When I moved into my first faculty position after earning my Ph.D., I had been an academic administrator for several years — and had been an administrator some years before, too. Moving into the “faculty mindset” wasn’t hard for me at first. I was expected to focus on my teaching and research, asked to commit to service when it was needed, and was otherwise free to go about my business as I saw fit.
It didn’t take long, however, for me to start to chafe at the disconnection: I had very little sense of what was going on in the wider university that didn’t directly impact my work or wasn’t in the student newspaper. I was used to knowing more, being part of the larger project of education on campus. That’s a central part of why I sought administrative work after only a short time in a purely faculty role. It was also the moment when I realized that there really is an administrative mindset that comes with changing roles.
So, just how do administrators think differently than faculty? In several key ways that must be clear to anyone considering a move from one side of the line to the other in academe. And trust me, it’s a clear line.
1. We all want what’s best for students, but administrative “best” is different.
As a faculty member, I was focused chiefly on what went on in my classroom and secondarily, but also importantly, on how my courses fit into the larger curriculum of my department, program, and school. I was concerned with how my corner of a student’s education contributed to the larger whole. I held my office hours and had my door open as often as I could for students to drop by—and they did—to help them get the most out of my class. As a faculty member, I was balancing teaching, research, and service to the best of my ability in whatever way my home institution asked of me. In that way, I was giving students what was “best.”
As an administrator, however, even one who teaches as part of my job description, my perspective on what it means to do what’s best for students doesn’t begin in classrooms; it begins with the structure behind the scenes that makes the campus run. Are the right offices talking to each other to make things happen? Is there a bottleneck somewhere that prevents things from happening as they should? I don’t have to be concerned with every office in every division, but because my work serves students differently, I have to worry about and make decisions about things that aren’t the centerpiece of education, the way classroom teaching is, but that have real impact on students’ educational experience.
2. What “work” looks like is very, very different.
I’m married to a faculty member at another institution, and he often asks me — still — “What do you DO all day at work? E-mail? Meetings?” Yes, those things are significant features of administrative worklife, but they are not the only things I do or any administrator does. When I was a faculty member, e-mail was often to students or to a program director or chair, sometimes another office, but it was always about my classes or students, my schedule, my research, etc. In the short bursts of e-mail I did then, I could never have conceived of the amount of work that can be accomplished in e-mail — how many decisions get made, ideas offered and shared, assignments given from a supervisor, and a host of other functions that must take place for a college or university to run. The rest of that, of course, takes place in meetings or in conversations by phone or in person. So much of my administrative day is filled with people that it barely resembles my often-solitary faculty life, when I saw my students and a few colleagues and went home.
Beyond people, though, I have dedicated desk time and need it to accomplish all the things that e-mail and meetings and conversations make clear I need to do. As a faculty member, I sat at my desk to check e-mail and prep class materials and — of course — to grade papers. I never dreamed that I could spend four straight hours at my desk writing a report before calling into a webinar and then running to a meeting, saving a little time at the end of the day to clean up the emails that came in during that meeting. Now, that is a typical work day for me when I’m not teaching and what my days look like when I’m not in a classroom. So, yes, at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, I am likely to be the only one still at her desk on my hallway of faculty offices, but my work is better done at that desk.
The beauty of it is that when I leave for the day, the work stays at work and no longer invades so many “non-working” hours. As a faculty member, I needed to check in with students over weekends and during evenings, and I had so many students some semesters that if I left it for the morning, I would barely get out from the flood of responses by noon. As an administrator, my work is never done, but I know I’ll be back again in the morning to keep pushing away at the seemingly endless to-do list.
3. You have the same skills, but you will use them differently.
I’m an English Ph.D., and when I was only worrying about teaching, research, and service, I saw a clear connection between my graduate training and my worklife. My research came from my primary field of study and grew out of the dissertation that got me the Ph.D.; my teaching drew on my academic field in many ways. My book revision was actually pushed further along thanks to some of the texts I taught when my central concerns were teaching and research. I loved this connection among the strands of my work and the feeling that I was doing what I was trained to do — teach and write about my academic field.
But my work as an administrator draws on things that aren’t ideas I read in books or heard in classes. Instead, I spend every day reading and thinking about the shape of my program and my home institution in the way I once read and thought about texts for classes, exams, or scholarly writing. So, I am using those same skills, but the “text” is different — in kind and scope. Now, I think critically about how all the courses in my program fit together with different teachers in charge of them, how to train those teachers in the pedagogy they may not know but need to be successful. I now use my training in rhetoric not to teach rhetoric or even writing, but to help me talk to international recruitment partners and understand the pitch to make for my program with parents from very different cultures. Being flexible and learning new skills is a necessity of administration in higher education, and you have to be prepared for that — both the challenges and the risks — when you take such a position. I’m the kind of person who wants that challenge enough to take the risk because I also want the new skills and knowledge that comes with such work. Nowhere in my graduate work in English language and literature did I learn about admission metrics or international education trends, but having gained that knowledge and skills that allow me to apply it doesn’t just make me a better administrator, it makes me more aware of the wider landscape of higher education.
4. Be prepared to be “the man.”
No matter how far down the management totem pole you are, as an administrator, how you feel about comments on what “the administration” doesn’t know, understand, realize, focus on — any of the host of complaints that can come from the “us vs. them” of faculty and administration — will be different when you are an administrator. Whether you like it or not, you are part of that often nameless and faceless body of otherness embodied in that phrase: “the administration.”
Sometimes when I hear such comments, I want to explain the rhetorical context of one side to the other, and at other times, I realize there’s no point, as positions and perspectives are so different that I can’t possibly make clear how many things happened before a decision was made that seems to indicate what administrators don’t think or feel or understand.
As a faculty member, I made those comments, too, and as a long-time academic labor advocate, I have even made them in publications and at podiums. It is strange to be on the other side of that classic academic binary, but as an administrator, that comes with the territory. You will even find yourself in a position, as I have in more than one administrative position, where you know the difficult truth behind an unpopular decision and have to smile to the troops and move everyone forward. Those secrets have to stay with you, unspoken, which — sometimes slowly and sometimes too quickly — builds that “us vs. them” divide.
Some time ago a colleague asked me if I would ever consider “going back” to a purely faculty role, and I still think about that choice of preposition: “back.” I didn’t really realize how far over the line into an administrative mindset I had gone or, consciously, that the line even existed. If you are considering a move to an alt-ac role or one into senior administration as a seemingly natural progression from faculty work, be aware that you are crossing an identity line. I don’t know if I’ll go back; don’t know if I can.