Administrators vs. Alt-Acs

3 Differences

August 26, 2015

Our community is having a good discussion about the challenges faced by administrators. See Kellie Bean’s, Administrators Are People, Too, and Dean Dad’s excellent response, After Crossing Over.

Reading about the relational, perceptual, and collegial challenges of administrators in Bean’s and Reed’s essays highlighted, for me, the gap between the emerging alt-ac (alternative academic) career path and that of a “traditional” administrator.

The titles (or labels) of administrator and alt-ac are sometimes used interchangeably. They shouldn’t be.

There are at least 3 differences between the campus alt-ac and the administrator role:

Difference #1 - What We Do:

The alt-ac roles that I know best are all about learning and research. Learning alt-ac people tend to work in teaching and learning centers, academic computing divisions, and online learning groups. Research alt-ac folks work in campus settings such as institutional research and research computing.  

Learning and research alt-ac professionals spend our days collaborating with faculty. The role that I know best is that of an instructional or learning designer. These folks partner with faculty to help them (the faculty) reach their teaching and student learning goals.  The instructional designer role began to get the most traction with the growth of online learning programs, and has now spread quickly to blended and residential learning. Other alt-ac folks work with faculty on assessment, data analysis, curricular media, information gathering, and a whole range of other activities related to teaching and research.

The main difference here between the alt-ac and the administrator role is, I think, the degree hands on collaboration with faculty.  Alt-ac folks work directly with faculty to help faculty reach their teaching and research goals.  

Difference #2 - Where We Come From:

In Bean’s and Dean Dad’s narratives, the administrator is an academic who crossed-over from the faculty. They usually have tenure. They are moving into administrative roles (dean, provost) that they did not go to graduate school to prepare for.

Alt-acs most often follow a different career path. The two most common routes are:  a) Grad school in the alt-ac discipline, or b) Academic preparation and then career switching.

Instructional designers most often have graduate degrees in instructional design. They have formal training in how people learn, and are steeped in research based pedagogical strategies.  

Other alt-acs, such as myself, have terminal degrees in an academic discipline - but made the switch early in their careers to an alt-ac role. Our professional identities have switched from that of the discipline that we trained, and moved to the profession that we now practice.  

We plan to spend our entire careers pursuing our alt-ac careers.  We will not return to departments or some other role.  We have spent years training and joining the community of practice around our profession.  

Difference #3 - The Challenges That We Face:

My sense is that alt-acs do not feel the same pressures of role conflict and role strain found in the traditional administrators described by Bean and Dean Dad. I don’t think that we are looked upon with the suspicion, envy, and distrust that Bean describes.

We certainly have other challenges. Today’s alt-ac professionals are working to carve out a place of autonomy and status within the institution. Higher education staff are often referred to as costs rather than assets. There is huge concern on every campus about the growth of staff relative to faculty, and alt-acs do not escape the suspicion that we are commanding resources that could have gone to faculty.  

Overall, however, the alt-ac colleagues that I know are a happy bunch. We have very good relations with faculty because we are all about partnering and collaborating with faculty. We are true believers in the missions of our institutions. We are learning geeks and research nerds, and we love spending our professional lives working with smart people who are educating students and creating new knowledge.

Can you add to my description of the differences between alt-acs and traditional administrators?  

Can you share some similarities between the two roles?

How else would you describe the alt-ac career path?

Are you an alt-ac?


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