Crossing Over

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt writes that it's important for faculty members to consider and go after jobs as administrators.


February 18, 2015

Faculty should be administrators. Well, not all faculty, of course. But, yes, some of you should consider being administrators. I say this for several reasons, but overall those reasons boil down to one thing: your voice.

Every morning when I scan the e-mail summary from Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education, there are at least two or more stories, editorials or blog posts that demonstrate the profound disconnect between faculty and administration. In some institutions this disconnect has become a gaping chasm. And while I don't really expect things between the two groups to become cozy anytime soon, I do think if more faculty considered moving into the administrative ranks, the relationship could be better.

At the lower levels of academic administration, this is why we (mostly) choose chairs from among the pool of the existing departmental faculty. We want someone who knows the faculty, the students, the standards of the particular academic discipline or profession. We value proximity, experience and insider knowledge.

Yet my completely unscientific impression of the ranks of upper administration these days is that many who hold these positions did not begin as faculty at the institutions they now serve. Or if they did, they moved very quickly to administration and have long lost contact with their discipline and faculty identity. Increasingly, there seems to be a class of professional administrators who hopscotch from one institution to the next. This creates a situation where proximity and insider knowledge are in short supply. Small wonder, then, that vast, unbridgeable divides have opened up between faculty and administration. (I also think that administrators should be required to teach, but that's an argument for a different day.)

I'm no Pollyanna. There will always be tension between faculty and administration -- and I think that tension can be healthy and productive. And faculty governance still matters -- immensely and especially in those areas that faculty rightfully claim as their own, like curriculum.

But I also think that much of institutional culture gets made at the ranks of the upper administration. These folks are the authors of the strategic plans and mission statements and other documents that set the agenda and the tone. What if your voice was included among those writing these documents and making these decisions?

Academic administration is not for everyone. But I think it is a better fit for more faculty than actually consider it. We may not think we'd be good at it, but I think that is often based on a limited impression of what's required. Good with statistics and crunching numbers? You might be a great fit for vice provost of academic planning. Really interested in pedagogy and the classroom? You might be the one to run the university's Center for Teaching Excellence. You get the idea. 

But this will require some planning on your part. To borrow a term from curriculum planning, making this transition should involve some scaffolding. Some in the upper administration might resist you bursting onto the scene at the level of vice provost, for example. So you may need to start small and build from there. Another advantage of scaffolding is that it will allow you to dip a toe in the administrative waters and see if it works for you.

Another possible barrier is that we appropriately worry that it will pull us away from our research and teaching. But I don't think these are mutually exclusive categories (I've written about this here and here). Finally, we may see it as a betrayal of our faculty street cred. As I moved into administration, some colleagues critiqued me for "crossing over to the dark side." So be it. But I think we can leverage that faculty credibility to better serve the interests that drew us into higher education in the first place: teaching and research. Crossing over doesn't have to mean selling your soul to the dark side, but it does include the opportunity to sit at a table where a lot of influential decisions get made.


Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is professor of history and interim director of the Mandel Honors College at Cleveland State University.


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