As an academic, you are expected not to pull punches. If you view someone as foolish, you say so, although perhaps not in so many words. As a reviewer of a paper or a commentator on a symposium presentation, you are expected to be quite direct, although not rude. As an administrator, you often have to suffer fools gladly, especially if they happen to be powerful professors, supervisors, or well-heeled donors.

On the whole, the habits, as described above, are learned and are largely a result of different reward systems for professors and administrators. Professors typically are rewarded for behavior that is sufficiently individualistic that their own personal contributions shine through.  If they are too communal, they may be appreciated but will have difficulty getting through the reappointment-tenure-promotion process.  Administrators usually are rewarded for behavior that is sufficiently communal that it helps a wide swath of students, faculty, and staff. If they are too individualistic, they may be viewed as out for themselves rather than for the common good of the university.

A background as a professor does not always prepare one in an ideal manner for life as an academic administrator. As an administrator, one often has to unlearn many of the habits acquired as a professor. Retain those old habits at your own risk!   



Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president, and Regents Professor of Psychology and Education at Oklahoma State University. In the old days, he was IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale and director of the Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise (PACE Center) at Yale.  He has gotten over all the bad habits he acquired in the old days, except that he still cringes when he hears that an Oklahoma State graduate has donated money to Oklahoma State’s arch-rival, the University of Oklahoma.


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