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The first time I told my dean that I was interested in administrative work, he looked at me like I had grown antlers. At the time, I didn’t realize how unusual that was.  

Judith White has a terrific piece in IHE this week offering advice to professors who would like to step up, but who haven’t been asked, or aren’t sure how. It’s well worth the read. I’ll just amplify some points here.

Having spent the last decade and a half on this side of the desk, I can attest that it’s unusual for bright and capable people to step up and ask if there’s anything they can do. Unusual, but refreshing. There’s almost always something that needs doing. And if you do it well, it can pay off in multiple ways.

The most obvious way is that the thing gets done well. Academia is full of very smart people who are good at talking. But talking is one skill; getting stuff done is another. When stuff doesn’t get done, the quality of the operation starts to decay. Yes, putting together the departmental textbook order is tedious, but getting it done right and on time makes a meaningful difference in the quality of classes the following semester. Administration can be like film editing: when it’s done really well, you don’t even notice that it’s there, but things just sort of work.  When it’s done badly, you notice, and things get choppy or rushed.  

You can also get a very different perspective on a place you think you know well. My first year in administration consisted of an almost exhausting series of “oh, so THAT’s why…” revelations. It’s vastly preferable to settling into a vaguely discontented rut.

Stepping up can also be a form of self-defense. If you know that you’re the only thing standing between Professor Meltdown and official power, stepping up can be a real public service. I’ve known some wonderful, talented, lovely people who were outstanding in the classroom, but who would have been disastrous deans.  In these roles, temperament matters.  And the damage that a mercurial personality can do in the wrong position is staggering.

Stepping up can also be a way to sample a different career track without sacrificing much. My first toe in the water involved chairing an accreditation self-study. That was a great introduction, because it offered the birds-eye view I wanted, but it was also short-term. I knew that if I spat the bit, I could go back to teaching, and that would be fine.  

In my own case, I liked the sense of making a difference beyond my own classes. Those differences sometimes take longer to manifest, and are often indirect, but they’re real. I had a conviction that faculty would do their best work when they felt like they were treated like intelligent adults. That’s still true.

Despite the cliche about crossing over to the dark side, there’s no shame in stepping up. If you know that you’re doing it for the right reasons, go for it. There’s never a perfect time, so don’t expect one. Create one.

Unless you don’t want to, and that’s fine. These positions shouldn’t be mandatory. If you’re self-aware enough to know that you’re wired in ways that would make your service terrible for others and/or yourself, so be it. But don’t let a touch of impostor syndrome, or some vague sense of violating a taboo, stop you. And don’t wait for the tap on the shoulder. Raise your hand.

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