A New Chapter

Administrators who are teachers and learners at heart need new environments to learn and grow, says Jim Hunt.

November 13, 2015

I first shared my thoughts about academic administration with the readers of Inside Higher Ed when I hit my 10-year mark as a provost and later when I hit the 15-year mark. In between, I wrote about how Keith Richards (yes, Keith Richards) could be a good role model for a provost.

In each of these pieces, I was attempting to share what I had learned about academic leadership with people who were relatively new to their administrative positions. My hope was that, by sharing my experiences and observations, I might help them as they began to encounter the joys and the challenges of academic leadership.

For example, in the first article, I recommended, among other things, that you should resist the temptation to demonstrate that you are a “strong leader” by making big decisions too soon, that you should research the history of any initial request (for anything) that you receive and that you should be wary of those people who are the first to make an appointment with you.

In the piece I wrote five years later, some of my key suggestions were to stay connected with students, do good work for the sake of doing it, and keep calm and carry on. And, in the Keith Richards-as-role-model essay, I advised readers to make sure to have the right “Micks” as your band’s front men and women, to try “alternative tunings” in configuring task forces and working groups, and to draw satisfaction from “playing in the band.”

In all of this advice, however, I neglected to offer one important observation that I learned by the beginning of my second year as a chief academic officer: if you move from being a full-time faculty member into a full-time administrative role -- as most chief academic officers have done -- you soon notice something different about the rhythm of the work. As a full-time faculty member, you have the opportunity to start a new chapter at the beginning of each semester. With each new term, you have the chance to take what you learned about your course or your teaching in the previous semester and start over with new students. As a full-time administrator, however, you quickly realize that there are no new chapters. Each decision has a life that transcends semesters, terms and academic years.

In fact, for me, the path to a new chapter required that I leave the university I’d served for almost 16 years to seek a new “classroom” to apply what I had learned over time. Now that I have been at my new institution for a little more than seven months, here are the insights I’ve gained during my new chapter that might be relevant for others thinking of making a similar switch. I recommend that you:

Recognize that everything old is new again. The issues are similar, but the approach can be different. I’ve been struck by how the issues at my new institution so closely match those I grappled with at my previous institution. Such a match is perhaps is not surprising, given that both institutions have similar missions. But the similarities -- concerns about net tuition revenue, retention, reducing budgets and staffing, just to name a few -- are truly uncanny.

What is significantly different, however, is how people in the new setting view and deal with those issues. For example, I am working with my colleagues at my new institution to develop a first-year seminar program for improving retention, something my previous institution had established many years ago. Being involved in the creation of something new with new colleagues -- even something with which I have a great deal of previous experience -- is exhilarating.

I hope my former experience will continue to be beneficial in tackling such issues. In some cases, I’ve been told that it gives my new colleagues some comfort to know they aren’t the only ones dealing with them. I am also learning a great deal from my new colleagues as we work together. Just like in a classroom, where you usually learn as much from the students as they do from you, working with new colleagues is a wonderful learning experience for you.

Focus on feedback. As a full-time faculty member, you receive constant feedback in the form of course evaluations at the end of the semester. If you are like most effective faculty members, you know how to interpret the course evaluations -- which ones provide valid constructive criticism and which are from students who have some sort of ax to grind. You also know how to take the valid criticism and use it to shape and improve your courses in the future.

In contrast, as a full-time administrator, you don’t have such course evaluations. Yet, at the same time, you receive no shortage of substantive feedback about your work through your interactions with faculty members in committee meetings, email exchanges, impromptu conversations and the like. It is also likely that you have received feedback from students as you have dealt with them on matters like grade appeals and issues of diversity and social justice on the campus. In a new chapter, you have the opportunity to reflect on this feedback in the same way you would have with your course evaluations and use the valid criticism as a means of shaping your work at your new institution.

For example, at my previous institution, I was sometimes told by faculty leaders that I needed to make “big decisions sooner.” And while I used to caution against making such decisions too fast, I now have a better sense of when something needs a push and when it can be left alone to take its own course.

Work to regain political capital. If you have been an effective academic leader at your institution for any appreciable length of time, you probably have had to expend quite a bit of political capital to accomplish your successes. It is rare that any decision you make will be universally accepted as “good,” and you will almost always find people who disagree with what you have done.

By starting over at a new institution, you have the ability to regain the political capital you need to be an effective leader. (This assumes, of course, that the faculty agrees at some level that you were the best candidate for the position.) For example, at my new institution, the current general education program has been in place for about 10 years -- which means it probably is time to take a serious look at whether or not it needs re-evaluation. Since I wasn’t here the last time it was reformed, I am not bound by the battles that likely resulted from those prior reform efforts and, therefore, I am in a better position to move that process along.

Make sure the move is win-win. If all things fall into place as they should, an administrative new chapter should be a win-win. It should be a win for you in that you have a new start and a renewed energy for your work. And it should be a win for your new institution in that you bring experience and enthusiasm to your new position.

The first-year seminar I described earlier is a great example of this win-win principle at work. Adapting my previous experience to a new setting with new colleagues and students has renewed my enthusiasm and, at the same time, will hopefully help to create a program that will serve our students well.

Whether or not you need a new chapter at this point in your career is for you to determine. I must admit that when I began my role as chief academic officer at my previous institution, I imagined that I would complete my career in that role. But, from where I now sit, my decision to find a new chapter was a good -- no, a great -- one. Those of us who are teachers and learners at heart need new environments to learn and grow. And, for me, a little over seven months in -- it feels great.

One final thought … a coda, if you will. For those of us who consider Keith Richards to be a role model, he continues to show us the path to follow. With the release of a new solo album after over five decades of playing in the same band, he shows that even a septuagenarian rock 'n' roller can begin a new chapter.


Jim Hunt is vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at McMurry University.


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