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  • Prose and Purpose

    After 25 years on the job, a former provost examines the world on campus and in higher ed.

Sober Advice
March 21, 2010 - 9:34pm

Earlier this week a relatively junior administrator asked me if there was any advice I could give him regarding a career in higher education administration. Wanting to resist stating the obvious (find what you feel really passionate about and devote your time, attention, and energy to that area), I thought about the crucial advice given to me early in my career and two specific pieces of advice came immediately to mind.

First, and at the time that I was completing my PhD, my dissertation adviser took me aside to give me “important” career guidance. I had been an active student (a student government type), both undergraduate as well as graduate. I had pushed for student representation on key committees, I had pushed for student evaluation of faculty teaching and my adviser was concerned about this level of activism as well as the areas of activism. My adviser told me that “normally” when a student completes his or her dissertation, he tells that graduate to become active and involved in whatever college or university they were going to. In my case, the advice was exactly the opposite. He told me in very direct terms, that I should not become active, not become involved and only concentrate on my teaching and scholarship. It wasn’t me but given the source, I consequently followed his advice.

As soon as I arrived at Hofstra, I thoroughly enjoyed my teaching. And yet overall, I wasn’t having a good time. About 6 weeks into my first semester, the department chair came to my office and asked me whether there was something wrong? I had no idea what he was talking about initially, but then it became very clear. The chair indicated that when he and the other department faculty had checked my references, everyone assured them that I would be a very involved and active faculty. The department wanted the teaching excellence, wanted the scholarly involvement but also wanted the activism. I wasn’t delivering on the service they were expecting and, at the same time, I wasn’t enjoying the overall experience. Something had to change. It was me. I returned to being a very active involved faculty member. The department was pleased; I was pleased.

Fast forward to when I became a full time administrator decades ago. It was an interesting time to be in administration, especially the business lunches and the social gatherings at the end of the day. In those days, our University Club had a formal bar room with an impressive circular bar. At lunch time there was standing room only in the bar and at the end of the day there was typically also a sizeable gathering. For a number of administrators, the business lunch was one or two drinks (hard liquor, not wine) perhaps followed by solid food. After work, another one or two drinks. It was easy to see that a number of the lunch bar regulars were somewhat impaired for a few hours and I am sure the afterhours regulars were most likely also somewhat impaired. It wasn’t for me and typically my order was club soda or when it became fashionable, bottled water. A very senior administrator at the time (great teacher, respected scholar, and a wonderful person), took me aside to give me his “important” career advice. He stated very bluntly that I didn’t drink enough and consequently would not succeed in higher ed administration. Not really the advice I was looking for but I knew immediately that this time, different from the conversation above, I would not follow the liquid suggestion. And I have no regrets in that regard. Thankfully, times have changed and I doubt that anyone would give such advice today.

Back to the administrator asking me the question. The obvious is really the best advice. Find something you are passionate about and find something where you enjoy going to work. I have been in higher education for many decades and I have clearly followed my own advice. Even after all these years, I’m still having a good time.


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