• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Ask the Administrator: If I Become a Dean, Will My Faculty Colleagues Shun Me?

A new correspondent writes: "I've been thinking a lot lately about how much I do (or don't) want to move farther into academic administration. I've been chair of my department, as well as chair of my division of my institution, but I haven't (yet) taken on a full-time administrative position."

March 19, 2012

A new correspondent writes:

I've been thinking a lot lately about how much I do (or don't) want to move farther into academic administration. I've been chair of my department, as well as chair of my division of my institution, but I haven't (yet) taken on a full-time administrative position.

I often see articles these days about how isolating and challenging academic leadership can be. And I can see how being a provost / dean of faculty would significantly limit one's ability to have casual conversations with faculty colleagues, which would feel like a loss. On the other hand, I could imagine that being in such a position would allow one to cross paths with a wider cross-section of interesting faculty colleagues, and to learn about and support their work.  What have you found the balance of these costs and benefits to be in your position?

On a related note, in a recent post you mentioned (in a slightly different context) "the need for well-prepared people to step up to handle the increasingly difficult challenges" of academic leadership. I realize that you were paraphrasing someone else's message, but to what extent do you think there is an obligation for faculty members who might be effective administrators to at least consider taking on that role?  

I’ll take the second point first.  No, there’s no individual personal obligation to move into administration.  Some professors are absolutely wonderful in the classroom, but just don’t have the temperament for management.  (I assume that they have the intelligence.)  And that’s fine.  Part of the satisfaction of administration is knowing that you’re creating the space in which creative and independent-minded people can do their best work.  If you can enjoy, vicariously, knowing that you’re protecting the brilliant teacher, then administration might be for you.  If you need to be the one in the classroom yourself, probably best to avoid the dean’s office.

On an institutional level, though, there is a need for smart and capable people who understand the larger context of what they’re doing.  If people who understand the classroom don’t go into administration, people who don’t, will.  

In my case, self-awareness played a role.  I was a pretty good classroom instructor, but not a great one.  But I felt like I’d be much more above the average in administration, since I felt like I had a better since of the big picture than many of the people already there.  Over a decade later, that still feels right.  It’s easy enough to find other professors as good as me, if not better, but I still feel like I do better at admin than most.  In a way, it was the doctrine of comparative advantage, applied to occupational choice.  Were I a rock star in the classroom, I probably would have stayed there.  I was fine, but so are lots of other people.  I’d rather be a real asset in an admin role than a fine-but-nothing-special instructor.  That may say as much about me as it does about administration, but that’s what happened.

The first part of your question reflects something real, though it isn’t as bad as all that.  Yes, if you move into a deanship (or something similar), your rapport with many faculty will change.  Some of that is a function of stereotyping, some of different tasks, and some of different work calendars.  When I made the shift at the college where I started as faculty, I noticed quickly that some relationships changed drastically, and others very little.  

On the plus side, though, you’ll find quickly that you’ll have a certain camaraderie with other administrators, and for many of the same reasons.  They’re up against the same things you’re up against, and often at the same times.  They’re around when you’re around, and they get the same cold shoulder from some faculty that you do.  Unlike many external critics, they understand that one ‘good’ often conflicts with another, and that choices are inevitably made among flawed options in imperfect conditions with limited information.  You do the best you can, and you live with it.

The key is to remember where you came from, and why you’re there at all.  

Different people have different ways of doing that.  Getting out of the office on a regular basis is helpful.  If you’re in a setting in which administrators are allowed to teach -- I’m not, frustratingly enough -- then teaching the occasional class can keep you grounded.  To the extent you can, try to send the message -- and live by the message -- that you don’t shoot messengers; without that, you may fall prey to people telling you what they think you want to hear until something explodes.  Better to find out while you can still do something about it.

Even just reading the academic blogosphere can help.  If I ever forget how admins look to faculty, it’s easy enough to find reminders.

Finally, the farther up the food chain you go, the more isolated you can become.  Having strong outside-of-work support networks is huge.  I’ve seen people who let their work become their life; over time, they invest far too much emotional energy in trivia, just because it has to go somewhere.  Having people close to you who don’t give two hoots what you do at work can keep you sane.

Good luck!  If you’re honest with yourself, I’m sure you’ll make the right decision for you.

Wise and worldly readers, what say you?  Is there an ethical obligation for capable people to step up?  And is living in a bubble inevitable?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


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