Repurposing Your Scholarly Skills

Nervous about a new leadership role? Review your scholarly skill set and prepare to apply it in a fresh context, says Elizabeth H. Simmons.

March 24, 2016

About to start your first stint in academic leadership? Congratulations! Feeling apprehensive? That’s hardly surprising: many challenges are surely in your future. But you are probably more prepared than you think.

This essay is aimed at faculty members who are planning to try their hands at academic leadership and are wondering whether they have what it takes. It will focus on some of the major worries new leaders commonly face: dealing with conflict, managing self-doubt and handling ambiguity. In particular, I will suggest how to frame them in terms of skills and attitudes you have already acquired in your role as a scholar.

Dealing With Conflict

For some people, the biggest worry about assuming a leadership role is having to deal with conflict. They realize that being the person who must choose among various possible courses of action for the unit may leave proponents of the discarded alternatives dissatisfied. Moreover, they have seen that unit leaders sometimes have to resolve disputes among community members. Regardless of the details, they will likely find themselves on the receiving end of criticism or pointed public questions.

As a scholar, you have almost certainly had extensive public conversations with people who disagreed with you. In fact, it’s a virtual certainty that, from time to time, an audience member has launched a hostile or ill-informed question at you during a presentation. Over the years, you have developed ways to engage, deflect or defuse the situation and keep the seminar on track.

Sometimes that question provides a welcome opportunity to remind the audience of your underlying assumptions or methods and reiterate why they are appropriate to the matter at hand. Sometimes, that question lets you acknowledge that there is no true consensus in the field, that it is essential to explore multiple options and see where the evidence leads. Sometimes that question is so far off point that you must defer it to an individual conversation after the seminar.

Remembering your experiences and approaches in the scholarly arena can stand you in good stead as you prepare to lead meetings and resolve disagreements. You do have the tools and need only see this as an opportunity to adapt them.

Unexpected or seemingly aggressive queries are not necessarily intended as attacks on a leader’s motives or viewpoint. Often they may represent a colleague’s honest desire to understand a topic they have little familiarity with discussing. Questions about academic finance are a good example. If faculty members are seldom told the details of the unit’s revenue streams or budget planning processes, their queries about how to fund a favorite initiative can come across as anything from hostile to naïve. Making the effort to outline the possibilities, timelines and constraints can yield more productive and less charged discussions in future.

At other times, those asking aggressive questions may be attempting to ensure that multiple options have been thoroughly explored before a major decision is made. For instance, when my college was preparing to turn an underused study space into badly needed offices, a faculty member began questioning the basis of the characterizations “underused” and “badly needed.” The study space had a long tradition as a silent reading area, and the professor wanted to make sure student needs were not forgotten. The data we had collected on how often the study room was occupied and on how many full-time faculty members with extensive teaching loads lacked appropriate office space for working with students proved convincing, and the project went ahead. In hindsight, I can appreciate that my colleague’s questions played a crucial role in ensuring that the decisions were made in a sound and transparent way.

This suggests a distinct positive side to engaging directly with challenging questions. If you ask for the questioner’s underlying thoughts, you may well learn something valuable about their point of view. Given that you may be working with that colleague for many more years, such knowledge is likely to be helpful.

Moreover, if you are a relative newcomer, leaning forward when a contrary view is asserted and saying, “Tell me more about that,” may yield a glimpse of a detailed history or larger context of which you were unaware. Taking these situations as an opportunity to learn can lead to better plans and more collegial relationships in the long run. Moreover, in the rare situations where the question is truly intended to be disruptive, gaining more insight on the questioner’s viewpoint while simultaneously letting others hear their justifications may be useful.

In short, while it can feel disconcerting to have colleagues publicly challenge your ideas or motives, you should be familiar with conflicting ideas and open debate from your scholarly work. From that context, you know that you cannot simply ignore inconvenient data or countervailing opinions. You must examine them and then re-examine your own hypotheses with them in mind. Similarly, in the administrative sphere, unless a question truly constitutes a pure ad hominem attack, it is more productive to mentally label it as “probing,” treat it as you would a referee’s review of a manuscript and see what good can come from it.

Managing Self-Doubt

As an academic leader, you are likely to encounter self-doubt from time to time, especially when new to the job or dealing with an unfamiliar situation. Again, your experience as a scholar will come in handy.

Each of us has already been a tyro in scholarship several times: as an undergraduate, as a graduate student, possibly as a postdoctoral fellow and then again as a faculty member. We transitioned from someone who analyzed texts or data using methods suggested by others to someone who selected and created their own questions and techniques, to someone who could lay out a multiyear research program and pursue it successfully. We learned how to ask the relevant questions and where to find resources. We formed support networks to help us move forward.

Now, as a new leader, you can adapt those practices to the uncharted territory before you. The university’s bylaws and faculty handbook will be your methods manual. Weekly or monthly meetings with fellow administrators of various ranks will be your lab meetings. The institution’s administrative briefings will function as an ongoing special topics seminar. Chairs or directors from other units will be your network: peers with similar enough duties to understand what you face but with sufficient organizational distance to preserve confidentiality.

As the initial anxiety associated with the transition to leadership fades, it is likely that you will still feel self-doubt on occasion. Sometimes that may take the form of impostor syndrome, where you feel unworthy of your role despite clear successes. Many of us can recall such a feeling before our dissertation defense or final critique: How could I presume to think I could teach my esteemed committee members anything? But we should also recall that we passed that test. We were, in fact, the world’s expert on our topic, and we were able to recognize the committee’s questions as expressions of interest in our findings. Our worries did not derail us or define our actual level of competence. With this in mind, we can muster the confidence to prepare for that next faculty meeting, budget letter or presentation to the Board of Trustees.

Sometimes, you may doubt whether an endeavor will succeed: whether a hire will be approved, a course reformed, a lab renovated or a faltering faculty member mentored to greater success. Again, our experience as scholars is a good guide. We can probably all remember research ideas that did not work out as planned: archival documents surfacing to contradict our hypotheses or models failing to describe the latest data. Sometimes we could salvage results from the wreckage; sometimes we had to begin afresh. Yet here we are. The failure of one project did not define our oeuvre. Similarly, you can regroup and press onward if an administrative proposal fails to jell. The possibility of failure need not paralyze your administrative role any more than it does your scholarly one.

Moreover, the mere presence of doubt need not signal that a project is in trouble. In my research as a theoretical physicist, I have found that I encounter a fairly reliable cycle as I move through a project, where doubts will repeatedly surface and be resolved. Sometimes, the resolution involves reframing the project, and sometimes it merely requires finding an errant minus sign. Being aware of this pattern from my scholarly work has helped me stay the course during the twists and turns of multiyear administrative projects.

Handling Ambiguity

Sometimes you may feel uncertain about what you should do rather than whether you are the right person to do it. While your overall mandate is certainly to help your department, center or college become a better version of itself, how to accomplish this and what counts as better may not always be sufficiently obvious.

In some cases, the primary difficulty may be procedural ambiguity. For instance, when I petitioned the university to make my unit into a full-fledged academic college, I had no checklists to follow. Scholars regularly encounter that kind of uncertainty; you must select, adapt or create methods in order to attack novel research questions. In the example I just mentioned, by drawing on familiar situations like enacting curricular revisions, I determined that drafting a formal transition plan and systematically seeking governance approval at every level -- from the unit to the university Board of Trustees -- was a logical way to proceed. It proved to be not only logical but also successful.

At other times, the challenge may lie in choosing which improvements to prioritize. As a scholar, you start by analyzing the context, outcomes, resources and timeline. Research projects aligned with your intellectual goals, leading to tangible results (e.g., a publication or performance) at achievable cost and in time to impact on your next promotion step would have highest priority. As you advance in rank and experience, longer timelines become more feasible.

Similarly, in the administrative context, a project that advances the institutional mission, can be assessed via evidence of interest to your supervisor, is within your means and can be finished during your term would rank highly. As you build a track record, starting longer-term reforms that a successor will need to finish becomes feasible; colleagues and supervisors will trust you to establish structures that sustain the project after your term is over.

Alternatively, you may encounter ambiguity within the very information intended to provide you with guidance. We all must deal with incomplete data or approximate answers in our scholarship, and that experience will serve you well as a leader. A starting point is often seeking more robust information from authoritative sources (see also my essay on applying this to work-life issues). Your campus’s registrar, institutional research office, institutional planning office, contracts and grants office, and development office should be able to provide standardized campus data on a wealth of topics in formats commonly used by the central administration for making its decisions. Supporting a plan with institutional data familiar to those reading your proposal can be very powerful. Discussing the data with knowledgeable colleagues will also be crucial; institutional data sets can be distressingly incommensurate, and values of the most mundane items (e.g., numbers of employees or students in your unit) may be surprisingly fluid. A chat with the local data experts can ensure you understand how it was gathered, how its components were defined and the limits of its reliability.

You may also want to determine how much progress you can make through extrapolation from the available imprecise data. In a scientific calculation, one might take the conservative approach of seeing whether a worst-case scenario leaves one’s hypothesis unscathed. In the administrative context, what constitutes a worst case may be hard to pin down.

For instance, to predict how many course sections are needed next year, you might analyze recent enrollment and staffing data for trends and margins of error. But the data alone will not determine what constitutes an objective “conservative” assumption. You will also need to compare consequences: Is it more troublesome to incur the unneeded expense of hiring an extra instructor whose sections don’t fill or to scramble at the last minute to hire someone of imperfect qualifications to cover one last section? In other words, you must decide whether guarding against a cost overrun or a missing instructor is more prudent.

Ultimately, ambiguity and approximation are as inevitable in academic decision making as they are in scholarly work. When analyzing ancient texts, one may not be able to perfectly reconstruct the language or societal context from which they emerged. When forecasting economic trends, it may be impossible to account for all of the ways in which key factors interconnect. When predicting how readily the Higgs boson will decay to various final states, one cannot derive a result free from assumptions about how hypothetical undiscovered particles would contribute. As scholars, we are accustomed to discussing how such limitations in our information impact our conclusions and framing our work as the best achievable with available evidence and methods. We should be prepared to do the same with our administrative projects. These should also be undertaken in a spirit of experimentation, assessment and continuous improvement. Seen in this light, ambiguity need not prevent us from making progress.

In closing, I should mention that your scholarly experience can also awaken you to enjoyable aspects of leadership roles. Many of us are drawn to academe because we like learning new topics or skills. As a dean, chair or director, you will have ample opportunities to learn about topics as diverse as curriculum design, faculty mentorship, facilities planning, fund-raising and student retention initiatives. You need not become an expert in every one of these, of course. Other people on the campus can provide assistance, just as your faculty colleagues do when you are learning a new scholarly paradigm. But once you have grasped the basics, it is very satisfying to apply that fresh administrative knowledge to benefit your unit.

Similarly, many of us were originally attracted to scholarship by the sheer joy of solving puzzles. Administration presents an endless array of conundrums (some bringing more obvious joy than others). What is particularly intriguing is that combining several such issues may lead to a better overall solution than attempting to solve them individually. In other words, in leadership roles, you will have an opportunity to think metacognitively about the puzzles before you, to look for patterns and complementarity, to solve puzzles about puzzles. What could be more scholarly than that?


Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of the Lyman Briggs College and University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Michigan State University.


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