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For some in academia, “the administration” is defined as a shadowy, amorphous group of suit-wearing, exorbitantly paid employees. They are to be vilified for making knuckleheaded, illogical, tone-deaf decisions that put the institution at risk, insult the faculty, demoralize the staff, enrage students and underestimate the power of the alumni.

While this definition seems apt at times and blowing off steam often brings relief to anger, understanding who and what is “the administration” can provide avenues to question decisions effectively, challenge assumptions and influence change. Understanding power structures is also vital to successful activism.

At the very least, it simply affords the ability to know where to assign blame and express ire more precisely and accurately. Knowing who and what the administration is doesn’t mean passively acquiescing to authority, nor does it mean the issuance of carpet bomb types of personal attacks on individuals.

Three sources of information can help determine who holds the authority and responsibility for decision making and what defines the administration at a particular institution: organizational charts, the chain of command and the spheres of decision making.

The administration (also “management”) refers to an employee class whose role and responsibility is to manage and oversee (in part or whole) institutional operations. As managers, they formulate, determine or influence policies. Information about the hierarchy of positions, the names of the positions and the names of people who hold the positions are usually available on an institution’s website; it’s just a matter of knowing what to look for and where to find it.

Every institution uses organizational charts (org charts) to illustrate and delineate functional relationships, reporting and supervisory roles. Think of organizational charts like a taxonomy or classification system for human resource management. Typically, org charts can be accessed via an institution’s website, division offices or the human resource office.

Org charts vary in scope and detail—one may show the entire institution, others may detail division structures and then there are others for departments within the divisions. Some include only position titles, while others have the title and name of the incumbent. Kent State University’s org chart provides a comprehensive example and can be viewed here.

In higher education, authority and responsibility are issued as a hierarchy. This hierarchical system is sometimes referred to as the “chain of command” or the successive line of authority and responsibility. For the successful resolution of problems or conflict, most would advise the aggrieved to follow or go up the chain of command in a step-by-step manner. The rationale is twofold: it is likely to be sent back down to lower-level decision makers if the chain wasn’t followed and because the decision rests with a different manager. When it is sent back, the decider may have lost face or be angry that the issue wasn’t brought to them first and therefore make a disadvantageous decision.

The delineation of a public institution’s chain of command may look like this (note: there are numerous various of this outline based upon size, scope and institutional history).

Governing Authority

  • State governor
  • System board of trustees/regents/visitors (if applicable)

System Senior Administration (if applicable)

  • System president or chancellor
  • System vice presidents or chancellors

Campus Governing Authority

  • Institution-specific governing board (trustees/regents/visitors, also college councils)

Campus Senior Administration (Also Upper Management)

  • Institution-specific president or chancellor
  • Divisional leaders (vice presidents or vice chancellors for academic affairs, administration and finance, advancement, communications and marketing, enrollment management/admissions, and student and campus life)
  • Chief officers (i.e., chief diversity officer)

Campus Administration (also Middle Management)

  • Associate or assistant vice presidents/chancellors
  • Deans
  • Associate or assistant deans
  • Department chairs/deans and directors

Understanding the institution’s organizational chart and the chain of command represents key components in deciphering who makes decisions and how decisions are made. It’s also essential to understand the spheres of authority within the administrative ranks and their purpose. (In the academic ranks, an example of a sphere of authority is the faculty senate.)

In the administrative ranks, spheres of authority may be one or more of the following: president’s/chancellor’s senior leadership team, cabinet or council. These groups meet regularly to advise the president/chancellor, discuss campus issues, provide updates and reports, and vet policies, initiatives and strategies, among other tasks. Each group’s membership is determined by the president/chancellor, position descriptions, the organizational chart and the chain of command. The type of group used by a particular campus is found on the president’s/chancellor’s office website page. Most often, clicking on the term indicated will produce a list of titles and names included in the group.

The “leadership,” “senior leadership team” and “cabinet” (also “executive cabinet”) most often means the same thing—the senior administration (see: chain of command). On some campuses, the leadership team might include the secretary to the board of trustees, chief counsel, chief of staff, athletic director, director of legislative affairs, an internal auditor and/or others. These positions may or may not be direct reports (see: organizational chart) to the president/chancellor but are key advisers. For example, the University of Virginia has both a leadership team and an executive cabinet.

The president’s council, often a much larger group, can include senior administrators and some (but not all) of the next level of administrators, as with the University of Virginia’s leadership team. Differently, the University of Northern Colorado outlines the charge of the president’s council in a memo. At other institutions, a leadership council may be a select group of students who advise the president, such as at the University of Central Florida. These are but a few examples.

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