Jessica Calarco got a good discussion going on Twitter recently about the hidden rules of graduate school. She pointed out that many graduate students start out not really knowing how it’s done, and nobody tells them. Unsurprisingly, the folks least likely to know the rules are first-generation, and that tends to break out demographically along predictable lines.
It got me thinking about some of the hidden rules of administration, the stuff that everybody expects you to know but nobody bothers to spell out. What do new administrators confront? Herewith, a non-exhaustive list.
First, and most basically, you will quickly find yourself treated as a synecdoche for every decision that the institution ever made, even if it’s long before you arrived and in another unit of the college. Although most people understand that there’s an element of silliness to that, you can’t really evade it. From the inside, the administration is a bunch of moving parts, each with some level of will of its own. But from the outside, it’s all The Administration, much like The Borg. That means sometimes having to take heated criticism for previous decisions (or even current ones) that you might personally have made differently, had you been given the option. Some will attack you personally as a convenient embodiment of long-term structural trends. Don’t let it throw you.
Relatedly, from the inside, there’s a world of difference between the Board and the administration. From the outside, it’s all one thing. Be prepared for that.
Optics matter. A lot. You will sometimes have to make decisions based on how they’ll look to others who don’t know very much about the situation. For instance, a smart and well-meaning professor asked me once why the college doesn’t just close on Fridays in the summer. It would generate goodwill among the 12-month employees, he reasoned, and would save air conditioning costs. I had to explain that in a conservative area, a move like that would play into the narrative of privileged academics living high on the hog. The narrative is false, silly, and offensive, but it’s out there, and anything that feeds it does real damage. So I can agree that a move like that would generate goodwill among the staff, and save air conditioning costs (and commuting, while we’re at it), but I can’t back it. The optics would be deadly.
Many people will believe that they could do your job better than you do it, based on knowing a solid tenth of the constraints within which you work. The tipoff is the haughty “why don’t you just…?” question that assumes a parallel universe. When confronted with these, remember that patience is a virtue.
Hierarchy is an amplifier. The higher you go in an organization, the more attention will be paid to your tone, offhand comments, jokes, and even body language. In my faculty days, if a discussion went in a direction I considered ill-advised, I could just leave. In this role, that’s not true. Any sign of anger or dismissiveness will be remembered long after its immediate cause has been forgotten, and will be taken as either a character flaw or a clue about some hidden agenda. If a professor angrily screams falsehoods at me in public, that’s seen as academic freedom; if I so much as raise an eyebrow in response, that’s “retaliation.” It’s unfair, but it comes with the territory. Develop a conscious naivete about people’s motives, because onlooking third parties will base conclusions about your response entirely on what they see in the moment.
The loudest voices are not necessarily the most representative.
Emails can, and will, be quoted out of context. Sometimes phone calls or in-person conversations are the way to go. That’s especially true if you’re tempted to go on a tirade.
Academia is remarkably status-conscious, and status anxiety is pervasive. Knowing that, little things can mean a lot. Petty signs of throwing your weight around will do real damage. As a popular book puts it, leaders eat last. If you do lose your cool at some point, own it and apologize. Better to admit it and take your lumps than to double down on a mistake.
There is never, ever, ever, enough money.
At some points, wading through administrivia with far too few resources and being judged by people who don’t get it, you will ask yourself why you do this. You will remember your commitment to the mission of the place, to education, and to equality. You will make a decision based on those high-minded motives. Some people will take offense. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong. Controversy doesn’t mean you’re wrong. If you never annoy anybody, you probably aren’t accomplishing much. Just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.
Finally, make sure you have a life outside of work. It helps with perspective. Tempests in teapots come and go; they were here before you, and they’ll be here after you. Remember what matters, and be willing to forgive yourself for being imperfect. My kids neither know, nor care, about campus politics, and that’s as it should be. At the end of the day, I care more about them than I do about the latest campus kerfuffle. And I say that without apology.