• 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: How the Hell Do I Break In (and Out)?

A frustrated correspondent writes:

January 5, 2010

A frustrated correspondent writes:

I just stumbled across your blog and thought it would be worth a shot hearing someone else's perspective on my situation. I have been teaching English at the CC for seven years now and I feel that I am just about at my breaking point. I saw this coming around the corner a couple of years ago so I enrolled in a prominent PhD program in Ed. Leadership, hoping it would prepare me for an administrative position. After attending class while working full time, I now know that my angst to leave the classroom is now unbearable. I've applied for Associate Dean positions and my letters, references and CVs have gotten me interviews, yet I fear that my lack of administrative experience has shut me out of a few...others have been "fit". In any case, how do you suggest I prepare myself for moving into one of these positions? I do realize that most Deans come from the ranks of Program Directors/Chairs, but I cannot see myself teaching much longer and such opportunities at my institution are far and few between.

This brings me to my last dilemma: I can't seem to permeate the inner sanctum to accomplish anything at my own institution. After expressing this same concern to some of my colleagues and peers at my home institution, it was expressed to me that I would probably never earn a position in administration here because some are intimidated and fearful of the credibility my credentials bring. You see, most of the CC administrators here have earned or are earning their PhDs at a so-called "diploma mill". Now I am not an elitist in any sense and could care less where a person earned their degrees, but it was expressed to me that they are concerned about where I earned my own (nationally ranked with scholars in the field as my mentors). What am I left to do? Am I forced to leave to start at another institution as a faculty member and work my way into administration? Or is there a chance that I can begin at an institution as an Assc. Dean? What do you think?

I see several issues here, but I hope that my wise and worldly readers will chime in with their insights, too.

First and most basically, I'm concerned about the level of burnout expressed here. There are plenty of valid reasons to move into administration -- really there are! -- but being at your breaking point is a little suspect. Bitterness has a way of coming out sideways, and it's deadly at interviews. Your lack of administrative experience tells me that you haven't been in a position to compare administration to teaching, so it's not like you have a basis for the preference; you just want out.

That's okay, but it's not a compelling reason for someone to hire you.

It sounds like part of the issue, too, is that the pipeline is clogged. This is a common, and devastating, side effect of the generational inequities in higher ed that I may have mentioned once or twice over the years. As the generational pig slowly makes its way through the career python -- don't try metaphors like this at home, kids, I'm a trained professional -- the folks who came after the pig can find themselves blocked. (The Great Recession slows the pig even more, as people who were flirting with retirement decide that it's best to eke out a few more years in the name of security, and those who actually do retire often don't get replaced.) At that point, the classic catch-22 of 'no promotion without experience, and no experience without a promotion' kicks in.

So you're stuck. And it sounds like you're really feeling it.

To the extent that you can, I'd recommend taking some kind of break. Maybe a sabbatical, if your college offers those (mine does), or maybe a leave of absence if you can afford it. You don't want to make decisions while caught up in emotionally intense tunnel vision. Get some distance, however you do that, and don't think about it until your brain snaps back to its original shape. Then assess where you want to be.

If that's not an option, either financially or temperamentally, then I'd recommend baby steps. It's pretty unusual to go directly from full-time faculty to an associate deanship without some sort of administrative duties in between -- department chair, participation in an accreditation self-study, coordinator of an Honors program, something like that. Most colleges have certain administrative tasks for which they give faculty members reassigned time. While you do those tasks, you still teach but not as much, and a chunk of your time is spent on admin work. You get to keep your main job, so if the foray doesn't work out, you can go back. Doing some of those can give you greater credibility as an admin candidate, but they can also give you a better sense of whether you actually enjoy this kind of work, or if it just seems like the most plausible escape route.

One admin's opinion, anyway. I'd love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one, especially from any who have been (or are) in a similar spot. Is there a more elegant way to handle this?

Good luck!

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


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