If you are hired as an administrator with the marching orders to shake things up, there may be a limit on how long you can be effective, writes Ella DeJon.
Several years ago I accepted a position as administrator for a large urban community college. My partner and I had been living the lives of academic nomads for the previous 10 years and thought that this might be the place where we’d finally put down some roots and make a long-term commitment to an institution.
Earlier this month I began freshening up my résumé and cover letter. While I’ve arguably been quite successful in this position, I’ve come to feel like this job may have had a built-in expiration date that I didn’t think about when I was hired.
I was explicitly hired to be a change maker. I was to replace a well-liked but mediocre manager, a person who had made his whole career in the same institution, rising through the ranks to be dean of multiple departments. He hung on in that position for three decades, finally retiring after it began clear that the institution needed a different kind of leader. While the college had undergone dramatic changes during those years (shifting demographics, exploding enrollment, changing technology, and a new focus on student services), almost nothing had changed in his areas. Change was well overdue and I was told that everyone, from staff to senior administration, was on board to see it happen. Change is hard, the search committee said, but people are ready for it.
Well, that was about half right.
I took the position knowing that there would be challenges, and there were. I took over a division that had a campuswide reputation for infighting, gossip and low morale. I came in as an outsider to a place where, for both social and economic reasons, people rarely leave and internal applicants are usually favored. I had a leadership and management style that was dramatically different from Mr. Nice Guy before me. He tried to lead by consensus, a model that I think leads to lowest-common-denominator decision-making. I took a more top-down approach. I had hoped to be a transparent and inclusive leader but quickly discovered that there was a core group of staff members who would veto any idea suggested with the either a "We’ve already tried that 15 years ago" or a "That will never work here." Over time I began to see committees and working groups as the place where change goes to die, and began to use a more top-down approach, sometimes deliberately excluding staff members from the decision-making process.
You’d be right in assuming that I’m not universally beloved.
But I’ve done what I was hired to do. In the relatively short time I’ve been here, I’ve restructured multiple departments, created a new department, hired and fired, introduced new technology, begun the process of doing systematic assessment, reduced my budget, changed curriculums, and measurably improved outcomes in some significant areas of service. I’ve been willing to push for a more data-driven approach to decision-making and I’ve been willing to deal with the fallout that comes from changing the way an institution makes decisions. I’ve made some changes that were unpopular but overdue and accomplished some things in my first few years that the president had been waiting 15 years to have taken care of.
You’d also be right to assume that I’m pretty popular with my president and our board.
As another new semester begins, I find myself wondering what to do next. Some of the changes I’ve carried out have been fully adopted and are no longer controversial. Some new programs and policies are still being set up and assessed. There are some smaller projects on my horizon but nothing as significant as the changes made in the last few years, which is probably good as my staff members, accustomed to the status quo for so many years, are exhausted. The upper administration, while supportive, seems to be losing some momentum in terms of tackling the next big issues we might address. It feels like change fatigue has crept in, both above and below me.
In reality, I’m exhausted too. I knew that coming into this job would require me to be okay with people not liking or trusting me. I knew that I couldn’t make everyone happy so I had to make the best decisions for the institution as a whole and the students we serve. I felt comfortable operating decisively, independently and without a personal investment in the "This is how we do things here at College X" culture.
As much as I pride myself on the thickness of my skin, it wears on me to be perpetually in conflict with a small group of staff members who are unlikely to leave. I am beginning to realize that to stay would involve having to do significant work to reshape some of these relationships and, frankly, I’m not sure I want invest my time in rebuilding burned bridges.
I also see that there are some systemic activities that my institution doesn’t do particularly well but I may have arrived at the limits of what I can change from my role. I don’t know that I can "turn off" my inclination toward improvement through disruptive change and I don’t want to spend the next several years banging my head against the wall if the will to change is starting to wane.
I read once that when it comes to hiring administrators, most colleges basically want either a change-maker or a caretaker. I’ve been the change-maker but it is starting to seem like perhaps what my institution needs in my position now is a caretaker, someone to protect the changes already made but not to push for more. Someone to maintain a new status quo.
I’m not sure if I can be that person. I’m not sure that the qualities that led to me being hired for, and successful at, this position would make me a good long-term fit for the institution. I find myself wondering if anyone hired as a change agent can transition to becoming a caretaker. Perhaps at an institution with a clear strategic plan and leadership willing to say, "Maintain the status quo for the next two years and then you get to take a crack at X, Y and Z project." Change agents are, at heart, driven by the question, "What’s next?" and a college president wanting to hang on to the good ones on their staff had better be able to answer that question and to let the change agent know the future opportunities for growth and advancement.
I think I might be willing to stay if I knew I was being groomed for the next level of administration here, where I could tackle some of the problems that vex me now but that aren’t in my wheelhouse. Unfortunately, the possibility for openings in those positions seems remote, with likely retirements years away, and I’m not willing to wait and hope for the chance. I suspect that this impatience and this need for something that feels like forward momentum is part of what makes me good at creating change, but might make it tough to stick around when the change slows down.
It is probably a good thing we never really unpacked. I probably won’t be here much longer.
Ella DeJon is the pseudonym of an administrator at a community college.
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