13 Tips for New Administrators

Stella Erbes shares reflections and lessons learned during her first year that might serve as a helpful resource for other people considering a leadership position in higher education.

January 5, 2021
 
 
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It is finished. I've completed my first academic year as divisional dean. As an administrator, I have gained special access inside higher education that my 17 prior years as a professor did not afford me. In fact, after assuming the position, a senior administrator shared his congratulatory remarks with me and said, “It will be fun. Now you will get to see how a university works.” And, indeed, I have.

Our undergraduate campus consists of eight divisions, and I oversee one of the largest: the Humanities & Teacher Education Division, which covers five majors and 10 minors, three special programs, and two graduate programs. I supervise 43 full-time faculty, roughly seven adjunct instructors and three office staff members. Some institutions refer to my leadership role as an academic or department chair. Our college formerly designated my position as a division chair but changed the title to divisional dean to recognize the myriad responsibilities undertaken in this position.

My inaugural year as divisional dean has been sandwiched between two traumatic events: the Woolsey fire and Borderline shooting in the fall of 2018 and the coronavirus pandemic that caused the evacuation of our campus along with the move to emergency remote instruction in March 2020. These unprecedented times have called me to give extra care and attention to how I carry out my leadership responsibilities to benefit the students, staff members and faculty members at our university.

Being a teacher educator, I engage regularly in metacognitive exercises, constantly reflecting deeply on my pedagogy and considering what tools and strategies I can share with my student teachers so that they can best be prepared for the demands of the teaching profession. In approaching the divisional dean position, I recognized pre-emptively that my reflections and lessons learned during my first year might serve as a helpful resource for other people who are considering a leadership position in higher education. The notes I’ve taken during my inaugural year have led to this list of 13 practical tips that will hopefully assist a newly designated administrator.

Developing Your Own Orientation

Walter H. Gmelch and Val D. Miskin confirmed in Chairing an Academic Department that “few universities and colleges have systematic training for their academic leaders, and of the more than 2,000 academic leaders [they] have surveyed, only 3 percent have department chair development programs in their universities.” My introduction to leadership in higher education was no different. Although the college generously offered to support my attendance at a leadership conference, no systematic training was available to me before I began my first year as a divisional dean. I found the following four actions to be most helpful and recommend you consider them.

  1. Compile a reading list about leadership. Sometimes a university will purchase books as a professional development expense. The texts I selected represented a wide range of disciplines, including business (The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter and Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t), social sciences (The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People) and education (Chairing an Academic Department).
  2. Schedule appointments with former and current deans to learn from them. The practical insights and personal experiences of those colleagues supported me throughout the year. Having allies to lean on is essential. One particularly valuable resource I appreciated was a Google Doc that a former divisional dean had used to map out the monthly duties for the entire academic year. I referred to it often to be sure that I was not inadvertently neglecting any events or responsibilities.
  3. Attend a budget training. Make an appointment with the budget manager to better understand your department's finances. Attend a technology training to learn how to use the budget program. During the first year, I learned some basics about the different accounts in my division, how they are coded in the system and how to approve or decline transactions.
  4. Learn from your supervisor. Meeting with the senior associate dean regularly offered me many opportunities to learn from her experience. Her tips on how to respond to faculty members with words like, “You’ve given me a lot to think about,” or her advice on how to frame a sensitive email to a professor, were extremely beneficial as I interacted with my former peers in my new administrative role.

Refreshing Your Physical and Digital Space

It was important for me to mark the change in our division by physically and digitally refreshing our workspace. In my educational psychology class, I explain how the information-processing model represents how our brains take in knowledge through our senses to reinforce data using implicit or explicit teaching strategies. Updating physical spaces to mark a new chapter in a department’s history is an explicit strategy that can be used to convey change or mark a fresh start. Replacing faded bulletin boards and outdated photos with bright backdrops, high-resolution images and vibrant posters made a favorable impression. Additionally, showing faculty members how I updated our digital presence by redesigning our website served as a tangible representation of my commitment to move us forward. Such explicit strategies also send an implicit message. By taking the time to refresh our physical and digital spaces, faculty constantly see evidence of a new era.

  1. Hire a graphic artist, or apply your graphic design skills. Luckily, my experience with Photoshop, PowerPoint and digital photography have come in handy as a divisional dean. Rather than having to wait for a graphic design team, I was personally able to create eye-catching posters highlighting faculty and student research, sharing inspirational quotes and displaying high-quality images. If you do not possess any graphic design skills, then you might consider hiring a student worker to assist you, as having a graphic designer on your team is essential. During the year, the faculty can also utilize the talents of student designers to develop event fliers and program brochures.
  2. Work with the media specialists. Although academics are generally not gifted with web design or social media skills, prioritizing meetings with the web media specialist and the social media managers of your institution is vital for promoting your division and drawing positive attention to its work. In reviewing our website, I quickly found that faculty titles were incorrect, pictures were outdated and our good work was not being shared effectively. By working with media specialists, I was able to refresh our website expeditiously and spotlight our programs creatively.

Appreciating the People

We work in a people profession. If we look inside higher education, we will find people committed to the educational enterprise. In The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, Gary Chapman and Paul White state that “all of us thrive in an atmosphere of appreciation.” Authentic appreciation affirms an employee’s value as a person and improves the entire work culture. Recognizing those important principles, I was committed to expressing my genuine gratitude to all the members in my division and to communicating with them regularly.

  1. Show genuine appreciation for the office staff. Being divisional dean has allowed me to see the work of our office staff through an entirely new lens. As a faculty member, I never considered how our office supplies were ordered, how many reimbursements were processed in our division or how the classrooms were stocked -- I took all those tasks for granted. Now as an administrator, I have the opportunity to highlight the supportive work of our staff members by acknowledging them publicly, leaving them thoughtful notes and regularly thanking them for their work.
  2. Introduce student employees. Encouraging the student workers to introduce themselves to the faculty in the office or at a formal division meeting helps foster community in the department. It was also useful to have large name tags for student employees displayed on their office desk so that the faculty could address them personally by name. Such details contributed significantly to developing a positive work environment in our office.
  3. Enhance faculty morale. Gmelch and Miskin outlined the role of faculty developer as one of the key responsibilities as an academic chair. If supervisors merge the concepts of supporting faculty development and expressing genuine appreciation, they can enhance morale to help professors reach their maximum potential. At the beginning of the year, I gave faculty members elegant badges engraved with their names and titles. Wearing these name badges at university events throughout the year boosted their spirits. Additionally, hosting special events like holiday parties, both in person and online, and affirming faculty work publicly fueled a positive working climate and united our community.
  4. Communicate regularly and promptly. The first obvious difference that I noticed when assuming a leadership role in higher education was the flood of emails. Divisional deans have access to the inner workings of a university, so the number of people that one deals with regularly increases exponentially along with the responsibilities accompanied with that access. Learning how and when to communicate an idea, a thought or a decision is time-consuming. As a leader, you should now calculate those considerations into your daily routine. During uncertain times, it is especially important to communicate more regularly with faculty and staff members, even if you are only sharing an expression of gratitude, a teaching tip or a tech tool, or reiterating a university announcement. Faculty are looking for direction from a leader.

Honing Your Event-Planning Skills

My event-planning skills have proven to be highly valuable when executing my new administrative responsibilities. Being organized, clear in my communications, creative and multitask-oriented have allowed me to juggle the numerous demands of the job. Those skills have also successfully aided me in organizing and holding events throughout the academic year.

  1. Model excellence through events. As an administrator, you will most likely attend and host far more university events than you ever did as a faculty member. Admissions fairs, special faculty presentations, division meetings, special receptions and numerous other activities filled my calendar; many of these undertakings were ones that I personally oversaw. I found that communicating a standard of excellence is not always achieved using only words. When organizing gatherings, I was very careful to consider every detail of their execution. Before division meetings, I learned to ask questions like:
  • What will be on the screen as faculty enter the room?
  • What materials will be on each desk?
  • Which song will be playing as they enter?
  • Will food be served?
  • How many minutes will be devoted to each item in the agenda?
  • How will the desks be arranged?
  • Does the venue adequately accommodate the guests?

Taking Care of Yourself

Before assuming any leadership position, people warn each other about how the stress and long hours of work begin to take a toll on one’s health. That is true, so maintaining your wellness is essential.

In my first month as an administrator, one of my early mistakes was eating lunch at my desk one day instead of taking a break away from the office. After spending more than eight hours in my office that day, I vowed never to repeat that error. When I remained at my desk for the entire day, I felt depleted, depressed and defeated. Now I always take my lunch hour and find ways to replenish myself. The work will always be there, and I cannot perform my job duties effectively if I am not well.

  1. Complete a wellness checkup. It is helpful to visit a doctor before assuming your leadership role, as it allows you to see what your body needs physically before moving forward. Do you need to watch your diet or exercise more? Beginning the year with a wellness appointment establishes a baseline to compare data from future appointments.
  2. Monitor your habits. After a while, you will begin to understand the rhythms of your workday. How will you start it? How will you end it? How much sleep do you need? Under what circumstances do your mind and your body thrive? Once you open your computer and begin work, the day grabs a hold of you. So I found that pausing in the morning to practice mindfulness was valuable and enhanced my work productivity.
    You might consider beginning your day with something to support your own spirit, like listening to an uplifting song, meditating, expressing gratitude or reading for personal development. Also, at the end of the day, I found that I could not do anything more after I returned home. I was done. So, to fit exercise into my routine, I found that I needed to exercise at work before leaving campus. Our university offered yoga classes, and they fit my schedule. In this same way, I began to monitor my eating habits. I knew that I needed to bring food and break for snacks or I would not eat sensibly. It is important to review your patterns and analyze the circumstances in which you will thrive best.

These tips brought me great fortune as I navigated my first year as an administrator, and I hope they do the same for others who are assuming similar roles with little to no orientation during these uncertain times. The work is relentless but important. You will have the opportunity to bless many, but you cannot do so without taking care of yourself first. As you launch your own journey in higher education, I will reiterate the words that were once shared with me: “It will be fun. Now you will get to see how a university works.”

Bio

Stella Erbes is the divisional dean of humanities and teacher education, and an associate professor of teacher education, at Pepperdine University.

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