• 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.


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“What advice would you give to one who would like to move into CC admin from 4-year teaching?”

May 18, 2017

“What advice would you give to one who would like to move into CC admin from 4-year teaching?”

An interlocutor asked me that on Twitter earlier this week. It’s a great, if tricky, question.

The first thought would be to gain some sort of administrative experience where you are, even if it’s only partial. Department chair would be an obvious place to start, since it draws on many of the same skills. If that’s not an option, for whatever reason, you could look at leading task forces, working on accreditation reports, or doing something else that crosses department lines and shows the skills of collaboration, detail management, and diplomacy. There’s often no shortage of tasks like that for those who are willing to step up.

In my own case, my first foray into administration involved volunteering to take on the local accreditation self-study. While it didn’t involve managing people directly, it did give me a bird’s eye view of the institution, and it required me to work with people - both faculty and administration - I normally wouldn’t. Egos had to be massaged, conflicting perspectives had to be balanced, and deadlines had to be met. 

It’s one thing to switch sectors, and another to switch roles.  Doing both at once is a major shift. One at a time is likelier to work, and likelier to prepare you well to do a good job.  Some people manage to do well with radical shifts, but they tend to be identified as stars from the outset.

The skills involved in administration are subtly different than the ones involved in teaching. Both require intelligence and communication skills, of course.  In my own experience, having done both, I can report that teaching is more of a solo sport and administration is more of a team sport.  Alternately, it’s the difference between sprinting and distance running.  Teaching is a series of sprints; you spend relatively little time in class or on the track, but while you’re there, you have to be fully there.  You’re “on” the entire time.  Administration is distance running: most meetings are less intense than teaching a class, but you have a lot more of them.  You’re on campus a lot more.  You have to be willing to act on partial information, to settle for second-best (or third-best) solutions, and to swallow your own opinions for the good of the team, at least sometimes. 

If you can show some history in roles with similar requirements, you’ll be a more compelling candidate.

One challenge, as you move up the ladder, is maintaining the idealism and vision that motivated you at the outset, even while slogging through the compromises and administrivia that come with the jobs.  The victories in administrative roles tend to be vicarious, rather than personal or direct.  For example, just this week Brookdale and Georgian Court had the official kickoff of their partnership at the Hazlet location.  That partnership will allow students in the bayshore area who don’t want to leave home to get four-year degrees, and even master’s degrees, while staying local.  The genesis of that was a conversation a couple of years ago, which led to a series of subsequent discussions, meetings, negotiations, and arrangements.  The payoff will accrue to the faculty and students who take advantage of the opportunity.  I take some satisfaction in knowing that I had an early part to play, but it’s not mine; it’s a collaboration that only works when nobody overshadows it.  If you can take satisfaction in those moments, these jobs can be very satisfying.  But if you need the instant feedback of a class, it won’t give you that; in fact, the first response to many administrative tasks is negative.  Comes with the gig.

The other major challenge is coming to terms with all of the constraints within which decisions are made.  From the outside, it’s often easy to criticize actual decisions when contrasted when imagined ideal outcomes.  But when you know why those ideals have to be imaginary, and you have to maneuver within much narrower confines than you might have imagined, you start to understand the “why” behind some patterns.  That can be frustrating, but if you treat it as a series of puzzles, it can be fun.  Any idiot can get good results with infinite resources and discretion, but how can you improve results with flat funding, contradictory policies, and prickly personalities?  That’s where the challenge comes in.

If you actually enjoy that kind of work, prove it.  If you think you might, give it a try. Administration is not for everyone, but if you have the right outlook, motivation, and temperament, you can make a difference for a lot of people who won’t ever know you did it. Good luck!

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Matt Reed

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